I’m a hybrid content author and web designer with no formal training in computer science. Over the years, I've honed my HTML and CSS skills through trial and error, repetition, books, online courses, and by tapping the expertise of colleagues. 

But JavaScript? I'm not so good with that. Sure, I can deploy a jQuery plugin and fiddle with parameters. And I know a bit of PHP (enough to get me in trouble, as they say). In most cases, I can decipher code, copy what I need, and modify it to meet my needs … as long as I don’t have to change too much. But my depth of understanding is shallow, which is something I’ve long wanted to remedy. Now I feel like I'm really making some progress with Codecademy, a free online ‘academy’ aimed at teaching basic programming skills.

Codecademy gets it right. For starters, you aren’t required to sign up for an account prior to beginning lessons. Instead, you can dive right in by typing your name in the site’s integrated editor. Entering your name is your first lesson. Only later, after completing a few exercises, are you prompted to sign up for a free account (which you only need to do if you want to keep tabs on your progress). At this point, you’ll have a good idea if this is for you. While this is a relatively minor detail, it’s a thoughtful touch that underscores how this is a different kind of training tool.

Lessons are divided into topical sections that grow in complexity as you progress. At each step of the way, accompanying text explains what’s going on and why. Within a few days, you’re writing simple programs that tie together all that you’ve learned up to that point.

While there are badges for completing sections, progress meters, and a point scoring system to help keep motivation up, the real driver – and the heart of Codecademy – is the integrated editor that accompanies each lesson. Rather, the integrated editor really is the lesson. You read a short bit of natural language text explaining a concept or new syntax, and then you’re asked to write some code to demonstrate comprehension. Everything you learn, in other words, you learn by doing yourself. You can’t move on to the next lesson unless you get the code right. This real-time feedback works.

There’s a lot of course material available, which is growing exponentially thanks to the addition of crowdsourced exercises submitted by other developers. User forums are active, so you can get help when you get stuck or need something clarified. Right now, only JavaScript lessons are available, with Python and Ruby courses to come later. I reckon these lessons will keep me occupied and learning for a long time to come. The best part is that the people behind Codecademy say they’re committed to keeping this learning resource free.

More than other online courses, videos and books that I’ve tried over the years, Codecademy fosters a clearer understanding of what it is that I’m doing and why I'm doing it because it is, quite literally, engaging. It’s not that other courses I’ve taken are not good, it’s that the Codecademy model is particularly good.


Spotify launched in the U.S., I signed up for a Premium account for $10 per month. Now that I’m nearing the two-month membership mark,  I’m familiar enough with the service to share some thoughts.  I should start by noting that I’m not the type of person who regularly signs up for paid services. I don’t even subscribe to a cable TV package.

So why do I think Spotify Premium is worth the price of admission?

First and foremost, access to millions upon millions of tracks. While my musical tastes tend toward the eclectic and obscure, I’ve been able to find most of what I was looking for.  Second, the Premium service allows me to stream all the content I can reasonably consume, without ads, on my Mac or on my iPhone. Third, Premium serves up higher-quality audio. Fourth, I can cache songs for offline listening,  useful for my daily train commute through farm country with spotty 3G service. And, finally, I can listen to most of my iTunes music on-the-go (provided I have a connection), as Spotify reads what I own and matches what it can with copies in the cloud.

Spotify is a different sort of service from that of Pandora or It’s better suited for people who know what they want, or at least are willing to take the time to explore. While there is an 'Artist Radio' function to stream similar artists, it’s not a well-promoted feature.  To be honest, I didn't even notice this feature for the first month and have never had the urge to use it. Instead, I tend to seek out a specific artist, then choose from a list of Spotify-suggested related artists. This often leads to uncharted territory and new artist discoveries. I like it because I feel that I am in direct control of the discovery process.  

Unfortunately, all  that I just described in the previous paragraph is available only on the desktop. The iPhone app is geared towards playing tracks already lined up in a playlist, with the exception of seeking out a specific artist, album, or track. In other words, I can search the Spotify database from the iPhone, but I have to know what I’m looking for. There is no ‘Artist Radio' streaming option and no ‘Related Artists’ category on the mobile app. That’s a shame.

As I mentioned earlier, Spotify allows syncing of tracks from iTunes. The promise is that this will mostly alleviate the need to fire up the other music platform. I’ve found this to be largely true. While the service only syncs non-DRM protected music from an iTunes library, that’s not that big of a deal. I can always search out those missing files from Spotify’s database, provided they’re available. 

I can also listen to most of my iTunes library on my iPhone or iPad without worrying about managing playlists due to limited storage space (provided I don’t overdo it with offline caching). Spotify automatically matches the tunes in my iTunes library with online versions in Spotify’s massive database. It’s seamless.

Unfortunately, a fair number of my more obscure tracks and albums aren’t available in Spotify’s database. If I want these tracks to be available, I have to choose to sync them locally for offline listening. I’ve also noticed that some of my iTunes tracks appear on my phone with little link symbols. I had to look up what this meant. It indicates that (for some reason) the version of the song that I own isn’t available to play in my country, so Spotify has substituted it for a playable version. 

I admit I am mystified as to why some material isn’t in the Spotify catalog, and why some tracks or albums are not available to U.S. customers. I'm sure it’s based on agreements that Spotify has worked out with labels, but it can be frustrating because it can be so ... random. For instance, when I first started the service I downloaded ‘De Stilj’ by the White Stripes. A day later, this album vanished from my playlist. That album is no longer available to stream in the U.S. However, all other White Stripes albums are available. In terms of explanation, all I get from Spotify is a notice that the tracks ‘are not currently available in the United States.’ I can only imagine the convoluted paperwork that Spotify legal is juggling to keep this service going, so this isn’t really a complaint. I'm impressed that they got it off the ground at all. I’m just a bit miffed that I can’t stream some albums and tracks that I’d like to hear. Oddly, I've even come across many cases where all but one or two songs on a given album are available to stream. What's so special about those songs? Arg!

Another example: The first disc of ‘Brewing Up With Billy Bragg,’ circa 1984, is available if you search for it via the Spotify desktop app. However, the second disc in this two-disc set is unavailable in the U.S. How odd. Worse, if I search for this album via the iPhone app, the album doesn't appear at all. And a minor annoyance: that Billy Bragg album shows up as published in 2006. I’m guessing that’s a re-release date. I’ve found this time and again with albums I’ve sought out. The years don't match up with actual release dates. I’ve also found that the same album often appears many times over in search results, but I can only listen to one of those albums in my country. I surmise that there are different licensed versions for different regions of the world.  It would be nice to have the option within Spotify’s preferences to hide the albums and tracks that I can’t stream. It’s the same thing to me as if those tracks and albums didn't exist at all, so I don't want to see them.

Functionally speaking, the desktop and mobile Spotify apps work quite well, with a few caveats regarding playlists. The main problem I’ve encountered is that the service doesn’t import smart playlists from iTunes, which is how nearly all of my nearly 8,000 files in iTunes are organized. The remedy for this, of course, is to make new playlists. It's a simple task to copy and paste the contents of a smart playlist into a 'dumb' playlist within iTunes, and then import that. But that's annoying. And speaking of smart playlists, Spotify absolutely needs some sort of intelligent playlist functionality to sort through and categorize Spotify music. Dumb playlists just don’t cut it.  

Here’s a round-up of what I’d like to see in future Spotify app releases:

  • More social sharing options. Right now, it’s only Facebook. I have no urge to share anything with Facebook. Actually, I'm not sure I'm inclined to share my personal music library via any service, but I'm sure that many users would appreciate greater choice.
  • Tooltips. The meaning of some of Spotify's color-coding and iconography isn't always obvious. Simple tooltips would help.
  • It would be nice to have ‘Related Artists’ and ‘Artist Radio’ on the mobile app.
  • I would appreciate the option to hide music that is not available for my country. I only want to see it if I can stream it.
  • Smart playlists: the ability to import from iTunes, and to create within Spotify. Perhaps there may be patent/legal issues here to prevent some of this functionality, but surely Spotify could devise some sort of ‘intelligent’ playlist capability. It’s an all-you-can-eat music service, so we need better organization options.
  • The user interface isn’t always intuitive. For instance, on the desktop app, you can’t get more information about an artist, or seek more albums/tracks from an artist, by selecting the artist name from within one of your playlists. You have to enter the name in the search box. When you do search for and select an artist, Spotify returns an interface with four tabs: an Overview, Biography, Related Artists, and Artist Radio. Maybe it's just me, but I didn’t even notice the tabs at first. Oddly, the main window (the artist ‘Overview’ tab) displays the beginning sentence or two of the artist biography and a short list of a few related artists. Since there's not much space here, only a fraction of the biography and related artists are visible, yet you can’t select one of these items to access the full bio or related artist entries. You just get to see a tiny fraction of the content. There isn't even an option to scroll through the rest of the content. The only way to access this content is to select one of the tabs. Check out the screenshot below to see what I mean. Why not link the short blurbs on the 'Overview' page to the sub-tabs for Biography and Related Artists?

The odd Spotify 'Overview' PaneMy overall experience? I love it. Prior to Spotify, I had hundreds of dollars of albums in my ‘Wish List’ basket in iTunes. Now I’m listening to all of those albums. Yes, I’m paying $120 dollars a year for the privilege, but I’m consuming far more music than I ever could afford to buy outright. My interest in discovering new artists is greater than it has been since I was in my 20s. Now when I learn of an interesting new artist or album, I don’t have to read second-hand reviews or settle for short previews. And I don’t have to add items to a ‘Wish List.’ I just cue it up and experience it for myself. If I don’t like it, I can just as easily remove it. It’s a liberating experience.

On the flip side, unlimited and instant access to millions of tracks means that it's easy to listen for one minute and then dump an album. Too easy. If I paid for an album, I would never do this. I'd listen to it over and over. I try to keep this habit with Spotify. Sure, I may still not like an album after a few listens. More often, though, I only begin to appreciate and enjoy an album after several weeks or months. Spotify's all-you-can-eat buffet can destroy this practiced patience if you let it.

At any rate, I'm enjoying the service. Still, I am trying to keep my tracks well organized should I someday wish to cancel my subscription. What if fees get too steep? What if label agreements break down and the catalog drastically shrinks in size? My strategy is to carefully cultivate what I really like through playlists and by ‘starring’ favorites. Should I need to leave and return to iTunes,  I’ll have a good idea of which artist albums and tracks I want to buy and which I can do without.

Of course, I hope that day won’t arrive anytime soon. I'd love to see Spotify-like models appear for other content. I would consider signing up for similar services for audiobook, digital magazines, and ebook subscriptions. Hhave you heard the rumor that may soon roll out ebook rentals?


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!

Book review: The Sustainable Network

The Sustainable Network

The global network is a nebulous thing that many of us take for granted. What began simply as a way to connect up a few computers has grown into something greater than the sum of its parts. It seems to be an unstoppable force. Could it also be a transformative force? Could our global network enable us to tackle some of the world's toughest problems? What challenges do we face in realizing this potential?

These are the core questions author Sarah Sorenson tackles in 'The Sustainable Network: The Accidental Answer for a Troubled Planet.'

Despite its relative youth, the global network (by which the author means not just the Internet, but all of the connections that link together the planet's computing devices) has already dramatically changed the way humans connect and communicate. Sorenson's message is that this network, 'the only global tool we have,' is also the best tool we've ever had to affect change on a global scale, so we must do what it takes to sustain and nurture it.

