Saturday, March 10, 2007

Litter Sorters: A Personal Evaluation of Mac Organizer Software

Part 2

I would like to start this post by discussing the two applications that I use regularly: DEVONthink Pro and Circus Ponies Notebook.

I've been using these two applications, or their earlier incarnations, since 2004. I bought licenses for both products early in my life as a Mac user. I can't be certain that I would buy them if I were converting to Mac this year, instead of 2004: at the time they were the best apps I could find to meet the needs I had at that point. Since then I have got used to them, and they feel "normal" to me. My working habits have adapted to the applications, to some extent, and once something has become "normal" in one's frame of reference, it takes a seismic shift to change that view. I haven't found an application sufficiently better than either DEVONthink or Notebook to make me willing to go through the upheaval of changing.

DEVONthink Pro
is currently at version 1.3, price $US79.95. I use it principally for the management of technical documents. When I was still running Linux and Windows (dual boot), I maintained a common file system where I kept technical documents in a simple tree structure, with a basic HTML contents page for each major node. This enabled me to retrieve things in a browser, but gave me no indexing. I always seemed to have a big "unfiled" component, where I hadn't had time to update the HTML, and I had to be rigorous about subject filing if I wanted to be able to find anything. When I started testing DEVONthink, that entire repository got imported first up, and we really never looked back.

The interface for DEVONthink Pro offers several different views. I use this one most of the time:

You can preview the document in the bottom pane, before deciding whether open it in the default viewer. DEVONthink is fast, handles huge quantities of data, supports sub-folders, will import entire folders of documents, and will let you get documents back out in the same format that they went in (mostly - it just handed me back a Word document where some of the formatting was a bit off. Nothing too bad, but not perfect, either). It can store web archives, as well as weblocs.

What it doesn't do, and the reason that I don't use it much more, is:
  • Store Open Office files, Omnigraffle files or Excel spreadsheets.

  • Support any sort of encryption.

  • Support tagging (though it does have a classification feature, but this is not the same thing). It does have 7 "Labels" available, which you can redefine, but 7 is not enough for my purposes.

I don't find that it lends itself to note taking (Devon Technologies make a different application for note taking, which I tried and did not like).

DEVONthink is excellent for the structured management of particular types of document (I wish it was more flexible about exactly what documents it will take). It's not good for organizing odd scraps: it's like using a compactus to store loose pieces of paper.

Circus Ponies Notebook
(version 2.1, price for a standard license $US49.95, academic licenses and family packs available) is perfect for note taking, and adequate for managing a few PDFs, but it is not suited to heavy duty document management. The interface is a note book, like this:

The sections can be expanded and collapsed:

The tabs down the right hand side can be added and deleted, the colour and style of the "paper" can be changed (also fonts and just about anything else visual). You can import certain types of documents, such as Word or text into Notebook, but the formatting may not be preserved very well (and you can't get "the same" document back out again). Alternatively, you can just drag a document in, and it will be handled as an attachment: you will be able to see a link to it, and possibly a preview, depending on format, and if you want to open the file it will open in the default viewer.

This is fine for small quantities of information, but not for thousands of documents. I use Notebook for a few specific tasks: day to day notes - anything that might otherwise get written on a piece of paper, from shopping lists to phone messages. I also use it to capture small pieces of text such as aphorisms and quotations. I sometimes draft documents in Notebook, and it is invaluable for storing the output of various diagnostic commands and bits of log file from the systems that I am working on - odd chunks of unformatted data that I will need later. There is always a working notebook open on my desktop, and things often get parked there until I can deal with them properly. A key contribution of Notebook to my smooth daily work flow is the ability to keep multiple Notebooks, and open and close them independently. That means that I can keep a Notebook called 'Acme Industries", in which I track whatever I am doing for Acme, and another Notebook for "Big Competitor", in which I manage whatever I am doing for them. When I arrive on a customer's site I just open the appropriate Notebook, making sure that any inappropriate Notebooks are closed. This prevents customer's seeing one another's information by shoulder surfing while I am working, and gives me the added bonus that when I close a job, I just archive the Notebook along with the rest of the project documentation.

Circus Ponies Notebook is a great application, and I highly recommend it when used for the right tasks. But it is not the organizer of my dreams.....

