Tree for OS X and a bit about workflows

I’ve been impressed with an outliner called Tree recently.

The selling point of it is that, instead of the normal vertical view, it expands horizontally, which I find much more space-efficient and natural. If you are writing whole paragraphs, a standard vertically-indented layout might be better, but mostly when I use an outliner each node is at longest one sentence, and usually just a couple of words. If I use a mindmapper, I usually set it to auto-layout and put all the branches on the right of the main node, which means it looks rather a lot like Tree with more lines and bubbles. (However, with Tree one can also set individual nodes to expand vertically rather than horizontally.)

It’s also very quick to use. The window layout is just a row of icons, a row of tabs, and then your outlines – no extraneous fluff. It has intelligently designed keyboard shortcuts and behaviours that appreciate that you have probably used outliners before; commands to move nodes around are familiar from OmniOutliner, Notebook etc, and their action is context-sensitive, with, say, Enter either editing a title, ending that title and creating a new node, or finishing note text on that node and moving back to the title.

It not only reads OPML but will happily write to it as well without having to mess about with the Export option (though this won’t preserve your coloured labels I suspect – notes, it will keep, as those are part of the OPML spec). I use this in combination with Dropbox and the iOS app CarbonFin Outliner, which doesn’t do horizontal unfortunately but does sync to Dropbox as OPML. I can transparently open, edit and save outlines on my Mac and both iPhone and iPad, now, without hoop-jumping being required, and OPML being an open format I know that I won’t be unable to read these files in a few years’ time, should I ever wish to read them again which is fairly unlikely given the rubbish I write.

I mentioned OmniOutliner before, which has a very good iPad client, which I would love to use. Unfortunately it won’t save to Dropbox or in fact sync to anything (it will export, but not actually sync) and I’m afraid that desktop OmniOutliner is basically abandonware, despite Omni’s repeated assurances that version 4 is coming out any minute now. OO for iOS really is a lovely piece of software, but unless you only want to write on the iPad it’s useless for any serious workflow, and the desktop version looks, feels and is ancient.

The combination of Tree plus CarbonFin Outliner, however, lets me work on outlines on three devices in a convenient and effective way, and, while it doesn’t have all of the styling features, multiple columns etc that desktop OO does, Tree is miles faster and more comfortable for just writing outlines. Something I sort of like to do with an outliner. The pair of them together also cost far, far less, to the point where I can happily recommend them to anyone with a Mac, an iThing and a hankering after outlines without suspecting that I might have wasted somebody else’s money.

Omni frustrates me

Annoyed to the _n_th degree by yet another Things sync issue last year, I migrated to Omnifocus, as it seemed at least to have working OTA sync. Which it does. It also has a very clear and well designed iPad client, and a basic but functional iPhone one. The highly expensive Mac desktop client, however, is still a dinosaur that has barely changed since I first tried a demo several years ago and thought “this is way too hard to use”.

“But they’ve just written this nice new iPad client,” thought I, “so, fingers crossed, the desktop one must surely be in for an update soon.”

Similarly, I tried OmniOutliner for the iPad when it was released and found it to be easily the best iPad outliner I’d seen. It really is a superb piece of work, and I use outliners a lot, so thought that it was a reasonable investment to buy the highly expensive Mac desktop client as well, given that surely it was going to be updated. The potential OmniFocus upgrade, after all, was just speculative on my part, but they were actively promising that OmniOutliner 4 would be released any day soon, and outlines aren’t much use if you can’t also access them on the desktop.

Neither of the above have happened and I can’t see why. OmniFocus for Mac, I’m sorry, is a pain to use, and remains a pain to use regardless of whether I use it every day, which I do. I still find myself adding blank items that I didn’t want, creating new top level projects by mistake, accidentally completing things which are then annoying to find again and so on. OmniOutliner 3 is even worse – I tried hard to get used to it and simply gave up. Both of them suffer from Flaky Mode Change disease, where the exact editing mode one is in is both inobvious and hard to switch. I could go on at length but what is the point? Neither seem to have any development work associated with them at all any more – it’s hardly going to make a difference what I say.

