Information managers on mac: too much of a good thing?

The first time I saw Yojimbo, I thought it was a neat piece of software. It was not the first information manager out there – DevonThink, StickyBrain/SohoNotes and Hog Bay Notebook were there already – but it was the first to let you organise your documents, notes and stuff in such an easy, goal-driven and unobstrusive fashion. Add PDFs, images, web links to your notes. Neat. Don’t specify a database to save stuff in – there’s only one *big* database. Easy. Create groups in the sidebar to organize your stuff. Great. No hierarchical groups… What ?!

This voluntary limitation in Yojimbo has always troubled me. I’m not sure why the feature is not there, I mean, even if you had the option of creating hierarchical gorups wouldn’t mean you’d have to use them. You still could very well organize your stuff in a flat list if you please. Anyway. That’s not my main concern.

My main problem is that everybody is doing the Yojimbo thing these days, and it’s often hard to tell all the apps apart. Almost ALL of these apps have basically the same goal (organize your information in folders), they all let you tag the notes, label them like in the Finder, search them using a Spotlight-like interface or smart folders… So the real differences lies in the details. Let’s review.

  • DevonThink is, like its pro brother, a heavyweight in the crowded field of information management. Academhack have been hard at work exposing its strong points : “artificial intelligence” that relates items together, automatic classification of items based on that, and a bazillion of options when searching/exploring/importing data. My personal point of view: it’s too hard to work with and too visually noisy compared to the others. Do I really need all this micro-management (boolean logic, case-sensitive or not, context, etc) when doing a simple search? I fail to see the added value. This application philosophy (we’ll just shove hundreds of options in there and let the user figure out what’s useful by himself) is now outdated IMO – having been spoiled by other projects I now expect developers to make smart decisions for me… On the other hand, the fact that this app has been around for a while now means it shouldn’t screw up your data and does things correctly.
  • I’ve never tried SOHO Notes and I don’t intend to – their web page is way too corporate and the general feeling is that the app is trying to achieve too much.
  • Yojimbo is pretty polished and easy to work with with its quick-input panel, but you quickly run into its limits, at least I did – no hierarchical folders (pain), no smart folders (they would be really convenient), no import of exotic files or folders…
  • Mori, the notebook successor lets you organize your notes and thoughts in a hierarchical way (phew) and the three-pane view is nice, as is the To-Do feature. But I couldn’t import PDFs and other stuff, which is a clear limit.
  • Notae has a pretty moleskine icon, but it forgettable as it only manages text.
  • Dossier was pretty bland and didn’t show any outstanding feature. Quickly zapped.
  • Journler is one of the best IMHO, and I’ve used it for quite some time now – with its clear emphasis on daily journaling it lets me keep a clean record of what happened on each day – but the “data organization” part it kinda cumbersome compared with other products, as it forces you to switch between text and attachment mode. The tabs and recording features are a little gimmicky, but hey, it’s free, has smart folders and a nice interface, so I’ll keep using it as a diary.
  • Process lets you organize notes in a hierarchical/outliner way (much like Mori) and attach whatever files to the notes themselves, so you end up with something very similar. But it’s more a GTD application at heart, with goals, deadlines and percentages.
  • The last one I just discovered is Keep It Together, which seems very nice as it lets you import and organize not only text but any kind of file (video, sounds, movies, whatever) – it even swallowed a powerpoint file without any problem. It won’t let me preview it, but it allowed me to search its content, which is a very strong point. But still… no hierarchial folders. Damn. I thought I had it.

In the end the only way to decide which one you wanna use (because you know you WANT to use these apps) is to try them out and see which one you like better. They all have the same core functionality, but differ in workflow and small details. Make up your mind. I haven’t decided yet.

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8 Responses to Information managers on mac: too much of a good thing?

  1. Astorg says:

    Looks like SOHO and Devonthink are the two strongest, both allow nested folders, and SOHO is the only one that allows easy linking to the Address Book which in my view is a major plus point as a lot of my info is individual-related.

  2. phrenseed says:

    Dear Vinnie. Thank you for the informative post. While these managers are nifty for those challenged by the research, teach, study and publish or perish wheel of activity, for those of us who are truly cognitively challenged these programs are indispensible. Perhaps I am naive, but I am thinking that Filemaker Pro can be customized with OS Tiger for this purpose. Do you think I am mistaken?

  3. vnoel says:

    Thanks for the comments… I’ve expanded a little on why I don’t like DevonThink ; I’m going to try to overcome my initial reaction and try SOHO 🙂

  4. Astorg says:

    I’ve been testing SOHO for about a fortnight concurrently with Devonthink and Yojimbo. Basically:

    Yojimbo is gimmicky and sucks because of the lack of nested folders, but folder customization is a strong point, and if future versions improve the nested issue it may be worth considering;
    Devonthink is too much of what the French call a gas-factory : heavy-handed and not intuitive: would be my number three in this test;
    SOHO looks complicated initially but is actually the easiest to use. Winner so far. Can crash sometimes though…

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  6. Matt says:

    If you primarily use text notes, a text based database accessed from the command line is still the best. Simple to tag, search, customize, export, index, analyze… I have mine set up to create all sorts of subindexes (e.g, what are the keyword tags associated with a particular person in my notes… How many entries are tagged with “China” and “economy”… And so on…

  7. AF says:

    Believe it or not, I’ve found this very outdated post useful even today.

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