Fargo: Minimalist Browser-Based Outliner


I’ve just started using Fargo, a new browser-based outliner from Small Picture. This little tool is platform-independent and works within any modern browser (i.e. Chrome, Safari, Firefox, IE10). It’s an HTML5 app written with JavaScript. Files are stored in Dropbox in an open format (OPML).

Why use this instead of one of the myriad of other outliner tools on the market? It's simple to use. You don't need to install proprietary software. It's available anywhere you happen to need it. You don't need to worry about 'lock-in.' There's no need to export your files, ever. It's free. It works well. I like it.

On WriteRoom, Simplenote, and Plain Text Syncing

Simplenote subscription. 'Why not try something else out?,' I thought. It's not that I don't like Simplenote. It's great. But I've never tried anything else beyond Apple's paltry notes and the overpowered Evernote. Surely there are other worthy contendors out there.

What began as a simple search for an alternative snowballed into a larger project. I began by mulling over what is important to me when it comes to the note-taking (and note-retrieval) process. Ubiquity, certainly. I want my notes to be available anywhere, on any device. I want to be confident that the changes I've made to a note on my iPhone or on my Mac at work will sync back to my Mac at home. Simplicity, too. For all the praises of Evernote, I just can't use it without wincing. It's just so ... heavy. I need something light, like Simplenote.

Then there's format.  As a rule, I try to keep all of my important notes in plain text, stored in individual files. One reason for this is longevity. This is the one format that will always be accessible. Another reason is utility. Plain text may be cut and paste into just about any application. The final reason is portability. I store all of my important plain text documents (all of my documents, really) outside of databases, in individual files accessable through the Finder. File sizes are tiny, and I can move these files around and modify them with ease. So I want a tool that specializes in plain text.

What else? I also quite liked that I could email myself notes with the Simplenote premium service. I'd like to keep that ability. And I want to keep my notes synced with a lightweight desktop client. With Simplenote, I use the free Notational Velocity (actually, I'm using nvALT, a fork of NV with some extra capabilities). I'd like to keep using that. And I'd like to add one new thing that I've never tried: I want my notes to sync with my desktop file organizer, EagleFiler.

With all of these criteria in mind, two alternatives stuck out: WriteRoom ($5) and PlainText (free), both by Hog Bay Software. I tried both tools and settled on WriteRoom (even though PlainText meets most of my needs and looks great, it has no search capability. That's a deal-breaker). 

What follows is my solution for the syncing bit. This solution allows me to store all of my notes in one folder on my Mac. If I change a plain text file within EagleFiler, within nvALT, on my iPhone, or by directly editing one of my files via the Finder, the changes will be synced across-the-board.

You may wonder why I want my notes in both Notational Velocity and in EagleFiler. The answer is that it's more convenient and flexible. On the Mac, Notational Velocity is a speedy way to get to a note to modify it, or to quickly add or delete a note. EagleFiler (EF) is where all of my important documents reside, so I'm often using it (why switch to another program if I don't have to?). Added to this, EF is where I typically add metadata to my notes (flags, tags, etc.). And since all of my documents are in EagleFiler, I can perform more complex searches to easily locate, say, all notes and PDFs and other documents that contain certain keywords. Also, it's easier to move bits of text from my notes to other documents within EagleFiler.  

Here's how I set up syncing using WriteRoom, although a similar scheme works with slight modifications for Simplenote and PlainText. I'll get into some of those differences at the end.

Using WriteRoom

  1. The first step is to buy the iOS version of WriteRoom. Log in to WriteRoom using an existing Google ID (you can also chose to host your own sync service) and select 'Sync Automatically' from the apps Settings menu. Then head to simpletext.ws and log in, using the same Google ID. You can now sync your notes to this subscription-free online service.
  2. Now you’ll need to get the free SimpleText Mac client from Hog Bay Software and install that. This tiny app runs in the menubar. When you first run it, it creates a new folder in your Home folder called 'SimpleText.' Open the SimpleText app Preferences and choose to 'Start on Login' and 'Automatically Sync When Local Files Change.' Your text notes will now sync to the newly-created 'SimpleText' folder. Each note will be stored as an individual file.
  3. Next, you need to create a folder within EagleFiler. I called mine 'Sync.' Once created, you need to download and install a free app called 'MacDropAny.' This simple tool allows you to sync any folder on your Mac using Dropbox (Note: you need to be a Dropbox user to use MacDropAny).  When you run MacDropAny, you'll be asked to select a source and destination folder. The destination folder is that which you've just created within EagleFiler (you'll have to find it via the Finder). The Source is your 'SimpleText' folder where your notes are held.
  4. Now here's where you'll notice a problem. MacDropAny won't allow you to select an existing folder as your 'Source.' How do you get around this? Here's what I did. I temporarily copied my existing text files residing in the 'SimpleText' folder, then deleted that folder (you could also just move the folder to your desktop). Then I ran MacDropAny, choosing to create a folder called 'SimpleText' as my Source folder. After I did that, I copied back my notes (text files) to the 'SimpleText' folder. I know, it's a bit clumsy ... but it works.
  5. Next, head to Notational Velocity (or nvALT) Preferences and choose the 'Storage' tab. Choose to 'Store and read notes on disk as Plain Text Files.'  Then you need to choose the folder to store the files.  This is where you point to (you guessed it) the 'SimpleText' folder where all of your notes reside.
  6. Now test it out. Add some text to a file on your iPhone. The changes should appear within EagleFiler and within Notational Velocity. Change some text in EagleFiler or Notational Velocity. The changes should appear back on your iPhone.

EagleFiler Caveats

There are a few caveats about using EagleFiler. You're not really supposed to add files directly to file structure within Finder, but that's what I'm doing here. It works well enough, but it takes a little extra effort to keep it running smoothly.

EagleFiler uses a database to store metadata. An important part of that is monitoring any changes to files held within the app. If you delete a file on your iPhone, directly from the SimpleText folder, or from Notational Velocity, EagleFiler doesn't know what happend to that file. A similar thing happens if you change a file outside of EagleFiler, as the app monitors each files checksum to keep track of changes—I'm guessing many people don't even use this checksum feature, but it's there to ensure the integrity of your files.

So. Changing text in a note or adding new notes outside of EagleFiler isn't a big deal. You won't see any error messages unless you use checksum. If you do use checksum, you need to periodically update the checksums for the files you've changed (you're basically telling EagleFiler that the file is OK and that you've changed it from outside of the program). 

For files deleted outside of EF, you'll notice that EagleFiler retains the deleted file, but the contents of the file within EagleFiler now have no content. That's because the file isn't there anymore. To fix this, periodically run 'Scan for New Files' from the EagleFiler 'File' menu (Shift-Apple-R). EF will then show you all the files that cannot be found (as they've been deleted) so you can go in and clean them up from the list within the app. Once you delete them from the EF file structure, empty the trash. 

A few final notes about EagleFiler. The app creates new Rich Text Format documents by default. If you want to move an existing file that is in RTF to your EagleFiler sync folder, you'll first need to convert it to plain text. There's a handy script to do that. If you want to create a new note in your EF synced folder, hold down the 'Option' key while choosing the 'New RTF' button from the menu bar, and a new plain text file will instead be created (there is no 'New Plain Text' button option). I should also mention that the metadata you add to a note in EagleFiler stays (is only visible) in EagleFiler. Those tags, flags, etc., do not transfer to your externally-stored notes. However, this metadata does persist in EagleFiler, even if you modify a note outside of the program. 

While syncing plain text files to EagleFiler may sound difficult to maintain, it's really not bad. I think it's worth it. (I'm now waiting for the developer or other EF users to tell me that this is a terrible idea!)

Syncing with Simplenote, PlainText

You can use a similar process to sync files using the Simplenote and PlainText iOS apps. I tried them both out and the syncing worked just as well. Actually, these other apps were a bit easier to set up.

For PlainText, the main difference is that this app stores your notes using Dropbox (in a folder called 'PlainText).' Since the syncing is via Dropbox, you won't need the SimpleText Mac client. Note, though, that you also won't get the simpletext.ws online syncing.

For Simplenote, Notational Velocity includes built-in syncing support so it's a bit, um, simpler. And while Simplenote does not store notes in individual text files, you can accomplish the same thing via Notational Velocity. You just need to head to Preferences within NV and choose to store your notes as files on your local disk as plain text files. You can choose any folder you like. However, if you want to go the extra step of syncing with EagleFiler, you'll need to be a Dropbox user so you can take advantage of MacDropAny.  

Emailing plain text messages

The last point to talk about is how to add the ability to send messages from your email client to your notes folder.

With a Simplenote subscription, it's a straightforward task since this service provides you with an email address. There's nothing more to do.

With WriteRoom and PlainText, you need to bring in a couple of other tools. First, set up a free (donationware) service called, appropriately, Send to Dropbox. This service establishes a folder within your Dropbox called 'Attachments' and provides you with an email address to send your messages to. Note that this third-party service only stores your unique Dropbox ID, not your login/password (the same ID used when you share a file using your 'Public' dropbox). While the service is mainly for sending email attachments to your Dropbox via email, it works just as well for plain text. (As an aside, there are many other interesting Dropbox Addons worth checking out).

The trick, now, is how to get those plain text email messages from the Dropbox 'Attachments' folder to your synced notes folder. I used Hazel to accomplish this, establishing a rule to move any text file in the 'Attachments' folder to my 'SimpleText' folder.

That's it

The text for this post was harder to pull together than the syncing scheme. I spent a lot of time discussing EagleFiler. Even if you don't use this particular app, hopefully you'll get some new ideas about syncing folders. And if you've never used Notational Velocity, it's worth trying out. It's free, after all. NV is very easy to configure and is a great way to access your notes on your Mac.

How does WriteRoom stack up against Simplenote? It's still a bit early for me to say. One thing I know I don't like: the app is requiring me to log in every time I open it. I hope this is fixed in a future release. It wouldn't be that big of a deal if I had a newer iPhone with iOS 4. With my old phone, however, I can't run apps in the background.

As for looks, you can set up WriteRoom for iPhone to look quite similar to Simplenote. I prefer the default WriteRoom black background with white text.  One nice touch that WriteRoom offers, akin to its big brother on the Mac, is the ability to edit notes in full-screen mode. 

The WriteRoom web version of your notes looks like an old-old-school Mac text editor. Some may find that fun and retro, but it may be offputting if you're expecting a slick interface like that served up by Simplenote. Me? I rarely used the Simplenote online service, and I doubt I'll be logging into writeroom.ws very often.

If you like tags in Simplenote, you'll be missing that in WriteRoom. There are ways you can tag, though. I use the same work-around that I used in 'pre-tag' Simplenote—by creating tags with text at the end of my documents (using the syntax &tag: e.g. &home, &web). It works well enough for searching through many notes.  

Since I gave Simplenote a year, I plan to stick with WriteRoom for the next year. 

Together review


In preparation for this review, I perused forum comments and other reviews about this product. Many people, it seems, feel that Together is a lot like Yojimbo. That's certainly true. However, one could also argue that it's very similar to EagleFiler. The truth is in the middle, as is so often the case. Together marries some of the best features of EagleFiler and Yojimbo. But it also stands apart by offering the slickest interface I've seen so far. It's polished and fast, and a real pleasure to use.

What it looks like

Together's structure and filing system is similar to that of iTunes, as is the case with many Mac apps (particularly in this genre). It serves up your basic three-pane structure. In the lefthand-column source list, you'll find your Library (which contains all items that you've imported).

The Library is broken down into subcategories that are pre-defined by Together, such as notes, documents, images, and videos. These are smart groups, meaning that they are automatically populated with items you've added to your Library (sorted by file type). While you can't modify these 'standard' groups, you can delete them if you want. You can get the deleted standard group back later if you change your mind by selecting 'View Options' from the menu bar.

Under the pre-set groups lie user-defined groups, which may contain smart folders, regular folders, or groups. Groups are like playlists in iTunes. Smart folders contain items that meet your selected search criteria. Folders are just plain old folders. It all works as expected. Notably, the app offers the ability to nest folders if you're the type who likes to organize files in this fashion. Like Yojimbo, and unlike EagleFiler, each folders/groups show the number of items within each container, which is a nice visual cue.

Also similar to other apps we've looked at, selecting one group (or folder) from the source list presents you with a list in the righthand-column of all items that are in that group. Selecting one of these items presents a preview of the item. There are a couple of design choices, though, that make Together different from the other apps I've looked at. First, you can choose landscape mode, which is visually outstanding and particularly nice for wide screen monitors). Second, the 'Info View' (the place where you add metadata such as tags and comments) is tightly integrated into the main viewing window, so there's no need to open up another pane to get these fields. I really like the way this is designed. It makes it very easy to see (or add) details for a given item. The metadata options and layout, in fact, are the best I've seen. It just looks great, particularly in landscape mode. Although I didn't really make use of it, it's worth noting that Together provides the option to rate ('star') items just as in iTunes. I also like that the metadata field presents a visual path of where a given item is located in the Library (and with a quick double-click, the Finder pops open to reveal the source file).

Together takes a different approach for how tags are displayed. With Yojimbo or EagleFiler, tags are front and center. With Together, you get to your Tags by toggling views from the bottom bar of the app. The Tag view is just what you'd expect: your group (folder) structure in the source list is replaced with a view of all of the tags used in your Library. It allows you to quickly see your tags, create new tags, and sort through multiple tags. You can also drop new items into your Library on top of a tag to inherit that tag name. The tag view looks great and it's a good use of limited space. However, I suspect it may discourage use for those who aren't already tag warriors, simply because tags aren't visible in the default view. Take a look at the screenshots to get a sense of what each viewing mode looks like. I'll talk about the other main visual element of Together — the Shelf — in a moment.

Capturing data

As with all of the apps in this genre that I've looked at, Together offers a host of ways to import items into the Library. And you can choose how you want to import an item: add it to the Library while leaving the original item in place, move the item into the Library, or link to an external item without touching it. My preference is to move files into the Library so there are no duplicates to worry about. Since Together stores files in an open system, doing so doesn't lock said file up in a database—an important consideration that I'll touch on later. As for file importing methods, you can drag and drop files or folders into the Library, or into a specific folder, or into a tag group; you can also print items to Together as PDF files; add items to the Library based on what's currently in your clipboard (which is handy for capturing selected text); capture via a quick import key combo; or drag and drop into Together's Shelf.

Speaking of Web pages, Together competently handles links. In the app's preferences you can set if you want your links saved as bookmarks or as Web archives. If you're just interested in capturing text from a page, you can also choose to import it as rich text or as an archive.

You can also add items via the Services menu. Curiously, the Services items did not automatically show up when I installed Together, although they should have according to the Help files. I had to access the Services menu in System Preferences (filed under Keyboard > Keyboard Shortcuts in case you're looking for it) and manually turn on Together's three Services options: add, move, or link to Together.

The shelf

With Together, neither Services nor manually dragging and dropping files into the app are the preferred way to import new items. That distinction goes to the aptly named Shelf. Usually, I'm not a big fan of shelfs (those little sliding dock-like elements that hang out on an edge of one's screen). I think they're often distracting and lacking in utility. To my surprise, I warmed up to the Together implementation.

There are several things I like about it. First, it doesn't pop open when my mouse bumps against the screen edge. I have to click on it to open it. Second, it's integrated with a user-defined system-wide key combo. With Yojimbo, a system-wide key combo opens up a sliding window from the menu bar, presenting the user with an additional input menu distinct from the Yojimbo shelf and application. With EagleFiler, you can set a key combo that pops open a new window in the middle of the screen in which you can add metadata prior to import.

But with Together, invoking the user-defined key combo activates the Shelf in 'import mode,' a special panel where one can add metadata to an item upon import (this works via dragging and dropping files on the Shelf as well). I want to be clear here. I'm not saying that I don't like the way EagleFiler and Yojimbo handle importing files. I'm saying that the Together implementation is very elegant. I like the way the Shelf centralizes several functions in one place. When it's not importing items, the Shelf serves up three other functions: quick access to your Library, folders, smart folders, and groups (complete with QuickLook integration); access to your 'Favorite' items, groups, or folders; and a place to type in a quick note to add to Library. Check the screenshot to see what I mean. So the Shelf, in total, serves up four different functions in one small bit of screen real estate. And it's a flexible way to import items in one other respect: you can also drag a file to a specific folder or group in your Library right through the Shelf, which saves a step in the filing process.

What could make it better? The ability to see your Tag structure in the Shelf, and the ability to drag new items onto a tag on the Shelf to automatically adopt that tag. And speaking of tags, while the Shelf import panel does allow one to enter tags for new items (it's one of several offered metadata fields), there is no way to see what tags you're already using in your Library without going back to the main app window and switching over to the 'Tag' view. It would be nice to have a way to select previously used tags right from the Shelf. Lastly, the 'Quick Note' field in the Shelf is handy, but is a few features short of being great—I'd like to have the ability to add metadata to that new note before it's imported, and I'd like to be able to file that new note in a specific place right from the Shelf.

Adding files via the Finder

I have one final point to make about importing items. Together, like EagleFiler, allows you to add new items to the Library right in the Finder, even when the application is closed. This is possible thanks to the flat file structure of these programs, which means that the files are stored right in the Finder external of any database. Why would you want to add items via the Finder? Consider the following scenario using the excellent file-organizing tool Hazel from Noodlesoft. Say you're working on a project and you don't have Together running. You've been saving files to your desktop for hours. When your project is completed and ready for filing, you could open up Together and manually import these new items, or you could drag them to your Together folder of choice within the Finder*. But with Hazel, you can set up rules, for instance, to tag all documents on your desktop with the word 'project,' label each with the color red, and then send the files to your Together > Documents > Projects folder. Running your user-defined rules, then, whisks your files away and places them in the folder of your choice, ready for you to manage the next time you open up Together. What I like to do is leave Hazel's auto-filing turned off. That way, I can explicitly run the rules I've created when I'm ready. In one step, my desktop is cleared and my files are, well, filed.

*Here's something that's really cool about Together. You can set the app to automatically import files that you place in any of Together's Library folders located in the Finder (except for the Support and Trash folders). That means that you can dump image files into the Documents folder even when the app is closed, and Together will automatically move the image files to the proper 'Images' folder the next time it runs. However, if you want an item to be imported into a particular user-created folder, you'll need to place it there. That's where Hazel can be quite handy. Note, though, that if you place an image file in a user-created folder (which may contain any kind of file), Together will still provide an alias (link) to that file in the default 'Images' folder in your Library.

Working with files

Working with files is about the same as the other apps I've looked at. QuickLook is available (for supported file formats). You can choose to edit many text documents from within the app using a built-in editor, and you can double-click on any item to edit it in its default external application. One stand-out feature is the ability to open items up in tabs, which makes it easy work to keep several documents open at once for ferrying text around.

One other notable item is how the source menu automatically generates a group called 'Recent Imports' that tells you (you guessed it) when and how many files you've recently imported. You can clear this list when it gets too long, or you can hide it altogether. I found it to be a useful way to keep track of recent imports so that I could further categorize, tag, or add additional metadata to items at a time of my choosing.

Now for some odds and ends.

I've touched on this already, but it bears repeating: Together stores your files in an open structure. I'm a huge fan of this, as I noted in my EagleFiler review, because it means that your files and metadata are all in tact and available through the Finder. If you ever decide to abandon Together, you don't have to export anything. And you don't have to worry about your metadata being lost.

If you want to create multiple libraries with Together, you can do it. But be warned that, unlike Eaglefiler, Together only allows you to have one Library open at a time. If you want the ability to move files around between Libraries, this is probably not your best choice.

The final point to make is about encryption. Like Yojimbo, Together allows you to encrypt on a per-item basis. EagleFiler only allows you to encrypt an entire Library (all or nothing). While I initially preferred per-item encryption, I've changed my mind. Here's why. Encrypted items are not indexed, because doing so would render the content of the file unencrypted. There is also the potential that if you choose to encrypt an item later, the contents of that item may already be indexed, and hence unencrypted. So while per-item encryption is handy, it's not ideal. The alternative to this is the way EagleFiler handles encryption, which is at the Library level (both the index for the encrypted Library and the contents of the entire Library are encrypted). This is arguably a more secure set up, with the added benefit that the encrypted items remain fully searchable (but only when the encrypted Library is unlocked and in use). For the average user, this may not be that big of a deal. However, it is an important point to consider if you intend to encrypt some of your data using Together or another similar tool.