If you pick this up thinking it's going to be about green technologies because the word 'sustainable' is in the title, you'd be wrong. The network can be a sustainable force in the sense that it connects everybody and everything in the human world, mitigating the need for travel, replacing physical objects with digital products, fostering business across great distances, driving social change, promoting democracy, saving energy, and more. It is, in short, a platform to 'sustain global development, opportunities, and change' — the connective tissue that allows us to tackle big problems in new ways. The question, then, is can we sustain this network given future challenges like burgeoning global demand, security threats, privacy concerns, and energy demands?

Sorenson believes we can, if we're smart about it. Through forty-one chapters sprinkled copiously with real-world examples, facts and figures pulled from various industry reports and news articles, the author outlines what the network is, what it's capable of today, and the pivotal role it could play in coming decades. Here's what she concludes:

The network is our best chance to set in motion changes that can be shaped to deliver a 21st-century definition of the greater good. It has all the elements: it is pervasive, reaching across the globe and connecting people to information and opportunity; it can reduce our material consumption and conserve precious natural resources; it can make governments accountable to people they serve; it can level the playing field and lower barriers of entry to the entire global marketplace; it can mobilize people so they have a voice; and it can foster collaboration, accelerate innovation, and spur the development of solutions to some of the world's toughest problems.

That's pretty heady stuff, but she makes a good case. Take, for example, net efficiencies. Sorenson details how the network enables technologies such as smart buildings, intelligent transport, and just-in-time supply systems to create efficiencies that could potentially reduce carbon emissions by 15-40 percent. The network also enables individual microloans that improve the lives of tens of thousands of people in the developing world through sites such as And consider the pivotal role the Internet played in the 2008 U.S. presidential elections; or witness how the network now makes it possible for individuals to deliver boutique products from design to production from the home, all with little to no overhead. The potential and reach of the network to affect change across the spectrum of human interests and activities is truly great.

However, the network will only be able to deliver if it continues to grow in a sustainable way. This leads to Sorenson's "Sustainable Network Law," which posits that "the more broadband made available to network users, the faster sustainable network innovation occurs." Makes sense to me. Witness the effect of increasing smart phone usage on 3G network competition. But Sorenson isn't just talking about iPhones here. What she's saying is that user experience derived from better, more robust networks will drive more user demand. This, in turn, will drive more network innovation. This innovation will fuel more user adoption, ad infinitum. It's an interesting point. The concept of a sustainable network may hinge on this holding true. I read this as an industry call to action to get out there and build more network capacity.

This leads to the question of who this book was written for. For the most part, the prose seems squarely aimed at a lay audience. For instance, a large portion of the book consists of term and concept definitions, and some of the chapters offer up specific 'steps you can take.' But at times, Sorenson seems to be directing her pen at the industry within which she works as a sustainability consultant. And then there's the blurb on the back cover of 'The Sustainable Network' that says this book is a 'call to action for the individual, governments, markets, and organizations to put the power of this network to good use.' I think that may be a call out to too many groups. While I get the point and largely agree with her, I think Sorenson aims a bit too wide on this front.

That said, this book delivers a good overview of what the network is (and its potential going forward) for people like me who are not experts in this area, although at times I felt that Sorenson used a bit too much 'inside baseball' terminology and industry jargon. Yet I couldn't help but get a little swept up in the author's optimism: a sense of the potential of the global network to change our lives. Sure, the obstacles are steep. Sorenson acknowledges this in great detail through several chapters. But the upside is that the network is arguably one of the best tools we've ever had to deal with a wide range of human problems.

I enjoyed the read, with a few caveats. For one, the book is sparsely populated with images, many of which look like photocopied screen shots. It would have benefited greatly from full-color images, charts, and graphs to help the reader along. Also, some of the chapters felt less like part of a book and more like a compilation of individual research papers. To be fair, this is in no small part due to the subject matter. Given that the network is a global entity that reaches into almost every facet of our lives, it's surely no easy task to seamlessly cover all aspects of it in 300 pages.

Still, what Sorenson has assembled here is a fresh way at looking at a potentially dry topic. I think many authors and pundits tend to look at the world of technology with a dystopian lens, so I was not put off by an optimistic view of where this connective technology could lead.

I think the book is empowering in that it raises awareness about the potential of the network, and it emphasizes how we all play a role in harnessing and protecting that power. But for the average reader, I think the greatest strength of the book has more to do with fostering network literacy. That's not a bad thing. I started this book with a sense that I knew quite a lot about the global network, but soon realized I didn't know much at all about it.

It's a given these days that computer literacy is no longer just beneficial, it's essential. Perhaps we should think of the global network in the same way. In this sense (whether or not you share Sorenson's vision), 'The Sustainable Network' is a solid read as a primer. You'll walk away knowing a lot more about what we're talking about when we talk about the network.

Why did I just review a book?

In December, O'Reilly Media hosted an interesting promotion on their Facebook page. They offered up free copies of several of their new offerings. For each featured book, the first three people to chime in proclaiming interest in reading that book got a free copy. In return, O'Reilly asked for participants to post a review (not a positive review, just a review) of the book in some online forum. So, you guessed it, I decided it might be fun.

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.

Audio editors for podcasting

In my work life, one of my tasks is to produce an audio podcast. I use Soundtrack Pro and GarageBand to do the job. However, I recently tried out a few audio editing alternatives. I evaluated Adobe Soundbooth, Adobe Audition, and Audacity. I thought I’d share my conclusions:

- Adobe Soundbooth CS4 ($200). I found Soundbooth was a bit hard to use (read: non-intuitive) and had limited features. You can only split stereo tracks to mono by exporting them, which is silly. Even the free Audacity can split stereo tracks and convert to mono on the fly. You also can’t divide clips (at least, I couldn’t find how to do it after a reasonable period of time spent searching around). I was also unable to locate a scrubber, mixer, amplitude filter, and several other key features. They may be there somewhere, but I lost patience.

- Audacity (free). I found this to be an excellent open-source, free editor. Available filter and effect extensions (add-ons) give this editor most of the features available in pro-level applications. For a simple audio project, this would be sufficient. However, I discovered several limitations which render the current iteration of the app ineffective for large, complex multitrack projects: (1) for me at least, the app starts to crash periodically when I have more than 15 or so tracks, (2) When you split a file, it creates a new track (instead of leaving it in the same track as Soundtrack Pro and Audition do). This is a problem when you are editing an hour-long recording and need to pull out only about 10 minutes of clips. You soon end up with tons of separate tracks and it’s a pain to manage them; (3) You cannot drag and drop tracks around. You must manually select ‘move up’ or ‘move down’ from a drop-down list. This may not sound like a big deal, but it’s a huge deal when you have many tracks and need to order them. (4) While you can mute select tracks (so you can edit one or two clips at a time) and shrink the size of each track to save screen real-estate (necessary when you have many tracks), these settings aren’t saved. The next time you open up the app, all the tracks are ‘unmuted’ and expanded to the full size. The good news about Audacity is that the development community is active, there’s lots of online documentation and support, and the app continues to get better and better.

- Adobe Audition 3 ($350). Clearly, this is intended to be the main competitor for Soundtrack Pro. It does everything that Soundtrack Pro does, but several aspects of the design and layout of the application make it hard to use (at least from the perspective of someone very used to Soundtrack Pro). Overall, this is a very competent and powerful editor. However, I could do the same job in Soundtrack in about half the time. Again, I stress that this is coming from someone who knows Soundtrack Pro very well. I would recommend this to someone who has intensive audio editing needs, but does not wish to purchase or need the full Final Cut Studio.

My conclusion: I’m ready to head back to Soundtrack Pro. Maybe it’s because I’m most-familiar with it, but it’s the easiest tool I’ve found to put together podcasts. Another benefit of Soundtrack is that it seamlessly meshes with the other Final Cut tools for creating more complex multimedia and video projects (or for, say, pulling an audio track from a video interview to use in an audio podcast).

It’s not my preferred tool for creating enhanced podcasts or exporting AAC/MP3 files, though. I use GarageBand for this. GarageBand exports MP3s and AACs faster than Soundtrack Pro and produces smaller files. This shouldn’t be too surprising, considering it’s tailored to podcasting. Soundtrack Pro does podcasting as well, but I’ve found that the best way to use it is to export an uncompressed AIF file, and then work with that in GarageBand. It’s also the easiest tool to use for creating enhanced podcasts (adding chapters, pictures, and links to the audio podcast). And, it’s worth noting, it’s the only tool to use other than Soundtrack Pro that I’m aware of that allows one to create an enhanced file. GarageBand is, of course, also an all-in-one solution to create a podcast. You don’t need Soundtrack Pro. What you get with Soundtrack Pro is much greater control in terms of editing, filtering, and mixing. For many people, though, GarageBand will do the job nicely. And it’s cheap. Conversely, Soundtrack Pro only comes as part of the Final Cut Studio, which is quite expensive. I really wish Apple would offer the choice to by the apps in the Studio a la carte (an option they discontinued). If you’re on a Mac and wish to try your hand at podcasting, definitely start with GarageBand.

Audacity is a good general-purpose editor that does the job for simple podcasts (no interviews, or simple Q/A interviews that do not require a lot of nonlinear editing, and those podcasts that are 10 or less tracks). It is a good ‘starter’ solution for those who wish to try their hand at creating a podcast, and it runs on PC, Mac, or Linux. Audacity projects created on one platform open on any platform, which is nice. For more complex audio editing on a PC, Adobe Audition is a solid next step up. And if you want to go the Adobe route, you can always try out Audition and Soundbooth first with Adobe’s free 30 day trial and see which works best for you.

In a few weeks, I’ll have a completed screencast demonstrating how I put together a podcast, which I’ll share in this space.

SpaceTime3D Public Beta

SpaceTime3D. I was intrigued, and E-mailed the developer to ask if a Mac version was on the way.

Well, a browser version of SpaceTime3D is now in public Beta. It works on any platform and in any modern browser (with Flash plug-in installed). The browser version of SpaceTime3D is not as feature-rich as the stand-alone Windows desktop application, but it offers the main feature: visual 3D representation of search results. I tested out SpaceTime3D using FireFox 3.

My take? It has potential. While it's not going to supplant Google search, I view it as more of a complement to traditional text-based searching. Unlike text-based search results, SpaceTime gives you results and full-page previews at the same time, so you don't have to toggle back and forth between pages and search results. This can be time-saving in some instances. However, it would be nice to be able to toggle back and forth between visual and text views of search results on the fly. I say that because I don't feel like I get the same at-a-glance feedback that I do with a text search page. I don't get a good sense of where I am or how well my search term returned what I was seeking. Perhaps it's just a matter of getting used to a new way of searching.

There are some nice touches in the SpaceTime3D Beta. For instance, the search field presents 'autosuggestions' of words or phrases as you type. And you can switch between search engines while retaining your search term so you don't have to type it in again. It also looks great. For a Mac user, the eye candy of the 3D presentation of Web pages will not be too surprising (we're accustomed to reflective-surface eye candy). Windows users may be more impressed. The glaring exception to the nice presentation are the Google Ads, which are distracting and not well integrated. They look like an afterthought.

While there are many features that would make SpaceTime3D more useful as a powerful search tool, I'm not going to go into that in any detail. And that's because it's not really a powerful search tool. If I'm in serious search mode, I'll use Google. But what if I'm in casual-browse mode? I think that's where SpaceTime3D has most to offer, and there's a lot of room within this space. I found that it was quite enjoyable to browse through images with this tool, for instance. And I could imagine it might be a fun way to navigate through social media sites. For example, it would be a nice way to browse through Flickr photos tagged with a given search term. Or to surf random sites within a topic or set of topics via StumbleUpon. It would be interesting to see tighter integration in this realm. The main point here is that I see SpaceTime3D as a tool for discovery, not for focused searching.