If I spent a large proportion of my working life on iOS devices then I would happily use OF and OO regularly. As it is, I don’t use OO since I can’t bear the desktop client, and I am looking at the Things cloud sync beta and thinking “you know, maybe I will switch back if this gets to live”. When you are being outpaced in development by Cultured Code you really should worry as a company. (Things cloud sync has been promised for years, and the lack has led a lot of people including me to migrate, but is at least actually testably happening now.)

Noteshelf 4 – stop me before I cliché

The problem with writing a review of the new Noteshelf 4 is that I keep accidentally adding the sort of awful clichés that bad tech bloggers always use. It’s ahead of the curve! Leaves the competition in the dust! Best in its class, bar none! Argh! I will try anyway and you can slap me with a cheap Android tablet if I slip up.

Noteshelf is the stylus-based notebook app for the iPad that I have written about before – initial review, version 3 review. It is, easily, my most used “content creation”1 app and also one of my most used apps in general, apart from Mail and Safari obviously. Many iPad apps look nice but have few features (meaning that you have to switch out of them a lot, which is annoying on the iPad). Some have lots of features but are ugly and annoying to use. Noteshelf, even in version 3, had lots of features and was very easy to use. It did and still does have the best zoom system for writing and detailed work that I’ve seen on the iPad – this is essential if you want to use a free-drawing notebook app for anything but the roughest of sketches… well, I’ve written about the previous version before, I won’t go over it all again.

It did lack a few things that I found myself missing, though, particularly highlighting, being able to move pages between notebooks, being able to change paper types within a notebook, and cut and paste within a page. Version 4 addresses my previous issues so well that I’m suspicious that the app has been recording me muttering about them and sending the information back to the developer. New features of Noteshelf 4 include:

  • highlighting
  • moving pages between notebooks
  • multiple paper types within notebooks
  • cut and paste within pages

as well as

  • custom paper types, either user created or bought via an in-app purchase
  • notebook covers not based on paper type, and also with new ones available via purchases
  • an additional and very useful toolbar on the zoom view giving access to common functions without having to move your hand all the way to the top of the page – yes, lazy maybe, but faster
  • auto-advance when reaching the right hand side of the zoom view
  • a better interface for inserting images
  • groups of notebooks, rather than them all being on one shelf (rather like app grouping on iOS 4)
  • reworked and more convenient “export page(s)” UI – actually lots of UI elements have been reworked to make them more convenient

and probably lots of others. What impresses me is the level of care taken to make UI elements usable. For instance, the “auto-advance” feature puts an area on the right hand side of the zoom window, and if you write in that, the view shifts to the right once you lift up the stylus, or moves to the next line if you’re already at the right hand edge. One can change the size of this area. But it doesn’t just shift immediately – it waits for a period after you’ve finished that’s just enough time to dot an i, cross a t or maybe add another letter in the same word if you’re printing, but not so long that you think “this is taking too long to advance”.

I struggle to find anything with Noteshelf now that I don’t like or feels incomplete. The only ones I can think of at the moment are:

  1. The new way that landscape mode works is not how I would like it to work. (Previously Noteshelf let you work with the iPad in landscape but with the page itself still in portrait; you scrolled up and down it. Now, the orientation of the page changes with the orientation of the iPad.) However, the developer has already said that he’s going to make the new landscape mode optional in a quick update, so that isn’t much of a criticism.

  2. The new pens are pretty ugly. Really. The old pens were better. Even a colour palette would have been better.

Apart from that, this is really the best app that I’ve seen so far for notebook-like behaviour on an iPad, with all of the advantages of export, backup, undo, quick colour changing and so on that digital notebooks provide. Not everyone will want an app like this, but if they do, this is the one they should get. It’s the piece of software that’s been most likely to stop me using fountain pens and paper routinely, and that really is saying something.


  1. Does anybody believe that old nonsense about the iPad “not being for content creation” any more? It was never true, and it’s certainly not true now. 

Noteshelf 3.0, now with zoom

The iPad Noteshelf app, which I wrote a quick review of before, has had an update.

