Review of Scrivener as a Note Taking program

This is a break from reviewing mapping programs, this review should be grouped with the reviews of Note Taking programs.

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A few days ago I received an E-mail pointing out that I had not reviewed Scrivener in my series of reviews of note taking programs.  That oversight is about to be corrected.  I will try to make this review fair and objective but be warned I am a Scrivener enthusiast so it will be difficult to describe the program without making it sound like an advertisement.

I have used Scrivener for quite a while but I had excluded it from the reviews as I did not think of Scrivener as a note taking program, I do not use it for general or specific note taking.  Scrivener is more of a word processor and outliner optimised for the creative writing process.

“Aren’t all word processors optimised for writing?” one might ask.  Well no, some people think that all it takes is to be able to write words and correct mistakes then format the output, but that would be a very poor word processor indeed.  This is where Open Office and Libre Office fall down so badly and why Microsoft Office is so popular amongst the business community and with writers.  The difference is that Microsoft Office has a very good outlining facility.  Open Office and Libre Office do not have an outlining mode, the open/libre office developers make the excuse that there is no need because their programs already have ‘Navigator’ which is superficially similar to an outlining mode but does a very inadequate job in that role.

In the creative writing process one needs to be able to organise and re-organise text, to chop text up and re-arrange it, one needs to be able to ignore the body text and concentrate on the overall structure of the document or to ignore the structure and just concentrate on one small section of body text.  This is why an outlining tool is fundamental to the writing process.  Until Open Office and Libre Office get a good outlining mode they will not gain acceptance as the tool of choice in either business, academia or amongst writers.

But I digress.

Scrivener is a very good writing tool, but it could also be used for note taking and so it deserves a review.  Scrivener was designed as a word processor, it stores its collection of related documents (which could be notes) as separate .RTF files in a folder on the hard disk, this is called a project.  When you save a project all the documents in the collection which have been changed are saved.  Scrivener also makes automatic backups of the collection at regular intervals.  For large collections this can eat up a lot of disk space but this may not be significant on modern hard disks with many hundreds of gigabytes available, and it does mean that if something goes wrong you can go back to an earlier version of your project.

I tried importing nearly ten thousand notes into a Scrivener project to see what the performance was like.  In general the performance with lots of large documents was excellent but there was one snag.  Scrivener makes automatic backups of your work from time to time.  Normally this is not noticeable but with ten thousand notes it became obvious.  Switching off automatic backups solved this problem, but then what happens when you need the safety net it offers?

There is another feature in Scrivener which is quite nice, you can take a snapshot of any document, then if you make changes and decide you don’t like them you can go back to the document as it was when you took the snapshot.  You can also compare the document to the snapshot of the document to see what the changes were.  You can have as many snapshots as you like as long as you don’t run out of disk space.

Scrivener is available from the Literature & Latte website and costs $40 for the windows version.  There is also a Mac version for $45, the Mac version is more advanced than the Windows version hence the extra cost.  These prices were correct at 30/01/2014.

The Windows version is catching up to the Mac version, but very very slowly.  Someday they will be equivalent.  The Mac version has some very nice features which the Windows version needs badly, like the ability to edit a document in the main window whilst viewing other documents in floating windows on another monitor.  Both ConnectedText and MyInfo can do this and it is very useful.

 

Overall Score  = 42 out of 60

 

Verdict    A writing tool rather than a note taking program, but very good nonetheless.

 

1. Connectivity            =    6

The design of Scrivener is not about connecting different pieces of information and so its facilities for connecting things are not as good as a dedicated note taking program.

One can embed links into a Scrivener document, these links could point to a disk file, an E-mail address or an internet URL but they can also be a universal link.  Scrivener supports universal links to other programs.  There are also internal links so one Scrivener document may be linked to another.  Unfortunately there is no way to link in to a Scrivener document from any other program.

The links look somewhat ugly as there is no aliasing.  The text that appears on the page is the text of the link.

Import facilities are very good, a wide variety of different document types can be imported as well as some mind maps ( .mm ) and outliner ( .opml ) files.  Export is also good but adds something different, apart from the normal export of documents there is also the option to ‘compile’ your collection of documents into various E-book formats for publishing (as well as printing).

 

2. Classification            =    8

Documents in Scrivener are placed in a hierarchical tree called the binder.  This is just like the tree which is used in a lot of note taking programs.  Documents and folders are equivalent, they are just treated differently when being displayed in the main editor panel.  They may be converted back and forth very easily.