1. Could I figure out how to use the app with minimal fuss (w/o documentation)?

Together is pretty easy to figure out, but I did need to refer to the manual at times when I first started using it. Mostly, this was to look up specific questions, such as how and where to set up a quick-input key combo. The documentation is pretty good. It's much less than that provided by EagleFiler, but much more than is provided by Yojimbo. This backs up my contention that this app falls somewhere in between these two competitors!

2. Was I still enthusiastic about using the app after several weeks of use?

Yes. I am now certain that I prefer Together over Yojimbo. I'd say that EagleFiler is still my top choice at this point, mainly because I've learned a lot about the guts of how these programs work as I've tested them out, and it strikes me as the most scalable, flexible and secure option I've yet seen. That's not to say that Together is not scalable, flexible, and secure. It's a matter of degrees. I think Together would handily meet the needs of most users. Where Together beats EagleFiler hands down is on style and user interface.

3. How well does the app integrate into the Mac OS?

Other than my minor issue with the Apple Services menu, it integrated flawlessly. To my surprise, I especially grew to appreciate the Shelf: it didn't feel like it got in my way, but it was there when needed.

4. How did it feel?

Here's where I think Together really shines. It looks and feels great. I particularly like the landscape viewing mode, the integrated metadata fields, and the tabs. My only complaint is that the tag structure gets a bit neglected because it's in not visible on the top level (and tags are not visible from the Shelf). I want to stress how much I like the metadata input panel—I love how it's always visible, and its elegant design makes it that much easier to maintain and manage a somewhat tedious aspect of file management.


How does Together fit on the triangle? I’d say it’s about 70% file organizer; 25% notebook; 5% visualizer

Together Triangle Plot

I see Together as a marriage of some of the best aspects of Yojimbo and EagleFiler. That's not to say this app is a copycat. Far from it. It offers the best interface that I've seen so far, it feels polished and fast, and it's a pleasure to use. I would recommend it to those who appreciate style, like the idea of open file storage, and want a solid general-purpose tool to help manage a bunch of files and snippets. Together costs $39. A 15-day trial is available.

Yojimbo 2 Review

Yojimbo was one of the better information managers on the market when I reviewed it back in March 2008. Yojimbo 2 was released last November. This new release sports more than a new logo (as an aside, I'm sad to see the old logo go. It went well with the product name). Anyway, the new version addresses most of the concerns I had about the first version—the main item being that Yojimbo's tagging structure needed work, particularly in light of the fact that Yojimbo emphasizes the tag as a primary organization tool. Now, that problem is fixed. Here, then, is a brief look at what's new.

Tag Explorer

The single most important feature of Yojimbo 2 is the new Tag Explorer. It's a clever implementation. The Bare Bones team says it's a way to look at your collection of items from the 'inside out.' What that means is best understood by actually using it, but I'll attempt to explain how it works in words by way of example.

Say I want to sift through all the items in my Library to find specific documents related to this blog (tag: 'vfd') and Linux (tag: 'linux'). Assume I haven't created any subfolders to organize my files, so I start by selecting my Library to reveal a list of all the files contained within my Yojimbo database.

Once I select my Library, the Tag Explorer reveals all tags used throughout my entire collection, along with an annotation of the number of times the tag is used. In my case, I have 32 items in my Library marked with 'vfd.' I want to find items tagged with both 'vfd' and 'Linux,' so I start by selecting 'vfd' from the Tag Explorer. Three things then happen:

1. The items in my Library are instantly filtered so that I only see the specific files tagged with 'vfd.'

2. The tag filter I've chosen ('vfd') is promoted to the Tag Filter bar (new in Yojimbo 2) that appears above the list of Library items. If you've used tagging in other apps, the appearance of the 'promoted' tag will be familiar. It makes it very easy to see which filter is currently being applied to your document list. Take a look at the screen shot if you want to see what I'm talking about.

3. The Tag Explorer view changes to reveal only tags related to 'vfd.' What does 'related to' mean? In my case, I have many items that use the tag 'vfd' that are also tagged with other keywords. So what I see in the Tag Explorer is that, of the 36 items in my library tagged with 'vfd,' four items are also tagged with the word 'linux,' 14 items are also tagged 'post drafts,' two items are also tagged 'wordpress,' and so on.

If I then choose the 'linux' tag from the Tag Explorer, that tag is then promoted to the Tag Filter bar. I now have two filter parameters in place: 'vfd' and 'linux.' And, as you would expect, I'm presented with a list of the items in my Library that are tagged with the words 'vfd' AND 'linux.' At this point, the Tag Explorer bar appears empty because there are no other related tags. In other words, I've drilled down as far as I can go.

Once I'm ready to search for something else, I deselect the tags 'vfd' and 'linux' from the Tag Filter Bar. Voilà, I'm back to the complete list of all items in my Library.

Yojimbo still features the handy, familiar option of organizing with static folders, in which you can collect whatever you want. But the best way to manage folders with this app continues to be the Tag Collection. These smart folders work as you'd expect: choose the tag (or tags) you're interested in, and the folder will magically populate with items that match that criteria. New to Yojimbo 2, tag collections now allow you to choose if you want your folder to group together all items in your Library that match a selection of tags, or any items that match a selection of tags. That's very useful.

There is one other improvement to mention related to tags, and that's the Tag editor. You'll find it under Window > Show Tags. The editor presents a list of all of the tags used in your Library, along with number counts. It's the same view that you see from the Tag Explorer if you select your Library as a starting point. What's special about this view is that it allows you to easily batch manage tags: change a tag name, delete a tag, or merge two different tags. These changes are implemented Library-wide. It works great, but be careful. The 'merge' and 'delete' tag commands cannot be undone. Also note that the merge command works with as many tags as you wish to merge together, but your newly-merged tag set will adopt the name of the top-most tag in your selected group. The Tag editor is actually a dual-purpose tool that also contains a Label editor. Here, you can batch change label names and label colors. You can also delete labels. However, you can't merge multiple labels.

I think Yojimbo nails it with the new tagging features. However, if you only have 100 or so items in your Library, you may find that organizing your items by folder remains the easiest way to go. But if you're dealing with a huge Library with items tagged with multiple names, it can be a huge time saver. My only complaint with the new tagging setup is that the Tag editor (Window > Show Tags) is not easy to get to. It's a minor thing, but it'd be nice to have a key combo option to pull this up. It might also be nice to have the option to place a shortcut (icon) for 'Tags' in Yojimbo's Toolbar for easy access.

Other Refinements

There are number of other nice refinements in Yojimbo 2, my favorite of which is the improved Quick Input panel. As in the last version of Yojimbo, selecting F8 pulls up this panel. And as before, Yojimbo guesses which kind of item you're trying to create based on what's in your clipboard. It typically guesses correctly in my experience. What's new here is that you can now add more metadata to the item you're creating (name, tags, flags, label, and comments). This makes the Quick Input much like that of EagleFiler, and it's a handy way to knock out the finer points of filing right from the start. Chances are (if you're like me) you won't otherwise get around to it later.

The Drop Drock also received a minor refresh in this update. New is the ability to drag and drop items to a Tag Collection to auto-assign tags; and you can now flag items by dropping on a 'Flagged Items' zone. As I said in my EagleFiler review, I prefer this kind of screen-edge style for Drop Docks because it's easier to access. Truth told, though, I'm not a big Drop Dock fan for purely aesthetic reasons. I prefer to use a key command to enter new items. That said, Yojimbo does a good job with this.

Searching for items in Yojimbo is also supposed to be faster now, but I didn't notice the difference. That's likely because my Library is not that big. Search was already very fast in my experience. Added to the speed improvement, search now auto-completes tag and label names for you as you type. You can also refine where you're searching by holding down the Option key and selecting multiple collections (folders).

While I think the new Tag Explorer is great, I tend to use the Search function with more frequency because it's faster. By selecting the magnifying glass in the search field, you can choose to search only tags, content, the comment field, name of an item, or all of the above. I like to leave mine set to 'Tag.' I found that I could generally find what I'm looking for faster this way than with the Tag Explorer. Again, with a really large Library, this likely wouldn't work as well. The more items in your Library, the more tags you have, and the harder it will be to remember the name you used to tag something.

Last up, Yojimbo 2 also improved their PDF workflow in this release. If you choose to print an item from another application and save as a PDF to Yojimbo, you now how an option to add metadata to the PDF before it's printed.

The Verdict

For long-time users of Yojimbo, this new release delivers some great improvements that make it a worthwhile upgrade. For new users, it remains one of the best solutions I've seen to easily capture snippets of info, mainly because it's so easy to use.

1. Could I figure out how to use the application with minimal fuss (without documentation)?

As I noted in my first Yojimbo review, the developer maintains that there is ‘no learning curve.’ This is largely true, although you may find the Tag Explorer a little weird at first until you get used to it.

2. Was I still enthusiastic about using the application after a week of use?

Yes. With the addition of more robust tagging support and improvements in ease of adding metadata to files, Yojimbo has answered the mail for most of the issues I had with the first release.

3. How well does the app integrate into the Mac OS?

Very well. There are a variety of ways to get things into Yojimbo that are all tightly integrated. Yojimbo supports MobileMe syncing for other Yojimbo installations on your network. Yojimbo data is also Spotlight indexed.

4. How did the program ‘feel?’ How ‘Mac-like’ is it?

This application has a great feel to it. The minimalist interface and the eye-catching iconography make it a real pleasure to use.


How does Yojimbo fit on the triangle? I'd say it's about 25% file organizer; 70% notebook; 5% visualizer.

EagleFiler Triangle Plot

So far, I've reviewed EagleFiler and Yojimbo. Yojimbo is a reliable, speedy and handy tool. With this new release, I think Bare Bones maintains the products broad appeal, especially for those who want a general-purpose, easy to use snippet box to hold a wide range of items for easy retrieval. The new tagging features are easy to use and may get some people who've never tried this organization method to give it a go. Those who rely heavily on tagging will most appreciate this update, though.

EagleFiler still stands out to me as a better 'industrial strength' choice for file organization, and I'm still partial to a flat file storage solution vs. the database storage of Yojimbo. The main reason for that is about my future usage: if I stop using EagleFiler at some point in the future, I don't have to export my files. There's nothing to export. And all of my tags and labels will be maintained. However, when I export my Yojimbo items, the tags and labels are lost (unless I'm missing something?). If I intend to keep using Yojimbo forever, this wouldn't be an issue. But I'm not sure I want to make such a long-term commitment.

I haven't decided if I'll upgrade to Yojimbo 2 yet. I'm going to wait until I finish this review series to make the choice. I very well may end up using more than one tool, and there's certainly room for that in this category of Mac app.

Yojimbo is offered at $39. An upgrade version is available for registered version 1.0 users for $20. There is a full 30-day trial available to test it out.

Next up on the Mac MIP review series is an examination of Together from Reinvented Software. I'm just beginning my trial period now, so please be patient!

EagleFiler Review

EagleFiler. While I don't think EagleFiler is as visually appealing as some of the other offerings out there in this genre, I think it more than makes up for it in utility. It is, at heart, a power tool.

At first blush, EagleFiler may appear to be little more than an alternative to using the Finder and Spotlight. Like these Apple tools, EagleFiler allows you to store, label, tag, sort, and find documents and media. However, this tool sets itself apart in many useful ways. It's very easy to get your documents into EagleFiler via a system-wide one-click shortcut. It provides an integrated way to more easily manage metadata (tags, labels, notes) for the files you import. It also gives you a place to store items that aren't as easy to manage in the Finder like archived Web pages, important Emails, and notes. And it allows you to create multiple libraries of information so that, for example, you can manage your personal and work files separately.

EagleFiler puts all of these tools together in a single, familiar interface that aims to place the focus of your effort where it should be: on doing work with your documents, instead of working to find your documents. I found that it does this job quite well, but it does take some getting used to. While it's easy enough to start using right away, a few trips to the 125-page user manual are necessary to start using it well. Let's start by taking a look at how you get your files into the application.

Capturing Data

EagleFiler captures pretty much anything: documents, images, audio, video, individual emails or entire mailboxes, chat transcripts, bookmarks, text clippings, folders containing multiple items, and more.

You can add items in a wide variety of ways. For starters, you can drag any file or folder and drop it on the application window, on the dock icon, or on an optional EagleFiler 'drop pad' that sits on your desktop. You can also add an item by invoking a keyboard shortcut. How do you decide which method to use? It depends on how much you care about where your file goes and if you want to add metadata to the file at the import stage.

I don't care for the drop-stuff-right-in-the-app method. I think this method is clumsy and prone to error (i.e. it's easy to drop the file in the wrong place). It is, however, useful to drag a file to the application window if you want to embed an image, video, text or whatever into an existing rich text document. You just need to remember that this embeds the file in an existing document. It doesn't add the item as a discrete entry in your library.

EagleFiler To Import FolderThere are yet a couple of other ways to enter data. One way we haven't covered is the special 'To Import (Library Name)' folder created by EagleFiler. You'll find this special folder wherever you choose to store your EF files (one per every library you create). This is a special folder in that EagleFiler doesn't need to be running for you to add files. Simply drag stuff in there. The next time you fire up EF, the app will import the items. Per a suggestion in the EF user manual, you can optionally create an alias of this folder in the dock for quick access.

The other way is to right-click on an item and choose the 'EagleFiler: Import' option from the OS X Services drop-down menu. Note that this will only work if you already have an open library.

From the developer: "This works whether or not EagleFiler or a library is open. If no library is open, EagleFiler will ask you to open one, and then you can click the Import button to send the file to that library".

There are clearly plenty of options for importing files and folders. Some might say there are too many options, but I think this is a strength. I spent considerable time on this because it's an important attribute for a tool that is all about capturing and managing files. The tricky part for a new user is finding the method that's most comfortable and sticking with it until its routine. For me, the shortcut key works 95 percent of time. One quibble: when you right-click on a record or one a group of selected records in an EagleFiler window, the drop-down menu includes an option to import to EagleFiler. This should not be there.

From the developer: "The 'Services' submenu is added by the OS. As far as I know, it's not editable by the application. You'll see the same thing, e.g. in OmniFocus."

If you try to do it, EagleFiler will present you with a pop-up Error window which will tell you it can't import the items because they're already in your library (provided you don't allow duplicates in your library, which is an option in the preferences). I suppose some people may have a need for duplicating items in the library, but most won't. Why would you want to import items to EagleFiler that are already in EagleFiler? A handier option would be to include a right-click shortcut to import an item or items to a different library.

Another quibble with the right-click menu, since we're on the topic: it includes a 'Show Info' option, which opens up the Finder's 'Get Info' panel. There is no option to inspect an item or items (modify notes, title, tags) from this menu, and there should be. The only way I could find to get to the inspector for an item already in the library is by clicking on a button in the Toolbar. Given that you'll more likely need to add or change labels, tags, notes, or a title for an item more than you need to view the item's Finder's info, it seems like a glaring omission that this choice is not presented in the right-click menu. Perhaps many users will choose to always leave the inspector window open. I prefer to open it only when I need it.

From the developer: "Thanks for the suggestion. You can also open the Info inspector from the Window menu or using the keyboard shortcut. Again, the contents of the Services menu are added by the OS, so it's not as if I'm choosing to put the Finder's Info command in the menu instead of EagleFiler's."

So far, we've only talked about importing preexisting data. EagleFiler is also a handy note creation tool. You can create new RTF files at will and, as I mentioned previously, embed items such as images or audio in an RTF document. The rich text editor included in EagleFiler meets all of the basic formatting needs for a simple document, including a variety of styles, spacing, and (handily) outlining options. While you won't find special note-taking items in EF (here I'm thinking about Yojimbo, which includes special forms to add serial numbers and passwords), I didn't miss these extras. EF is flexible enough to add whatever you want in a note. If you want to store passwords and serials, there are better tools for the job (1Password).

From the developer: "EagleFiler doesn't have built-in special note-taking forms, but you can add your own using the stationery feature.


Organizing, Finding, Modifying Files

Now let's take a look at how you work with documents in EagleFiler. The first thing to highlight is that you aren't locked into dumping all of your data in one giant database (called a 'Library' in EagleFiler). While you may prefer to keep it simple and maintain one library, you're free to create as many as you wish. I've created one for personal items and one for work. This alone is a big organizational boost from that of the Finder. You can even keep multiple libraries simultaneously open so you can ferry files to the repository of your choice.

With a given library, you'll note that the interface is much like that of Apple Mail. There's a left column in which you are presented with different ways of sorting through your data. And there's a right column in which you see a list of your selected documents. Underneath this list is the familiar preview of the currently selected item.

Organizing files is a simple endeavor. You may create static folders and drop items in those folders. Or you may create rule-based smart folders to filter all of the records in your library based on criteria of your choice. Lastly, you can tag your files. As you add tags, the tag list in the left column will automatically update.

To search for particular items or items, use the keyword search pane at the top of the app window (just like Spotlight, only faster), or use filter out what you want using your user-created smart folders or tags. EagleFiler includes some built-in smart folders (Recently Added, Recently Modified, and Untagged) and tags (flagged, note, unread, as well as some additional mail-specific tags). This is a nice touch, but you can't modify these. I see no reason why the built-in tags and folders should not be user-editable. I also couldn't find the option to add icons to user-created tags (perhaps the developer could include a small library of additional icons from which I could choose, or allow user-created icons to be pasted in). The visual cues these little icons provide are handy, evidenced by Yojimbo's smart folder icons for photos, web archives, bookmarks, and archives.

From the developer: "You can edit the colors and abbreviation symbols for the built-in tags. The names are not editable because these tags have special meaning within EagleFiler. If you could change the names, there would be all sorts of issues importing from other applications, moving files from other libraries, restoring from backups, etc. You can edit the abbreviation symbols by choosing Window > Show Tags. They are text (Unicode characters) so pasting images is not supported. Click the Characters button to access the available symbols (You can also type regular letters on the keyboard)."

The tagging power of the app is a great strength, but it could be better. You can tag an item manually, or you can drag it to an existing tag folder to have the item adopt that tag. Once you enter a tag, EagleFiler will remember it and attempt to auto-complete your word with future entries. It works well, but there's one thing that bugs me. If you're used to the tagging functions in a program like Things, you'll notice that tag sorting in EagleFiler doesn't work the same way. In Things, if you shift-select multiple tags you are presented with only those items that meet all conditions (e.g., which items are tagged with both 'tag1' AND 'tag2'). In EagleFiler, shift-selecting multiple tags shows you all items that use the selected tags ('tag1' OR 'tag2'). I think the way Things handles tags makes more sense — it's why most people would select more than one tag, right? I'd also love to see EagleFiler add the ability to create hierarchical (nested) tags as one can using Things. NOTE: You can create nested tags. See below.

From the developer: "EagleFiler is going for consistency with other applications like Mail, where selecting more than one source shows the union. I'm considering making it an option to show the intersection, but it's not totally clear how it should work. What if you select two folders? Or a folder and a tag? You can create a tag hierarchy using drag and drop. Or select a tag and click "+" or choose "New Tag" to make a new child tag."

Now on to file modification. Let's start with batch change — useful if, say, you want to add a tag to thirty documents at once. There are several ways to get this done. It works with a key combo (shift + command + B) or by going to the menu bar and selecting Records > Batch Change. A 'batch change' button also automatically appears on the bottom shelf of the app window if you have multiple items selected. This is usually the way I access this function. The only thing missing is for the developer to add a quick-link icon for batch changes to the Toolbar (as a customization option), but I don't think most people will miss not having it there.

The way EagleFiler handles encryption may be of concern to some users. Unlike Yojimbo, which allows per-item encryption, EagleFiler only allows you to encrypt your files at the library level. You either encrypt your entire library, or nothing. I'd like the option to encrypt individual files, but as I understand it, this is a trade-off for having files stored outside of a database (see next section for more on file storage). Having said that, library encryption is a handy way to store libraries on a thumb drive or in Dropbox to access elsewhere, as everything is self-contained in the secure disk image. Once I got used to, I started to appreciate it.

Note from the developer: "I think per-item encryption should be of concern because (1) The index is unencrypted. So either your data is exposed or the encrypted items can't be indexed for searching; and (2) If you import an item and then later make it encrypted, the unencrypted data may still be stored on the disk. So I think it's simpler and safer to encrypt at the library level."