Changes that I noticed:

  1. There is now a zoom function which makes an awful lot of difference for writing. The first and second pictures in the gallery above show this in practice. It’s now far easier to write legibly, which was one of the issues that keyboard-based note apps were superior on. Granted that you do need to have reasonable handwriting but it doesn’t have to be that good to be legible. Another bonus is that it’s now sort of possible to write text with your finger, though I’d still definitely advise a stylus.

  2. The stickers are now higher resolution – before, they were a bit blocky when placed on a page.

  3. Higher resolution output – exporting a page now produces an image that’s 736×924, rather than the previous size of 552×693.

  4. There is a date stamp on the pages, at the bottom, now. I’m not sure whether this is created date or modified date; this is a little hard to test as I only got the update today.

  5. There’s a new optional “shelf” theme (the “shelf” is the notebook selection screen) which is a brownish grey chipboard or plastic surface rather than the original wood. It also affects the top bar and the pen drawer. I can’t say that this was something that I’d really been interested in, but it’s there and it’s optional.

None of these are enormous leaps, but they do improve the experience of using it, as well as the final output, which is what you want from software updates. I am still looking forward to a few other features – adjustable alpha values for ink for highlighting and drawing, cut and paste of areas – but the basic concept is sound, and it seems as if the developer appreciates this and is playing to the strengths of the app, polishing existing functions and adding things that complement them.

Quick Review: NoteShelf for the iPad

One peculiar aspect of the iPad is how many apps attempt to replicate the appearance and feeling of using a paper notepad or diary, as if this were a gold standard. The built in calendar looks like a paper one; the Notes app uses handwriting fonts; there are many examples, but the subject of this post, NoteShelf, is certainly pretty explicit about it.1

There are quite a few drawing and notebook apps around for the iPad which allow you to draw directly on the screen with finger or – more usefully – stylus. Obviously I haven’t tried them all: I don’t get review copies and I’m not made of money. Brushes is one I use, as well as Omnigraffle, but those have different purposes – Brushes is for artwork and Omnigraffle is for diagramming. (Omnigraffle is very good by the way, but for the iPad enormously expensive, and not as useful if you don’t have the accompanying desktop app.)

What is it?

If one were going to make a physical comparison, NoteShelf is a pack of (erasable) coloured felt-tips of different sizes and an endless supply of cheap notebooks, as well as lots of stickers to put in them. Launch it and you have a Shelf of Notebooks, or initially, just one special one, which is the help and tutorial. Add a notebook with the + icon and touch it, and it opens up to give you a page defined by the type of paper you selected, which can be plain, lined or squared in either narrow or wide rule, or one of a few special-purpose pages like to-do lists. (It would be convenient for users to be able to add templates here.)

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  1. There are good reasons why one might want to emulate the paper experience on an iPad to a degree, by the way. For a start it is familiar and will let users quickly find the features they want to use. I am a great fan of Circus Ponies Notebook, which is basically a free form database and outliner that happens to use “paper notebook” as a UI metaphor. 

Yojimbo 1.0 for iPad – a quick review

I have decided that in general I should write quick reviews of items rather than spending ages agonising about them, since in general this means the reviews never end up being published, as I lose interest. So: Yojimbo 1.0 for the iPad. No, this is not about ink or pens or paper.

Some screenshots with notes:

And the bullet point review:

  • Data from your Yojimbo library syncs with this over wifi, much like Things does (or lots of apps really). Syncing is pretty quick. My whole library transferred over in a couple of minutes initially and it updates if running and connected to your network.
  • It’s fast to access items as well; they pop up nice and quickly when selected.
  • It is read only (at this time – there is a hint on the iTunes page that it might support editing at some point but BareBones never tells you when updates are likely to come for any software). If you want to add or edit notes, even plain text ones, this is not what you want. There is also absolutely no point in buying it unless you also not only have Yojimbo but use it. I personally have over 1,500 items in my database of varying types, so this is quite a useful reference tool for me, but I admit I was slightly miffed initially, particularly as it isn’t cheap – £5.99.
  • It supports both tag collections and standard folders, as well as the standard built-in collections like “Unsorted Items”.
  • You can search title, tags and full contents. Title and tag searches are pretty swift. Full contents searches are extremely slow – don’t use that except in emergencies.
  • For some reason, bookmark items in Yojimbo are automatically loaded as pages when you try to access them, which doesn’t happen in the desktop app. I think it should follow the behaviour of the desktop here and only load the pages if you deliberately tell it to.
  • Syncing requires Yojimbo 3.0, which is a free upgrade from 2.x and the same price as a 1.x upgrade, so I’m a bit puzzled as to why it is a point version, but anyway: you can’t sync with Yojimbo 1.x, so upgrade if you want to use this app.
  • One of the big advantages of Yojimbo, that individual items can be encrypted rather than the whole library, is retained.