Here are the main shortcomings. First, it can be pokey. I find that it's fairly responsive on my broadband connection and Intel iMac, but I often have to wait a bit for all the image previews to load. That's not unexpected and it's not meant as a criticism. It's an observation that some people may be disappointed by the speed relative to the nearly-instantaneous search results that we've come to enjoy from Google. Second, the search results you get are screenshots of Web pages, not the pages. This means you can't click on a link on a page in the 3D browsing environment. You can only click on the image of the page, which then opens up that page in a new window. Third, there is no easy way to refine a search without starting all over again.

Still, I see SpaceTime3D as an interesting foray into the world of 3D visualization on the desktop and in the browser, something that will likely become commonplace within a few years. I'll be interested to see how the tool develops over time. I've sent in some ideas to the developer about adding more filtering options to refine search results, and I've found them to be very responsive and open to ideas. And, I should add, they have a lot ideas in the queue to make this a better tool. Give it a try and see what you think.

Avery offers full-featured, free DesignPro

Avery DesignPro

Avery, the office product and label-making company, now offers a free Mac application called DesignPro to help customers design everything from labels to T-shirts to CD art. This is the classic 'give away the razor and charge a premium for the razor blades' marketing model: you get the free software, but to use it you will need to buy custom Avery packages to cram into your inkjet printer.

Of course, I had to try it.

First, some discussion about the software package is warranted. To get it, you must register. I always find this a bit off-putting, but I dove right it. Hey, it's free. Then I proceeded to the download, which is a jarringly-large 232 MB file. This worried me somewhat. Why on earth was it so large? Proceeding to the installation, my worries grew apace. You put this package on your system via an installer that requires your admin password, which is indication that it's (at a minimum) going to put stuff in your main Library folder. Ok, but what's going to go there? I proceeded with the install, expecting some sort of indicator of what it installed and where it put it. I got nothing of the sort.

In an attempt to figure out where all those megabytes went (the app itself is only 8 MB!), I used AppZapper, a great little uninstaller program that gets rid of all the odds and ends a program typically leaves behind. This is a lazy method I sometime use to see what is installed where for a given package. When you drop a program into the AppZapper target window, it lists all of the program components it will uninstall (including the path of the files).

When I did this for DesignPro, however, it only found about 8MB of data to uninstall: a preference file and the main application from the app folder. where were the hundreds of megabytes of data I just installed? I suspect that this is not the fault of AppZapper; my guess is that it's tied to the unique installation process of Avery DesignPro.

I then completely deleted the program and reinstalled it, hoping to get some clues from the DesignPro installer by paying closer attention this time around. Alas, it was to no avail. The only noteworthy option I could find in the installation process was a 'customize' prompt within the installer. This option presented me with three choices (meaning I could choose to install or not install three different components by checking a box). The choices: the DesignPro application, a QuickLook plug in, and 'resource files.' No path information was presented. Oddly, each selection displayed as 0 bytes in size regardless of whether the box was checked or not. And there was no indication of what the 'resource files' were and if I really needed them. Not too helpful.

Finally, after the reinstall, I decided to manually search through my Library folders to discover where the application installed its bits and peices (Spotlight, in case you're wondering, did not offer up any clues about the locations of the mystery files...although, in retrospect, I suspect it would have if I had refreshed the index).

Turns out that this app installs in a few locations: your main Library in a folder called DesignPro (which contains about 318 MB of data) and in your user account Library in a folder called DesignPro (which is about 7 MB). The user account library contains a sqlite database, by the way. I'm not sure what the app is storing there, though. I created a few labels and saved them, and the sqlite database remained the exact same size.

When you create a project and save it, it is placed by default in your documents folder. And if you open up your projects, it opens up in the app as expected. I tried out QuickLook on one of these documents, and it does present a preview of the project as advertised.

The moral of the story is this: if you want to delete this application completely, there is an entry in your main Library and your user account Library labeled 'DesignPro.' There is a preference (plist) file located in your user account Preferences folder, as expected. And there is the main application in your Applications folder. I thought this would be handy to pass on since the data that AppZapper missed was over 300 MB in size).

Most of that data is nothing more than templates and clip art. It would be nice to have a choice to NOT install this 'extra' stuff. I suspect this alone would decrease this very large package down to a much more reasonable 20 MB or so. I would also prefer the option to install this app in one user account only. I don't want to install it system-wide.

One thing is certain: if I start to experience weird system behavior and bugginess, at least I know where to start. My first step will be to delete this app.

At any rate, DesignPro seems to work just fine so far.

So what does it do? It helps you create labels of every imaginable shape and size, business cards, name badges, cards, T-shirts, CD/DVD labels, photo badges and more. You can choose from what appears to be about million Avery templates and create a quick design from a template (or create your own design). There are, in fact, over 1,300 template designs and over 2,000 clip art files from which you may choose.

DesignPro handily allows for data merging from Apple Mail and Address Book. It allows you to import images from iPhoto and import playlist data from iTunes for media projects. My initial take is that this is a full-featured product that may come in very handy for designing and printing simple projects using Avery standard labels. As someone who does not use MS Word (I use Pages), it's a welcome addition to quickly create mailing labels, badges, or other sticky-backed print jobs with ease.

Having said that, I would not say that this is the easy-to-use and intuitive Mac user experience claimed by Avery. It will take some getting used to. The user interface is odd. It has the weird feel of a ported Windows application haphazardly mixed with only a few familiar Mac OS elements and controls. It is confusing. It is also packed to the rafters will gratuitous clip art, templates and special effect options which are hauntingly reminiscent of low-cost commercial print packages I recall from my Windows days. But, hey, it is free and it does do the job. It's worth a look.

Microsoft Launches WorldWide Telescope

I just spent an hour playing with Microsoft’s just-released WorldWide Telescope. At first glance, you may dismiss this is as just another space simulator like Starry Night, Stellarium, Celestia, or Google Earth. However, I think it will stand on its own as a unique and extraordinary offering. 

WWT allows you to surf around the galaxy, seamlessly viewing stitched images from our civilization’s best telescopes. Panning and zooming around the galaxy is exceptionally fluid — faster and more immersive than other offerings I’ve seen. The technology behind this is Microsoft’s new high-performance “Visual Experience Engine.”

As one not ordinarily impressed by Microsoft products, I have to say that I really like WWT. The navigation controls are easy to use. The imagery is incredible. As you’re sailing along, the thumbnails along the bottom of the screen instantly update to show you what’s in the neighborhood. You can change views on the fly to look at galaxies, constellations, and other formations at different wavelengths. Overall, you get a sense of where you are in the universe better than other tools I’ve used. One other feature that stands out: slick multimedia guided tours from experts and enthusiasts — and you can create your own tour, too.

I’m always happy to see a new, free astronomy tool for the public. This is certainly a great addition. The only bad news is that it’s Windows-only.

I thought I wouldn’t get the chance to test this package out given the minimum system requirements to run WWT on your Mac:

- Microsoft® XP SP2 (minimum), Windows® Vista® (recommended) with BootCamp - Mac with Intel Core 2 Duo (2.2 GHz or faster) processor recommended - 1 gigabyte (GB) of RAM; 2 GB RAM recommended - NVIDIA GeForce 8600M GT graphics card with 128-MB SDRAM or recommended - HFS+ hard disk format (also known as Mac OS® Extended or HFS Plus) and 10 GB of available hard disk space - 1440 x 900 or higher-resolution monitor
I don't have Windows on BootCamp, but I do have VMWare Fusion 2.0 Beta. My Mac isn't quite 2.2 GHz. But I decided to try it out anyway. After some wrangling, I got it to work. Here's what I'm running:
- MS XP Home Edition SP2 on VMWare Fusion - 24-inch iMac Core 2 Duo/2.16GHz/2MB RAM running Mac OS X 10.5.2 - VMWare Fusion 2.0 Beta (Settings: 2 virtual processors, 1120 MB RAM, Accelerated 3D graphics enabled)
This worked well for me, with a few caveats: I experienced video and audio stutters when clicking on an object for 'more information' or when starting up a tour. I also found the tours played back much more smoothly (with better image quality) after I let them play through once, and then played them again. I also had to reboot after I was finished running the application through VMWare — my Mac was quite sluggish afterwards. Not bad trade-offs, all things considered. One note: I tried cranking up the alloted RAM for my virtual Windows installation all the way up to 1830MB (VMWare's recommended max for 2GB RAM), but this did not work. I experienced severe sluggishness, probably due to memory swapping. It worked fine once I turned the RAM back to 1120MB.

I would run BootCamp, but the version of Windows I own (Home Edition) is not compatible…and I don’t want to buy a newer version of Windows. If you’re in this camp (and your Mac is as good or better than mine), this is a working alternative if you want to try out WWT. It’s worth a look. If you run Windows on BootCamp, definitely give it a try.

RapidWeaver Vs. Wordpress IV: Wrap Up

Realmac's RapidWeaver and WordPress, two popular web publishing choices for the Mac. I would have posted this sooner if not for the recent releases of WordPress 2.5 and RapidWeaver 3.6.6. I've now spent a few days with these new versions, so I'll recap what's new and provide my impressions here.

As I've worked on this comparison, it's become even more apparent how different the two tools are: in terms of user base, RW is a flea to the WP gorilla. In terms of the platform, RW is a Mac-only application that is tied to the desktop, while WP is a free roaming, web-based platform comfortable on a variety of operating systems. And in terms of usage, RW attempts to be an all-inclusive website creation tool while WP specializes in blogging and dynamic content management. Still, I maintain that this is a handy comparison, mainly because RW is more than capable as a blogging platform — and it seems to be gaining in popularity for Mac users. And for bloggers and those who want to blog, WordPress is known to be a widely popular and flexible choice. So I hope to place both tools in context to help you make a better-informed decision. To get the most out of this, I recommend you start by reviewing the other entries in this series.

Now let's wrap it up:

1. RapidWeaver | Developer's site | full review

RapidWeaver Inbox


RapidWeaver targets people with little to no web design experience seeking a simple way to produce a professional-looking, standards-compliant, and highly customizable mixed-content website. It’s a stand-alone, client-side web design tool. As a content management tool, the built-in capabilities of this app are easy to use; and the user interface is much friendlier than most other web-based content management systems. It’s also easy to set up and maintain. It’s used by experienced developers, too, because it’s a handy way to quickly build and deploy a site with minimal fuss, and it’s fairly easy to create custom templates.


great themes from RW and third-party developers; customization options are outstanding for most themes; dedicated user base; great forums and customer support; outstanding third-party add-ons; easy to modify a site for beginners; frequent updates and improvements; Snippets library makes it easy to drag and drop bits of often-used code


Not free like WordPress; blog commenting is handled by HaloScan, so it's not well-integrated with the app; many third-party plugins are relatively expensive; some paid plugins seem like they should be core features; occasional quirky and/or buggy behavior; loading up a large site is slow; publishing a large site is still a bit slow and occasionally doesn't work (see next paragraph); some of the site customization/configurability options are not very obvious or well-explained; not easy to mix and match dynamic/static content on a page; doesn't integrate with MarsEdit for blogging

Latest Update:

RapidWeaver 3.6.6 is now out. While this is a relatively modest update, the developers claim that upload speed is now significantly enhanced. I tested this claim out on my wife's site by inserting some custom javascript for her blog page and then publishing the changes with the previous version of RW (this forced an update on 140 files for her site). I then deleted the change, updated the site again, then applied the update. Finally, I reapplied the javascript update and published changes again to see if it was substantially faster. In this case, publishing speeds were marginally, but not significantly, faster. On 3.6.6, I had to publish changes twice because one of her pages failed to upload. Once this happens, RW times out and simply stops updating. The only way to get out of the publishing mode is to Force Quit. So I've concluded that progress is being made, but I'm still seeing a bit of bugginess with my wife's large site. My wife still maintains that she must quit all open applications on the Mac prior to publishing her RW site in order to minimize the odds of a publishing error. Perhaps we have a third-party conflict. It's hard to say. All I've concluded is that most times the site publishes without a problem, but sometimes it fails. Final word: Realmac quickly released 3.6.7 to address a Tiger-specific problem days after 3.6.6 hit the streets. The developers recommend that Leopard users also update to this latest iteration. The catch is that Leopard users are not notified of the update through RW's software update feature. You can get it here.