Finally, a few words about modifying files within and outside of EagleFiler. While it's easy to edit your documents in external programs by double-clicking on or right-clicking on an item and choosing the 'Open With' command (defaults are taken from your Mac OS 'Open With' preferences), you need to let EagleFiler know you changed a file externally if you want the program to be able to monitor the health of your files. Without getting into too much detail, if you only ever use EagleFiler to manage and modify your files, then you don't need to worry about this. If you aren't worried about maintaining the long-term integrity of your files, then you don't need to worry about this.

If you do want to maintain the ability to monitor the integrity of your files and to accurately check for duplicate files, you need to use the 'Update Checksum' command every time you modify a file outside of EF to let it know you did so. A checksum, non-technically speaking, is a way to digitally check if a file has errors. If you don't manually update the checksum on your files that you externally edit, EagleFiler has no way of knowing if the changes in the file were legit or if the changes indicate corruption. If you do keep your files updated in this manner, you can periodically check your files using 'Verify' to see if everything is OK.

It's not a show-stopper if you don't do this, just know that if you don't, the app has no way to detect problems with your files. I think it's worth the effort. I do, though, think that EagleFiler could help us out a little more here. While you can add 'Update Checksum' and 'Verify' to the Toolbar, these items are not there by default. Another option might be for the program to display a pop-up reminder when you save back an externally edited file to remind you to update the checksum (or, better yet, a pop-up with a button to update the checksum as you save it back to the library). The checksum and verify tools are an important way to keep your files healthy for the long-term, and I think the developer could do a better job at making this easier to do.

From the developer: "Agreed. I definitely need to make it easier for people to use checksums and still edit from other apps."

As it is now, I'd wager most users never use these features. That's a shame, because it's one of the features that make EagleFiler stand out. By the way, this is something that you wouldn't have to worry about if all of your files were stored in an enclosed database (like Yojimbo does).

From the developer: "With a database, all the access to the data would go through the app, so theoretically it could update the checksums automatically (with the tradeoff that it's impossible to modify the files with another app). But, as far as I know, none of the database apps actually do this; they have no way to check the data integrity at all."

There are trade-offs for having your files stored externally, which we'll talk about next.

How Your Files are Stored

It's always a good idea to have a basic understanding of how a given app handles your data, especially when you are entrusting your most important files to said app. Many info management tools on the market store all of your data in a database. While this isn't usually a problem, it can be an issue down the road if it's not properly managed. With EagleFiler, only a small OS X Core Data SQL database is used for each library to keep track of metadata such as what types of files you have, where the files are, and when you added or changed the files. The files, however, are not stored in a database. They exist in an open format, right in the Finder.

This means that's there's no need to worry about exporting items from a database down the road, because there is no database to worry about. There's also no need to worry about losing carefully crafted metadata should you stop using this tool, as it's all saved with the file in Spotlight-friendly format. And you don't need to worry as much about database corruption. Even if your EagleFiler database gets corrupted, is accidentally deleted, or is destroyed, your files will still be sitting there in your Finder, complete with metadata in tact. I like this. While I wouldn't hesitate to collect all of the documents on my system within EagleFiler, I wouldn't want to collect all of my documents in a program that stored them in an enclosed database.

An important caveat: while your files are in plain view and may be manipulated outside of the program via the Finder, don't do it unless you've stopped using the program. This sort of file system is immensely appealing because your files are not locked up in a database. It means that you can stop using the app at any time without worrying about exporting your stuff. However, while you are using EagleFiler, remember that it's doing the job of monitoring and managing these files. If you modify or move things around add, delete, or move files in the Finder, EagleFiler will no longer be able to properly do that job for you.

If you choose to encrypt a library, your files are stored a bit differently. They're placed in a password-protected sparse image bundle. What you need to know is that this file must be opened and your password entered to view the protected library. Once you open up it up, a disk image mounts on the desktop. All of your files reside inside this image. To close this library, you must close the library in EagleFiler, then eject the disk image on your desktop. I don't have any issues with this, but I will say that it's not very elegant and may put some people off. It's annoying that the encrypted file only shows up in EagleFiler's 'open recent' menu item when it's opened. If it's closed, you'll have to find it in the Finder or search for it in Spotlight. To make it easier to work with an encrypted library, I found it's easiest to create a shortcut to the sparse image (in the dock or on the desktop).

It's worth noting that you can store files for EagleFiler in your Dropbox or SugarSync account to access your files from multiple Macs. There's an important caveat, though: if you use file color labels or custom icons, those items will be lost using these services because the services don't fully support Mac files. However, you can create an encrypted library for use on these services that will maintain all of your metadata (as it stores your files in an encrypted self-contained disk image).




1. Could I figure out how to use the app with minimal fuss (w/o documentation)?

I could figure out the basic functions of the program, but I didn't really get what it could do until I read the documentation. It's quite a powerful tool, but only if you slog through some of the documentation. If you're going to invest in the app and entrust it to managing your files, it pays to get to know it well. If you're looking for a light manager to store snippets and occasional documents, it may be more power than you need. It's a solid choice, though, if you're looking for an app to take over the management of most (if not all) of the documents in your digital life.

2. Was I still enthusiastic about using the app after several weeks of use?

I've just completed my 30-day trial, and I've grown enthusiastic to the point of dependancy. That speaks well for EagleFiler. I would say this app gave me much better focus into my documents, something that the Finder lacks. It also provided me with the basic note-taking/storage needs that I enjoyed while using Yojimbo. Finally, because the database is only storing metadata, it's a light-weight program in terms of CPU usage. I have no issues with leaving it running all the time. That made it easy to start using it as my central file repository. While it fully meets my file organizer needs, it only met some of my note-taking needs. That isn't necessarily a criticism. What I'm saying is that I have other solutions to meet my snippet storage needs (JustNotes for non-sensitive notes (a free program that syncs with Simplenote on my iPhone), and 1Password (a popular paid app that stores my sensitive notes, passwords). For those notes that I don't store in JustNotes or 1Password, EagleFiler does the job.

3. How well does the app integrate into the Mac OS?

Quite well. As evidenced in the section on entering data, there are many ways to get things done with this app. My one complaint is that some of the EagleFiler commands (inspect, verify, checksum) could be better integrated within the application.

4. How did it feel?

For users of Apple Mail and a host of other Apple and third-party apps built in OS X, the layout and basic functions of EagleFiler will be immediately familiar. From a visual perspective, I'm underwhelmed by the application and tag iconography employed by EagleFiler. It's a minor point, but making these icons a bit more stylish might make this app feel a bit friendlier and more accessible. Compare the look and feel of EF with Yojimbo and you'll see what I mean. Looks are important. I'm not asking for eye candy. Rather, I'm asking for a more elegance in appearance to help inspire users to dive into this powerful application.


How does EagleFiler fit on the triangle? I'd say it's about 75% file organizer; 20% notebook; 5% visualizer

EagleFiler Triangle Plot

The file organizer and notebook percentages are fairly obvious, but you may wonder why I gave it 5% visualization. It's because it can be used to manage and organize projects within a library or in multiple libraries; its note-taking capabilities include support for outlining; and a good system of smart folders and tags can be a real handy tool to not only organize your files and notes, but to see how they fit together. As a file manager and note organizer EagleFiler works impressively as advertised. There are plenty of choices out there, though, if you're looking for a more powerful visualization tool.

I didn't hit on all of the features of this app, but hopefully hit the highlights. EagleFiler is a compelling alternative to the Finder for organizing files, and a competent note-taking tool. Is it worth the $30 price of admission? I think it is, but only if you take the time to learn how to use it. While it's not necessary to read the entire 125-page user manual that ships with the software, it is necessary to peruse the first few chapters to understand how to tap into some key features. Those features are what transform EF from a simple Finder alternative into a tool that can help to make your information better perform for you.

EagleFiler offers a 30-day trial.

MIP: Making Info Perform

It's time to (re)start the Mac information manager series, a project I began a year and a half ago. I now (finally!) have the time to dedicate some time to this. What follows is a brief synopsis of what I've already written about, presented so that it's not necessary to refer back to older posts. I also set the stage for where I intend to go with the series from this point forward.

Here, then, is a recap:

You may be familiar with the archaic acronym PIM (Personal Information Manager). As I said in a previous post, I think this term is hopelessly broad and meaningless. Every program used on a home computer is, in a sense, a personal info manager. For the purpose of these reviews, then, I've decided to ditch PIM. I'm adopting a new acronym I'll call MIP (Making Info Perform). It's a bit cheesy, but I think MIP better captures a certain spirit of the myriad info management solutions out there today: the promise is to not only harness the chaos that is your data, but to feed it back to you with ease, and in ways that foster insight and creativity. That's what I expect out of my info management tools, at any rate.

Such tools are increasingly necessary to manage the flood of text, documents, PDFs, images, bookmarks, emails, multimedia files, snippets, and notes that comprise our digital life. The good news: there are many solid productivity and organization applications for the Mac to help reduce your clutter, most of which offer ample free trial periods. The bad news: they all claim to be the perfect solution for organizing your mess of information. Which app to choose?

That's what I'm trying to answer here by taking a thorough look at a selection of some of the more popular Mac-based info managers. Personally, it's a good time for me to tackle this. While I've used Yojimbo for several years, I'm not sure it's the app I want to stick with. Since Yojimbo recently released version 2 of the app (requiring a $20 upgrade fee), I want to better understand my alternatives before paying out.

If you're familiar with the backstory to this series, you know that I've struggled with identifying which apps to include. Now I've nailed down the list to include EagleFiler, Yojimbo, Together, SOHO Notes, and Circus Ponies Notebook. My selection criteria is based on several factors: personal interest, popularity in the Mac community, and reader feedback from the early days of this series. As I already covered Yojimbo when I began this series, I'm not going to review it again in full. Instead, I'll present a short update to reflect what's new and notable in version 2. I recognize that this is not a complete list, but it's a decent cross-section.

A key challenge I've faced in preparing to review these apps is one of classification. These tools do many different things, but they have common elements. One goal of this project is to find a way to tie them all together in some sort of framework. I think I now have a decent working model. When we last left off (a long time ago), I proposed that information managers for the Mac generally fall in three main categories:


These applications strive to serve up something better than Apple’s Finder to archive, organize, and search through your important documents. Apps in this category tend to focus on giving you powerful metadata tools to help you find what you need and organize your existing documents/files. Examples are Leap, PathFinder, EagleFiler, Together, DEVONThink.


These apps focus on providing a better notebook experience. They provide a central repository to create and collect notes, ideas, snippets, multimedia clips, and (to a lesser extent) existing documents. Simple interfaces, quick entry, and rapid search are emphasized. Examples are Yojimbo, Evernote, Notebook, VooDooPad


These applications focus on providing a better creative space in which to help you plan projects, discover relationships, and gain insight into your data. Examples are Curio, Tinderbox, OmniOutliner.

How do we tie these categories together? I originally tried placing the categories on a linear spectrum, but several readers pointed out that a triangle plot would be more apropos. I have to agree (for the backstory on this, read the comments of the Spectrum of PIM post). So here's the triangle, in all its glory:

info manager triangle

The idea behind the triangle is that there’s a lot of overlap in function between the various info management tools out there, so this plot is a way to show where an app falls in terms of utility as a file organizer (F=Find), note creator (C=Create), or visualizer (V=Visualize). The corners of the triangle represent 100% Finder (bottom left point), 100% Creator (top point), and 100% Visualizer (bottom right point). The farther you get away from any one of these points, the lower the percentage for a given category.

If you're not familiar with how to read this sort of plot, it's easiest to see how it works by way of example. And since this isn't an exact science, I'll employ a simpler version of the triangle for my reviews. Here's what the triangle plot looks like sans percentage lines for EagleFiler, as an example:

EagleFiler Triangle Plot

I place EagleFiler at a location that represents about 75% file organizer, 20% notebook, and 5% visualization tool. Make sense?

I’ve included Visualizers in this model based on the recognition that is an important sub-category of the genre, but I've decided to limit my reviews to tools that fall more in the finder and creator categories. Still, it's useful to include visualizers for two reasons. First, some of finder/creator focused-apps have functions that fall within the visualization realm. Second, some of the visualizing tools on the market include note-taking and file organizational features. My hope is that the triangle will, at a minimum, provide a handy way to think about any given info management tool (even if that app isn't covered in this particular series, and even if you don't agree with my where I place a particular app). In other words, this framework hopefully accommodates all or most of the apps that fall within the broader 'information manager' category.

OK. That's enough about the triangle.

In closing, I want to reemphasize a few points I previously made to set the stage for the resumption of these reviews: some of these tools focus on organization, some on creating new info, and some focus most on tying together all stuff into some sort of coherent package so we can find our way forward. There aren’t necessarily clear winners that do it all. Our challenge is to pick the right apps to do the job in a way that is natural for us. It may mean using more than one info management tool.

The question, then, is how do these various organizers measure up? I'll be looking at the aforementioned apps with a focus on answering the following questions:

1. Could I figure out how to use the application with minimal fuss (preferably without referring to documentation)?
2. Was I still enthusiastic about using the application after a week of use?
3. How well does the app integrate into the Mac OS?
4. How well could I manage all of my tasks (work, home, play, etc.)
5. How did the program ‘feel?’ How ‘mac-like’ is it?

Now on to the reviews.

Time to pay for Things

Things from Cultured Code will be officially unveiled at Macworld Expo in one week. Today, Things 1.0 Release Candidate hit the streets.

I’ve been using this app for a long time now. It feels like it’s been in Beta forever. I am grateful that I’ve had the chance to use it for free for so long, and now I’m ready to plunk some money down.

That Things took so long to reach 1.0 (it was originally slated to come out last Spring) speaks volumes about the care and attention placed into creating this app. If you want to get a sense for how much care and attention we’re talking about, check out the blog entries chronicling the development process.

In short, if you’ve never used it, try it out. If you find it as useful as I do and also own an iPhone or Touch, consider getting the mobile version as well. The syncing is flawless.

Things is one of the most elegant and polished apps that I’ve used. It promises to be a well-deserved hit.

The tyranny of the news reader

I've been thinking lately about news readers. I use NetNewsWire on my Mac and my iPhone. It's a good reader, and I've grown to depend on the automated syncing of my feeds between my desktop and phone. I, like many people, only sync 'must read' items to my iPhone. My Mac client is where I download all of my subscribed feeds.

As an aside, here's how to selectively sync your feeds if you use NetNewsWire. The hard way: You get to these settings by logging into your account (assuming you've created one) at www.newsgator.com. Then you choose 'Settings,' then 'Edit Locations.' From here, you can choose which feeds to track on which platform, among many other options. It takes some work to set up initially, but I find it's useful to only sync selected feeds to my iPhone in the interest of bandwidth. The easier way: Fire up NNW on your iPhone or Touch, then select a feed title. Choose 'Edit.' Then choose 'Delete.' This will bring up an option to unsubscribe from the feed everywhere, or just not sync it to the mobile device. Much simpler.

What I've been thinking about is the creeping tyranny of my feed reader. I've found that I've become quite feed-complacent. I have a large set of feeds that I routinely read, and the feed reader saves me time. That's the purpose of a feed reader, right? But over time, I've found that I don't surf around like I used to.

I tend to prefer my feed reader because it's so fast and easy. The result is that I've been reading the same feeds for quite some time, and I find that I rarely add new feeds these days. As I track a lot of mac-related feeds, I've found that it's a bit of an echo chamber. The same posts appear over and over, and it's relatively rare to find something new that hasn't yet been reported on in ten other places.

It seems to me that I used to find a lot of hidden gems by randomly roaming the web. I don't do that as much these days, but I'm going to start exploring again. The internet is a vast place, so there really isn't a good reason to get complacent.

A good tool to break out of the tyranny of the same-old-feeds is StumbleUpon. If you've never used it, it's worth a look.

The advantage of this service as opposed to, say, random web searching, is that you can select a subset of categories that interest you. Then, when you have a few spare moments and feel like exploring, you click the Stumble button (I use a FireFox toolbar) and are taken to a randomized site that falls somewhere within the range of the site categories that interest you. Sometimes the sites suck. Sometimes the sites are magnificent.

The one thing that is certain is that the service will take you to sites you may have never otherwise encountered. As a blogger, I'm often looking for something new and interesting to comment on, or looking for an interesting site or idea to share. This service is a great idea generator. It's also a good way to enjoy yourself as you explore the web ... and rediscover why it's called the World Wide Web.

So this is a call (to myself, really) to break away from the news reader more often and surf. And it's a call to refresh my feeds more often. There's a lot of content out there waiting to be discovered.

The Spectrum of PIM

Long ago, I began an information organizer review series. I started out strong. I posted a nice little intro piece. I knocked out the first review in the series. Then it utterly unraveled for two reasons.

First, Alan over at Metadata weighed in that VodooPad shouldn't be in my review group (which included Yojimbo, DEVONThink, Together, and EagleFiler).

He followed up that thought with a post on his blog in which he suggested we divide info organizers into two distinct categories: those that help us organize existing data, and those that help us create new data (or, as he restated at the end of his post: "creators let you manipulate data, whereas organizers let you manipulate metadata").

It's a great article, and the foundation for this post. I agree with much of what he said, but as you'll see, my model differs a bit from his.

I've concluded he was right about VooDooPad: you can organize existing documents with it, in the same way you can use Word to store a list of all of the books you own. But why would you? Other apps are far better suited for the task.

So, as I was pondering this, I was offered a new job. And that's the second reason for the long delay. As I've mentioned here many times now, I moved. I'm still recovering (and unpacking).

Now I'd like to resume the discussion. This is an attempt to build upon Alan's post by proposing that we present organizer apps on a spectrum. I want to reemphasize that, in the spirit of collaboration, this draws heavily on the ideas from Alan's post. Go read that first.

So here it is. There are three main categories of info organizer applications that form the spectrum of PIM:

1. Finders

These applications strive to serve up something better than Apple's Finder to archive, organize, and search through your important documents. Apps in this category tend to focus on giving you powerful metadata tools to help you find what you need and organize your existing documents/files (thanks, Alan). Examples are Leap, PathFinder, EagleFiler, Together, DEVONThink.

2. Creators

These apps focus on providing a better notebook experience. They provide a central repository to create and collect notes, ideas, snippets, multimedia clips, and (to a lesser extent) existing documents. Simple interfaces, quick entry, and rapid search are emphasized. Examples are Yojimbo, Evernote, Notebook, VooDooPad

3. Visualizers

These applications focus on providing a better creative space in which to help you plan projects and gain insight into your data. Examples are Curio, Tinderbox, OmniOutliner

Since many of the functions of these applications overlap each other, I think it's helpful to view them on a spectrum. We can then perhaps get a better sense of where on the spectrum a given app fits. The screenshot on the right, for example, shows where I think DEVONthink fits on the continuum.

The fine print

Now a word about info organizers, info managers, PIM, or whatever you want to call these kinds of apps. I've had so many people ask for recommendations on applications that fall in the info organizer realm. I think there are no clear answers. Part of the problem is also a great strength of the Mac platform: the glut of third party app choices. And part of the problem is that many of us aren't really sure what we want.

The explanations (read: marketing) provided by many Mac 'info management' apps don't help much. So there it is: we have too many choices, the essential functions of these choices are not well enough defined, and the reason the definitions are broad and vague is because the apps themselves offer solutions to a very wide range of info organizational problems.

Some organize existing data, some help create new data, some help visualize connections amongst data ... and most do all of these things to some degree.

We know that most (or, at least, the best) info organizers do a lot more: they help us find things more quickly, make connections between disparate items, and come up with new ideas. They aim to help us solve uniquely modern problems: to fight information overload, to cut through clutter, to combine the super powerful with the super simple interface, to help us make unforeseen connections, and to serve as a nesting place or (better yet) breeding ground for our thoughts.

If we have a glut of PIM apps, it's because we have a real need to manage the wash of information that is cluttering our lives. With our computers serving as the repository for all of our info, data, thoughts ... we clearly need to find a way to pull it all together. To make it perform for us. That's the new paradigm. Some focus on organization, some on creating new info, and some focus most on tying together all stuff into some sort of coherent package so we can find our way forward.