At the root of the hierarchy there are three folders which cannot be deleted, although they can be renamed.  These folders are ‘Draft’, ‘Research’ and ‘Trash’.

The Draft folder is designed to hold your book or the piece of work you are producing.  It can only hold editable documents.

The Research folder can hold any type of file.  Files which are not supported are just a link to the original file which is opened by its default application.  Files which are supported are displayed within Scrivener, this includes media files (audio and video) and .PDF files.  Scrivener is an adequate PDF viewer.  The Research folder is meant to hold all the research you might need to refer to whilst writing your manuscript.  This is the folder to use if you are using Scrivener for note taking as there are fewer restrictions on what you can put in it.

The Trash folder stores any deleted documents or files.  These may be resurrected until you empty the trash.

Each document in Scrivener can have various types of metadata associated with it.  It can have a synopsis, notes, references and keywords.  The keywords can be searched for but the facilities for finding a group of keywords in combination are not as useful or comprehensive as those available in MyInfo or ConnectedText, or even those in WhizFolders.

This does not mean that Scrivener does not have many other useful facilities for classifying and grouping documents.  You can put together arbitrary named collections of documents.  In the writing process this is useful for following separate storylines but it is also very useful in the context of note taking to collect together notes relating to one subject.

Scrivener can also give each document a ‘Label’ and a ‘Status’, there are pre-defined sets of Label and Status but these can be edited so they become much more useful for note taking, or other uses.

There is also a ‘corkboard’ which is a graphical representation of cards pinned to a cork noticeboard.  These cards each represent a document and contain the synopsis of the document they represent, or an image file.  They can be re-arranged by dragging them about.

There is an outline view but it isn’t really an outline.  In a true outline you may have the body text on display or not.  In Scrivener outline view you can only see the metadata associated with each document.  The real outline is the binder, Scrivener has all the facilities of an outlining program, its just that they are distributed throughout the program.  This ‘Outline’ view is still very useful for taking an overview of your work.

 

3. Text layout and formatting    =    10

Text formatting is excellent.  All the usual formatting you would expect is there along with many other embellishments which are usually only found in expensive word processors.  Of course you can embed tables and pictures in your text.

This is a program aimed at producing a published work, which may be a book but could equally well be a thesis or a scientific paper.  As you might expect the facilities for printing your work are a little more elaborate than on most word processors.  You have the option to override the formatting of the documents in the collection.  You can type in your favourite font and then produce a .PDF file in the format, style and font required by your university.  You can also re-format your work according to the platform on which it will be viewed (A4 page, small font .PDF for web downloads or small page large font .mobi file for an E-book reader).  Of course this goes far beyond what is required for a note taking program.

 

4. A sense of time            =    0

There is no calendar or reminder facility in Scrivener, just the same as any other word processor.

 

5. Ease of use            =    9

Scrivener is definitely more at home writing long pieces of text which form a contiguous whole than it is writing many small disparate notes.  This is unsurprising as this is what it was designed for.  The editing and text formatting are as good as any word processor.  I especially like the full screen mode where the text occupies a column in the middle of the screen and all the menus, toolbars and panels just disappear so you can concentrate on the text.  A distraction free writing environment, but most of the keyboard shortcuts still work.

Scrivener’s features and facilities are well thought out and work well together.  Someone has been looking at the big picture in the design of Scrivener rather than concentrating on the details without considering how they will work together.  There is usually more than one way to do something, this can be confusing at first until you realise there is no ‘correct’ way, the correct way is whatever you find easiest.

You can customise the keyboard shortcuts so if you have a favourite word processor which you have a lot of experience with you can configure Scrivener to respond to those keys so that the functions you need are where your fingers expect them to be.

Scrivener is the best writing environment I have ever used but it is not the best note taking environment I have used, that distinction goes to MyInfo and I will continue to use MyInfo for note taking, but for writing, especially for writing long pieces of work Scrivener comes out on top.

 

6. Visual Appeal            =    9

Superficially the user interface looks similar to MyInfo but with a slightly cleaner look.

Various parts of the Scrivener interface and toolbar can be customised.  You can set the background colours in the various panels.  You can also set the fonts to be used in the menus and in various other parts of the program.

A screenshot of Scrivener, I have changed the background colours of the panels to be more restful to the eye.

A screenshot of Scrivener, I have changed the background colours of the panels to be more restful to the eye.

Scrivener has a full screen mode which clears away all the floobydust and lets you concentrate on the words without any distractions, I have not taken a screenshot of that as it is very boring, as I have it set up it is just black text on a beige background.

