Dendro vs Anki Comparison

Anki is a popular spaced repetition flashcard app, initially developed as an open source clone of a learning app called SuperMemo. Over time, Anki's open source foundations have allowed it to gather a huge community through free access and the ability to create and use plugins to extend its functionality.

Limitations of Anki

While free access and community-built plugins are great upsides and part of the reason for Anki's success, there are also associated drawbacks to this approach.

While a free app is great for those who are in financial distress, the lack of funding to the creators makes it impractical to provide professional support, build a team, provide ongoing updates and maintenance, and so on. In addition, while community-built plugins create a lot of extra functionality, over time there naturally accumulate a lot of half-built, unmaintained plugins with bugs, which makes it hard to find plugins that you can really depend on for years.

Perhaps more importantly, Anki has suffered from the lack of a clear vision beyond "flashcards". Again, the lack of funding makes it hard to build a long term vision without a dedicated team to back it. Consequently, Anki started as a flashcard app, and continues to do a great job at being a flashcard app. However, while some third party plugins provide some extensions beyond simple flashcards, that's as far as the core functionality goes.

The problem for learners is that while spaced repetition flashcards are one part of effective learning, they are only a part. Anki fans eventually encounter the following problems:

  • Difficulty creating good flashcards: When you read a book, have a chat with an expert, or watch a documentary, there's a big gap between learning and making useful flashcards from what you've learned. There can be a lot of steps involved, but the entire workflow is left to the user to figure out.
  • Poor quality decks: A popular response to the challenge of making good flashcards is to use shared "decks". While it initially seems so much quicker to use pre-made flashcards, there are some big problems with this approach. Not only do you lose the immense value of creating them yourself, which helps give context to the knowledge (see Losing the big picture, below), but they will never be perfectly formed to hook into your own prior knowledge. In practice, this means you will answer incorrectly more often, and the knowledge you gain by remembering them will be much less useful in building true mastery.
  • Lack of alignment between learning and flashcards: Because of the problems above, many users find that while they spend their time reading books, watching videos and doing other types of learning, the flashcards they actually end up reviewing don't really match what they've been learning. Instead, they review pre-made decks, which focus on different content, or they make their own flashcards, but it takes so much effort that only a tiny fraction of new knowledge makes it into the review process.
  • Struggling under high daily workload: The daily "burden" of flashcards can be heavy, and a few days off can make it painful to recover.
  • Losing the big picture: Each atomic flashcard reminds you of one small piece, but over time you can forget why those pieces even mattered in the first place.
  • Managing other challenges of learning: Even with the problem of memory "solved" through spaced repetition, there are probably even bigger challenges to learning. These days, information overload is the biggest threat to productive learning. While the review process is critical to good learning, you need to managing the flow of new information and process it properly before you even begin to review.

Advantages of Dendro

By making Dendro a paid product, we can commit to developing a long term vision. When it's not a side project but our main work, we can devote our best brain time towards it. The big picture we care about is making learning more enjoyable and effective for others. While spaced repetition flashcards are one of the tools we provide, we are much more concerned about the whole "lifecycle" of knowledge: from the initial sources (e.g. article, conversation, an idea in your head), to the notes that you use to break down the ideas from those sources, to the process of simplifying and clarifying your notes as your knowledge matures, to making and reviewing flashcards to lock in the best ideas you discover.

Furthermore, we know that tools are limited by the skill to use them. Therefore, we invest in educating our users about the bigger picture that can make their learning more enjoyable and effective, with or without Dendro.

While there are various ways you can integrate Anki with other tools - like Obsidian, Polar or Roam - to aim for similar results, the lack of cohesiveness between the various parts of the system can become a drawback over time. For example:

  • It's harder to search for something that you know is in your collection, but can't remember if it's in your notes or flashcards.
  • You have to work harder to balance time spent on learning new knowledge versus revising old knowledge in flashcards.
  • It's not always easy to link between the flashcards and the notes that they were born from.
  • The different categorisation systems (e.g. linked notes vs decks of cards) can conflict or just make it confusing to study, whether you want to focus on a single topic or do some broader general learning.
By using Dendro as your one tool for processing knowledge, from the initial sources and all the way down to the flashcards that represent your key learnings, you can experience a significant boost in the effectiveness of your learning.

When you might still prefer Anki

We believe that Dendro will help you level-up your learning if you've run into any of the limitations of Anki listed above, or want to avoid them in the first place. However, if you feel like a more comprehensive solution is overkill and just need to cram for an exam with premade decks that cover the exact questions you want to prepare for, then Anki may be perfect for you.

In addition, despite the drawbacks of plugins, there may be things Anki can do that Dendro can't. You just have to make sure those plugins are maintained so that your learning won't be impacted if bugs start to arise over the long term.

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