Which you choose will depend on what you need. Ultimately, I think the winners will not necessarily be the ones that pull all of these elements together in one application. Rather, I think there is room enough for lots of variety. Our challenge, then, is to pick the right apps to do the job, but to pick the ones that do the job in a way that is natural for us. While it's true there may be too many options out there right now, that's the nature of competition. The best ones usually stand the test of time.

I plan to use the spectrum framework as I return to reviewing some specific applications. In the spirit of choosing apps that clearly fall within a 'band' of the spectrum, my review choices will change from the original lineup (I'm still deciding which ones I want to tackle).

When I'm done, I'm considering placing all the major info organizer apps (not just the ones I reviewed) on the spectrum with the aim of helping people sort through all of the choices.

I'll close with a word on the acronym PIM and the phrase 'info management.' I think they are both hopelessly broad and meaningless. Every program used on a home computer is, in a sense, a personal info manager. Sadly, I'll probably keep using PIM out of habit. After all, spectrum of PIM sounds much better than spectrum of info organizers.

Some clever person should devise a better term. I kind of like 'personal content assistant,' used by the folks over at Eastgate Tinderbox. Or perhaps we could use MIP: making information perform.

On Things, RapidWeaver

1. Things integration, tagging

Cultured Code's Things is slowly and methodically nearing release — something I suspect many people eagerly await (or not, considering we now get to use the Beta for free!). Last saturday, Cultured Code released a small version update with a big new feature: system-wide To Do integration. Enter a To Do in Things, and it's instantly in Mail and iCal. It's a significant step in the evolution of this task manager. It's been enlightening to watch this app progress via the updates and the Things blog. The developers are clearly focusing an extraordinary level of effort to get this right, and it shows. I can't wait to see the companion app for the iPhone/iPod Touch due out at the end of June.

I received a comment this week concerning my original (and aging) Things review. I questioned the scalability of Things in that review (i.e. ability to manage hundreds of To Dos), and reader Mark countered that Things scales just fine provided one develops a good tagging system. I think this is largely true — more so as I've become a better tag manager and better versed in how to use Things.

The trick, then, is to develop a system of tagging that works. If you have a good tagging structure for Things, you can share it on the Things wiki (on the Real-world tagging examples page). There are two useful entries there to help get you started. Hopefully more tagging gurus will share their ideas and solutions. For more on tagging, check out Ian Beck's TagaMac site (particularly his intro to tags).

By the way, wouldn't it be nice to have a dedicated wiki for community-contributed tagging solutions, usage examples, and tips for all Mac apps that support the venerable tag?

2. RapidWeaver 4 first impressions

RapidWeaver 4
You may have heard that RealMac Software's RapidWeaver 4 came out this week. The most noticeable difference in this Leopard-only upgrade is the user interface, but there are also some significant under-the-hood improvements. If you are upgrading from an earlier version, ensure you update your third party plug ins first, then install the upgrade.

The new interface meshes well with the 'Leopard look' and is sleeker and easier to look at. It also includes a far amount of eye candy (e.g. black pop up windows, iconic representations of your files flying past during file open and upload). In short, it looks good. Note to RapidWeaver: I don't need to see each file loading when I start up RW. Just show me the progress bar. All those file icons whipping past is a nice use of Core Animation, but it's superfluous. Same goes for the file upload progress indicator.

I like the new toolbar that runs across the top of the app. At first, I was lamenting that I could not customize the shortcuts on the toolbar. Then, upon further inspection, it dawned on me that everything I need is already there. Good design.

The left-hand sidebar icons that represent individual pages of your site are now easier to recognize. RW pages are easy to pick out, as are third party plugin pages (e.g. a Blocks page now looks, appropriately, like a big yellow block).

One thing I don't like is the 'Add a new Page' view in the UI — it looks pretty, but I can't see the version number of my plugins as I could in earlier versions of the app (I tried clicking on the plugin name, as I would in Finder to reveal a long file name, but this had no effect). This used to be an easy way to see if I had the most current plugins installed.

There are now four new themes. You can now search through your themes or filter them (based on RW version, or if they originated from a third party). I like this. The one minor problem I've noticed is this: if I change the theme view to display smaller icon sizes, it doesn't stick. Once I close the document and open it up again, the theme previews are once again set to the default size (which are a bit too large).

One of the biggest changes is the adoption of a new file format based on standard XML. This is good news for people with very large sites, and good news for third party integration possibilities. I can vouch for this: publishing is dramatically speedier.

Be sure to check out the new Extras folder in the download. It includes a well-designed new PDF manual, the SDK for Theme development, and an assortment of web badges to add to your site.

I'm quite happy with this update, although I could not find a changelog anywhere on the RW site that clearly delineates what's new. I'm sure it's there somewhere.

And speaking of the RW website, it also received a major refresh (RealMac does this with each major release, offering up their previous site design as a new RW template).

The RapidWeaver forums have also been totally revamped. There is now a main community discussion section, a technical support section (which is now the primary means to get technical support for RW), and community forums in various languages other than English. A note for people who were used to the old forum: look for the search function inside the categories. It looks good, but I was disappointed to see that my account indicates that I've not made any posts (i.e. it appears my account was reset with the new launch. I don't know if other users face the same situation).

Scanner Art

Here's a project idea for the long weekend. Have you heard of scanner art? The basic idea is this: you scan things and you try to make something something artistic with it. Is it art? Is it really photography? Some say yes, some say no. I say, 'Who cares?'

I have found that I can get some extraordinary results with my trusty scanner (the Epson Perfection 4490). I particularly like how the scanner captures intricate detail in natural objects. Here are a few samples of items I've created (click for a larger view).

Edge.org, where the stunning work of Katinka Matson is often featured. Intrigued, I started experimenting with my scanner. I don't have any sage advice about creating scanned artwork, but I do have a few tips:

• Ensure you clean the scanner bed really well before you scan
• Be prepared to spend several hours cleaning up dust and artifacts from each image you scan with your image editor of choice (even if you DO clean the bed well, you will spend a good deal of time on this task).
• I prefer to scan in the dark with the lid of the scanner open. It produces nice clean lines and a black background, which makes it easier to extract the image.
• This is a great way to experiment with your image editing program (I use Photoshop), particularly for creating interesting backgrounds, arrangements and frames.
• Try scanning anything and everything. For items that might damage your scanner bed glass, some say to try using a transparent film (e.g. a rigid piece of clear plastic of the type used to protect business reports in days past). Haven't tried this myself — I just use the 'be really, really careful when scanning' method.
• Try playing around with arrangement and layering of your scanned items.
• Scan the same item from different angles, then try piecing it together the various images into one montage.
• Scan the same item at different resolutions, then try assembling something interesting from these scans.

If scanning objects appeals to you, check out Scanner Magic and Photo Vinc for more tips and ideas.

PIM review delay

NOTE: (Dec. 2009) This series is back. Check it out.

Last week, Reinvented Software released Together 2.1, a very substantial upgrade from version 2.0 (which I was planning to review).

This release highlighted the problem with reviewing a series of Mac applications right before the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in June: there's a strong possibility that some of the other apps I plan to review may also be upgraded at or around this event. The moral of this story is that it's best not to start a review series right before WWDC. Bad planning on my part. So, I've decided to postpone the PIM review series until mid-June to ensure I focus my attentions on the latest and greatest.

One final note: I received some feedback on my Yojimbo review from a developer at Bare Bones Software. I've posted it as a comment to the review if you're interested.

Mac PIM review II: Yojimbo review

This is part two of a seven part series comparing Mac Personal Information Managers. Today, I’m going to look at Yojimbo version 1.5.1.

As I sat down to begin this review, I pondered discussing the Yojimbo/samurai metaphor, when it struck me that the name of the company is perhaps more relevant. I had never considered why this company is called ‘Bare Bones Software,’ but maybe it has something to do with a focus on creating applications that hone in on the bare essentials. It’s just a theory, but Yojimbo certainly qualifies as bare boned: it’s a lightweight, simple and elegant information manager.

But designing a simple and elegant application is a tricky business. You need to strike a delicate balance between functionality and user configuration options. You need to seek out and destroy bells and whistles. Unnecessary bloat and clutter must be avoided at all cost. If an application gets it right, it ‘flows like water’ (to borrow a Taoist metaphor). It feels good to use. Of course, it also works very well. Few applications meet this high standard.

I think Yojimbo is on the right path, but it’s not quite there yet.

Mastering the Onslaught

Yojimbo is an information manager and note-taking application made by the people behind the acclaimed industrial text/code editor BBEdit. The tag line for Yojimbo is 'Master the Onslaught.' I suppose the metaphor goes something like this: Yojimbo is a samurai at your disposal to slice through your information overload. And, as a samurai, it's going to slice with style and maximum economy. While the name and the tag are cool, does Yojimbo live up to the imagery it evokes? For the most part, yes.

Looking at it from the viewpoint of the user interface, Yojimbo stands out from the competition. A person who knows nothing about this app can, as advertised, jump right in and start collecting data. The user controls are standardized Apple fare, so you know what to expect. In fact, there’s not much to say about the user interface because there’s not much to it. It has a distinct minimalist feel to it. You have a left-hand column for organization (à la iTunes); you have a main window that displays your library; and you have a sliding split pane in the main pane to preview a selected item in your library (just like in Apple Mail). Aside from this, there is a standard popup inspector window that may be toggled off or on to display relevant info about a particular folder or library item. You may also customize the Yojimbo toolbar by adding/deleting your favorite items.

If there is any criticism to levy against the interface, it’s that some users may pine for a few alternative layout options. Personally, I like the interface. It’s one of the things that drew me to the program.

However, the samurai metaphor doesn’t hold up as well for me when it comes to organization, filtering and searching. It’s quite good, but it’s not great. I’ll get to this in more depth soon, but first let’s look at getting data in and out of the program.

Capturing Data

The type of data you can enter in Yojimbo compares favorably with other apps in this class: you can stuff it full of text, MS Word documents, RTFs, PDFs, image files (except for RAW images, a reasonable exception), bookmarks, and web archives. You can't, however, import any other proprietary document formats other than Word files. While the range of document types Yojimbo accepts is about the same as other applications in this field, I think Pages documents should be supported. This is a Mac app, after all.

I should add that you can also add emails, but they are only imported as bookmarks — if you drag and drop them into the app you create a link back to the originating app (i.e. Mail). To get the actual email message text into Yojimbo, you can use this free AppleScript created by a Yojimbo developer (I use it in concert with MailActOn).

AppleScript support is a strong feature of Yojimbo, by the way. A quick web search turns up many user-generated scripts free for you to try. The only problem here is that they are a bit hard to find. I wish that Bare Bones would compile user-created scripts on their site. In addition to dragging and dropping files into the app, you can directly type in new notes in rich or plain text. Unique among the PIM crowd, Yojimbo also provides two built-in templates to handle password and serial number data as well, which is a nice touch. One welcome addition would be a user-defined open template (or user-created templates). For example, I would like to create a car maintenance record template with field names that I define.

There are several other ways to add data besides direct input and the ‘drag and drop.’ Yojimbo also offers a ‘drop dock’ that integrates into any corner of your Mac screen. I put mine in the lower left-hand side of my screen and made it as transparent as possible so it doesn’t stick out. The drop dock allows you to directly drag and drop to the main library or directly to a specific folder. I prefer this type of ‘drop box’ to those that in other apps that sit directly on the desktop because I can get at it without leaving the program I’m working in.

The only minor complaint I have about the drop dock is that you have to click precisely on the word ‘Yojimbo’ to minimize it. If you miss the target, it stays extended. If you are an Apple Dock user, you can also drag items to the Yojimbo dock icon. This will import the item to your library, but will not allow you to add an item to a specific folder.

Another way to add data is via a hotkey (F8 by default). This is my favorite feature. With Yojimbo running in the background, F8 will bring forth a quick-entry menu to import your clipboard. While this is handy, you need to know that it only handles text (a note, bookmark, password, serial number, or web archive). If you copy a file (a RTF, Doc, image file or PDF, for example), you can’t import it with this function. If you try, what you’ll get is an unlinked icon file representing the file type for the document. That’s annoying. It is nice that you can directly convert a copied URL from your browser to create a web archive, though. According to the developer, Yojimbo will ‘examine the clipboard, and guess what kind of item you wish to create, and will default to that editing panel.’ If Yojimbo guesses incorrectly, you can select a different item type by using keyboard shortcuts. This feature works well for me. One thing I don’t get, though, is why the drop-down menu includes ‘image’ as an item choice since this quick-entry method doesn’t properly import images copied to the clipboard.

You can also enter data into Yojimbo with AppleScripts (like the previously-mentioned Mail script). And there are user-created scripts out there that let you add special bookmarks to your web browser for one-click bookmarking or web archiving to Yojimbo. Finally, you can use the Apple Services menu to import copied text or URL direct to Yojimbo. This is handy if Yojimbo is not currently running and you want to quickly add an item or link from a given open application.

With so many different options to get info into your database, Yojimbo truly makes data entry an effortless process.

Organizing and Finding Data

Now let's next look at how data is organized. Here's where I have a bit of trouble 'mastering my onslaught.' Yojimbo offers several ways to organize your stuff. First, you may create folders and drag items to these folders. Yojimbo calls these 'Collections' for obvious reasons. The most important thing to point out about the Collection folder is that you may not nest other folders. For example, I can't create a Collection for 'food' and place individual folders for various food categories under this top-level folder. Many users have asked for this, but Bare Bones developers have ruled this out from the start. Why? Presumably because they have decided that the built-in search and tagging functions are the best way to organize.

The app includes ten options for ‘smart’ collections (you’ll probably be familiar with this concept from the Finder or iTunes). Smart folders are basically saved searches. With Yojimbo, you can view flagged items, recent, unsorted, untagged, archives, bookmarks, images, notes, passwords, and serial numbers. The frustrating part is that these smart folders cannot be modified in any way, nor can you create your own smart folders based on criteria of your choosing. Why not?

In addition to the ‘dumb’ and smart collections, Yojimbo also serves up ‘Tag Collections.’ This is a smart folder that collects items based on tags you’ve assigned to items in your library. While it’s nice that you can choose to collect more than one tag into a tag collection (for example, you can gather all of your items tagged ‘food’ and ‘recipe’), there are several major shortcomings. First, you can only create a collection based on tags. You can’t create a more complex collection (say, all items with ‘food’ tags AND all flagged AND all recent items). Next, you can only collect tags that meet ALL conditions. There is no option to choose ‘ANY’ as a selection condition. This means that I can collect all items tagged ‘food’ and ‘recipes,’ but I can’t collect together items that have the single tags of ‘food’ or ‘recipes.’ What I would like to have is robust smart folder support, similar to what I get in the Finder or in iTunes. Yojimbo is really tying our hands by not giving us more control. The last problem is that the tag collection folders you create provide no clues about what tags are being collected. The only way to tell is to open up the tag collection for editing, or to choose an item in the collection and taking a look at the tags.

One final note: you can’t drag and drop into a Smart or Tag Collection. This makes sense in that these ‘folders’ really aren’t folders at all, but are collections of items that meet certain search parameters. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could drag an item into a Tag Collection, with Yojimbo automatically appending the tag or tags for that collection to that item? Yojimbo also offers two other ways to organize data: flagging and labeling. Flagging is a way to keep track of hot items that require follow-up, although you could assign any meaning to a flagged item. A flag can either be on or off. Chances are, you’re already familiar with the flag from other Mac apps. Me? I don’t use them very often. Color labeling is a common type of organizational method as well (most notably in Finder). Unlike Yojimbo’s built-in Smart Collections, you get full control over labels. You may change the name of a label and you may choose the colors of your labels. While you can select multiple items and label them in batch, you cannot create a rule to label items based on tags. You also cannot add a color label to a folder. You can, however, search for items based on label names, which is nice (I can search for all ‘work’ labels, for instance). I’m not a big label fan (in Yojimbo or any other app), but I might use this feature more if I had the ability to create more complex custom Smart Collections (a very handy app called Hazel is a great example of how useful this can be — and it’s using built-in Mac OS features!).

Now back to tagging. Yojimbo emphasizes tagging as a primary organization method. Indeed, tagged collections can be handy. But it’s not good enough. And here is my biggest problem with Yojimbo: I need better tag management options. What I would like to see added is an on-the-fly tag filtering similar to what I’ve seen in Things and OmniFocus. If Bare Bones won’t give users the nested folder, then they might consider providing a more interactive method to filter through tags.

And speaking of tags, an inspector just for tags would be handy: a place to view them, batch change them, delete them. It would also be nice if Yojimbo would label orphaned tags in this list that are no longer being used. Note that it’s currently not possible to change or delete a tag. The ultimate test of how well your data is organized is put to the test when you try and find something. One easy way to do this is use Yojimbo’s very speedy search engine. I have no complaints in this department. You can search by any word in an item, by tag and by label. Since Yojimbo is Spotlight-enabled, you can also search straight from Spotlight even when Yojimbo’s not opened. I love having the ability to search for certain tagged items from my Yojimbo database using Spotlight. Very handy.

As for the search function within Yojimbo, it could be made better if we had that inspector pane with a list of all of our tags (what if I can’t remember the tags I assigned?). The other way to find what you’re looking for, of course, is via your Collections. I’ve already talked about why this doesn’t meet my needs. If I had full control over my smart collections, Yojimbo would be a much better tool for organizing and finding things. I would personally also like the added ability to nest folders. I know, I know…hierarchical folders are so 20th century…but many people like to manage their data this way. Yojimbo went half-way by providing folders, so why are they against providing a nested folder option for those who want it? I don’t get it. If the idea is that you shouldn’t really need hierarchical folders, then the developers should get rid of them entirely. I’m all for that — provided I get much better tagging, filtering and smart folder creat ion capabilities.

A Few Nuts and Bolts

Now I need to add a few additional points about how Yojimbo physically handles your data. Consider how to get your data back out. It's very easy to do with Yojimbo: simply select what you want from your library and choose 'export'. However, it's important to note that the only metadata that will be preserved once you export your stuff are item creation dates. Your tags, labels, and flags will be lost. That's a shame. I'm quite unhappy with this. Say, for instance, I someday decide to move some of my Yojimbo data back to the Finder so I can manage these items with Leap (a tag-centric program for managing all the files on your system). I would lose all my carefully crafted tags! Thanks to reader Brab for suggesting I check out metadata 'persistence,' by the way. I wouldn't have thought of this myself.

I also need to comment briefly on how Yojimbo data is physically stored. While some PIMs store your stuff in what’s called a flat file structure (in other words, directly in the Finder), Yojimbo stores everything in a SQLite database tucked away in your user library. While I’ve never had any trouble with the database, I came across many comments on the web from people worried about corruption. If the database gets corrupted, all of your data is potentially hosed. That’s a bit worrisome.

But there’s nothing much to worry about if you regularly back up your system. You can back up your Yojimbo database with Time Machine, in case your wondering. I came across some posts on the web suggesting it doesn’t work, but it did for me. I tested this by deleting my entire database from my user>Library>Application Support>Yojimbo folder, then I replaced these files with a backed-up copy from Time Machine. It restored just fine.

One more thing to consider with Yojimbo is that it duplicates a file upon import. So if I drag a PDF into the application from my Documents folder, it will still be in my Documents folder. I’ll just have an extra copy of it now stored in the Yojimbo database. I’m not crazy about this. I could delete the origninal files, but then I’m relying on one database to store all of my precious files. I could keep two copies (one in my Document folder, one in my Yojimbo database) but things would get confusing if you later changed something in one of those versions; they wouldn’t be in sync. My solution: I choose to not import most of my documents into Yojimbo. I primarily use it as a digital junk drawer.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Yojimbo supports encryption for individual items. It works great, but I wonder why Yojimbo doesn’t have a built-in Smart Collection to view all encrypted items. A work around for this is to create a tag called ‘encrypt’ for all your encrypted items, then create Tag Collection or search on that tag.

The Verdict

Yojimbo is a PIM that occupies a specific place on the info management spectrum. That place for me is as a lightweight tool to quickly and easily capture snippets of info. Yojimbo provides a good home to all of those little bits and pieces that don't fit anywhere else on my Mac. It may not be the best solution for a complete desktop information management solution (by 'complete,' I mean an application that you are comfortable using as an archive and repository for ALL your critical data — including long and complex documents that you frequently edit). If you need this type of functionality, you may want to consider another solution.

I think Yojimbo excels at grabbing data of all varieties, but I’m less enthusiastic when it comes to finding what I’m looking for and filtering through my data collection. As my database grows, I find it increasingly hard to keep it organized and find what I want.