Review of InfoRapid Knowledge Base Builder

This is an unusual program, it has its own style of map and it has many very useful features.  The only drawback with Knowledge Base Builder is the fact that the program is so slow and unresponsive.  It is about as lively as a sloth on Valium, bear in mind that this test was done on a Desktop quad core 64 bit gaming machine with 6 Gb of RAM and a good graphics card.  It should not be this slow.  Other programs like MyInfo or VUE respond like lightning on the same machine even (in the case of MyInfo) when they are looking after thousands of notes.

However the program has many good features.  The main focus of the program is as a tool for the world wide web, it can be used to create a map of a website with each page appearing as a node and the links between pages appearing as links between nodes.  As a demonstration of the program Ingo Straub Software have an interactive map of Wikipedia taken from the Wikipedia website.  This map is much more responsive than the desktop program (??) and is a very useful in its own right.  The entries are in plain text but if you click on the W icon then the page from Wikipedia is rendered as it appears on the website.  The demo starts off at the a random Wikipedia entry, always the same entry but different for different computers.  This is not a problem, just type the item you are looking for into the search box and away you go.  This site is incredibly useful as it provides an entirely new way of looking at Wikipedia and seeing the relationships between entries.  It is worth bookmarking the site even if you have no interest in the software.

The program stores its maps in a file and so you have to explicitly save the map before exiting the program.  Any files or thumbnails of files or web pages are stored along with the map so the file can become very large very quickly.  But this does mean that the file can be moved to another computer and all the thumbnails will still be there.

This is not open source software, it is free for personal use but if you use it in a commercial setting you have to buy it at 99 Euros (how would they know?), there are some other programs available on the website with the same licensing arrangements.  I have not checked these out yet.

 

Overall score = 19 out of 50

 

1. Organisation  =  5

This program is not limited to a strict hierarchy, any node may be connected to any other node so it is suitable for concept maps as well as mind mapping.  The layout of the map is entirely controlled by the program itself, there is no manual positioning of nodes but the program usually makes good choices about the layout.  The good thing is that when you select a node it becomes the centre of the map and the rest of the map gets re-arranged around it.  This means that you can have an enormous map and it does not become unusable or confusing because you only see the part you are interested in at the time.  There are very few mapping programs which have this feature.

Links can have types but you cannot split or join links.

It is possible although awkward to have more than one map in the same file.  You would just need two groups of nodes which have no connections between them, because the program controls the display itself and shows related nodes one map is displayed and the other disappears, if you manage to switch to the other map then the first map disappears.  Floating nodes (not attached to any other node) will also disappear.

There is a zoom control on the right hand side of the map but be warned the screen re-draw rate is painfully slow, even with a very small map.

 

2. Attachments  =  3

The things which can be attached to nodes are not terribly useful.  The main aim of this program is to make a representation of parts of the web and it does this very well, what it does not do so well is linking to local files.

Each node has a description field which can hold very large texts, but this is less useful than it sounds because the text pops up in a small box when you mouse over the node.  When moving your mouse off the node towards the box it often disappears before mouse is over the box.  If it has not disappeared then you can scroll through the text.  The box also contains any picture attached to the node and a link button.  The link button can point to a file from the programs repository or a URL.  This program does not support universal links.

The link box cannot point to a file on your local file system.  Any files you need to link to must first be copied into a repository by the program.  If you try to link to a file then you will be presented with a list of the files in the repository.  Many of the files are not the original files but a ‘thumbnail’ or screen shot of what the file would look like if it were to be opened.  I have not found a way to open the original file from the link field.

If the link field points to a URL then there is a picture of the webpage next to the link field.  This gives you a thumbnail or preview of the contents of the web page.  Nodes connected to a web page have a small white arrow in the top left hand corner, clicking on this arrow opens the web page but it is not opened in your browser but in the program itself, the main window becomes the browser.

 

3. Appearance  =  5

The appearance of this program is quite attractive with a semi 3D look.  Nodes cannot be positioned manually but the program itself usually lays things out fairly well.

InfoRapid
The unusual thing about this program is that when you select a node the map is re-drawn with the selected node as the centre of the map.  There are very few mapping programs which do this.  MindRaider and Cayra are the only free ones which I can recall at the moment.  Cayra was abandoned by its developer and a later update to Microsoft’s .NET library broke the program.  It is still available here (at the time of writing) but be warned it doesn’t work.  MindRaider is still current at the time of writing.