Which brings us to the next candidate, Journler.

Journler (testing version 2.0.2) seems to be targeted more at note taking, blogging and keeping a diary than at document management. It is free for personal use, which is extremely generous of the developer; a non-personal use license is only $US24.95. The interface is attractive:

and almost everything from the Category names to the folder icons can be customised. Journler appears stable (no crashes during testing), it supports subfolders, encryption and AppleScript, and for the purposes it declares in its introduction it is probably very good. But a document stored in Journler may not be retrievable in the original format: a Photoshop file (.psd)or spreadsheet (.xls) cannot be exported in that format, only as .rtf, ,pdf , .html, .txt or .rtfd. Journler has features I do not need, and lacks features I do, and so I must pass it by. I note that there is a new major release due later this month, and I certainly look out for it; however, a quick look at the beta suggests that the handling of different document formats is no better, and that support for encryption has been removed!

Voodoo Pad

Voodoo Pad Pro (tested version 3.0, price $US49.95) is a wiki. I like wikis in their place, but document management is not it. Voodoo Pad allows you to link files to a web page, but the linked files remain in their original location on the hard drive. This is good, in that that the format doesn't get changed, and you can get the same document back out at a later date, but bad in that you can't tell which files "belong" to Voodoo Pad (I suppose I could create a dedicated subdirectory for files I want to manage with Voodoo Pad, but then I have to be careful to drop input files there. No, I don't think so.)

There is encryption support, but no document preview - everything opens in an external viewer.

If I had a few days to tinker with the application, I'm sure I could get reasonable functionality, but "out of the box", it's just too raw. I also think it is over priced. Next.


Mori (tested version 1.5.1, proce $US39.95) bills itself as a digital notebook. It doesn't go out of its way to look like a paper notebook, such as Circus Ponies Notebook, but it does allow you to keep (and open) more than one "notebook" at a time. For me this is a very important feature, and Mori also supports nested folders. The interface is good, with a highly customizable toolbar:

I do like the rulers. But there is no encryption, and the implementation of HTML support is very weak. Many web pages that I imported rendered very badly in Mori. For example, here's a page rendered by Yojimbo:

and here's the same page rendered by Mori:

I had expected better. Mori has no print-to-PDF workflow, and it can't import either Excel (.xls) or Open Office (.sxw). It can link to these file types, and open them in their default viewers, but naturally the files are not indexed or searchable. File export supports .rtf, .webarchive. .xml, .doc, .rtfd,. html, OPML and .txt, which is better than some competing applications, but still not flexible enough for my needs.

As a digital notebook, Mori is pretty good, but for serious document storage or handling anything where formatting is critical it just can't cut it. Still, it has some excellent features, and will suit many users perfectly. I have to say that if I had found Mori when I was first shopping for a notebook application, I might have bought it instead of Circus Ponies Notebook, though Mori can be a bit slow sometimes, particularly when rendering HTML. However, Circus Ponies Notebook does have one feature that really works for me: an "index page", like this:

The automatically created index "page" can be used to look at the actual words in the document and how often they occur. I can see that not everyone will find this feature useful, but as a former librarian, sometimes I need to see the available words to know what to search for, if you get my drift. So at least for now, I shall continue to use Circus Ponies Notebook, while keeping a look out for further developments in Mori.

And I think that's enough for this post - more, much more, in a few days. Many thanks to those who have commented or emailed suggestions for other apps to look at: my list is getting longer!

tags technorati :

Monday, March 05, 2007

Litter Sorters: A Personal Evaluation of Mac Organizer Software

Part 1

One of the many wonderful things about Mac OS X is the amazing number of high quality, innovative pieces of software available for the platform. Even better, many of these gems are very reasonably priced, and some are even free. The trick is to find the "perfect" application for your particular needs, and selecting from the bounty on offer can be a serious challenge.

Some weeks ago I started looking at applications that claimed to help the user organize information. What began as a quick look around, in which I intended to make a quick selection and purchase, has snowballed into a survey of a product line up which seems to be growing faster than I can assess the products. There are some fantastic apps on offer, and I have not yet made my final choice, but I have gathered quite a bit of information along the way, and perhaps that information might be useful to someone here it comes.