Still, there are many things that I really like. What I appreciate most about Yojimbo is how easy and quick it is to add new data. I’m also quite fond of the minimalist user interface.

1. Could I figure out how to use the application with minimal fuss (without documentation)? The developer states that there is ‘no learning curve.’ I found this to be largely true, but there are a few features you may not discover if you don’t read the instructions. When you first launch Yojimbo, by the way, Bare Bones includes a helpful note that summarizes all the big ideas about how to use the app.

2. Was I still enthusiastic about using the application after a week of use? Yes, but I’m growing less enthusiastic as my database grows larger. I’m particularly frustrated that I can’t create more complex smart folders. I also would like to see more robust tagging support.

3. How well does the app integrate into the Mac OS? Very well. In addition to the variety of data entry methods I detailed in this review, Yojimbo supports .Mac syncing for other Yojimbo installations on your network (and you can use your one license to install Yojimbo on multiple Macs in your household!). Yojimbo data is also spotlight indexed. This means you can search from spotlight on a tag name, and all of your Yojimbo items that match that tag will pop up (Yojimbo does not need to be running to use this). Super. By the way, if you want to access your Yojimbo database remotely (from a web browser or on your iPhone), a company called Flying Mac sells a slick Web 2.0 app called Webjimbo to meet this need. The downside? It will cost you an additional $30.

4. How did the program ‘feel?’ How ‘Mac-like’ is it? This application has a great feel to it. The controls are intuitive. It’s sleek. And if you want to know how Mac-like it is, consider this Apple article.

Yojimbo is not perfect, but it’s a reliable, speedy and handy tool in my toolbox. I think Bare Bones have hit on a solution with broad appeal, but there are a few areas that need refinement before I will say Yojimbo ‘flows like water.

That’s it for the Yojimbo review. Next up on the Mac PIM review series is an examination of DevonThink Personal. Stay tuned.

NOTE: (March, 2009) I'm still planning to complete the rest of the reviews in this series. Really. I've been busy with multiple work projects and haven't had the time to dedicate to these reviews, but I will get to it.

Mac PIM review: Part I

This is the first post in a seven-part series comparing Mac personal information managers.

NOTE: (March 1st, 2009) I'm still going to get the PIM series. Really. I've been busy with multiple work projects and haven't had the time to dedicate to these reviews, but I will get to it.
Here's the problem: chaos. Your cavernous drive is slowly filling up with text, documents, PDFs, images, bookmarks, emails, multimedia files, and notes. You're struggling to make sense of it all. You like the idea of having a central repository to manage all of this stuff, so you search around for a good Personal Information Manager (PIM) for your Mac.

Now you have a new problem: choice. The good news is that there are a hefty number of productivity and organization applications for the Mac to help reduce your clutter. The better news is that they all offer ample free trial periods. The bad news is that they all claim to be the perfect solution for organizing your mess of information, and you just don’t have the time to test them all out.

I’m not going to try to sort through all of the Mac-based PIMs in this series. Instead, I’ve chosen five applications to review. While this is a bit more than I intended to tackle at first, I think five is the magic number. I settled on these five because they represent the best of the best of what’s available for the Mac. All of these applications share a similar feature-set: the ability to store, organize, and retrieve personal information from text notes, to images, to PDFs, to web pages all from one place. The difference, of course, is in the details.

Let’s start with a summary of each application (listed in reviewing order):

1. Yojimbo — Version I'll review: 1.5.1

Initial release: Jan. 2006 | Current price: $39

From the developer (Bare Bones Software): Yojimbo makes keeping all the small (or even large) bits of information that pour in every day organized and accessible. It’s so simple, there is no learning curve. Yojimbo’s mechanism for collecting, storing and finding information is so natural and effortless, it will change your life—without changing the way you work. There are as many uses for Yojimbo as there are users of it. It accepts almost anything—text, bookmarks, PDF files, web archives, serial numbers or passwords—by dragging, copying, importing or even printing!

Snapshot of usage/interest in the Mac community:

iusethis: 911 users versiontracker: 2,178 downloads of current version (all versions: over 22k) macupdate: 1,900 downloads of current version (all versions: over 29.9k)

Other versions available: No


2. DEVONthink Personal — Version I'll review: 1.9.13

Initial release: Feb. 2002 | Current price: $39.95
From the developer (DEVONtechnologies): DEVONthink stores your documents, scanned papers, email messages, notes, bookmarks, etc. in one place. Access live web pages seamlessly from within DEVONthink to review, extract further information. Create RTF documents, edit them in full screen, and cross-reference. Clip data from other applications using drag-and-drop, Services, or the Dock menu. Search, classify and show relationships between your documents automatically with the help of Artificial Intelligence.

Snapshot of usage/interest in the Mac community:

iusethis: 362 users versiontracker: 748 downloads of current version (over 33k downloads of all versions) macupdate: 575 downloads of current version (over 26.8k downloads of all versions)

Other versions available: Yes

DEVONnote: Only handles plain text, RTF, text clippings, MS Word; URLs; HTML only as plain text ($19.95)

DEVONthink Pro: You get everything in DT Personal, plus the following: a three-pane view option; no upper limit to images/PDF items; full CSV/TSV file support; import ability from Address Book and iData 2; export to OmniOutliner ($79.95)

DEVONthink Pro Office: You get everything in DT Pro, plus the following: email archive support, scanner support, OCR capability, and web access/sharing for your databases ($149.95)

3. VodooPad — Version I'll review: 3.5.1

Initial release: March 2003 | Current price: $29.95
From the developer (Flying Meat): VoodooPad is a garden for your thoughts. Plant ideas, images, lists and anything else you need to keep track of. VoodooPad grows with you, without getting in the way — no fences to box you in! Type in notes, highlight important words or phrases and create new pages. Drag and drop folders, images, applications, or URLs into VoodooPad — they're linked up just like on the web. With powerful search, nothing will be lost or out of reach. The more you put into it, the better it gets.

Snapshot of usage/interest in the Mac community:

iusethis: 443 users versiontracker: 1,134 downloads of current version (all versions: over 34.7k) macupdate: 765 downloads of current version (all versions: over 27.9k)

Other versions available: Yes

VoodooPad Lite: Offers inline editing and realtime linking of pages; only supports Unicode, Rich Text support, and image embedding (free)

VoodooPad Pro: You get everything in VDP standard, plus the following: a built-in web server, meta values for pages, event triggers, and the ability to encrypt whole documents ($49.95)

4. Together — Version I'll review: 2.0.10

Initial release: Aug. 2 004 | Current price: $39
From the developer (Reinvented Software): Keep your stuff together, find it again instantly. Together lets you keep everything in one place. Text, documents, images, movies, sounds, web pages and bookmarks can all be dragged to Together for safe keeping, tagged, previewed, collected together in different ways and found again instantly.

Snapshot of usage/interest in the Mac community:

iusethis: 255 users versiontracker: 595 downloads of current version (all versions: over 15.8k) macupdate: 330 downloads of current version (all versions: over 16.3k)

Other versions available: No


5. EagleFiler — Version I'll review: 1.3.2

Initial release: Oct. 2006 | Current price: $40
From the developer (C-Command Software): EagleFiler makes managing your information easy. It lets you archive and search mail, Web pages, PDF files, word processing documents, images, and more. Use it to collect information from a variety of sources. Organize them into folders and annotate them with tags and notes, or leave everything in one folder and pin-point the information you need using the live search.

Snapshot of usage/interest in the Mac community:

iusethis: 83 users versiontracker: 391 downloads of current version (all versions: over 11.2k) macupdate: 226 downloads of current version (all versions: over 9.2k)

Other versions available: No

I want to say a few words about why I've presented a 'snapshot' of usage/interest for these five programs. I debated wether or not to add this level of detail because, frankly, one could argue that it doesn't really mean much. Still, it was a useful exercise. It allowed me to get a rough idea of the current popularity of these apps. Anecdotally, I suspected that Yojimbo was one of the more popular PIMs at this time, and this unscientific 'sample' at least bore out that many people apparently use it. I also compared users and downloads between these four apps with some of the other popular PIM apps for the Mac and concluded that my selection was a good representation of the field.

Importantly, this exercise also forced me to do a lot of searching and a lot of reading: I didn’t just count download and users, I read all the comments on each of the three sites (iusethis, versiontracker, macupdate). I now have a much better platform from which to dive into my reviews. I also spent several hours reading through reviews from other blogs, as well as reading through material on developer’s sites.

It’s worth pointing out, though, that I did this retrospectively. In other words, I chose these five programs for personal reasons: I currently use Yojimbo for short notes, snippets and serial numbers. I use DEVONthink to store all of my writing clips and ideas (fiction, primarily). And I like to use VoodooPad as a learning/flash card tool (right now, I’m using it to store notes as I learn javascript). What initially led me to these three applications is what is often called ‘buzz.’ As someone who follows Mac software rather closely, I heard (and read) repeated positive comments, so I gave them a try. Simple as that. Am I happy with them? Not entirely, but they’re pretty good. How’s that for an answer? I promise to offer a bit more detail for the reviews!

For the other two apps — Together and EagleFiler — I’ve not yet used them. However, they were recommended by readers who know a heck of a lot about Mac software (and organization), so I added them to the list. From what I’ve read so far, they appear to be rising rapidly in popularity among people I consider power users. I will use review these two programs last to take advantage of the full evaluation period (Together offers a 15 day trial; EagleFiler offers 30 days).

I’m going into this series with an open mind. I’m perfectly willing to abandon my current multi-app workflow if I find another app (or apps) that better serve my needs. This last statement ‘serves my needs better’ is an important distinction to make: my needs are not your needs, so I’m not going to claim that my conclusions will apply to all users. What I think will come out of this is a fairly good synopsis of each app which I hope will serve as a launching point for readers who are trying to figure out where to begin.

I’ll be evaluating these applications with an emphasis on the same set of questions I’ve used for other reviews on this site:

1. Could I figure out how to use the application with minimal fuss (without documentation)? 2. Was I still enthusiastic about using the application after a week of use? 3. How well does the app integrate into the Mac OS? 4. How did the program ‘feel?’ How ‘Mac-like’ is it?

Of course, I’ll also be looking at questions specific to info managers: how well could I organize all of my stuff? How easy is it to get data in/out? How is the information stored? What organization tools are available? How scalable is it? How easy is it to find what I’m looking for?

I hope to get these reviews out in fairly rapid succession, but I have to warn you that it’ll take some time. I’m going to evaluate the applications I’m most familiar with first.

Stayed tuned for a review of Yojimbo.

On Mac Organizers & WordPress

Coming soon: a comparison review of five top Mac information organizers...

But first, I want to say how happy I am that my offline experiment is over. The TV part was easy, since I don’t really watch TV. The Mac part was quite hard. I’m happily back online now, with no great lessons learned (other than I prefer to be connected; no great surprise there).

Now, about my impending series on Mac organizers: I agree with those of you who suggest I tackle Together (formerly known as KIT) rather than Evernote. Together is clearly in the same class as DevonThink, EagleFiler, and Yojimbo. Evernote is clearly not. Together is also quite popular, so it’s a good target for this series. Thank you to those who commented for steering me straight.

Of these apps, I have substantial experience using DevonThink and Yojimbo. This will give me a good baseline. However, I have no experience using EagleFiler and Together, so I’ve downloaded the trials to test them out. I want to use them each intensely for at least a week to give them a fair shake. I also have decided I will add VooDooPad to the mix because I use it, I really like it and it’s substantially different from the others. It deserves to be in the lineup.

Now that I have identified the five apps I wish to review, I must say that I’m still pondering how to tackle this series. I just read through some existing review series suggested by reader brab. These reviews are excellent and I highly recommend you give them a read. In fact, these posts were so informative and thoughtful that I have to take a few days to rethink how I want to approach this. I want to write something that is value-added. I don’t want to rehash what’s already out there. I want to try to take a fresh look. More to come.

2008 Mac a’hiki Tech Fest (sponsored by the Hawaii Macintosh and Apple Users' Society).

The highlight of this gathering was a keynote speech by Matt Mullenweg of WordPress.com fame. Most of his talk focused on the capabilities of WordPress, which I’m already familiar with as a WP user. I did, however learn a few interesting things:

First, WordPress is about to launch an interesting new theme called Monotone that’s geared towards displaying photos in a blog. It is interesting because it’s dynamic: the theme samples your top photo in your most recent post and automatically generates complementary colors for the layout of your page. Each time you post a new photo, your base theme colors change to match that photo. It’s a nice idea, and I expect variations on this dynamic sampling to generate more interesting themes in the future. I look forward to taking a peek at the code behind this.

Next, I learned about Gravatar.com. While I was aware of the Gravatar concept, I was unaware that WordPress hosted the Gravatar service. Apparently Automattic, Mullenweg’s WP.com company, acquired Gravatar last October. If you sign up for a Gravatar, your unique little photo will follow you around the web when you’re posting comments on any site that supports the Gravatar feature. Yet another example of how the web is turning into a more cohesive entity for the individual.

Following that, I learned of bbPress and BuddyPress — two WordPress.com offshoots. The first service is a free package for simple forum hosting. It purportedly makes setting up a forum as easy as setting up a WordPress.com site. I’m curious about how well it will integrate into a current WP installation. The second is a set of WordPress plugins (for WordPress MultiUser) which offers a very simple and easy way to transform any blog into a social network platform à la MySpace. The difference is that you don’t have to sign up for a social service with this — you create your own social center.

BuddyPress is still under construction, and Mullenweg doesn’t recommend you launch into it yet. But he said a stable package will soon be available. I like the idea of segmented user-level social networks. While it’s not a new idea, Mullenweg argued that this package will make it simple enough for anyone to create and maintain — which would be something new.

What this all added up for me was a clearer vision of how WordPress is positioning itself to lead the market with free, simple and easy to use blogging and social forum platforms in a variety of flavors. When I add up the myriad of options presented by WordPress.org, WordPress.com, WordPressMU, bbPress, and BuddyPress (all free services, by the way), I get the sense that this is developing into something very special.

I’m also struck by the aggressive development-and-release schedule of the WordPress team. That I can expect a major upgrade with significant improvements every few months is a tangible benefit that has so far kept me from leaping to another platform. I especially like that I have full access to this platform for free. Since I use the ‘.org’ version of WP, I can do whatever I like with it. I can even try to make a better commercial platform to compete with WordPress. I like the WP business model. As Mullenweg put it, anyone can use and exploit the open source WP package. It’s up to the WP.com team to make their commercial implementation of this package a top consumer choice (they make money, by the way, by offering premium upgrades).

Finally, Mullenweg showcased a site produced by Ford (yes, that Ford) on WordPress. Wow. I took one look at this site and was inspired to see if I could push my WordPress installation a bit further. I’m amazed that this site is based on WordPress. I’ve toyed with moving to a new platform (recently I tried porting this site over to Drupal — you can see the test result here), but I’m more inclined now than ever to stick with WP. Especially when I consider how much time and energy I’ve put into understanding how this package works (and how little time I have to delve into another package!).

If you’re interested in seeing Mullenweg’s talk, HMAUS is planning to post a videocast of the talk soon. As a side note, I put down five bucks on a raffle at the HMAUS event, hoping to win one of two iPod Shuffles or the Belkin USB hub. I walked away with an extra-extra large University of Hawaii football jersey and a can of Chef Boyardee Mac and Cheese. Hmm.

Evernote: an organizer app to watch

Surf-Bit’s Mac ReviewCast episode, host Tim Verpoorten interviewed Evernote CEO Phil Libin. Evernote is a multi-platform application in Beta (invitation only) that “allows individuals to capture and find anything from their real and digital lives using their PC, Mac, mobile phone, and the web. Regardless of where or when your notes are created, everything is synchronized, recognized, and available from anywhere.” (as described on the Developer’s site).

I should clarify this a bit. A stand-alone desktop version of Evernote is free to download by anyone (right now, there are Mac, PC, and Windows Mobile versions available). The Beta invitation is for the web application (and the seamless synching between all your devices).

The most interesting (amazing) feat that Evernote performs? The uncanny ability to read and index text from photos that you’ve taken (handwritten notes and printed text within graphics). You have to see this to believe it. Check out Evernote’s video overview. I’d like to know how it’s done.

At any rate, Libin offered up 1,000 Beta invites for MacReviewCast listeners at the end of the interview. I signed up and just received my invitation from the developer. I’ll share my impressions once I test it out. If it’s too late to get an invite from the Mac ReviewCast, you can sign up to try the Beta at Evernote.com (the developer is issuing new invites as spaces open up).

This looks like a really promising application.

Cultured Code Things revs to 0.9

If you haven’t tried out Cultured Code’s Things yet, now is a good time. It’s my favorite task manager, and it’s better than ever. Yesterday, version 0.9 was released. You can download the public Beta preview for free. It’s a Beta, so you are encouraged to let the developers know what you think.

The big news about this Beta release? Recurring to-dos and projects. And there’s lots of other improvements as well. If you like Things, sign up for their newsletter for a 20 percent discount once 1.0 is released this Spring (you’ll be able to pick it up for $39; regular price will be $49).

If you read my review of Things, be sure to read the comments for this post, too. One of the developers of Things addressed many of the concerns I raised in the review.

Year of the Killer Task Management App: Wrap Up

Back in January, I predicted that 2008 will prove to be the year of the killer task management application for the Mac. Right now, there are dozens of ‘To Do’ list programs for the Mac…and OS X Leopard’s Mail and iCal now include basic ‘To Do’ list management. So what’s so special about this year?

It’s all about GTD. The recent release of OmniFocus and the buzz surrounding the pre-release version of Things mark the evolution of some serious competition — and serious refinement — in the field of Mac-based task managers that use ideas and concepts inspired by David Allen’s popular ‘Getting Things Done’ workflow.

I just completed a series of in-depth reviews of some of the most popular and promising of this breed of Mac ‘To Do’ managers, and it may be no surprise to you that OmniFocus and Things look set to lead the pack.

To get the most out of the View from the Dock reviews, I recommend you start by taking a look at the first post in this series, in which I set out the criteria I would use to evaluate these applications. I originally intended to review five apps, but I ultimately only reviewed four: iGTD, OmniFocus, Midnight Inbox, and Things. I did not review CoalMarch Park (even though I said I would back in Jan.), because it appears that it’s no longer offered. But that’s Ok: I think these four apps are the main contenders in this contest. Which one is the best? Read on.

The Contenders

The four applications below are listed in order of how closely they follow the Getting Things Done process (Inbox is the most 'GTD-like,' Things is the least). In my opinion, this ranking also stacks the applications in order of ease of use and learning curve (harder to easier) and by degree of flexibility (from most rigid to most freeform workflow). Note that I'm only presenting a quick snapshot of each app here — be sure to read the full reviews (linked below) for detailed descriptions, opinions, screenshots, etc.

So here’s the countdown:

4. Midnight Beep's Midnight Inbox | Developer's site | full review


Midnight Inbox is the only app of this group that reaches out and grabs data on your Mac. It also stands out as the app that most closely follows the GTD workflow. The user interface of Inbox is just beautiful, but the learning curve is a bit steep.

If you are well-versed in the GTD process and like the idea of an app that clearly walks you through a step-by-step task management process, give it a try. Version 2.0 of Inbox is now in the works.


beautiful to look at; nice design; novel auto-collecting of data; system-wide quick entry


complicated; a little buggy; data entry options are limited and unconventional; workflow can feel restrictive; iTunes metaphor is a little weird

3. bartek:bargiel's iGTD | Developer's site | full review


iGTD is powerful, full-featured, and free. This program follows the concepts and ideas of GTD quite closely — second only to Midnight Inbox. It's been around longer than most of the others, so the feature-set is quite mature.

Since the program is well-designed, ties in nicely with other apps (in particular, QuickSilver) and is free, it will likely continue to have a strong following. If you’re one of those power users who like lots of options and choices, you may love this. Others may find the user interface a bit cluttered and overwhelming. One thing you will like: many users note that the developer is very responsive and the app is frequently updated. Version 2.0 (an Alpha release) of iGTD is now available for preview.


free; great Mac OS and third-party application integration; nice design; chock full of features; system-wide quick entry


complicated; some may find the array of options and choices daunting; some terminology is confusing and hard to differentiate (especially if you aren't very familiar with GTD)

2. OmniGroup's OmniFocus | Developer's site | full review


OmniFocus is a powerful task management application with advanced sorting and viewing options that exceed what you'll find in the others. It is obvious from the start that some serious brain power went into designing this software. You may be overwhelmed by the sheer variety of ways you can organize your data, but many users really like it. Perhaps more than the others, this app maintains a relatively uncluttered feel even if you're managing tons of tasks.