The Verdict

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

Like chess, RapidWeaver is easy to learn but hard to master. It takes some time and dedication to learn how to customize sitewide preferences, page-specific preferences, sidebar content options and meta options. This is mainly because it takes a while to get used to the wide array of pop-up menus that contain all the customization and optimization tools. While it's easy to get a site up quickly, most users will need to dig into the manual and online forums to take advantage of all that RW offers.

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

Oh yeah. I really enjoy using it. It may be daunting for newcomers to grasp how some aspects of the program work, but it's still much simpler than most other tools out there relative to the sheer amount of user-control possibilities.

3. How easy is it to modify?

It's among the best. The coolest part is how a user with no CSS experience can robustly adjust site appearance (to include drop-dead easy manipulation of sidebar location, as well as page width for many themes). The developers have clearly put a tremendous amount of effort into creating a user interface that makes it possible for novices to customize a site beyond what most other website creation tools offer; added to this, the developers freely share developer kits to give more experienced users complete control over their sites, or to develop commercial plugins and themes.

4. How easy is to set up a website and publish content?

Quite easy, but you will need to have a web host and know how to set up an FTP account (you can also publish to .Mac).

5. How well does it handle lots and lots of pages and blog entries (scalability)?

I've previously noted that I have some concerns about this. According to the developers, this issue is a top priority for future releases. I'm confident they'll work it out.

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

This is where RapidWeaver really stands out. I think the developers do a great job at striking a balance between simplicity and power to meet the need of most users. The design is clean. Mac users will find most controls are familiar since the tool is built with Mac OS X's native language. That also means that it integrates tightly with the Mac OS. I say it's as slick as Apple's iWeb, just twice as powerful.

7. How many plugins, add ons, etc. are available (expandability)?

Better by the day. Check out the Add-Ons on the developer's site for a taste of what's available.

Overall, I think RapidWeaver is a wonderful tool. It focuses on simplicity, minimalism, and style — but it packs a lot of choices, features, and customization options within. While there is certainly room for improvement, RW is rapidly evolving: since version 3.6 launched at the end of last May, seven significant updates have already been released. And version 4.0 is just around the corner. If you want to get a great-looking site up fast and want a simple way to maintain it, this is probably the best tool out there for the Mac.


1. WordPress | Developer's site | full review



I reviewed the open source package (not to be confused with the installation), which is a free blog publishing system for Mac, PC, or Linux. It is first and foremost a tool for the weblog, designed to support things that bloggers need most. If you don’t want to pay any money upfront, flexibility and customization options are important to you, and you have some (or great) knowledge of CSS and HTML, it’s a solid choice. If you don’t know anything about web design, you will still get a lot out of it because the basic administration tools are robust and there are tons of plugins and themes available to make your site unique. Also note that there is a multi-user WordPress option if you want multiple blogs from one installation.


free; easy to set up; tons of free templates; plugins abound; edit your site from anywhere, or mail in updates; great integration with MarsEdit; fairly easy to upgrade; newly redesigned Dashboard much cleaner and easier to use; one-click updating now available for most plugins; great online documentation


theme modification difficult for those with no web design experience; limited support if you use installation; the multitude of site settings may be daunting for some users; web interface is great, but no match for simplicity of RapidWeaver

Latest Update:

A major new version of WP was released hours after I posted my review. I posted a summary of the big changes and have spent the past week getting used to the new features. The big news with WordPress 2.5 is certainly the Dashboard (admin Panel): it's completely different. I have to say I think it's much better than the old design. The starting page of the Dashboard is now much more useful and is now user-customizable. Another nice feature is that you no longer need to update plugins manually, which saves time and effort. I also like the new built-in function that enables easier gallery creation. And if you upload images with EXIF data, WP now reads this metadata automatically so you can integrate it into your template. Check out this WP blog entry for a full list of new features and a great screencast.

The Verdict

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

I initially had to refer to online documentation to set up my site and to learn how to upgrade it, but it's not too hard. If you need help with the installation, many web hosts now offer automatic installs. With the release of 2.5, the Dashboard (Admin Panel) is now much easier to grasp, mainly because all of the plugin management and back end settings have been moved out of the main Admin area to, appropriately, a separate 'settings' section. I think most users will find the basic admin tools are very easy to use. Fine tuning a site's settings takes a little more patience and time to get right.

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

Certainly. I'm still using WP for this site. I have long thought I'd like to switch to different platform called ModX, but I'm reconsidering this now. One reason is that I have a lot of time and energy invested in my WP site and it would be a major inconviencence and time-sucker to make the switch. Second reason is I'm not sure how I'd migrate over the posts and comments to this new platform. Last reason is that the new version of WP offers a lot of nice new features. Like RW, WordPress releases updates quite frequently, so I'm optimistic that this is a platform that will continue to get better and better over time.

3. How easy is it to modify?

This is perhaps the weak link in WordPress. While content management is easy, WP themes are not as easily customized as they are in RapidWeaver. To be fair, some themes do offer some easier-to-use style editing options (e.g. Kubrick offers a fairly easy way to modify header image, fonts and color), but choices are limited. In order to access all theme customization settings, the Dashboard Theme Editor presents your theme's style sheet and PHP page code within a text window; the problem is that most novice users probably won't be comfortable modifying this code. Still, I'd bet that most users are probably quite happy with picking a theme and sticking with it, and those who want to create a custom site will likely know what to do. What's nice about the built-in view of your site pages is that you can remotely make changes if you're away from your Mac. I personally never use the built-in WP theme editor functions. I maintain and adjust my theme on my Mac using CSSEdit and TextMate. For novice users who take the time to learn a little bit about CSS, simple color and font changes can be made relatively easily within the WP Dashboard.

4. How easy is to set up a website and publish content?

It's quite easy if you're using the web-based Dashboard editor (version 2.5 now offers a greatly improved WYSIWYG editor that works better and is expandable so you don't have to work within such a tiny window. It's even easier if you use MarsEdit. The nice thing about WP, of course, is that it's a pretty simple to use Content Management System — all of your core content is easy to get at and relatively easy to modify via the Dashboard's Write, Manage, Design, and Comments tabs. I can't speak for uploading images, video, etc. via the Dashboard. I upload all external files using Transmit, an FTP client. I should note that version 2.5 now offers multi-file upload with progress bar indicators, so it sounds like it's now easier than it's ever been to upload files via the Dashboard.

5. How well does it handle lots and lots of pages and blog entries (scalability)?

I've never heard any complaints in this department. My site, while not huge, is still fairly large. I've never had any issues or problems that I've associated with the size and complexity of my site.

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

If I were managing my site design and content solely via the WP Dashboard, I don't think I'd be as happy with WordPress as a blogging platform. However, adding in some additional tools, as I noted in the main review, makes WP fly. It's no small thing that some of my favorite Mac apps (CSSEdit, TextMate, MarsEdit, Transmit) work seamlessly with WordPress, so this makes managing my site a real pleasure. As for the Dashboard, it's better than ever with version 2.5. And it's better than most web-based CMS panels. But in comparison to the third-party apps I use to manage this site, the Dashboard just doesn't compare. All I really use the Dashboard for, in fact, is to manage my plugins and check my WP stats. Regardless, the best thing about it is that I can access all of my site anywhere, anytime. That's something I can't do with RapidWeaver.

7. How many plugins, add ons, etc. are available (expandability)?

Enough to make your head spin. If you want a feature in your sidebar, chances are a widget already exists to meet your needs. The built-in Text widget also allows one to cut and paste HTML, text, and javascript on the fly to create new widget functionality. It couldn't be easier. There are a mind-numbing array of themes freely available. As for plugins (beyond the Widget), there are tons of options to choose from. Plugin variety and ease of use are the killer feature of WordPress.

In summary, WordPress is hard to beat for blogging. It's powerful, adaptable and simple enough to use. One of the best parts about it is that the user base and plugin/theme developer base are huge, which means that an answer to a question you may have or an extended feature that you may want are only a quick web search away.



I started this series because I noticed that a lot of people were reaching the site upon searching for a comparison of these two applications. What's apparent to me after taking a closer look is this: if you want the easiest possible solution and you don't mind paying $49, RapidWeaver is the way to go. If you want open-ended flexibility and care primarily about blogging, you may prefer WordPress.

And now, a message from our sponsor. Just joking. There are no sponsors. I'm looking at these two web publishing tools solely because I want to and I've used both of them quite extensively. I have no ties to the developers. Of course, there are many other website creation tools, blogging tools and CMS platforms out there. My recommendation: try out two or three before making up your mind. I've said this before, but it's worth repeating: you can easily test out a variety of web-based platforms locally on your Mac using the freely-available MAMP. And, of course, RapidWeaver offers a timed trial (as do almost all Mac third party apps) which will give you plenty of time to make up your mind.

If you were expecting a clear winner between these two publishing platforms, you may be disappointed by my conclusion that WordPress and RapidWeaver are both great choices.

In fact, you might consider using both tools: WordPress for your blog and RapidWeaver for everything else. This great suggestion came from reader Brab, who runs Moveable Type in tandem with a RapidWeaver for his site. It's a good way to go if you're looking for total blog control but also want the style, ease and flexibility of RapidWeaver. The idea of combining the best of both tools is very appealing. My biggest concern is how well I could integrate the two, but I came across a tutorial which indicates it's entirely possible to make WP and RW coexist seamlessly. I might have to try this out.

So, that's about it for the RapidWeaver Vs. WordPress series. Hope you get something out of it.

Mac Hearing Aids

I decided to stick with the audio theme today because there’s a new Mac sound enhancement app on the streets. It’s called Hear, it’s from a company called JoeSoft and it’s now available for $49.95.

Here’s the hype about Hear (from the developer’s site): “Hear greatly improves audio quality in movies and music throughout all of your Mac OS X applications. With Hear, music is richer, movie sound and dialog is clearer and games will blow you out of your chair!”

Here’s what you need to know: Hear appears to be a repackaged, more polished and (according to forum reports) less buggy version of a Mac app called OSS 3D. OSS 3D is the creation of Dmitry Boldyrev, the developer of MacAmp (now defunct) and WinAmp (still a popular Windows media player, now a Time Warner AOL subsidiary). As I understand it, OSS 3D development has now ended with the release of Hear.

I tried the OSS 3D demo last Fall (which, incidentally, costs $20 less than Hear; you can still buy it, but there is not and never will be a Leopard version). I also downloaded the new Hear demo today.

What do they have in common? A scary number of users options that may intimidate you. I tweaked some of the various and plentiful manual controls for a while — long enough to convince me I didn’t know what I was doing. Then I headed for the presets. I tested Hear with a range of music and a video using built-in settings optimized for various types of musics, scenarios, 3D, etc. I listened to some sound with my built-in iMac speakers. I listened with my headphones. I listened with my plug-in JBL desktop speakers.