Let me first state my own background and requirements, so you can understand why I have come to certain conclusions. I am a Unix engineer and I've worked in the IT industry since 1986, doing everything from technical support to presales work. I've installed and configured more computers than I care to remember, and contributed to everything from the Unix FAQ to the Sys Admin Purity Test. It could be that this background makes me a little more demanding than other users. However, I originally trained as a librarian, so I have certain ingrained habits around the storage and management of information. What works for me may not work for you: I'm looking for a very special piece of software, and you may be looking for something quite different.

Years ago, when I still worked in libraries, I used to keep an exercise book in which I would note down witty quotations, book titles, and odd bits of information: more or less what used to be called a commonplace book. And I had a file in which I kept newspaper clippings and comics and such. It could take time to find things, and newsprint deteriorates fast and the edges get tatty. The years passed (queue image of falling calendar pages...), I started working in IT and had regular access to computers. I started keeping PDF'd web pages on my hard drive, and a word processing document of notes and quotes. To do lists moved to my Palm Pilot, along with password management. This reduced the amount of paper, but still I generally couldn't find things in a hurry.

Then I got a Mac (11th March 2004, oh frabjous day), and my life got instantly better. I tested various applications, and settled on DEVONthink and Circus Ponies Notebook. I use DEVONthink to store big technical documents, most of which are in PDF format, but some are Word documents. Some of these documents run to hundreds of pages, and there are over 3000 documents in my DEVONthink database. Notebook I use for random notes, to do lists, and other random scratchings. Book marks I kept in my brower's bookmarks.html. And I still seemed to have PDFs of web pages scattered about the place.

Then I discovered . This is a wonderful service, and I almost never store local bookmarks any more. Three cheers for And then I found furl , and I started building up an archive of web pages. If you haven't tried these two sites, let me recommend them to you here and now.

But the day came when had a glitch, and I couldn't reach my book marks for a few hours (it came back, and I breathed again). And then there was an instance where I knew that the information I needed was archived in my furl account, but I had no internet connection, so I couldn't reach the archive.

I began looking around for something better. I still love and furl, but I need more.

Let me try and define the gap (software developers, please take note: this is a specification).

The application that I am looking for is to handle the bits and pieces of information that I might want on another day. It is a cross between a notepad, filing cabinet and commonplace book: it must be prepared to gulp down web pages, text files, random notes, smallish documents in various formats, pictures and anything else that comes along. Anything larger than about 50 pages is probably going to be stored in DevonThink, because it is likely to be a manual or a specification: I have specific strategies for managing documents with a lot of technical content. Customer documentation I store completely separately, for reasons of security. What I need a bit bucket that can keep everything else together and retrieve things on demand.

The application needs to provide me with the following functionality (note: the desired features reflect the way that I work - your list will probably be different).

The application must support some sort of automation, either through shell script or AppleScript. If I can't interface to the application on the command line, I don't want it.

The application must store the captured material within a repository that it controls. I don't care if that is a certain area of the file system or a database, but I don't want links to files in unpredictable places on my hard disk. I need to be certain which files the app "owns", so I don't change those files outside the application.

The application must handle as many file formats as possible, and make them available in preview mode. It must be able to store Word documents and, if at all possible, Open Office documents.

The application must make it easy to get information into it: anything that requires me to save something and then import it in a separate step is going to annoy me very quickly.

The application must save entire web pages, not just URLs. It absolutely must not rely on the presence of a internet connection to retrieve information. If I'm working in the depths of some data centre, with no internet access (this is extremely common), I need all my files on my laptop's hard drive. Very few customers will allow visiting engineers to just plug a laptop into the corporate network, and if I'm working on production servers, the chances are that there are multiple layers of firewalls in place, carefully blocking all access to the internet anyway. If I don't have the file I want on my laptop, I don't have access to it until I leave the data centre.

The application must start and stop quickly, and not impose an absurd overhead on the running system.

The application must enable me to get files back out of it in the same format that they went in. I'll be using the application to store originals of documents that I have created, but I may want to make copies that I can modify to suit particular customers/colleagues/whatever.

Ideally, it will be easy to manually copy the repository onto a separate machine: I have an inherent distrust of syncing data through external services, because I handle a lot of confidential information. It's all about control.

The application must support some robust form of encryption at the record level - I do not want the over head of encrypting non-sensitive data.