The user interface is genius: it’s clean and sleek — but there is a lot under the hood here once you get comfortable with the workflow. I’ve found OmniGroup customer support to be top-notch: quick, responsive, and helpful.


novel 'perspectives' feature is a handy way to 'memorize' favorite views; very well-thought out design; may have the best 'scalability' of the bunch; easy to zoom in to a project or task, then zoom back out for a global view; developer has great track record for quality, support; system-wide quick entry


The most expensive of the bunch; you may get bogged down by all the sorting, viewing and tagging options; relatively steep learning curve

1. Cultured Code's Things | Developer's site | full review


Things is clean, mean, and lean. It's the least 'GTD-like' of the bunch, so if you want a pure GTD-based workflow you may not like this app. The developers came up with some really interesting ideas with this one; most notably they integrated user-defined tags to organize and view data in a variety of ways.

If you like the idea of creating your own workflow and don’t have a problem with putting in some time to set up a tagging structure that works for you, you may love it. It’s still early in the game (as it hasn’t even bee n released yet) but the Beta is great. I’ve been reading a lot of positive user comments out in the macosphere — and people seem to be genuinely excited about using this app. The trial is available now. Check out the developer’s wiki for tutorials and inspiration.


Beautiful user interface; it has a certain Zen quality of simplicity to it; don't need to know any GTD to quickly understand and start using it; system-wide quick entry


Many features are still missing; the app interface can start to feel cluttered if you have too many tags/tasks; minimal ways to enter new data


As I noted in my initial post in this series, I think the program that will rise to the top of the pack in popularity will be the one that does not require the user to know anything at all about GTD, is easy (dare I say fun) to use, and best captures that elusive 'Mac-like' quality of simplicity and elegance.

With this in mind, I think Cultured Code Things stands out as the best bet.

OmniFocus is a close second and will likely be the app of choice for many business users who have tons of tasks to manage (the higher price of OmniFocus will continue to be a limiting factor). Midnight Inbox and iGTD will surely continue to build upon a stable cadre of dedicated users, but I don’t think they will be the breakaway apps that bring sophisticated GTD-based task management to the masses. They are great, but they may be just a little too geeky for some.

I should note, in closing, that this site and these reviews are not sponsored by anybody. I should also add that I am by no means a GTD expert, and that all the reviews here are just my opinions. I really believe that all four of these applications are excellent, well-designed and full of promise. I urge you to try each one out to decide for yourself, and I hope this series will help you get started. Oh, and by the way, ‘GTD’ and ‘Getting Things Done’ are registered trademarks of David Allen & Co.

Good luck Getting Things Done!

GTD-based Task Management Apps V: Things

NOTE: (Summer 2010) When I get the time, I may review Things again. This article is quite out of date, but there are still some useful bits in it.

This is the fifth post in a series comparing task management applications based on the ‘Getting Things Done’ process. Today I’ll look at Cultured Code’s Things.

For an application that hasn’t yet been released, Cultured Code’s Things is generating a healthy amount of discussion in the Mac community. Why? It’s arguably the easiest to use of any of the Mac-based GTD task management systems, it’s elegant and the interface is beautiful. It’s also the application that is the most loosely-based on the Getting Things Done framework.

This all adds up to an application that effectively lowers the entry barrier for those who are interested in exploring the ‘Getting Things Done’ process, but have been scared away by complex user interfaces or steep learning curves posed by other applications in this field. Things, in other words, conforms to the basic ideas of GTD, but it’s flexible enough to allow you to come up with your own unique management system. It’s GTD light.


Things' is in the Beta stage now — anyone can go and download a free trial that will remain operable until version 1.0 is released this Spring. The current version is at 0.9.6 at the time of this post. You should be aware that the interface and features of the current version are due to change; ‘due to improve’ would be more accurate. While I didn’t find too many holes in this pre-release version (and it has been perfectly stable on my installation of OS X Leopard), there are a few features that I’d like to see added which I’ll highlight at the end of the article. Fortunately, the developers are still adding features and refining the user interface based on user feedback and their own ideas.

Collect - Focus - Organize

Let's start with an overview. The app breaks down task management into three main action verbs: Collect, Focus, and Organize. Each concept is easy to understand. Unlike other GTD-based programs in this category, Things does not offer a heap of sub-choices, organization and filtering options. Instead, the developers place this burden on the user through the use of tags. This freeform tagging system allows each user to effectively create a (very simple or very complex) filtering system based on individual choice. I'll get to tags in a moment, but let's first walk through each of the three main categories of task organization.

Obviously, ‘Collect’ is where you collect things. Like the other GTD-based apps we’ve looked at, the collection starting point is the ‘Inbox.’ This is GTD straight from the tap: the Inbox is where you collect tasks as they pop into your head — where you dump all those nagging things floating around in your brain into a trusted system. Once these items are captured, you don’t have to worry about forgetting them anymore. Easy enough.

  With the Focus section, Things starts to diverge from the other GTD programs we’ve reviewed. Think of the Focus section as place to view your tasks oriented by time. You can view things you have to do today, you can see all the stuff that’s due ‘other than today’ (which is labeled ‘Next’ in Things), you can see the stuff you’ve postponed to a later date, and you can view things you may want to do someday (with no set time or date).

While iGTD, OmniFocus, and Midnight Inbox all offer ways to organize and view tasks using similar terminology and concepts, they tend to emphasize contexts and projects over time/date based views. It’s a subtle difference, but it’s worth noting.

Within this ‘Focus’ section, you will likely spend most of your time in the ‘Next’ view; this is where you get a snapshot of all the tasks you’ve accumulated — organized by project and area first, then by date/time within these areas. The ‘Next’ view, by the way, reminds me of the ‘Review’ category (or sorting option) of the other GTD-based apps. Things does not directly employ the GTD ‘review’ concept (which emphasizes the value of periodically validating your tasks to ensure you remain on track and on target).

If you want to review your tasks in Things, you won’t find a specific workflow designed to help you do this. If I understand this correctly, the developers at Cultured Code expect you to use the ‘Next’ Focus (where you see all of your tasks in one main window) as your go-to place to track and review your tasks on an ongoing basis. Again, it’s subtle but significantly different than the others. You can review your items if you want to. If you don’t want to, no problem.

Next is the Organize section. Things allows you to organize by Project and by Area. Project will be immediately obvious to most people and is a core part of the GTD process: a project is a container for a list of tasks that must be completed in order to reach a goal (and the goal here is the name of the Project). For instance, I have a project labeled ‘Sell Honda,’ and each of the tasks in this project, once completed, will hopefully result in the selling of the Honda. Once the project is done, it’s closed out. It’s then moved to the ‘Log’ section of the program, which is called the ‘Archive’ in other apps. Easy. This isn’t really any different than the others.


But what about Area? This one is less obvious, and it’s not a GTD term as far as I know (but it’s an interesting derivative). Think of an area as a project without an end point. I have created ‘Mac maintenance,’ ‘Home maintenance,’ and ‘Health & Wellness’ entries as my Areas of responsibility. For these categories, there is no real ‘completion’ of a project or end state. I’m going to need to manage and complete tasks that fall into these broad categories perpetually (many will be repeating tasks), but the area of interest will always remain relevant and viable. It’s an idea that is unique to Things — you won’t find a similar function in any of the other GTD-based apps.

The main problem (which I quickly discovered using Area of Responsibility function) is that Things offers no solution to schedule repeating tasks, which is something I need to do. For Mac maintenance, for instance, I want to run maintenance scripts using Titanium Software’s Onyx on a repeating schedule. However … I’m not too worried about this. This feature will soon be added according to a Feb. 4 post on the Cultured Code blog. For now, I’m forced to manually re-enter my repeating tasks. UPDATE: As of Beta 0.9, Things now supports recurring tasks

  I forgot to mention one important item: Things also lets you assign tasks to other people. In the screenshot, I’ve assigned ‘cleaning the garage’ to a fictitious person named Saiki. This could be very handy if you are using Things to manage a larger project with multiple people, or if you manage several people and want to assign and track tasks for them. For now, it appears that this collaboration tool is still limited to local (non-networked) use only. In the future, Cultured Code plans to add a collaboration across the network to manage multi-user tasking with, presumably, other people that are also using Things. I’ll be curious to see how this will be implemented.

Where are the Contexts?

GTD adherents may wonder where the 'Context' section has gone. The answer is that Things did away with contexts (sort of), choosing instead to give the user an entirely unique and freeform way to categorize data. Things uses tags. Tagging, in case you're not familiar with it, is a handy way used in many applications these days to add keywords to your data to help you quickly select a subset.

In the case of Things, tagging can be used to ‘tag’ how much time you think each task will take, to indicate the type of task, to mark the amount of effort you intend to put into a certain task, to add contexts, etc. It’s an open-ended system, and it’s entirely up to you to decide how your tasks will be tagged. So, while it appears that contexts were axed in this app, they are really still there … but only if you choose to add them.

As an example, you can see (in screenshot #5) that I’ve added an ‘@’ tag category with sub-tags for ‘mac,’ and ‘home’ (I’ve also added a tag for ‘errands’ which you can’t see in the screencast - this is an example of how the tags only appear if they are used. In this example, I’ve not yet used the ‘errand’ tag … so it doesn’t appear). This is an example of the GTD idea of ‘contexts.’ My context tags are markers I use to filter through all my tasks when I want to see what I have to do based on my current location (at my mac, out running errands, or at home, for instance). Other GTD-based apps also give the user the ability to add user-defined contexts, but Things is the only app that combines contexts together with all the other ‘markers’ you choose to assign to your tasks.

To see what I mean, take a look at the screenshot here. Note that I’ve added a bunch of other tags (in addition to contexts) to help further refine the filtering of my tasks. This is freeform to the extreme: the system you devise can be as complex or as simple as you like. To see how tags can help you filter your tasks, we’ll next look at how it all fits together.


The Things workflow

It's much harder to describe the Things workflow than it is for the other GTD-based apps because the program doesn't really follow a defined process (in this respect, it's closest cousin is OmniFocus). Here's what I do. First, I enter a bunch of tasks in my inbox. Next, I create some projects and areas to contain those tasks. Following this, I comb through each task and assign tags.

Over time, my tag list has stabilized — I found it worked best for me to keep the tag list short and manageable. If I didn’t do this, I think the filtering power of the tags would be greatly watered down. Next I file my tasks by dragging and dropping them to the appropriate Project or Area (which are also user-created). I can also choose to add tasks to ‘Someday’ if I want to come back to the task at some undefined future time; or ‘Postponed’ if I want to keep the task in a ‘hold’ status until a future date of my choosing. I can also move an item from a project or area to the postponed or someday category, and Things provides me a useful little unobtrusive reminder that I have an item in these categories — but the items remain hidden from view unless I want to see them (you can see an example of this in screenshot #3 - look for the line that says ‘1 more someday or postponed…').

Then I start completing my tasks, selecting items by viewing them in the Focus area of the program. Within the Focus section, I may choose ‘Today’ to view what’s due to today, ‘Next’ to see everything else that’s coming up, etc.

But what about the tags? This is the best part of the program in my opinion. Tags appear horizontally across the top of the main program window (again, see screenshot #5). Only tags that are relevant for the given tasks that you’re viewing are displayed. To filter tasks using tags, simply click on a tag. To filter tasks by more than one tag, Shift-click to select more than one tag. By way of example, say I want to see personal tasks that are high priority, and can only be done on my Mac. Since I’ve already tagged my tasks with certain keywords, I simply select the tags that apply (in this case, ‘personal,’ ‘Mac,’ and ‘high’). It’s a simple and powerful solution. I think tagging offers an easier way to filter tasks than the other GTD-based apps. But there is a catch: with so much flexibility comes responsibility. You have to be willing to put in time and effort to create a system that works for you. Things provides a starting point for you (suggested tags), but it’s up to you to make your tags meaningful.

After using the app for a while, I started to develop a tagging system that really worked for me. In my case, I discovered that ‘more was less:’ I found a sweet spot between too many tags (which can be confusing) and too few (which won’t help you sort through your tasks very well). I really like the idea of establishing my own filtering system. If you use tagging in other programs (I rely on it with Yojimbo), the Things methodology should not be very foreign to you.

  The last function I should note is the system-wide shortcut that allows you to quickly enter new tasks regardless of what application you are currently using (note that Things must be open for this to work). It’s a user-defined shortcut — in my case I use Shift-Control-Space, but you can assign any shortcut combo you like. This is by far the easiest way to enter new data — mainly because you can invoke the shortcut anywhere, and the pop-up window allows you to choose where you want your task to go (which Focus or Organization category). This feature (the ability to easily choose where your task should be filed) is curiously missing when you enter a new task from within the program (there are other options from within the program, but they are not as easy as the quick entry).

The Verdict

1. Could I figure out how to use the application with minimal fuss (preferably without referring to documentation)?

Yes, I was able to start using Things without reading any documentation. The developers of this program have clearly focused on simplicity and lack of clutter as a first priority. Using Things is pretty easy right from the start. Using it well, on the other hand, is another matter. As with any program that you intend to regularly use, it's worth the effort to read up on features and suggested usage. I'm sometimes lazy about reading documentation, but I invariably get a lot more out of a program if I take the time. Things is no exception. Check out Cultured Code's Wiki for basic instructions and user-generated solutions. I think you'll find their documentation (though still a little sparse) to be well-written and fairly devoid of tech jargon. The first step you should take, though, is to watch the great screencast put together by Ian Beck from Tagamac.com. It covers the basic usage of the program very well.

There were three items that required me to do a little more reading to fully grasp: first, I was not sure what to make of the term ‘Areas of Responsibility’ until I read the developer’s explanation. Second, while tagging was familiar to me, I felt that I needed some guidance to get some ideas about how to best set up my own tagging structure (the developer provides ‘starter’ tags, by the way, to help get you going). Third, I couldn’t figure out where I was supposed to enter ‘Contexts’ for my tasks. After I read up on tagging, I figured that out.

2. Was I still enthusiastic about using the application after a week of use?

Yes. Of the applications I've tested, Things is my clear favorite. It's easy to use, it doesn't lock you into a set workflow, and it's not overburdened with choices and options. However, as I've said all along, this is more a matter of personal choice. I don't necessarily think Things is the best of the breed. I think Things is the best pick for a certain type of user. Those who adhere to and really understand GTD may find this application a little too light on GTD. I'll go into this in more detail in my final wrap-up post.

3. How well does the app integrate into the Mac OS?

Not very well. There is, as of yet, very limited integration. However, the developer's are working on Mail, iCal, and other types of integration. Since the data you enter in Things is XML based, it really opens it up for sharing with other applications with relative ease. I'm eager to see how Cultured Code carries this forward. Other integration impressions: Things does have a services menu option. I like Apple Services — this underused menu offers a way to add items to Things even if you haven't launched the program. Many programs integrate their apps with the Services menu — not many Mac users use these services, though. Finally, as I mentioned before, you'll find no right-click menus anywhere. You will also not find a customized menu if you right-click on the program icon the Apple Dock. Many Mac users may not miss this at all. I do, but I admit this may be a latent hangover from my PC days (daze).

4. How well could I manage all of my tasks (work, home, play, etc.)

Very well. It's a very flexible program. While it appears to be very scalable (that is, the program can handle a few or many hundreds of tasks with relative ease), I think OmniFocus may have the edge when it comes to managing lots and lots of tasks. Why? Tags are nice, but aggregating all the sorting and filtering options within a tagging system has limitations in terms of 'viewability.' I made that word up, but hopefully you know what I mean. I can see how my list of tasks might begin to be hard to filter/sort or hard to understand at a glance if I had hundreds of tasks with many tags. It could easily get unwieldy. Even with the few tags I'm using, some of my tasks have four or five tags. Imagine viewing a few dozen tasks within the Things 'Next' view, each assigned four or five tags. I guess the developers are counting on users knowing what they're looking for. OmniFocus, on the other hands, includes pre-set filtering options all tucked away in a tidy little menu bar. As you add tasks with OmniFocus, you may find that it's easier to decipher because of the programs set (established) filtering options. This conclusion surprised me — I went into my Things review thinking that OmniFocus offered too many viewing options. Now I see that Things can get very complicated if you use too many tags. I suppose the lesson here is to seriously think about your tagging structure!

5. How did the program 'feel?' How 'Mac-like' is it?

I think Things is the most Mac-like of all the apps I've looked at. It has a certain zen-like simplicity about it that really appeals to me. The user interface is clean and uncluttered, and the workflow is only as complex as I choose to make it. However, I wonder how well this will hold up as my task list continues to grow. I'm optimistic, but the vote is still out. In short, I think it it perfect for individual users who have a relatively finite number of tasks to manage. But I'm not so sure which application is the best of breed once applied to larger business workflows with multiple users and hundreds of tasks. I'll give this some more thought and post the results in the wrap-up.

In conclusion:

Things will probably be a close competitor with OmniFocus. Both products offer a high degree of flexibility and scalability. Both have clean, well-thought out user interfaces. Midnight Inbox and iGTD, on the other hand, may appeal more to those who prefer a tighter GTD workflow with more visible options and a clearer workflow. I think that Things, however, offers the most flexibility of the bunch. And it offers this flexibility through an inspired user interface. I'll expand on these differences and summarize my final impressions of iGTD, OmniFocus, Midnight Inbox, and Things in the final post.

Before I go, I would like to point out a few annoyances I found with this program (with the hopes that most will be addressed before Things is released). Here’s a rundown:

  • You can’t delete projects once you create them (as far as I can tell) You can - see comments below.
  • Perhaps it’s a remnant of my PC days, but I’m missing right-click options. There are none; nor is there a right-click menu from the Dock. Minor stuff, but it might broaden the appeal of the application
  • I would like to have the ability to batch add tags to tasks (select ten tasks, assign one new tag or change a tag for all ten at once)
  • In th e ‘Next’ view, I would like to see a clearer division between areas, projects, etc. (perhaps with the use of color-coding)
  • I would like to have the ‘Where do you want to file this’ option that is present in the quick task entry available when I enter a task from within the program. The ‘File’ button located on the bottom of the main window is clumsy. Dragging and dropping each item is inefficient
  • I would like an automated ‘clean up’ feature - like what is available in OmniFocus - to sort out my tasks with one click once I’ve assigned all the variables
  • the ‘due today’ and ‘overdue’ colors are the same shade of light red. I’d like them to be just slightly different so I can differentiate between them at a glance

Things is available now as a preview release. This preview will remain fully functional until version 1.0 ships in the Spring. Once the program ships, a single user license will cost $49. If you find that you like this program, consider signing up for the Things newsletter. Cultured Code is offering a 20 percent discount if you subscribe prior to the initial release.

This will be my final GTD-based task manager review. I was going to review CoalMarch Park, but it appears that it’s no longer be offered by the company. Besides that, I think I’ve hit the four main contenders already with my reviews of OmniFocus, Things, Midnight Inbox, and iGTD. My final post in this series comes next - the wrap up.

‘GTD’ and ‘Getting Things Done’ are registered trademarks of David Allen & Co.

GTD Task Management Apps IV: Midnight Inbox

This is the fourth post in a series comparing task management applications based on the ‘Getting Things Done’ process. Today I’ll look at Midnight Beep Softworks' Midnight Inbox 1.2.8.

Perhaps more than any other task management application I’ve explored to date, Midnight Inbox from Midnight Beep strives to be the single point of entry — the GTD command post — through which you organize your life. Unique to the applications we’ve looked at so far, this app is designed to reach out and grab data as it accumulates on your Mac through a clever use of Apple’s Spotlight and smart folder technology (it doesn’t actually move your data — it just creates an alias).


Out of the box, the app is configured to suck in emails from Apple Mail, files from your desktop, events and ‘to dos’ from iCal, texts & files from anywhere on your Mac, and shortcuts from Safari. As the program continually gathers all of this stuff together in one place, you periodically must process each item through a pre-defined Midnight Inbox workflow — a workflow which is tightly based on the ideas and concepts of GTD.