My preliminary conclusion is that this product has potential, but I’m not convinced many people will dish out $50 for the potential of enhanced sound. I say ‘potential’ because my results were mixed — I achieved some pleasant results, some painful results. I was surprised that some of the presets just didn’t sound very good to me. I had some distortion issues. When I chose a ‘rock’ genre song from my collection and then chose the ‘rock’ preset in Hear… I have to say it sounded better without it.

If you are a serious audiophile, an audio professional, and/or more knowledgeable about audio settings than me, you may love this. Reading through the OSS 3D forums, it appears that there are (were) many passionate OSS 3D users who swear by this digital enhancement package, and Hear appears to be the new face of OSS 3D.

It would be unfair of me to say this isn’t a good product after such a short trial. More likely, it’s user ignorance. Still, what I look for in a good Mac app is usability right from the install. I didn’t get that sense here. I also didn’t get adequate user documentation. But I’ll end on a positive note: it did sound good when I ran it straight through my iMac speakers. It produced a solid subwoofer sound and made my built-in speakers sound better (wider, deeper, more robust). It also produced some noticeable and nice 3D enhancement with the video I tested out.

If sound is important to you, why not give Hear a try. They offer a 30-day trial. You may have a better experience than I.

I’ll close by noting that I currently use SRS iWow ($19.99), a plug-in for iTunes. It improves the sound of iTunes music quite significantly — especially for laptop speakers. It also simulates 360 degree sound for headphones. I use it with my iMac and it makes a noticeable difference. I like it. Mostly because it’s very easy to use and the results sound quite good to my ears (I immediately know when it’s not turned on when listening to my music). The one thing it doesn’t do, though, is work outside of iTunes. That’s a big shortcoming. I’d like to see this tool integrated into all of my Mac’s audio output.

Until that day, it appears that Hear is the main game in town for system-wide audio enhancement. If anyone knows of any other similar app, please let me know.

ImageWell and the Low Cost Image Editor

ImageWell, a lightweight image editor for the Mac, is no longer offered as a free download. With today’s launch of version 3.5, the developers now offer only one choice: a paid full-feature version for $19.95. Prior to 3.5, a limited version of the app was offered for free with an upgrade option to unlock more powerful features.

ImageWell excels at quick and simple processing (aimed primarily for images heading for the web). It specializes in watermarking, adding annotations, creating shaped borders, taking screenshots, and batch processing. It’s not a bad option for a fast, easy to use, tiny little app if your image editing needs are light.

ImageWell offers a lot of what you will find with Skitch. In fact, you may find that the free Skitch beta serves up more choice, flexibility and options if your main interests are capturing screenshots, marking them up, and sharing them online. However, you’ll get more image editing functionality with ImageWell. In this respect, it’s most similar to Flying Meat’s Acorn in that both emphasize lightness, low cost, and simplicity and strive to meet most of your basic image editing and image sharing needs.

Perhaps the developers of ImageWell are making a smart move by staking out the low end of the Mac image editing field. The feature set and the price are not bad. I think the developers are trying to head for that sweet spot between Skitch and Acorn: not as much power as Acorn, but more features than Skitch, for the relatively low price of $19.95. Sure, the user interface is not as elegant as Acorn’s and it’s not free like Skitch (and who knows if Skitch will be free once it leaves Beta status) but it’s cheap and it offers a lot of tools. Acorn offers more image editing possibilities and is easier to use. Of course, it costs $30 more than ImageWell, too — a pretty big price gap.

I’ll be curious to see how this change in strategy pans out for the ImageWell developers.

If you’re looking for a cheap, simple editor (cheaper and simpler than, say, Photoshop) but think your image editing needs may grow over time, take a look at some of the other low cost desktop apps out there like Pixelmator ($60) and GraphicConvertor ($35) before you make a decision. Of course, you could also see if the various free online editors meet your needs. If all you want is a quick drag-and-drop tool to create nice thumbnail images for your blog or website, you may also want to try Thumbscrew (free).

WordPress 2.5 released

Just a few short hours after I posted my WordPress review, version 2.5 was released. Of course this is a very major update, and of course my review is for version 2.3 (the prior version — there is no 2.4).

The new release offers, among other improvements: simpler plugin updating, easier gallery creation, a much better Dashboard (admin panel), enhanced security features, full-screen writing capability, a better WYSIWYG editor, and better searching capability (that now indexes static pages in addition to posts). Check out the full list of improvements here.

I just completed the upgrade. It installed flawlessly. The changes to the admin panel are indeed very substantial. It’ll take some time to get used to. The automatic plugin updating is quite nice, I have to say. Also, the Dashboard ‘start’ page is much more useful than the previous version.

The only minor problem I’ve noticed so far is that the WP Archive widget named has changed from ‘Archives’ to ‘Archive.’ This is significant if you use image replacement for the widget title — you’ll have to update your CSS to reflect the new name.

I also noticed that the new wp-config.php is different from previous versions, so be sure to use this updated file (this file hasn’t changed in a long while, so I’m guessing that many people are in the habit of keeping their existing config file during upgrades).

The easiest way to do this is to copy over your old MySQL settings (user name, password, database name) into the new file (which is called ‘wp-config-sample.php’), delete the old config file, then delete the word ‘sample’ from the wp-config-sample.php file.

The difference in this file is the addition of a secure key field. Enter a long, complicated key in this field as indicated (no need to remember it). This is part of a new secure cookie encryption protocol.

I’ll add my thoughts on this new version when I post the RapidWeaver Vs. WordPress final wrap-up.

RapidWeaver Vs. Wordpress III: WordPress review

This is the third in a four part series comparing WordPress with RapidWeaver (and speaking of RapidWeaver, don’t miss the comment from a lead RW developer on that review).

WordPress, a blog publishing system for Mac, PC, or Linux. I’m assuming that most people who read this probably have heard of WordPress and have perhaps noted that many blogs use it. In terms of blogging platforms, WP ranks second in use only to Google’s Blogger. That equates to millions of users. What accounts for this popularity? In short, it works. And it’s free. Not only can you get a blog up and running quickly with WordPress, you can manage your blog with one of the best browser-based administration panels out there.

If you’re considering WordPress, you need to understand the difference between and


The .com option is the WordPress answer to Blogger. It’s a commercial web hosting venture which employs a version of WP that allows for multiple blogs within one installation. Once you sign up, you get hosting space, automatic installation, and a fixed number of themes, plugins, and widgets to customize your site. In general, you won’t be able to modify much and you can’t put ads on it. However, you will be able to modify more than you would with Blogger. You’ll be able to choose from a palette of widgets, move them around on your sidebar, choose a header photo (this option is only available with some themes), and activate some plugins, but you won’t be able to style your page or modify the theme layout/design with the free package. Nor will you be able to choose from the wider universe of WP plugins and widgets available around the web.

The basic package is free, but there are paid upgrades if you want to customize the styles of your chosen theme, get more storage space, or change your domain name to something other than Most users choose the option because it’s easier to use, it’s just as free as the .org version, it offers better technical support, and it includes site hosting.

Last point: since you will be using tried and tested themes, plugins and widgets with this option, you will be ensured of a standards-compliant site.


The .org option offers an open source package of core files to run a WP blog. It is free to use and abuse however you’d like within the terms of the General Public License. If you choose this option, you will get a download of the files needed to make WordPress run, but you won’t get a place to host it, you’ll have to install it yourself and you won’t get dedicated support. You will, however, have access to a veritable sea of plugins, widgets, and themes — and you’ll be able to fully customize and tweak your site. In other words, you have a level of freedom unmatched by what you’d get from a hosted blog. If you want the full features of the .org version, but don’t want to deal with the hassle of setting it up, there are many hosts that offer automatic installation (or you can get a WP expert to install your blog for free if your web host meets the requirements).

Last point: you may also choose the multi-user version of WP if you want the ability to have limitless blogs with unlimited authors with only one installation. It’s freely available as well (and, in case you are wondering, it’s the same platform used by

This rest of this review will focus on the package because the flexibility inherent in this version most closely approximates the full capabilities of RapidWeaver.

Who is it for


While RapidWeaver is a website creation tool that also supports blogging, WordPress is first and foremost a tool for the weblog. Sure, you can add static pages to a WP site, but it is primarily designed to handle dynamic content. And it’s designed to support things that bloggers need most (moderating comments, managing posts, adding categories and tags etc.) right out of the box. While you can add photo pages, videos, and a variety of other content to your WordPress blog (either in posts or on stand-alone pages), it is generally not as easy of a task as it would be on RapidWeaver. And that’s the main difference. If you don’t want to pay any money up front, flexibility and customization options are important to you, and you have some (or great) knowledge of CSS and HTML, it’s a superb choice. It doesn’t hurt to know a bit about PHP and MySQL, too. If you don’t know anything about this stuff, you will still get a lot out of it because the basic administration tools are quite simple and robust. You just won’t be able to customize your site design/layout as much as you might like without a bit of research and studying.

About Themes, Plugins, and Widgets


Just like RapidWeaver, WordPress is based on the template (WP calls them themes). As I’ve noted before, templates are great because they are generally designed by people who know something about, well, design. Most of the hard work is done for you. However, if you roam far and wide for WP themes, you may find that some of them are not standards-compliant. Most are, though. However, they may no longer be compliant once you’re done modifying them. Fortunately, your can test this out compliments of the free W3C validation tools.

In addition to themes, WP offers plug-and-play extendability with plugins and widgets. Plugins are bits of code created by clever individuals that extend your site’s functionality. There are a ton of them out there and they are generally extremely easy to deploy. Some of the most popular are Askimet (a very effective spam filtering plugin), the ‘All in One SEO pack’ (to easily optimize your site for search engines), Google Analytics (to get some site stats), stats (more stats — you need to sign up for to use them on your site but that doesn’t mean you need a site), and Lightbox (responsible for the screenshot behavior of this site). But that’s just the very tip of a large iceberg. The WordPress plugin page is a good place to start your search.

Widgets are a special type of plugin. They are basically chunks of code that you can mix and match with ease to customize you sidebar content. WordPress comes with a bunch of widgets out of the box (search tool, calendar, recent posts, etc.), but that’s just the start. In addition to the standard WP widgets, for instance, this site uses an enhanced blogroll widget (which rotates links every time the page is loaded), an enhanced recent comments widget (to display chunks of the most recent comments) and a Feedburner widget (to optimize this site’s RSS feed).

Adding plugins, themes, and extra widgets to your site is easy. I’ll touch on this in the next section.

The basics of how it works

Now let's take a step back and take a deeper look at how WordPress is setup and how you manage it. I'm not going to go into great detail here, but it's important to have a basic understanding of how it's put together. Once you install WP at the desired location on your web host, the first thing you notice is that there are a heck of a lot of files and folders. Fortunately, pretty much everything you need to access is located in one folder labeled wp-content.


Inside there, you’ll find a plugins folder, an uploads folder, and a themes folder. My assumption here is that you have some sort of FTP client with which to install and view these files. If you don’t, you’ll need one. I use Panic’s Transmit.

Installing new themes and plugins couldn’t be easier (remember: extra widgets are also installed as plugins): you drop your new theme files in the themes folder; and (you guessed it) you place plugins in the plugins folder. The uploads folder is a good place to store images and other files that you want to place on pages or in posts. This organization scheme permits you to change themes on the fly while ensuring that your plugins and extra files remain properly in place. In other words, all of the images, files, and plugins are separate from your theme. That way, you can change your theme and your site maintains the same functionality and content, just with a new look.

