in Mac apps, organization

MIP: Making Info Perform

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

Here, then, is a recap:

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

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

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

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

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

Finders

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

Creators

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

Visualizers

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



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

info manager triangle

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

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

EagleFiler Triangle Plot

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

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

OK. That’s enough about the triangle.

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

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

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

Now on to the reviews.

  1. Please add Devonthink Pro Office to your review list if possible. I think it is a popular enough application that is very powerful. I own almost every app in that list, yet struggle to find one that is reliable and fits all my needs.

  2. If I still have the energy after this round, I may consider adding DEVONThink Personal, but likely wouldn’t look at Pro or Pro Office. The main issue is price: Pro and Pro Office may be powerful and relatively popular tools, but they’re also *much* more expensive than the other apps I’m looking at. I’m inclined to stick with apps that fall within a similar pricing band.

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