I had trouble getting used to this. Why would I want to automatically gather data from various locations on my Mac? That sounds like a lot of extra work.

Eventually, I started to get it. Here’s one way to look at it: Midnight Inbox is a Mac-based tool that implements the GTD workflow. It follows, then, that the ‘Collection’ part of the program is designed to be the dumping grounds for everything in your brain. If your Mac is the epicenter of your busy life (your surrogate brain, in a sense), then Inbox intends to be the meta-filter, the super sorting and processing center, for your surrogate brain. In order to be that center, it needs to collect stuff from your surrogate brain. That makes sense, right?

I think this metaphor holds up fairly well if your daily workflow centers around Mail, iCal, text files, documents, and bookmarks. If you don’t store your essential daily work within these programs or files in your work-a-day life, or if you prefer to manually add projects and items as you dream them up, you may find auto-collection a bit too time-intensive and restricting.

I say ‘time intensive’ because it can take considerable time and effort to process every item that Midnight Inbox sucks in (to be fair, you can adjust how much or little stuff the program draws in). I use ‘restricting’ here in the sense that Inbox seems designed to function as an implementation of ‘Getting Things Done’ first, and a general task manager second. That is, it’s a program that focuses on implementing the GTD process. I think it does an admirable job at this, but it’s important to keep in mind that this software implements a very specific workflow.

Those of you who really groove on the GTD process and want a system that tightly follows this model may find this program particularly appealing. Other task management applications I’ve looked at employ core GTD ideas in various ways, but they tend to offer higher levels of user-defined flexibility. That is, they focus more on providing a flexible framework, and it’s up to you to manually enter actions and items — and you can generally move stuff around in a more freeform fashion. Midnight Inbox, on the other hand is, at it’s core, more about following a pre-defined task management process.

Which way is better? Surely it will depend on the organizational style of the user. If you just finished reading David Allen’s book, you may really take to this model. I personally prefer the applications that follow more freeform solutions.

The Big Picture

So, how does this command post work?


The workflow is cleanly broken down into iconic sections, which are stacked in a left-hand column of the application’s main window. The first item on this list is the ‘Collect’ section, which I’ve already talked a lot about in previous paragraphs. This is where your collected items gather.

Next is the ‘Process’ function. At a point of time of your choosing, you process through your collection of items. When you choose to ‘Process Collections,’ a new dropdown menu pops up that presents you with options for filing each item that you collect.


From this menu, you may make a new project, complete an action immediately (if it’s a task you can do in less than two minutes — a GTD concept that is well integrated in this application), or file it away for the future. Curiously, you can’t assign a context at this stage (keep reading if you’re not sure what a context is). I like how Midnight Inbox handles processing: the dropdown menu is well-ordered, clear, and concise.

Next, you move on to the ‘Organize’ phase. As you might suspect, this is the stage at which you organize your stuff. Here, you may assign a context to an action, add new actions, add new projects, assign how often you’d like to review a given project, etc. Midnight Beep describes the ‘Organize’ phase as the ‘heart of the Inbox experience.’ It’s the place where, at a glance, you may view and reorganize all of the projects and associated actions you’ve gathered. The organization phase focuses on refinement of your projects, categories, and contexts.


I should note that you can also choose to add new projects, actions, etc. on the fly here as the need arises (which is essential — auto-collection is not likely to capture everything you need to act upon in your daily life. Clearly, though, the intent is that the auto-collection process will capture most of the important stuff).

Next is ‘Review,’ which will be familiar to those of you who know GTD. The basic idea is this: according to the GTD model, you should periodically review your open actions and projects to see if they are still correctly filed, within the correct context and project, etc. This is how you stay on track and keep all your actions in tidy order. This phase is fairly intuitive and similar to other GTD-based apps Ive looked at. Helpfully, the developer builds in pre-defined ‘Reviews’ that you can select from a dropdown list while in the ‘Organize’ phase. To initiate a review, you can either use an assigned shortcut key or choose a review option from the Menu Bar.

Next on the list is the ‘Work’ category. This is the phase where you may view your actions organized by context. ‘Context’ is GTD parlance for ‘location.’ The ‘@mac’ context, for example, lists items that must be done while you’re at your Mac. GTD really emphasizes the context idea, and Midnight Inbox gets this. When you get down to doing stuff, the idea is that you’ll base what you do on your location. At the Mac? Select the @Mac section, and get working. Note that Midnight Inbox (like OmniFocus and iGTD) also synchronizes your To Do list in iCal based on contexts with no option (that I could find) to do so by project.

After this phase, there is a ‘Reference’ section to hold all the cats and dogs: actions that do not have a defined timeline, actions requiring an incubation period before you plan to begin working on them, ideas you wish to file for a later date, etc. I like how this section is organized — it clearly stands apart from the rest of the workflow and is easy to view at a glance. I like how this is handled in Inbox more than the methods employed by OmniFocus or iGTD.


And finally, there is an ‘Archive’ category where all your completed projects are stored for posterity. (Actually, there’s also a Trash bucket after the Archive section to hold stuff you delete - handy if you accidently delete an item and later decide to recover it). These items worked as advertised, so I have nothing really to add.

Oh, I forgot to mention the Yak Timer. Yes, the Yak Timer. This is a littler tickler the designer added to help you stay on track. It’s a little reminder window that pops up at regular intervals (similar to an iCal reminder message) to help keep you focused and on track. I found it annoying. Fortunately, the Yak can be disabled from the Preferences menu. If you’re easily distracted, you may find it handy.

The Verdict

1. Could I figure out how to use the application with minimal fuss (preferably without referring to documentation)?

I tried to use Midnight Inbox without referring to documentation, but I gave up after about thirty minutes of frustration. I usually start learning how to use a program by clicking around. This didn’t get me far with Midnight Inbox. The biggest obstacle was a lack of intuitive control. The two prime examples of this: there are no right-click menus anywhere; and you can’t toggle between items (such as choosing different contexts) by clicking on them — you must go up to the Menu Bar to do so.

In short, I headed for the app’s Help files. While I found basic concepts and suggestions here, it wasn’t really enough for me to get what I was supposed to do or how I was supposed to do it. I then shifted over to the developer’s site and discovered a screencast tutorial. This helped a lot. I recommend you start there.

I have to say that I was not expecting the program to actively go out and gather stuff on my Mac. Once I got over that, and once I learned how to add my own projects and actions independently of this ‘auto collecting’ feature, it started to click. Still, some aspects of the program remain mysterious to me even now. I think a few more screencasts from the developer would be a big help.

2. Was I still enthusiastic about using the application after a week of use?

Not really, but as I said before, I think this program will appeal to many people. Namely, I think it will appeal to those who really love the GTD process and want a program that really sticks to the GTD workflow. Still, I have to say that the more I used it, the more I appreciated it. And just when I started to really adjust to Midnight Inbox, my trial period ended.

If you intend to use this program, I think you need to be prepared to commit to it in order to realize it’s full potential. Certainly that’s true of all of all of the GTD-based task management apps, but I felt like Midnight Inbox required an extra degree of commitment. I was unable to start adding projects and actions as easily as I did in, say, iGTD or OmniFocus. I first had to take a considerable amount of time to study how it worked. It’s not without quirkiness — at times it felt more like I was learning how the developer’s mind worked. In the end, I gained a real appreciation for the time and effort that must have gone into developing this tool. I also gained an appreciation for the logic behind the workflow. Yet, I concluded it was not for me. I would like to check out version 2.0 when it arrives to see how it has changed and improved.

3. How well does the app integrate into the Mac OS?

While the program integrates well with Mail & iCal, and successfully reaches out to gather items from any folder on my Mac, the integration still seemed limited. It has the feel of a stand-alone application. Unlike OmniFocus or iGTD, there is no Services Menu function, there are no right-click menus, and there is no Apple Dock menu. You can’t drag and drop items around (except from within the ‘Organize’ window). Nor can you synch your data with other third-party Mac applications. I also could not find an export function to get my data out of Midnight Inbox and into a text file or other export format.

4. How well could I manage all of my tasks (work, home, play, etc.)

If you don’t use Mail, iCal, or the other pre-sets to manage your data, you can set up new rules to collect information from different areas or programs of your choosing. However, I found my choices to be limited. I use Yojimbo, for instance, to capture notes throughout the day, but I was unable to configure Inbox to automatically collect Yojimbo notes. Presumbaly, it’s because Inbox doesn’t know what to do with the SQL database where the Yojimbo notes are stored. That’s a shame — I think more people might take the plunge and try the auto-collect idea if more types of data could be included.

It appears that the only real flexibility I have is to choose a file location of my choice where Inbox should collect stored text documents or files. Yet I can’t really imagine getting any use out of collecting text files or documents. I simply don’t store relevant information in stand-alone text documents or files (relevant to my task management process, that is). This limits the usefulness of the auto-collection process for me (particularly because I don’t use iCal either).

Still, it’s an intriguing idea. I think there is a bright future for this kind of application: the meta-program that aggregates data and then allows you to process (file, tag, refine, categorize, etc.) a lot of information from many different sources on your Mac in one place. I look forward to seeing how the developer refines these ideas in future versions of Midnight Inbox.

Footnote: you can choose to turn off the auto-collection feature altogether from the Preferences menu if you would rather manually enter your own data.

5. How did the program ‘feel?’ How ‘Mac-like’ is it?

When I first launched Inbox, I was struck by the beauty of the user interface. The design is stunning. The look and feel of the program is undeniably like iTunes, but the metaphor breaks down there. Nothing about the program is much like iTunes when it comes to operational use. It’s quite unique and, if my learning curve is any indication, will take the average user some time to really grasp.

For example, the top menu area of the program has an interface that looks like iTunes, but I never found clear documentation to show me what I was supposed to do with that giant ‘Play/Pause’ button. I’m guessing it’s a timer with which you can countdown the minutes you’ve alloted for a particular action. But why would I really want to do this? For such a large prominent button, it seems like it should be more important to the program. Likewise, the giant ‘check’ button to the left of the ‘iTunes’ window seems to only be for checking off an item when it’s completed. However, it’s much easier to just check the box next to the item to indicate it’s completed. And then there’s the big iTunes-like window at the top. It’s clearly an information pane to indicate your current action, project, and context, but I didn’t find it particulary useful. This window, for instance, provides a hint to ‘Select a context from the Work menu to switch active actions,’ but I found it frustrating that I had to literally go to the work menu on the Menu Bar to change contexts. Clicking on the context doesn’t do the job, nor does double-clicking. Again, I think building in more user-entry inroads would help.

Another curious interface choice is that you can’t close the program window. The developer has disabled the ‘Close’ button (I’m talking about the red, yellow, and green buttons on the top left corner of every Mac window). You can minimize, you can toggle the size of the window, but you can’t close the window. The only option is to ‘Hide’ the program from the Menu Bar. I assume this is because you’re not supposed to w ant or need to close the main window once you open the program, and presumably the developer hopes that you will open the program first when you fire up your Mac. Me? I would like the choice.

Next, I found the use of the double-click in this program to be unintuitive. Double-clicking is how you pull up a menu to change the parameters of each item in Inbox. You can’t right click on anything, which I intuitively wanted to do in order to get more options. I’ve never used a program that required me to use the menu bar choices so often (sure, there are also a plethora of shortcut keys I could use to navigate through Inbox or to add or change options, but I normally don’t get to learning ‘power user’ shortcuts until I really know a program well).

So, Midnight Inbox has a way to go when it comes to that elusive ‘Mac-like’ flow.In conclusion: If you carry forth the intended integration of this app to it’s full potential — that is, if you allow it to collect a good chunk of the daily data you accumulate on your Mac and then use the program to process all of this incoming data — it will surely be one of the most-used programs in your toolbox. But will you commit? It takes a lot of work. At times during my trial of this program, I felt like I was spending more time processing, organizing, and managing than actually getting things done.

Conceptually, Midnight Inbox is not really that distant from other Mac GTD-based task management apps. It’s closest in function and design to iGTD, in my opinion. So why did I find this program harder to use than two GTD-based task management apps I’ve tried out? I had a hard time quantifying this. It’s strange. In one sense, the organizational structure of this program is very logical. It very closely follows the GTD process, perhaps more than any GTD task manager I’ve reviewed. It’s also aesthetically pleasing.

I think the issue for me lies in the way the data is managed. It’s about the degree of flexibility. The only way I really got it working for me was to adopt the workflow planned out by the developer. I think that’s what frustrated me. At times, I would begin to glimpse the potential of this app, only to be frustrated when I clicked on something to discover it didn’t work the way I expected it to work. If the developer can open up the interface a bit so people can navigate around more freely, I think it would increase it’s appeal. OmniFocus, for instance, is much more intuitive and freeform in the way it allows a user to add, sort, and categorize data. Midnight Inbox, conversely, is more about process: you need to be willing to follow a fairly rigid ‘Getting Things Done’ workflow. I am personally more inclined to use a more flexible tool like OmniFocus or Cultured Code’s Things (which I’ll review next).

A single license for Midnight Inbox is available for $35 (which is good through version 3.0). Midnight Beep Softworks is now hard at work on version 2.0 of this application. Be sure to check it out.

Yet again, I want to note that ‘GTD’ and ‘Getting Things Done’ remain registered trademarks of David Allen & Co.

GTD Task Management Apps III: OmniFocus

This is the third post in a series comparing task management applications that are based to some degree on the ‘Getting Things Done’ process. Today I’ll look at OmniGroup’s OmniFocus 1.0.

OmniFocus is the latest offering from OmniGroup, one of the most well-respected software developers for the Mac. As a long-time user of OmniWeb (my casual browser of choice), I’ve found OmniGroup to be quick to respond, helpful and friendly when contacted for support. This is a solid company, in other words, so I entered this evaluation full of optimism. I began using this app while it was still in Beta, and I’m now using the free 14-day trial of version 1.0 (which launched on Jan. 7). I did not opt to buy the program while it was still in Beta (for a limited time, Beta users could buy it for ). The program now cost , which is perhaps the most notable thing to say about OmniFocus. It’s expensive. Is it worth it? Before I get to that, let’s take a look at the program.


The Inbox

The OmniFocus Inbox is likely where you'll start out, and where you'll spend a lot of time (see Screenshot 1). Do yourself a favor: when you download the trial for this app, begin by viewing the available overview on their website to get a feel for it. I also found the tutorials in the Help files of the program to be simple and easy to follow, which I can't say for many of the programs I use. Then jump in and start adding some actions. Actions, in GTD terms, are either single things that you need to do or steps you take to complete a given project (the Project is a pretty straight-forward concept, so I'm not going to focus on it here). Adding actions is easy: click, type, enter some text, then hit Return for the next action.

Once you enter some actions, you assign them to projects and contexts (easy to choose from a dropdown list). Once you make all of your choices, you hit the ‘Clean Up’ icon on the top menu bar, and your items magically file themselves away, disappearing from the inbox.

This is similar to the ‘Process/Review’ function in iGTD, but I like the OmniFocus method because it’s easier. In iGTD, processing and reviewing all happens from the same tool (‘Process/Review’). With iGTD, you use keyboard shortcuts to fly through your tasks (iGTD calls them tasks, OmniFocus calls the actions) to re-sort or verify your contexts or projects, change a task’s status, etc.

In OmniFocus, you assign each tasks as many or as few parameters you want, and then ‘Clean Up.’ At it’s most basic, you can just assign a project and/or a context. At it’s most complex, you can assign each action a wide variety of parameters, which I’ll cover when I talk about the Inspector (since that’s where you’ll find these choices). Unlike iGTD, the ‘reviewing’ part of OmniFocus is a distinct feature, separated from the initial ‘processing’ of your actions. I’ll cover this shortly as well.

This workflow — dump actions in, add some specific parameters or goalposts, then dispatch the actions off with ‘Clean Up’ — is easy for me to grasp, and I like to see my Inbox empty when I clean up. It’s a bit of nice user feedback that makes me feel, well, organized (or at least approaching organization).

In the screenshot [Note: screenshots removed], you’ll also see some simple built-in color coding that appears once you assign due dates to your actions. The red text indicates an action that is past due; orange means it is due today. Easy enough. So far, this doesn’t do anything that iGTD doesn’t do.

Where it differs is in design and workflow. It’s obvious that the team who designed OmniFocus were striving for clean lines and simplicity while maintaining industrial-strength power under the hood. In effect, the powerful sorting/viewing guts of the app are carefully arranged and hidden until called upon by the user, whereas iGTD presents so many options and choices up-front, it feels as if you’re looking at the guts.



While the term may vary, all of the GTD-based Mac task managers have a way to deal with the idea of 'context.' OmniFocus calls this idea, aptly, Contexts. Simply stated, contexts allow you to organize your lists based on where you are (see Screenshot 2). I think OmniFocus performs about as well as any of the apps in this review series when it comes to managing by location. They get high scores for making their user interface work as you would expect. Indeed, the interface (the means to add or subtract an item, for instance) will be familiar to you from other Mac apps. That's a good thing.

In the screenshot, you’ll see a list of actions that are due that I can only do when I am using my Mac. Note that only items in each project that can be accomplished while using the Mac are shown in this view. This is handy. The way that OmniFocus handles contexts, and the sorting and viewing of contexts, works for me. It’s intuitive and orderly.

One feature that sticks out is the ability to nest contexts within other contexts. For example, I have ‘email’ and ‘online’ as nested subcategories under ‘Mac.’ While this sounded good to me in theory, in practice it was more organization than I needed. It was enough for me to simply identify ‘Mac’ as a context. I don’t need or want additional sub-categories. However, I readily admit that this will be very handy for users with more ‘to do’ than me, namely business users (and those who like to be really, really organized).

Also note that some actions in the Context screenshot are purple. OmniFocus tries to be helpful by displaying certain colors for your actions. This can be useful, but it can also be confusing. Take the purple action: purple actions are the next items to do on your list. When you create a project, you can choose if the actions must be done one after the other (sequential) or in any order (parallel). A purple action means this is the next suggested action to do in your project (if order doesn’t matter) or it means that this is the next action you must to before you proceed to the next action (if order does matter). Personally, I think the purple text should only be used where order is important. If order is unimportant to me, I don’t need to have the first item on a parallel list to be highlighted. It’s not necessary.

Final word on the Context screenshot: you’ll note that I highlighted the ‘View’ bar, which I’ll discuss in brief next.


What's in a View

The View Bar (screenshot 3) is a fairly ingenious tool. Thankfully, the designers thought to add a subtle hint in each of the view options to remind you what it's supposed to do ('Show Actions with Status:' for instance is a nice clue that you're about to sort your actions by 'status'). The screenshot displays the dropdown menu for the Projects view. By way of example, you can change which projects are displayed by choosing from the following dropdown menu choices: remaining, active, stalled, pending, on hold, dropped, completed. Yikes. Is my project pending or is it on hold? Or maybe it's stalled? My brain is starting to hurt. Several of the other 'View' groups have similarly vexing choices. All I can say is, 'try them out. Play with it. See what it does.' I'll warn you though: it can start to get confusing when you mix and match view options. It's easy to lose 'where you are' in your data. Here's the good news: you don't necessarily need to use these power sorting and viewing options. You can use just a couple, or none. I think the developers, in offering this plethora of viewing and sorting choice, are aiming at people who need to balance hundreds of tasks and dozens of projects. I can see how sorting and grouping and flagging and estimating time duration, etc. could be helpful for these people. But not for me.



Now here's a feature I really like (screenshot 4): the Focus. This is a simple idea, and it's a useful idea. When you highlight a project and click the 'Focus' button on the menu bar, you will only see that project and its associated actions. The 'Focus' button will then change to read 'Show All' ... allowing you to quickly toggle back to the see all of your projects.

It’s so simple, I have nothing else to say about it.



Now we’ll take a brief look at the OmniFocus review process (screenshot 5). The idea here is that you must periodically flip through all of your projects and actions to make sure they are still relevant, that they haven’t changed, and that they are filed correctly (in terms of due dates, status, etc.). OmniFocus tries to make this painless by automatically setting up a review process based on the time that you entered the data. This view (the ‘review view’) can be, um, viewed by selecting the choice from the ‘group projects by’ view drop-down list. What’s important here is that the program tells you what you should review by week and within the month, and you are presented with a right-menu option to mark each project as reviewed (once you do this, that project will automatically be rescheduled for review in a few weeks). This is a pretty good way to handle the review process, which is one of the GTD process steps to ensure you are staying on track with your actions and projects. If you’re like me, though, you may find this a little tedious. The ‘Review View’ is yet another example of just how many different ways a user can rearrange actions and projects via the View Bar. It’s truly amazing, truly powerful, and potentially truly confusing.