There are four panels at the side of the screen which contain an outline view of the map, a list of files in the repository, details of the relationships between nodes and various details about the selected node.  These panels can be folded away to get a better view of the map if desired.

 

4. Ease of use  =  1

The speed of response of this program is painfully slow.

The way the program is designed is cumbersome, you are constantly swapping between the mouse and keyboard.  This is not the program you need if you want to jot down notes quickly.  Using this program is hard work.

It is not possible to move around the map using just the keyboard, you have to use the mouse.  The idiosyncratic way it links to files, the constant swapping between keyboard and mouse and the clumsy way the data is entered makes this program tedious and awkward to use.

 

5. Import – Export  =  5

This program is focused on the web and so these is an option to map a web page, this will scan a website and build a map with each web page represented as a node and each link on that page mapped to a link to another node which represents another page.  What you end up with is a graphical map of the website which is quite useful.  Text extracted from the web pages is put in the description field and the title of the page is the title of the node, also the links all have descriptions copied from the text displayed on the web page for that link.  Before you map a website you can specify the maximum number of web pages to scan, the maximum depth of link levels, maximum number of links per page, timeout and several other parameters.  This is useful because otherwise you might end up with a map of the whole world wide web.  This program does a very good job of mapping a website.

This program can build a map from an XML dump produced from a MediaWiki site.  It can also import .CSV, .RDF, .OWL, .XMI, .XSD and .GED files, presumably they have to be in the correct format to produce a sensible map.  I have not tried these import options except for the MediaWiki XML dump which works well.

The map may be exported as a .CSV file, an image file (literally just a picture of the map) or as a web database.

Where is the Computer industry headed?

If you’re a computer technology enthusiast who keeps an eye on developments in the field, especially someone who has been an enthusiast for many years then you’re probably not very happy with the way things are heading.

Everything that computers once stood for, everything that once made them great and exciting as a hobby has been hijacked by big business who are intent on controlling what goes on in your computer and turning you into a ‘user’, i.e. someone who doesn’t understand or even care what is happening inside their computer.

It’s not difficult to pick out the one phenomenon that people like to complain about, the one thing that people love to hate and accuse as being responsible for all the computer world’s biggest problems.  I speak, of course, of Microsoft, and more specifically, the Windows Operating System.

I had a first encounter with Windows 8 over Christmas, I was not impressed.  What were Microsoft thinking?  Don’t they have a quality control department?  Don’t they test the software before releasing it?  (perhaps not, look at Windows Vista!)

Can you imagine the conversation that took place?

Marketing guy : “We need something novel and innovative to differentiate this operating system from the previous one!”

Programmer (making a joke) : “We could give it a mobile phone interface, they are really popular these days”

Marketing guy (being serious) : “Great, that’s a really good idea!  We’ll do it!”

Programmer (in panic) :  “Hang on a minute, it wasn’t a serious suggestion!”

Marketing guy :  “Nonsense, I think its a great idea …..  ”

 

Windows just keeps getting worse and worse.  Far from benefiting yourself by upgrading, you are taking a big risk every time you upgrade to a newer version.  You will find it takes up more disk space and RAM, the applications you use might not work (or they may work fine but you need to buy a new license because your hardware has changed) and the most absurd thing of all is that nothing will be different.

Windows 98 did not have any significant improvements over Windows 95, nor did Windows 2000 improve significantly on 98.  XP was a little bit more stable but Vista got back to the usual standard, nice shiny graphical interface behind which the software was riddled with bugs, apart from all the bugs it took up far more computer resources and memory to do what is essentially the same job at the same speed.

Vista was just the Alpha version of Windows 7 and so the public could pay for the privilege of testing it and finding the bugs for Microsoft.  Windows 7 was better but now they need something new to try and make people want to upgrade their PC.

What few people seem to realise is that this is just what the computer industry wants.  The hardware industry produces faster machines with more memory and more disk space whilst the software companies produce bigger, slower more bloated software to neutralise all these advances.  The users end up having to upgrade all the time just to continue doing the same things as they were doing with their old hardware and software.

You already know all this.  It has been repeated time and time again by many people in the industry, and so it would be rather fruitless to dwell upon it yet again.  So how did things get this way?

Windows has been a messy, bloated operating system from its very first version.  The very first versions of Windows (versions 1.0 and 2.0) were awful, they worked intermittently if at all.  But by the time it got to version 3.0 Windows was relatively stable and usable.

And back then it was understandable.