All of your posts, comments, tags, etc. are also separate from your theme files — they are stored in a MySQL database. WordPress works its magic with PHP, an open source language that dynamically calls up and displays data and content from your database. It’s a bit complicated if you’ve never worked with it, but WordPress offers extensive documentation to help you understand how a site is managed. In a nutshell, the theme files control the layout/design and styles of your site (and you can manually add static content in here, too). The theme also contains all the PHP functionality that makes your blog dynamic. If this all sounds complicated, it is. It takes some getting used to. Once you get it down, though, you’ll find that WP is perhaps more robust and flexible than RapidWeaver, mainly because all of WP is accessible for modification and the pool of people who make plugins and themes for the WP platform is huge.

The hardest part to get used to with WP is how the PHP pages are split up into sections (into separate header, footer, index, etc). When you load up a WP blog page, all these disparate parts are called into play via the PHP code and then reassembled on the fly to spit out a dynamically-generated HTML page in your browser. When I first started to understand how all of these PHP files work together (and I confess I don’t understand all of it) it struck me as quite ingenious. It reminds me of an analog watch: looked at from the front, it’s a stylish, simple interface that tells the time. But open up the back, and you reveal a blur of cogs and springs and little gears somehow working together to create the time. Anyhow, to really get it, be prepared to spend some time with it. My suggestion? Try installing two copies of WP on your web host (one to use for your blog, one to hide and play with) or install MAMP on your Mac and install a copy of WP there. MAMP, by the way, is a great tool to set up a personal webserver.

While RapidWeaver content and user options are manipulated on a page-by-page basis and via inspector panes, WordPress is managed from a browser via a web-based Admin panel. The obvious benefit of this approach is that you are not tied to your desktop to manage your site. The Admin panel is the heart and soul of WP. It’s designed to give you the tools you need to effectively manage a site, even if you’ve never done anything like this before. For the most part, it succeeds. There are many aspects of the admin panel that I really appreciate. For instance, it’s very easy to activate and deactivate plugins. It’s as simple as turning them off and on. The discussion (comment) moderation is also excellent. You can choose to moderate every comment, just moderate comments from new users, or choose many options in between to get your settings just right. The built in commenting options blow RapidWeaver’s external comment solution out of the water. In fact, many say it’s the best of any platform.

In fact, the level of fidelity with which you can control almost every aspect of your blog is superior. Given this tool is specialized for blogging, perhaps that’s not too surprising. You will also appreciate how easy it is to delete or edit a comment, monitor registered users, and move Widgets around (which is a pleasant drag-and-drop experience). You can also email posts in remotely with a few simple set-up steps. Like RapidWeaver, though, some of the admin windows are so chock full of options that it can be confusing to grasp.

For me, the weak link in the Admin panel is the tab for writing a new post. WP allows you to enter your post via a WYSIWYG or code-based window, but I find it to be clunky and limiting. At times, I’ve made changes to my posts via this panel only to find that other parts of my code changed in unexpected ways. I shudder at the thought of typing up a lengthy post (like this one) through the Admin panel. Likewise, I don’t care for uploading images or files for my posts via the Admin panel. I think it’s tedious; and it’s awkward to go back and move or change file names using the panel. My preference for editing and modifying posts? More on that in the next section.

To summarize the basics: you add themes and plugins by dropping them into folders on your web host using an FTP client; you manage all of your content, presentation options and plugins via the Admin panel; you change the design of your site by modifying the PHP and CSS files of your theme. Easy right? It’s actually not as complicated as it may sound, and it’s much easier if you use some good third party Mac apps.

Using Third Party Apps


Much more so than RapidWeaver, WordPress benefits greatly from the addition of third-party editing tools. For instance, I previously noted that I find writing posts on the web-based Admin panel a little annoying. It’s not that the WP Admin panel is bad. It’s actually quite good, especially compared to other CMS admin panels I’ve used. Still, once I tried MarsEdit I discovered how much better the experience could be. If there is one companion tool that is a must-have for writing, editing, tagging, and categorizing posts, this is it. Some people choose to set up MarsEdit to accurately preview what the post will look like. As I’ve mentioned, I post to a local server on my Mac on a mirror copy of this website using MarsEdit. I polish it locally, then publish it once I’m done. I find this to be an ideal set up.

Another third party tool you will need is a good FTP client. This will be useful when you need to update WP to a newer version (make sure you back it up first!), add new plugins or upload images.

If you are inclined to create/modify your theme, you will also benefit from an external editor such as TextMate or BBEdit/TextWrangler and a CSS editor like CSSEdit. I don’t want to go to deeply into this topic, but I want to point out that WP really rocks when you get a good workflow going with some extra tools. Of course, this comes at a cost. If I add together all of the third party tools I use to manage the site, WP actually cost me about as much as RapidWeaver! I have to ask myself how much of the pleasure of working with WordPress is due to these additional Mac apps. Tools like CSSEdit, TextMate, MarsEdit, and Transmit truly make it a pleasant workflow. In fact, one of the main reasons I stuck with WP for this site is because I really like to use these tools. Sounds kind of silly, perhaps, but I’ll stick by it.

Here’s one final tip: you can set up your WordPress admin panel to appear as a desktop application (and put it in your Dock) using a little app called Fluid. It’s still in Beta, but I’ve found it works great. With Fluid, in fact, you can set up any web-based app to function as a stand-alone application. Very handy.



So here’s the thing about WordPress: it’s a question of how far you want to take it. Pretty much anything you want to do is possible, but the need to understand a bit of what’s going on with the code behind the scenes increases exponentially the more you deviate from the standard WP model. In this sense, WordPress is an excellent training tool to learn about PHP, MySQL, CSS, and XHMTL. As I’ve said, I strongly recommend installing a version locally on your Mac using MAMP just for this purpose. Over time, you’ll start to gain the ability to bend your site to your will with greater skill. Until that time, however, you’ll be surprised how far you can get with existing themes, plugins and widgets.

While it’s certainly harder to set up (if you do it yourself!) and has a steeper learning curve than RapidWeaver, where you can take your blog with this version of WP is limited only to your ability, imagination and experience level.

What do I love about WordPress?

º It's free º It's easy to set up and maintain º Templates, plugins, and widgets abound º The admin panel is full-featured and about as intuitive as any that I've seen º It integrates exceptionally well with other editing tools, particularly MarsEdit

What's not to love?

º Compared to RapidWeaver, editing your site styles is more difficult º Editing your theme is even harder for beginners º The built-in WP theme editor is not easy to use º Updating a WP installation takes some patience and knowledge of FTP; it's also a bit scary º Compared to RW, support for adding slick graphics, javascript, video, etc. is certainly not as simple (but there are many plugins to help you along) º Since you can do whatever you want with this WP installation, it's easier to break web standards

If you are looking for a free and flexible tool to fire up your own blog, WP is a solid choice. It’s not only free and flexible, but there are just tons of user-created add-ons that you can quickly drop right in to your site. If you get stuck, you’re in luck: the web is rife with tips and tutorials and fixes for WordPress. I haven’t come across a problem yet for which I couldn’t find a ready-made answer online within a few minutes of searching. The user forums are great and instructions are comprehensive. The last thing I’ll note is that WordPress could do a better job at explaining the various options available for new users (.org, .com, multi-user, etc.). It took me a while to sort it out. I hope this review helps some readers make an informed choice.

That wraps it up. Next, I’ll conclude this series with a final summary comparison of RapidWeaver and WordPress.

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.

RapidWeaver Vs. WordPress II: RapidWeaver review

Realmac’s RapidWeaver, a Mac-only web publishing tool.

Who is it for?

RapidWeaver targets people with little to no web design experience seeking a simple way to produce a professional-looking, standards-compliant, and highly customizable mixed-content website. By 'mixed-content,' I mean that it handles both static and dynamic content. But it's not just for those new to web publishing. It's used by experienced developers, too, because it's a handy way to quickly build and deploy a site with minimal fuss, and it's fairly easy to create custom templates.

What is it?

It's a stand-alone web design and Content Management System (CMS) that runs locally from your computer. As a content management tool, the built-in capabilities of this app are easy to use — and the user interface is much friendlier than most other web-based content management systems. It's also easier to set up since you don't have to worry about potentially complicated installation procedures. For instance, you don't have to set up a database on your server to get your blog up and running. The down side to this is that you can't manage your content remotely from a web browser (with a few caveats, which I'll go into later). For the most part, you need to be sitting at your Mac when you want to work on your site.

Like iWeb and WordPress (and other CMS solutions), RW is built around the assumption that it’s desirable to start out with well-built, professionally-designed, battle-tested templates. This is desirable because (a) most people don’t have the time, inclination or ability to produce a site design and (b) templates help ensure that sites meet web standards.

What I’ve just labeled a ‘template’ in the previous paragraph, RapidWeaver calls a ‘theme.’ What’s the difference? Themes are flexible templates. For most blogging tools or content management platforms, a user will find a theme he or she likes, apply it to their site and that’s pretty much it. The average user may change some basic colors and fonts for a given template, but they typically don’t have the ability or the inclination to readily modify much else. A RapidWeaver theme, on the other hand, empowers the user to really dig in and modify the template to make it his or her own.

For the novice, themes may be the killer feature of this program. With themes, some of the style variables that may be modified with ease include site colors, font families, page width (to include flexible and fixed width options within one theme), header image, and sidebar position. Most themes also offer several pre-defined styles from which you can choose as well, which is nice for those who have trouble picking complimentary colors or matching thematic elements.

The customization parameters of a theme are really only limited by how many options the theme developer builds into it. RapidWeaver comes with a slew of nice themes. If you don’t find what you like within these options, there are many top-notch third-party themes available (most will cost you around ten dollars or so, but many are free).

While most people will use a pre-designed theme, the RealMac developers provide a great tutorial and a software development kit for those who wish to create their own (for their own use, to give away, or to sell). Note for those of you who are interested in creating a theme: RapidWeaver works this magic by saving theme variables within an Apple property list (plist) file. It’s a standard XML file, which makes it a breeze to add to and modify theme properties.

Conceptually speaking, RapidWeaver places the design and management of your site in the background so you can concentrate on content, content, content. But that’s not to say that it doesn’t offer robust design/management tools. On the contrary, the app provides very effective management and customization tools, support for search engine optimization and advanced-user options (such as adding your own java, PHP, special assets, or custom CSS on a per-page or site-wide basis). Most of the configuration and customization options are deployed through a plethora of tabbed pop-up windows (commonly referred to as ‘inspectors’ in Mac parlance). You open them up when you need them; otherwise, you close them up and they stay out of your way.

All things considered, the developers have created a clean interface to manage just about all aspects of a site — which will especially appeal to those new to web development. The idea is that you won’t ever need to get at the code behind the scenes (if you don’t want to, that is). RW is so confident that most users will never have to mess with underlying code that the developers don’t even present an option to view the code through the application’s user interface ( actually, they used to have an option to view the code in earlier versions of the program, but no longer do. This was a good choice because the displayed code in the earlier versions was not directly editable. That was just annoying). Not to worry though — you can get to the code if you need to. UPDATE: I’ve learned from the RW forums that you can still toggle the code view by invoking the shortcut ⌘-Alt-U.