Inspector & Perspectives

These two items should probably not be lumped together because they are do different things. The one thing they have in common is that they both open up in separate floating panes. The Inspector pane is similar to many other Mac apps (Pages has a similar pane). Here, you can add even options for your projects, actions, contexts, and groups such as status, due dates, etc. Note that 'group' is one of the options here. I'm still not sure where these groups are, how I create one, and how I'm supposed to use the Inspector to further tag them. I stopped looking, to be honest, after mousing around for a few minutes. I have so many levels of organization in this program, do I really need to group items beyond placing them in projects?

At any rate, the Inspector is one of those Mac-like ways to stick a ton of metadata in one place and get it away from your main application window, presumably because we Mac users like our main window to stay clean and lean. I like that the program is smart enough to interpret what I enter in the ‘date’ and ‘time’ fields of the Inspector: you can type any of the following: ‘2d,’ ‘3 mo,’ ‘45m,’ ‘next wed 1pm’ … and OmniFocus will interpret the date and time correctly.

‘Perspectives’ (the other info pane in screenshot 6) is, as far as I know, an idea unique to OmniFocus. Essentially, a Perspective is a way to capture a certain view for later. This little organizational tool is like a super-bookmark: it reminds me of a similar OmniWeb feature which allows one to take snapshots of all open pages and current views on those pages to save for later. I love this feature. It’s a nice idea for OmniFocus — especially if, over time, you discover that you really like one particular view (or three or four) and would like to get back to that view quickly at a later time. Given the hundreds of viewing combinations one can choose from in this program, it’s a good idea to give the user a way to store it. The one potential pitfall of this is that you must remember you are storing a snapshot of all your data in one particular viewing state. If you forget this, you might choose to view a Perspective and incorrectly think that some of your data is missing! It’s not missing, of course, it’s just that your ‘Perspective’ only includes a subset of all of your data.


Quick Entry

I want to point out that OmniFocus offers what, for me, is essential: the ability to invoke a new action from anywhere at anytime on the Mac (screenshot 7). OmniFocus allows you to choose your own shortcut for this. It's simple and straightforward. Since I love Services, I want to point out that the app also places a little OmniFocus shortcut in your Apple Services menu. This allows you to select some text in any application and quickly insert it into a new OmniFocus action (even when the program is not open). While not all apps require the ability to enter data on the fly, apps like OmniFocus really do. You'll find yourself using it a lot more once you get used to quick system-wide data entry shortcuts.


The OmniFocus Right Click menu (Dock)

I thought I'd show you this final screenshot just as as indicator of the thought process that went into the application. I think it's telling that the right-click menu focuses on Contexts. OmniFocus does seem to favor them — apparently iCal also synchs based on contexts. This isn't necessarily a bad thing: I frankly never organized my task lists based on location before trying out these types of programs. It's a way of thinking that some will love and some will probably find abhorrent. Me? I tend to think in terms of projects, so I would rather see projects in a quick-access list. Better yet, I'd like the ability to toggle between projects and contexts.

The Verdict

1. Could I figure out how to use the application with minimal fuss (preferably without referring to documentation)?

No. I had to view the tutorial video and read the tutorial help files to really get going.

2. Was I still enthusiastic about using the application after a week of use?

Yes and no. I have a lot of respect for OmniGroup. I am impressed that they brought in productivity gurus to try to get this application done right. I can see that they tried hard to make it simple enough for basic use but powerful enough for serious business use. I think it’s a great start. I was still excited about the potential of this app a week later, but all of the sorting, viewing, and tagging options started to weigh on me. It’s too much work! I began to feel that I was spending too much time planning and not enough time doing. To get the most out of this complex app, I think the secret would be to stick with it for a long time — you would have to commit to it, get to know it inside and out, develop routines and workflows that work for you. Then, I imagine the curve would change: it will begin to feel more like a a powerful tool that helps you get more done instead of a powerful tool with too many options.

3. How well does the app integrate into the Mac OS?

Pretty good. Good integration for system-wide data entry (so you can easily enter new items, even when the program is hidden or closed). Not as many options for integration with other apps as iGTD (in fact, I think there is only iCal integration right now).

4. How well could I manage all of my tasks (work, home, play, etc.)

It did a good job of keeping track of the things I had to get done, but I found myself playing with the View options too often. I kept adding more metadata so I could use the various sort options to see how they worked. In other words, maybe there are too many options.

5. How did the program ‘feel?’ How ‘Mac-like’ is it?

I think the user experience is good, but not great. The application is very Mac-like, in that I immediately knew how to move data around. I like the clever way that OmniGroup embedded the Views and Perspectives — when you step back and look at all the sorting and viewing tools they squeezed in there and then ponder how clean the user interface still looks, it’s an impressive feat. The question is: are there simply too many viewing and tagging options? I felt bogged down in the end.

In conclusion: this will likely be one of the top three GTD-based task managers. It’s a solid program — and it’s only at version 1.0. However, it costs too much for most Mac users. Those who are willing to plunk down for this will likely be serious business users who are serious about task management. The rest of us? I for one am still still seeking something a little easier to grasp, an even simpler user interface, perhaps a few less options, and a lower price point.

Once again, I want to point out that ‘GTD’ and ‘Getting Things Done’ are registered trademarks of David Allen & Co. I still don’t want to get sued.

GTD Task Management Apps II: iGTD

This is the second post in a series comparing task management applications that are based on the ‘Getting Things Done’ process. I’ll begin with a look at bartek:bargiel’s iGTD

I started testing this application out many months ago, right about the time that I started to learn more about the GTD process. This little application was then generating (and continues to generate) a lot of buzz: it's powerful, it's free (well, it's actually donationware, so it's a nice idea to give the developer some cash if you intend to keep using it) and it integrates nicely with many other Mac apps (e.g. it can synch with .Mac, synch with an iPhone, and meshes nicely with QuickSilver, the very capable and elegant data management and application launcher).

The Poland-based developer who created this program (who apparently developed this on his free time; he has a day job according to his profile) integrates the core ideas of the Getting Things Done model very well. The application is updated and improved with amazing frequency — it seems that every time I launch it, there's a new version available. I don't know when this guy sleeps.

I find the user-interface of iGTD to be both interesting and daunting. I admit I have a weakness for lots of options, and in this department iGTD excels. That's the interesting part: it presents you with an amazing amount of control for organizing your stuff. But all of these options come at a price. There are so many choices that it may make your head hurt. Check out the first screenshot (on the left) to see what the application looks like. At the simplest level, iGTD organizes your 'to do' items in two main ways: via 'contexts' and 'projects.' A context is simply a way to denote 'where I will do this task.' In screenshot #1, you'll see that the context for the item 'post iGTD review' is the 'computer.' In other words, I will post this review only when I'm at my computer. I can then add this item to a 'project' of my choice. In screenshot #1, I'm about to add the 'post iGTD review' item to the 'my website' project. This simple bit of organization allows me to quickly see what I have to do by context and what I need to do by project. I can choose which view I want by selecting the appropriate button on the menu bar of the application. When I view my items by context, iGTD displays what project each item in that context belongs to. When I view by project, I see what context each item in that projects belongs to. Make sense? You may want to download the trial from the developers site and try it out to better understand this. By way of example, I could have two items in my 'at the computer' context. When I sit down at the iMac, I say to myself, "Let's see what I'm supposed to do while I'm here at the computer." I see that I have two items: one is to post this review. The project for that item is called 'my website.' The other item is to 'back up my data.' The project for this one is 'mac management.' So, iGTD offers a a handy way to organize, particularly when you're dealing with a lot of items. I like how iGTD manages contexts and projects. It makes sense. But let's take a step back — the first thing your supposed to do if you follow the 'GTD workflow' is to transfer all those dozens or hundreds of things you have 'to do' from your head to the computer. For that you use the 'inbox.'

The inbox is simply a collection point for all your 'to do' items. When you're ready (that is, when you're done entering items and your brain is empty), you can start processing and categorizing those items to help you get better organized. I found that the easiest way to do this with iGTD is to drag items to the appropriate context (drag 'get groceries' to the 'errand' context, for instance ... and note that you can create whatever context you want), and then double-click in the 'Project' field for that item and choose a project to add it to (or create a new one). These ideas (placing your tasks in an inbox, then sorting them by contexts and projects) is a core idea of the GTD process, and all the apps I'm going to look at more or less follow similar organizational lines. Now I want to discuss a few finer points about iGTD in particular.

Remember when I said the interface was both interesting and daunting? I want to hit on the daunting (or potentially confusing) aspects of this program. For starters, iGTD allows you to assign 'priority' and 'effort' for each of your items. Power users may like this, but I found it to be tedious. I tried setting both 'effort' and 'priority,' but it quickly became cluttered and confusing as the task list grew. Do I need both? What's the difference? The 'effort' bar (seen in Screenshots 1 and 2) seems like overkill to me, but perhaps those of you with a penchant for extreme organization will enjoy it. If you don't like or need to numerically prioritize and/or visualize your 'effort level' for each item, you can always ignore these functions. The application doesn't care.

iGTD also allows you to add start and due dates to items which, of course, is critical for managing tasks across time. This works great and is easy to do in iGTD. But there's more. With iGTD, you can also mark items as 'pending' or 'waiting for' (this is graphically represented in iGTD by a little Play/Pause button that shows up in a column right before the name of each task. Personally, I think the terms 'pending' and 'waiting for' are too similar. It confuses me. Start dates and due dates are enough. In fact, due dates are enough for my needs.

I'm also not comfortable with the sorting functions available below the task list (see the drop-down lists that say 'Current & Future' and 'All Tasks' in Screenshot #1). There are just too many options. From these drop-down lists, you can choose from 'Current & Future,' 'Current,' 'Future,''Maybe,' and 'All' ... and once you make this choice, you can further filter your tasks by choosing one of these options: 'All tasks,' 'to do,' 'to wait for,' and 'delegated.' This exemplifies the problem for me: there are too many views, filters, and organizing fields. Who might need this level of fidelity and amount of power? Probably people using this app for business, where one is faced with managing many projects over time that involve many different people (and for this, iGTD offers the ability to delegate ... perhaps this is when one might deploy the 'waiting for' tag). I could go on about the confusion factor when delving into dates, reminder tags, notes, links and time tags, but suffice it to say that this is likely going to be the point where some people may say "my head hurts."

I forgot to mention that you can also right-click on each item and get even more options (as seen in Screenshot #2). Here, you'll find the 'Maybe' tag, which is peculiar to GTD. It means 'maybe I'll get to this someday.' I like that. I always have some items that I want to do in some vague, undefined time and place in the future, and it's nice to be able to track these items without cluttering up your concrete time-sensitive items. When you mark an item as 'Maybe,' by the way, the 'play/pause' button changes to a little question mark in a blue bubble. What about the other choices you get when you right-click on a task? Suffice it to say that there are many more options, and the best way to see it is to try the free demo for a week or so. In my opinion, the developer did a fine job in offering up so many methods and shortcuts and sub-menus, etc. to organize your data, but I reiterate that it may be too much to easily grasp for many users. Here are a few more screenshots for you to peruse [screenshots removed]:

The first of these three is an image of the 'QuickAdd' box (screenshot #3). This is an example of excellent system-wide integration. I can be surfing the web, hit the F6 function key (provided iGTD is running), and this handy quick-entry box will pop up. I like this, but as you'll see in the screenshot, I'm still not sure what to do with those 'pending' and 'waiting' checkboxes. Screenshot #4 shows yet even more options available from the Dock (with a right-click on the Dock icon). That reminds me, iGTD ALSO offers a menu item up in the Mac menu bar. This is yet another way to quickly add your data, synch your data, and categorize your data. Finally, screenshot #5 shows the iGTD Services menu. Why show this? Because I love Apple's Services menu, and it's surely one of the least used features on the Mac.

The useful Service item here is this: if you highlight some text in whatever program you are currently using, you can go to the Services menu (click on the program name in the Apple Menu Bar and choose 'Services' - it's available in every application you use) and choose iGTD. Here, you'll find 'Put to iGTD inbox.' iGTD does not need to be running. What this will do is open up iGTD, create a new task in your inbox, and place the highlighted text in the 'Task Notes' field of iGTD. That's handy — you can't use the F6 key to enter new data, after all, if iGTD is not running. But you can always use Apple Services. (Take a look at your Services menu. You may be surprised at how many apps offer little time-saving shortcuts here).

The Verdict

1. Could I figure out how to use the application with minimal fuss (preferably without referring to documentation)?

I could figure out the basics, but some aspects of the program baffle me.

2. Was I still enthusiastic about using the application after a week of use?

I was enthusiastic for several months, then my usage trailed off. I was only using a fraction of the programs power, and that bugged me. I got tired of looking at all those options and blank fields that I just didn't require for my basic life organization needs.

3. How well does the app integrate into the Mac OS?

Extremely well. From the Services menu, to the Menu Bar item, to the Dock menu, to the function 'hot keys,' to the integration with tons of other apps, iGTD is extremely integrated, and extremely powerful. According to the developer's website, iGTD integrates with Quicksilver, LaunchBar, Safari, Firefox, Camino, BonEcho, Opera, Apple Mail, MailTags 2.0, Microsoft Entourage, NetNewsWire, endo, Journler, Yojimbo, DEVONthink Pro, Microsoft Word, Apple Pages, TextEdit, TextMate, TextWrangler, Finder, PathFinder, EagleFiler, MacJournal, Mori, WebnoteHappy and VoodooPad Pro.

4. How well could I manage all of my tasks (work, home, play, etc.)

Very easily, but it got confusing when I started to organize by dates, pending, future, maybes, etc. However, I want to caveat this: you don't have to use all of the available options and power features. And remember, we're talking about a free application here. Maybe you could live with a few too many options for the cost of a donation to the developer.

5. How did the program 'feel?' How 'Mac-like' is it?

It feels complex and heavy. I tend to initially like complex and heavy applications (probably just because of the 'gee whiz' factor, as in 'gee whiz, look at all the things I could do with this'). But I find that, after some time, complex and heavy just weighs me down. It comes down to the difference between what I could theoretically do with a program and what I really am doing with it in reality. Perhaps some aspects of iGTD wouldn't be so confusing if I were better versed in the semantics of GTD. But I'm a novice, and I think the winner in this war of GTD-based task organizers will be the one that doesn't require a customer to know much about GTD. It should simply make sense, shouldn't feel bloated and it should be a pleasure to use — the elusive Mac-like quality.

In conclusion: this will remain a strong GTD task management contender for the Mac because it is rich in features, looks great and is free. When you consider that this is made by one person, as opposed to a powerhouse Mac software company (like OmniGroup's OmniFocus ... which I'll look at next), it really deserves to be a contender. It's a great piece of software. If you are a GTD wizard, you will likely love this program. If you are not, you may find it's a bit like using a chain saw to cut butter. The last word: iGTD Version 2 is now being developed (you can try an Alpha release of it by visiting the developer's site). It'll be worth another look once this new and improved version hits the streets.

By the way, I better add that 'GTD' and 'Getting Things Done' are registered trademarks of David Allen & Co. I don't want to get sued.

2008: The Year of the Killer Task Management App

I've decided to get better organized in 2008, so I've been trying out task management solutions for the Mac.

What I'm looking for is a well-designed application with powerful features that cleanly integrate with the Mac operating system. I want to be able to group my varied tasks into project groups that are easy to view and are logically organized. I want tag my list items so they are easy to find and search. I want one central place where I can quickly see what I have to do today and what I have to do next. I want a central place to store everything in my head. Above all, I want to enjoy using this application. No, more ... I want an application that makes me want to use it. A tall order, perhaps, but this is what the Mac user experience is all about.

Seeking Alternatives to Apple's Mail/iCal

Unfortunately, I think Apple missed the mark with their improved Mail/iCal 'to do' management introduced with Mac OS X Leopard. Granted, it's better than what existed in Mac OS X Tiger and all other previous OS X versions (which, essentially, was nothing). But it's still not there. I tried using the 'Apple option' for a couple of weeks before I abandoned it. While the Mail/iCal solution is simple and well-integrated and may be enough for many people, it's just not working out for me. It doesn't feel right. I don't like the overly simplistic to-do list in Mail. I can't group items into bigger categories or projects. I can't tag items. I can't easily archive completed items. I don't like how it integrates with iCal. As for iCal, the to do list view is fine is you just have a few items, but it quickly becomes unwieldy and hard to read as more are added. I could go on. Suffice it to say that Apple's offerings seemed underpowered to me, so I moved on.

The good news is that there are an overwhelming number of third-party task management applications out there for the Mac user (there are also a number of plug-ins available to enhance Mail and iCal task management and a host of web-based solutions to help manage your life). That's the great thing about the Mac - the third-party developers who make applications for Mac OS X are unmatched on any platform. I truly believe that.


The bad news is that it's hard to know where to start because there are so many choices. My solution? I chose to focus on a peculiar subset of task management applications based on a system called Getting Things Done. Why? Because many geeky mac users that I respect are oddly enthusiastic about this model, and have been for quite some time.

Getting Things Done on the Mac

If you follow the mac community buzz, you may have heard of David Allen's 'Getting Things Done' framework for, well, getting things done. Over the course of the past year, it seemed I couldn't escape the chatter about this revolutionary way to manage one's daily and long-term tasks. Intrigued by the noise, I checked out an audiobook of 'Getting Things Done' from the library. Allen's ideas are indeed innovative and clever.

In essence, GTD is a systematic way to organize your thoughts that begins with dumping out the contents of your brain in an 'inbox,' then organizing those things along the lines of when you plan to get to them (e.g. today, next week, someday), in what context you will do these things (e.g. at the computer, at work, on the road), and how you group these things (into different projects). GTD is way of capturing all these little bits of 'things I want to do' and 'things I need to do' so you don't have to worry about remembering them all. Once you get all those thoughts down, GTD offers up a nifty way to organize it in a meaningful way over time.

At some point, Mac developers who adhered to the GTD model began creating clever applications and scripts to capture this process. While I haven't closely followed the evolution of this development, I noticed that it seemed to really get going in mid-2006 ... and this most certainly had something to do with organization guru Merlin Mann of 43 Folders, whose tireless efforts helped to popularize this system, particularly on the Mac platform.

Over the course of 2007, I came to associate GTD with Mac task management as more and more applications based on this model began to appear. Over time, I've watched as available mac-based GTD programs evolved from the relatively simple (see kinklessGTD) to the increasingly sophisticated (see OmniFocus, iGTD).

The 2008 showdown

As the options continue to evolve and refine, I think we're heading for a final shake out in 2008. My prediction: this will be the year for the Killer Task Management Application for the Mac, and that application is going to be based on the GTD model.

This will be the year when a small handful of really great Mac-based task managers vie for the mainstream — you may never have heard of GTD, but if these task managers are successful, you won't need to know anything at all about David Allen's system. All you'll have to do is pick your favorite and start getting organized.

Here are the applications that I will compare: iGTD, Cultured Code Things, Midnight Inbox, coalmarch Park and OmniFocus from OmniGroup.

As the dust settles over the next year, I think that one application will stand out above the rest. I've made my choice, but I'll save my opinion for the end of this series.

How I will review these apps

To keep things simple, I evaluated these power organization apps with a few questions in mind:


  • Could I figure out how to use the application with minimal fuss (preferably without referring to documentation)?
  • Was I still enthusiastic about using the application after a week of use? 
  • How well does the app integrate into the Mac OS? 
  • How well could I manage all of my tasks (work, home, play, etc.) 
  • How did the program 'feel?' How 'mac-like' is it?


This last point may need a little clarification. You may have heard or read that a particular program is 'mac-like.' What this means is this: Apple software is generally renowned for simplicity, consistency, lack of clutter, and a great user interface. A 'mac-like' application, then, exemplifies these qualities. I also consider a program to be 'mac-like' if the interface is instantly familiar and obvious because it's similar to other Apple programs I use, such as the Finder or iTunes. Last but not least, a good mac application should integrate seamlessly with the rest of the Mac OS.

In the next post, I'll begin the comparison.