Codecademy

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.

Spotified

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 Last.fm. 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 Amazon.com may soon roll out ebook rentals?

 

Together review

Together.

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.

Verdict

 

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.

Conclusion

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.

Conclusion

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 Kiva.org. 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).

 

Verdict

 

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.

Conclusion

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.

QIDO: Hardware Qwerty to Dvorak converter

KeyGhost, and it’s called QIDO. That’s short for Qwerty-In > Dvorak-Out > Portable USB Adapter.

I’ve been testing out the QIDO for several weeks now on Mac and PC platforms. Here’s how it works from a user perspective. It’s a small plastic device with male and female USB connectors. To set it up, you plug your USB keyboard into the female end of the QIDO, and plug the male end of the QIDO into a computer USB slot. Then you pull up any text editor and type ‘keydvorak’ to bring up a simple configuration menu (see above image) which allows you to choose from Dvorak Standard, Dvorak-Qwerty, Single Handed Left, or Single Handed Right. After you go through this configuration, you really don’t need to do it again. If you want to temporarily switch back to Qwerty, simply hit the ‘Num-Lock’ key (PC) or ‘Clear’ key (Mac) twice in quick succession. Do this again to toggle back to your chosen keyboard layout.

in dvorak, review | 162 Words

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. Ok…so 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.