If you’re used to directly editing style sheets and web code, you may find the ‘RapidWeaver method’ a little awkward and limiting; the developers took many of the common things you would normally do ‘under the hood’ and gave them their own front-end user interface. If you’ve never hand-coded anything, no need to worry: RW’s built-in tools allow even the most novice user to jump right in and start modifying site colors, fonts, sidebar position, site metadata, etc. without ever needing to access the code. There are also some third-party tools you can buy to help you access images for easy modification (see RWmultitool). Alternatively, you can modify a theme by locating it’s associated package at /Your User Account/Library/Application Support/RapidWeaver/ and opening up the associated HTML and CSS files in the editor of your choice


The workflow

The RW workflow is simple: you choose a template, you add pages, you publish it to your web host. All you need to get started is a copy of RW, a remote web host and an FTP or .Mac account. What makes it special is how easy it is to do this, the good looks of the resulting site and the versatility of the 'theme' framework. RW also stands out in terms of how quickly you can deploy a site. How fast is it? It depends on how much customization you want to do. I was able to launch a site with a blog, multiple static pages and a photo album page in about 30 minutes. That's not too bad. I set up a fairly complex website for my wife that features a blog, dozens of static pages, customized graphics, and a highly modified template in about 6 hours of non-contiguous work. That's pretty good, too.

The core of this editing area (the main place where you add your content) is the RW page. You can add a variety of pages, ranging from a fully-featured blog to straight HTML code. Each page type you choose defines how you add content to that element. If you choose to create a blog page, for instance, the content area is specialized with fields unique to things you need to add for blog entries. Makes sense. If you choose a photo album page, you get a totally different content area, specialized for iPhoto integration and drag-and-drop simplicity. The designers have obviously put a lot of thought into creating simple interfaces for a wide variety of page types. Chances are that you will not need to refer to the manual very often, except when it comes to understanding all of the options in the RW Inspector panes. That is, each page type is associated with a specific inspector pane, and each inspector pane is chock full of customization options.

While this equates to a platform that allows users to quickly and easily deploy a site, there is a downside. Since RW makes it so easy to publish a site, many users won’t bother to (or won’t know that they should) fill in site metadata and other details. I have a suggestion for the RealMac developers: it it would be a good idea to provide some tooltips or otherwise-integrated instructions to better explain the myriad customization options available for each page type, the page inspector, and the site inspector.

For example, it’s very quick and easy to create a page. However, it may not be readily apparent to users with no web design experience that you also need to name the folder and file for that page. It would be helpful if the developers built in some sort of warning message when users hit the ‘Publish’ button as a heads up that some of the parameters have not yet been defined.

In the example above, for instance, a helpful message might say ‘Wait! Before you publish your site, you should name your folders and files for the pages you’ve created. This is an important step that will make your site easier to index by search engines. It’s also necessary for blog entries so your permalinks are meaningful.' Or something like that…

There are many other examples of instances where tips and other helpful messages would be helpful to ensure the site is properly set up. Imagine you’ve never published a website before. You may wonder: What’s a meta tag? Why should I worry about this meta stuff? What’s ‘page expiration?’ What’s the difference between optimized, tidied, and default code? And so on. I think the program would really benefit from some additional cues to help users along. This, of course, assumes that most people won’t read the manual or dig into the forums. I think that’s a safe assumption, especially for an app that draws so many people with little knowledge of these things precisely because it’s supposed to be so simple to use.

Remote management (for Bloggers only)

I mentioned that there were a couple of caveats to the statement that "you can't manage your site remotely." There are two exceptions that I know of. The first is with the built-in RW blog: while you can't manage your blog posts remotely, you can manage your comments remotely. That's because RealMac partners with HaloScan, a third-party commenting system, to deliver blog comments.

If you want comments on your blog posts, you need to sign up for this service. And if you sign up for this service, you can manage your comments via HaloScan’s web-based interface. You don’t need to be at home to do that.

The other exception? You can buy a third-party blog plugin called RapidBlog from RapidBlog is basically a front-end for Google’s Blogger that seamlessly integrates into RapidWeaver. Using it requires you to sign up for a Blogger account. The only weird thing about it is that your posts will appear both on your website and on your newly-created Blogger site (you can choose to hide your Blogger posts, or you can just leave them there — who knows, it may generate more readership for your primary site). If you use RapidBlog, you can remotely edit your posts or email a post from a remote location.

The Small Print

RapidWeaver has been around since 2004 (the same year that WordPress hit the streets, incidentally). It's now at version 3.6.5. Note that this app is not free or open-source (like WordPress). RW costs $49 per license. That's pretty cheap, but if you want to really take it to another level, you're going to want some third-party add-ons. And when you decide to buy some, you'll soon discover that it's not as cheap as it first appears.

In my opinion, you need to buy some third-party plugins to really get the most out of this application. And one thing I really ike about RW is how well it integrates with third-party plugins, add-ons and themes. I mentioned earlier that the RealMac team offers a SDK for themes. Well, they also offer a SDK for anyone who wishes to try their hand at creating a plugin as well. What fun. True, there are many, many great third-party themes out there. But there are also some killer plugins.

Two complaints I’ve heard from RW users is that (a) some plugins should be part of the application from the start and (b) the cost of the plugins quickly exceeds the costs of a RW license. My view? There are some plugins that are so essential, I wouldn’t consider RW complete without them. They are just too handy to pass up. I could complain that RealMac should include some of these plugins as core parts of the application, but I honestly don’t mind paying for some third-party extended options (note that most of these plugins are different page types, each with their own Inspector pane full of options and choices). The app is still quite cost-effective, and it’s definitely generating some very great third-party software development.


I think RapidWeaver is a tool with a great future. It offers slick themes, powerful customization options, ease of use, a dedicated user base (check out the RW User Forum when you get stuck), and top-notch third party add-ons. It's cheap. It's easy for novices to use. It's fun for more experienced people to use.

What’s not to like? Well, as I mentioned, a case can be made that RW is feature-weak and not powerful enough, evidenced by all of the third-party plugins. Do you really need these plugins? No, but they will make life easier for you and they are pretty cool. I wouldn’t be surprised if the RealMac team bought out a few of the add-ons in the future. Yourhead Blocks, for instance, adds WYSIWYG freeform layout functionality to RapidWeaver. I know that my wife, for one, could not live without it for her site. She’s so used to using Blocks, in fact, that she forgot that it’s not actually a part of RW.

Speaking of my wife, I quizzed her on her RW experience as she’s the primary user of the app in our household. She reports that the program is, on the whole, a great tool. However, she has faced some problems with the app crashing while she’s trying to publish changes to her site. She’s taken to closing down all other running programs on the Mac when she’s uploading content, which she says helps. She also notes that publishing times can be quite slow, and the site itself is pretty slow on the initial load. These issues have gotten worse as her site has grown. It raises the question of scalability. How big can a RW file get before it becomes unreliable? I trust the developers will keep refining the loading/publishing issues as development moves forth.

I’ve personally noticed that RW can be limiting when it comes to adding or creating complex mixed content on a page. In addition, some things are tricky to do if you want to push the boundaries of a theme or mix up how your content is presented. I can best explain what I’m talking about here by way of example. Say you want to add a third column to only one page of a site. This isn’t so easy. One solution that many people use is to add a ‘faux’ column on a Blocks page. That works, but it would be nice to have some themes with one, two, or no column options per page. I’m not aware of any limitations that would prevent this.

As for mixed content, I’m referring to the ability to, say, mix in some static content with posts. For example, imagine you want your home page to list your top three newest posts. Above and below this, you wish to add some static content — but you still want your main blog to be a separate page in your site. This isn’t easy to do. Or imagine that you want to add two columns of static text and maybe some sort of additional javascript to go with your Photo Album page. There are work-arounds to issues such as these (and most rely on third-party plugins!), but I would like to see RealMac push towards more and more flexibility and more choices in the future when it comes to page customization (mixing multiple page types on one page, for example). I’d also like a way to open up the core theme files from within the application for quick edits. Of course, that’s a tall order since they are also trying to keep things simple with this app. My suggestion? How about two versions set at two different price points: RapidWeaver Standard and Pro?

I’ll close by noting that it’s a tool that certainly rewards the patient user — I mentioned that RW has a good user forum, and this is where you should head first to answer any questions you have, or to see if anyone has already posted a fix for a vexing problem you may be having. It’s a vibrant, friendly community and if you have an issue, chances are it’s already being discussed.

For the next installment in this series, I’ll present an overview of Wordpress. Then, in the final post, I’ll compare the two based on some criteria of my invention. Cheers.

Postscript: A forgot to mention Snippets! This is one of the coolest parts of RapidWeaver. This is a simple but powerful feature: open up your Snippets inspector pane to reveal stored bits of code. Drag and drop these ‘snippets’ directly onto your page. RapidWeaver includes many handy snippetized code bits, you can easily create your own, or you can download third party snippets from the RW site. If you find yourself typing bits of code over and over, this can be a huge time saver. Added to that, many people are integrating snippets functionality to create unique add-ons. For example, I just used Snippets yesterday to place social bookmarks on my wife’s blog. I works great. By the way, if you use the social bookmark snippet referenced here, be sure to check out this thread on the RW forums. Happy weaving.

RapidWeaver Vs. WordPress: Part I

Thanks to Google Analytics, I’ve discovered that many people reach this site upon searching for ‘RapidWeaver vs WordPress.’ I offer my apologies if you are one of these people: I posted some short comments on this topic last November, promising to follow up with a complete comparison…but I’m only getting to it now. Why the long delay? I’ve needed this gestation period to think about what I wanted to say.

Comparisons of these two publishing platforms are scarce (my proof: it’s the only search term that I’m aware of for which this blog appears near the top of the charts on Google).

Perhaps this is because they are quite different tools. Perhaps it’s because review sites, in general, don’t offer much in terms of application comparisons.

At first glance, it appears that WP and RW serve different audiences. WordPress is specialized for blogging; RapidWeaver does blogging too, but it’s more of a complete website design tool. WordPress offers web-based content management (server-side); RapidWeaver is managed locally, from the user’s computer (client-side). WP is a free, open-source tool. RW is an application that costs money.

Should they be compared? I think so. That so many people have searched for comparisons of the two to reach this site is a testament to this.

I’ve used both WordPress and RapidWeaver to develop many sites. Despite their apparent differences, I’ve found that both platforms can do just about anything I want them to do when I need to develop a personal (or even small business) site. Both offer great blogging support. Both can handle static/mixed content. Both can be used to create complex, great looking sites for people with little to no web development experience. Yet, these tools remain radically different in many ways. What differentiates the two? Which is best?

I want to start by defining the problem. What are people looking for when they seek a comparison of RW and WP?

Here’s my best guess:

You’re in the market for a good, inexpensive tool to create a website. You want your site to be flexible, easy to use and easy to maintain. You want it to look like it was designed by a professional, but you don’t have the time, inclination, or experience to create something from scratch. Still, you’d like to be able to customize your site with relative ease. Moreover, you want the ability to create, tweak and modify at will, should you decide you want to ‘get under the hood’ at some point in the future.

You want to start a blog, but you also want a system that easily allows you to add static content. You want lots of template and plugin options to expand the functionality and appeal of your site. You want a platform that is powerful, but you don’t want to be overloaded with options. You abhor the notion of navigating a complex user interface. You abhor the notion of reading a long user manual even more. Most of all, you want your site to look beautiful.

You’ve searched the web and are overwhelmed by the many choices out there from which to choose. You want to make the right choice the first time. You look at Blogger and other basic web-based personal blogging solutions, but you think these are a bit too simplistic. You want something more robust. So you look at open source Content Management System solutions like Drupal or Joomla, but these solutions are just too complex for your needs. You consider DreamWeaver, but it’s too expensive, bloated and complicated. You try iWeb, but it doesn’t quite fit the bill. It’s nice, but you feel that it’s just a bit too limited, too tied to .Mac and perhaps tries so hard to be drag-and-drop simple that you worry that it may limit your future options as your site (and your experience) grows.