Understandable in a technical sense, that is.  In the early 1990s, in the age of Windows 3.0 and 3.1, Windows could be mostly understood.  A power user could identify every single file that Windows shipped with and what that file’s function was (and Windows came with a lot of files).  Windows 3.x was an operating system that a normal human being could comprehend. Furthermore, it did not do much ‘behind the scenes’ work, at least not nearly as much as Windows 95 and beyond.

When Windows 3.x did something, you probably already knew about it, because you would have ordered the computer to do it yourself.  At that time it was the user in control of the computer, not the other way round.

Windows 95 changed all that.  Windows 95 did a lot of things ‘behind the scenes’ in a way that was simply annoying.  There were little things constantly going on inside your computer which you didn’t know about and hadn’t asked for.  Sudden, brief periods of hard disk activity, even when nobody is using the computer, was a sure sign of this.

I still remember the day in August of 1995 when Microsoft released Windows 95, the advertising promised it would change the face of computing forever, and indeed, it did just that.

On that day, reading about the new features of this revolutionary OS, I felt an impending sense of doom for my hobby.  It seemed that computers, as a whole, were becoming ever more automated.  User friendliness is all well and good but it seemed to me that control was being taken away from the users, more and more of the inner workings of the machine was being hidden and ‘protected’ from the owner of the machine.

As time went on, the trend of increasing user-friendliness began to take on new and sinister facets.  Foremost among these was the trend towards corporate domination.  As the Internet continued to grow in mass popularity and operating systems became increasingly elephantine and incomprehensible beasts, users seemed to be losing control over their computers, and the computers (or more specifically, the companies who wrote the operating systems running those computers) seemed to be reversing the role, controlling the user rather than the other way around, by spying on the user’s browsing habits and preventing them from having direct control over many aspects of their computers.

Although this was largely a software trend propagated by inflexible operating systems, it also had an effect on the way hardware was designed, by hardware companies manufacturing non-standard, under-documented hardware that was deliberately difficult to reverse-engineer to the user’s own preferences.

Before Windows 95 it was possible to put together a homebrew interface to some weird device you built yourself and control it from the computer with a little program you hacked together yourself.

Most hardware which you bought to connect to your computer had understandable well documented interfaces, so that if you wanted to do something unusual with them you would write a program to control it yourself.

After Windows 95 all hardware had to be controlled through a ‘device driver’ and this was not the domain of the home constructor.  If you tried to access your hardware directly the processor generated an exception and halted your program.  Around this time manufacturers increasingly started to hide the details of their interfaces.  Computers were moving away from being a hobbyist device and increasingly enthusiasts were forced out.

There was a general dumbing down of people’s knowledge.  One example of this is Microsoft’s ‘Internet Explorer’ program, which is just a web browser but in the minds of many people the World Wide Web became synonymous with the Internet. There is a lot more to the Internet than the World Wide Web but nowadays many people don’t even know anything other than the web exists.

Microsoft, and people who side with Microsoft will say that this is done to make the computer easier to use.  The end user does not want to know about all those silly little technical details.

The user is just that: Someone who uses the computer, and wants to use it with a minimum of complications doing only the things that the software authors allow them to do and nothing else.  Yet the truth is that most people who used computers back in the early nineties had enough expertise to get into Windows 3.1 and use it and its applications without many complications.

Now there are many more people using computers and increasingly users are deliberately excluded from the technical aspects of computing.  The main people who try to persuade users that learning about the technical aspects of your computer is ‘too hard’ are the people with a hidden agenda.  The software company that wants to convince you to buy their new software because it is more user-friendly.

The problem is further inflamed by the software vendors interests in concealing the inner workings of their software, afraid that other companies and technically savvy users might copy their ‘intellectual property’. They don’t want people to understand and so documentation has become trivial, lacking any depth, it is mostly on how to use the software, rather than anything that an enthusiast would want to know.

Apart from playing games a 5-year old computer running a basic set of applications could do everything that a ‘normal’ person wants to do with their computer.  The typical human’s needs have already been surpassed long ago, and that leaves the computer industry with a big problem.  They have to try to stimulate artificial demand using hype and advertising.  Novelty is king.  And so we end up with an operating system with a stupid mobile phone interface which does a very good job of excluding the user from any of the technical aspects of the machine whilst enforcing corporate DRM and controls on anything you do with your machine.

The role of advertising in the computer industry is exactly the same as it is for the rest of the retail industry, it is there to make you dissatisfied with what you already have so that you will go out and buy something new even though it might not be necessary.

Linux is starting to look more and more inviting with every ‘innovation’ perpetrated by Microsoft!