Why would you want this app? Reference basically, in my opinion. If you keep random notes and research material and images in desktop Yojimbo, which I do, this is a handy way of accessing them. There’s nothing you can’t do here with other apps – you could store PDFs and images in Dropbox or on iDisk and access them easily – but if you’re a Yojimbo user you presumably prefer to gather this content using Yojimbo. Syncing is also very quick and you don’t need to download the items from the net, just locally sync before you set out.

What it isn’t: a notebook app. It’s read-only. If you’re writing a novel, store your research notes on this, don’t expect to be able to edit the chapters. Editing may come at some point but there’s no way of knowing when – as mentioned, BareBones doesn’t provide updates as to progress and rarely on future directions. There was one mention of an iPad version on the Yojimbo mailing list a long time ago, and today’s release is the first thing I’ve heard about it since that point.

If you’re looking for a notebook app, there are quite a few already around, but none of them sync particularly well with desktop apps, possibly for reasons of general cross-platform compatibility. (I hate Evernote. Don’t talk to me about Evernote.) This was why I wrote the Simplenote/Yojimbo Sync script which results in most of the hits here. The main thing that I’m waiting for in this area is the Circus Ponies Notebook iPad client, which has been described as “nearly finished” and supporting effectively all of the functionality of the desktop program, which would be an impressive feat.

Tags, contexts and multidimensional space

Those of you familiar with GTD will know that one important concept in the system is that of contexts. (For those yet unpolluted, GTD is a task management system, and the context of a task is the situation in which one can do it – so tasks in the context “home” are ones which can only be done at home. This saves having to sort through lots of tasks that you cannot do because you are on a train or halfway up Everest. Contexts can be almost anything; they may involve the tools one has at hand or the mood one is in.)

“Contexts” is a very sensible idea, and something that is worth keeping even if one isn’t actually practicing doctrinaire GTD. Traditionally there are just single contexts, home, office, phone, but much GTD related software (for instance Omnifocus) allows contexts to be nested, so that “errand” might contain “chemist”, “supermarket” and “gun shop”, allowing one to easily see a full list of all things that might be done while one is out but not be bothered by needing to buy fishfingers whilst browsing revolvers. Most of any task management system is narrowing down what one has to do so that it does not appear so overwhelming, after all.

This corresponds fairly well with the standard computer idea of nested folders. Some software (e.g. Taskpaper) instead uses tags, which should be quite familiar by now as well. One advantage of tags is that one can assign more than one tag to an item. If my local gun merchant actually did sell fishfingers as well, I could tag the “buy fishfingers” task with “supermarket” and “gun shop” and see it in either list, but would not see it when at the chemist. This is not possible with the Omnifocus sort of nested contexts.

I was considering today the program Things, and why I still end up preferring to use it over other alternatives despite some shortcomings, and one reason that occurred to me was that it did both. Things has tags, but those tags can be hierarchical. This enables me to place my tasks within an arbitrarily defined multidimensional Context Space. Top level tags in Things are generally treated as a category name, and the second plus level tags within them as values for that – so I can then rate my tasks by, say, place, urgency, time required and client. Perhaps I am thinking “what do I need to do urgently for MI5 while I’m at the supermarket? It has to be quick though, I have to catch the last bus home”. Clearly a system which can tell me that I need to plant a recording device in the frozen food section, and that task would also just appear in a list of “things I need to do when I’m out”, has advantages.