Enter RapidWeaver or WordPress. Both platforms are very popular. Both have dedicated, passionate users and solid documentation. Both are capable of producing great looking sites and offer the flexibility and ease-of-use you seek. Both offer tons of great-looking templates and plugins.

For my next post, I’ll start the comparison with an overview of each publishing platform. I’ll follow this up with a post on the strengths and weaknesses of each. Finally, I’ll offer my opinions and conclusions about which tool I think is best for which type of user. If you have any specific issues, needs or considerations you’d like to see addressed in this comparison, let me know.


Novel uses for VoodooPad

I’ve been off the grid for the past several days getting ready for a job interview. Now that it’s over, I want to share a tip about a tool I used to help me prepare.

First, I’ll define the problem. I typically prepare for an interview by writing out potential questions that may be asked. I then add some ‘answers’ after each question in a bulleted list. I then sit in front of my Mac and practice answering my fictitous questions. This works fairly well — and I own several programs that handle simple bulleted lists with flair (Pages, Tinderbox, and OmniOutliner, for instance).

But I wanted something a little different this time around. Instead of viewing my questions and answers all on one page, I wanted the ability to view my questions separately from my answers. In other words, I wanted to see the questions without the ‘answer’ bullet points. Then, after I practiced responding to the question, I wanted to compare what I said with the bullet points. It dawned on me that what I was looking for was a simple ‘flash card’ system.

Enter VoodooPad. If you’ve never used this tool, it’s worth trying out (especially considering that the developers offer a free Lite version that is surprisingly capable and feature-rich). What is it? Essentially, it’s a tool for taking freeform notes that gives you the power to quickly and easily create links to new pages of information. It’s like having a little stand-alone I’ve previously noted that VoodooPad is a nice tool for fiction. Create a character sketch for a person named ‘Tim,’ for example, then link this character information to a sub-page named ‘Tim.’ Once you create this sub-page, every time you type the name ‘Tim,’ VoodooPad automatically links this character name to the character sketch sub-page. It’s a handy way to track and develop people, places, and things when writing a story.

It’s also a handy way to create hypertext fiction. It’s certainly not as robust as Eastgate’s StorySpace, but it’s a heck of a lot cheaper. StorySpace is $295 (to be fair, StorySpace is a very specialized writing tool designed for very long and complicated hypertext stories). My point is that VoodooPad Lite is free and does a fine job if you’re looking for a simple tool to try out non-linear writing.

VoodooPad works very well as a ‘flash card’ system, too. It was the perfect tool, in fact, to help me practice for my interview. All I had to do was type out a question, create a new link to it and paste my bullet points for that question in my newly created sub-page. I listed all of my practice interview questions on my main ‘index’ page and linked to sub-pages for each answer. I also created some links to hold background information about the job for quick reference. My interview ‘prep package’ was easy to set up. It was convenient to have all my interview notes contained within one little stand-alone VoodooPad file.

VoodooPad comes in three different flavors depending on your needs. I’m currently getting by with the free Lite version, but I’m getting ready to upgrade. Why? I’ve come to depend on it. And I keep finding new ways to use it. This is not to say that I find the Lite version of this app lacking for my simple needs — it’s more about supporting Flying Meat (the developers).

I could have written that last sentence differently, but I may never get the chance to use the phrase “supporting Flying Meat” again…

Get your Mac ready for the Lunar Eclipse

If the skies are clear where you live tomorrow night (or tonight, depending on your time zone), don’t miss your chance to witness the last lunar eclipse until Dec. 2010.


Here in Hawaii, I’ll be heading out to the beach around 11 p.m. While I won’t be bringing my Mac with me, this event marks a great occasion to highlight a few of the astronomy programs available for OS X. These tools are excellent teaching aids and are just plain enjoyable. If you don’t have a Mac, no worries: each of these apps run on Mac, Windows, and Linux.

If you go outside to watch for the eclipse, keep an eye out for Saturn (if you have a telescope the rings will be visible) and Regulus (the 22nd brightest star in the night sky, in the Leo constellation).

Saturn and Regulus will be the brightest points in the sky nearest to the eclipsed moon. Exactly where they will appear relative to you, of course, will depend on your location and the time you go outside to have a look — but they will appear to be close to the moon.

Cloudy out? View the solar system on your Mac

1. StellariumFree. This planetarium application specializes on views of the sky from an earthly perspective. Enter your coordinates to see what's going on in your sky on a given night. This is my app of choice for casual desktop sky-gazing; it's also a great learning aid. I enjoy setting the program to fast-forward so I can watch the sky come to life in quicktime. There are many user-contributed scripts available to enhance your Stellarium experience which make an already interesting program even more engaging. This is a great program to keep on your Mac for those times when you want to quickly identify a star or constellation.
  1. Google EarthFree. It isn’t just for earth-browsing any more. Check out the ‘Sky’ view mode for a full-featured astronomy package chock full of user-contributed goodness. I’ve lost many hours engrossed in the ‘Sky’ view; this Google Earth expansion is still a pretty new feature, but it keeps getting better and better.

  2. CelestiaFree. Celestia doesn’t confine you to viewing stars from an earth-bound perspective. You are free to fly around the visible universe in dizzying three dimensions. There are many, many expansions available for Celestia that make it even more fun and valuable as a learning tool. The one thing about Celestia is that it’s not quite as easy to use as the other programs; still, it’s an amazing tool with a dedicated user base and it’s a joy to use.

  3. Starry NightExpensive. I own an old Mac OS 9 version of Starry Night Pro and I still use it on my old iBook G4 in Classic mode (note that Classic only runs on Tiger and earlier versions of Mac OS X). It’s come a long way since then and is worth checking out if you really enjoy astronomy and want a feature-rich package with many great animations and photo-realistic imagery. Even the old version of Starry Night that I own is visually very beautiful. It’s a great teaching aid to view the solar system in motion from any perspective, watch eclipses, find satellites, view the earth from distant planets, and more. If you go for the Pro package, you can hook up your Mac to your telescope to track distant objects. My only problem with Starry Night is that it seems to have gone overboard a bit with commercialization — there are now at least six SN packages to choose from, and all of them are pricey.

My favorite experience with Starry Night? Heading out in a canoe late at night with my old iBook back in my home state of Maine on Nicatous Lake (far, far away from any light pollution), turning on Starry Night’s ‘night vision mode’ and spending a few hours looking up at the sky. Note that this is only enjoyable in the summer while doused with about one gallon of bug spray to keep the mosquitos away.

More Mac astronomy links

If Mac astronomy software interests you, check out Pure Mac's comprehensive list of astronomy apps for more ideas. Hope the skies are clear wherever you may live.

Never share a user account, but if you do…

There’s an ongoing struggle in my household. I don’t want to use any names…but if it weren’t for my tireless, unrelenting efforts to keep my iMac (which is shared by one other person) free of desktop clutter, there would now be a virtual sea of files cluttering our desktop. You might never guess I was an organized person if you happened to open my sock drawer, but I keep the Mac lean and clean. The only icons I prefer to see on my desktop are mounted drives. To be fair, I drive my wife crazy (ok it’s my wife, but I won’t use her name) with some of my user habits because I can’t leave the Mac alone. I’m always installing things, deleting things, moving things, changing things … above all, I like to test out third party mac software.

So, you may ask, why on earth do we share one user account on our primary Mac? It’s not the recommended way to do business. The preferred solution is to create separate user accounts; this is more secure and it gives you the freedom to organize your own workspace just how you want it. But I maintain there is at least one scenario when a shared account makes sense — when you have a Mac that always stays at home and you and one other person you completely trust are using it to share the same pool of data.

We share the same music library, the same iPhoto library … we share pretty much all of our data. For several years, we managed seperate accounts, but I grew weary of constantly dropping and dragging files and folders back and forth. We had iPhoto and iTunes set up for sharing, but this requires one to be logged in to both accounts to access the others shared photo/music content. Much of the mail we receive is for both of us. It just seemed easier to combine the two.

Would I recommend this arrangement? Again, and this is critical: only if you completely trust that one other person and you can live with different user habits on one account. For me and my wife, life is just easier using one account, despite our different organizational styles. I’d venture to guess that no one would really recommend this set up, but it’s good for us. Here are a few of the ways we make it work. Even if you don’t share an account, this list may provide you with some fresh ideas.


1. Admin or Standard account?

We set up our shared account up with 'Standard' user privileges and then created a separate Admin account. This is a good practice, even if you don't share an account. If you want to learn more about user accounts, check out this affordable E-book from TidBITS.

2. IC-Switch and DeliBar

We prefer to use different browsers and news readers, so we use IC-Switch. This free little Menu Bar application allows us to quickly toggle between default internet applications. I also use a Menu Bar application called DeliBar that allows me to view my stored online bookmarks (via my account) right in my Menu Bar. I like managing and storing my bookmarks online because it enables me to access my favorites in any browser, and in any location. If you like Menu Bar items, by the way, check out this list.

3. Documents folder

We created three main subfolders within our Documents folder: one for me, one for my wife, and one for shared items such as our finances. We did the same for our Pictures folder (for those images that we do not want to manage from within iPhoto). We use color labels to easily identify our folders at a glance e— my folders are labeled with red, my wife's are purple, and folders with shared documents are gray.

4. Alternate keyboard languages

Things are a bit more complicated for us because I use the Dvorak keyboard layout and my wife uses Qwerty. Solution? We set up our Mac with both languages via the 'International' system preference (System Preferences > International > Input Menu). We then checked the option to 'Show the Input Menu in menu bar' so we have a nice visual way to see what language is currently active. Finally, we established a key combination to quickly toggle between the two input languages (this option is also available in the Input Menu).

5. The Dock

I don't really use the Dock, but my wife does. She also uses Spotlight, and I never do. I use Launchbar to launch applications and navigate around the Mac (a free alternative is QuickSilver); DragThing is my preferred 'Dock replacement.'

6. Finder

My wife uses Finder and I use PathFinder. This works out well — she can set up Finder just how she likes it and I can set up PathFinder with my personal preferences. If you've never tried PathFinder, by the way, give it a spin. I couldn't live without it. Some people say, though, that it has too many features and options.

7. Web browsing

I use Firefox when I'm doing webwork and OmniWeb when I'm just having fun. My wife prefers Safari.

That’s about it. One final note: I recently downloaded the trial for a program called Hazel from NoodleSoft. This little program automates file organization, manages trash, monitors and organizes folders, and more. It’s very clever and quite easy to use. I think this may be a great new tool to help me and my wife manage our shared account.

1Password Customer Service

This is a quick note about an experience I recently had with customer support from Agile Web Solutions, the creators of 1Password.

I’m not going to review this application — there are already hundreds of available online comments and reviews. Suffice it to say that I’ve come to depend on 1Password so much that I recently decided to upgrade my family license (good for three Macs) to the Small Business package (good for five Macs).

I emailed the company with my request and received a response within the hour. I was naturally pleased to get such a rapid reply. I was doubly surprised because I sent the request late in the evening from my home in Hawaii; I’m accustomed to waiting until the next business day (when North America is awake) for customer service. But that’s not the amazing part.

Here’s a clip from the message I received from a man named James in Australia, identified as a ‘passionate 1Password user:’

“Since the upgrade is not automatic, I have gone ahead and updated your license to a Small Business license and sent it in a separate email. I trust you will make the payment, so I don’t want to make you wait."

I then received my license moments later.

This struck me as a particularly generous and trusting thing to do in this day and age, and it was much appreciated. So, I want to thank the 1Password team for the stellar service. This transaction served as a fresh reminder of why I feel like I am part of a community as a Mac user.

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 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.