The application must support tagging.

The application must work with Firefox - I don't generally use Safari.

And so I started in on evaluating software. I started with Yojimbo (for no particular reason, I happened upon it first). But once I started looking around, I found a lot of competing software. The list (so far) is:

DEVONthink Pro
Circus Ponies Notebook
Voodoo Pad
SOHO Notes

and there may be more. If I've missed an application that should be on that list, please tell me (melodie.neal(AT) Over the next couple of posts, I'll try to provide a quick run down on each application, highlighting what I see as the pluses and minuses. I'm trying to fit this around my real job, so this may not be quick.

Note to all readers, especially developers: I've noticed in some of the support forums and developer's blogs that there is a fair bit of passion in some of the communities. That's normal, but let's try to keep things in perspective: the least suggestion that application A is better or worse in some way than application B should not generate a firestorm of abuse. I have read one or two posts that I considered extremely childish, particularly posts from developers. Decades of working with developers has taught me how sensitive you are as a group, and I realise that criticism of a piece of software over which you have probably laboured for many nights must grate. However, throwing a toys-out-of-pram tantrum does not create a good impression on the paying customers. Accept that other people see things differently to you, and have different requirements, and see what you can learn from those differences (actually, that may be the formula for world peace, so let's just try a local implementation and see how we go).

If you feel that I have been unfair to your application/baby, or have misunderstood it or overlooked some particularly charming feature, please tell me nicely. I'm happy to revisit anything that needs another look, and to make corrections where needed.

Without further ado, I'm going to start with the apps that got ruled out early:

Yep Visually this is very appealing, and it may develop into something really special in the future, but it's not there yet.

The only thing YEP can store is PDFs and images, so it won't work for me. I do like some aspects of the interface, particularly the ability to mouse over a document to get a magnified view, like this:

which lets you decide if the document is the one you want before you open it (which happens in the document's defined default viewer. Before you purchase YEP, read the reviews on Versiontracker.

Notemind looks really promising, but I can't assess it properly because the "demo license" does not allow you to save when you close the application, so I can't judge start/stop speed. Notemind only handles Notes, To-do lists, Web sites, PDFs, Images and Audio. It won't take a Word or Open Office documents, which is a big problem for me. It will take Photoshop files as images (nice, not all the apps tried could handle Photoshop). It also has an tendency to quit unexpectedly.

KIT shows promise. The interface is relatively uncluttered:

and it supports a good range of file formats. It will import and preview Microsoft Word files. It will import Open Office documents, but it can't preview them. It can store and preview TIFF, JPG, GIF and PSD files. It imported an Omnigraffle diagram, but couldn't preview it (and it didn't recognise the .graffle as an image, it filed it as a document). It imported Excel and Power Point files, but couldn't preview them. KIT also supports importing folders of documents in one go (not all apps do this rather basic thing). KIT supports tagging, stores documents it controls in a dedicated directory, and it you can get documents back in the same format that they went in. But it has no support for AppleScript or shell script, so alas, it is not for me.

And that's it for this post, more in a few days.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Back to Normal

Well it hasn't taken long for my new job to ramp up from "what shall I do today" to "the earliest I can look at your problem is next Friday". It's good to feel useful again, and to finish each day with the sense of something done. Or, in the case of last Thursday, to finish a four hour outage at 6AM and walk out of the data centre at a major teaching hospital, knowing that I'd helped fix a problem that they have had since July 2006 (HDLM path failover not working on a couple of small HDS boxes attached to a Sun E450). The real problem was that none of the storage folks working the case knew enough about Solaris to get the HDLM software working. Half the battle, as any project manager will tell you, is just coordinating the right skill sets to be in the same place at the same time. His two application specialists, a storage guru from my company, the project manager himself, and me. Five people for four hours to work through HDS' horrible documentation, get the failover working and test it thoroughly. The job should only have taken an hour, tops, but if you have never done it before, it always takes longer.

I've spent more time on site, and driving to and from site, in the last month than I can recall doing in a long time - and I haven't done a 2AM start in the last five years! Still, at least I had the sense to put a bag of Mars bars in my laptop bag before I went to site: any team that's done a couple of hours in the early morning in a cold data centre is going to be pleased to see chocolate.


Bookmark and Share