A Virtual Hearing Aid

There are problems with hearing tests and the provision of hearing aids in poorer countries, but an alternative use of existing technology could provide a partial solution.

The project I did for my bachelors degree was the design of an audiometer.  An Audiometer is a device to test a persons hearing.

This audiometer was designed to run from batteries and used very little power.  It was designed for use in third world countries.  But unfortunately there were some problems.  The headphones used in hearing tests are very expensive so even if the audiometer could be made very cheaply the headphones would be the limiting factor in how cheaply the audiometer could be sold.

There is also a problem in providing hearing aids to people in third world countries, even if the aid is provided for free (which is rare) then the ongoing cost of batteries is often too much for some poorer people.

It seems to me that there are many mobile phones in the world, even in third world countries many people who struggle to find the money for food have a mobile phone in their pocket.  Also countries like India manufacture very cheap Android mobile phones.

Mobile phone manufacturers have done a great deal of research into making mobile phones efficient at playing music into headphones using as little battery power as possible.

It ought to be possible to program an application to take the sound from the microphone and play it through the headphones with the facility to adjust the volume, this ought to be a fairly simple application.  It might even be possible to include a graphic equaliser to adjust the frequency response.

If this were possible, especially if this app was available as a free download then deaf people in third world countries who already have a mobile phone could download a ‘virtual’ hearing aid for free.

Of course I would always recommend a professionaly done hearing test and I acknowledge that a mobile phone app is no substitute for a real hearing test and a properly prescribed hearing aid but healthcare in third world countries is seldom free and having some sort of hearing aid is better than going without anything, but only if it is your only option.

Because this idea has been put out into the public domain in this blog nobody can apply a software patent to the idea, they could copyright their own implementation of the idea but they could not stop anyone from writing a different implementation of the idea.

I have never written a mobile phone app so I don’t know how complicated it might be to write such an app but it seems to me that it might not be that complicated and it would certainly be of potential use to a great many people.

Who is up for the challenge?


Ribbons, screens and links

Why ribbons?

A few of years ago Microsoft started putting ribbons on most of their applications and trying to promote them as a good idea, “this is the future” they said and many people believed them. On a lot of applications the ribbon is optional, you can choose to have the traditional menus and toolbars but on Microsoft applications the ribbon is mandatory whether you like it or not. But on a small screen a ribbon is a really bad idea, it takes up far too much room. If you use the keyboard shortcuts a lot then this is just wasted space.

The reason Microsoft are so enthusiastic about ribbons is that they see the future of computing in small mobile devices with touch screens, like the Microsoft Surface. With a touch screen you prod the screen with your finger. With a finger you have much less precision than if you are using a mouse or even a stylus, so the icons have to be bigger and have to be spaced further apart.

So the ribbon should have been optional on mobile devices with touch screens but instead Microsoft chose to impose it on everyone. It is puzzling why they have caught on as much as they have, I think this is partially due to the novelty value and partly because Microsoft are such a big company with a disproportionately large influence over the computing community that anything they do becomes a standard so they do not have to pay any attention to common sense or ease of use.

How to tame the ribbon on Microsoft Office

You can make the ribbon less obnoxious on Microsoft Office programs. At the top far right of the screen just below the window controls is a blue circle with a white question mark in it. This is next to a white up arrow. If you click on this up arrow the ribbon goes away until you click on one of the menu tabs at the top of the screen, then the ribbon you have selected appears until you have used it and then it goes away again. There is also something called the ‘quick access toolbar’ which isn’t used very much by most people.  It is usually at the very top of the screen but in the options there is a ‘quick access toolbar’ tab with a tick box to put it below the ribbon, from this screen you can also select which commands go on to the quick access toolbar.

I have put many commands on there, if I find that I am having to use the ribbons a lot then I put the commands I need onto the quick access toolbar and so it has grown until now it is almost all the way across the screen and it only takes up a small amount of vertical space. Microsoft are very good at designing user interfaces so I suspect this is deliberate and how the interface is supposed to be used but it is not obvious and a lot of people just don’t use the quick access toolbar at all.

High DPI Screens

I recently had to buy a new laptop because Microsoft destroyed my old laptop. When Microsoft destroyed my old laptop in the upgrade to Windows 10 (an upgrade which I did not instigate or desire) I needed to buy a new laptop. The one I chose has a very high resolution screen, the resolution is 3200 by 1800. I thought that having a high DPI screen would be a good idea, now that I have been using it for a while I think that perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea. The picture on the screen of the laptop itself is very clear and incredibly sharp but at a scaling factor of 100% the text is un-readably small, currently I have it set to 200% and this is still a bit small.

The problem is the scaling of text in applications. If the application doesn’t scale the text properly then you get microscopic text or on some programs the text does scale properly but the toolbar icons are microscopic. And some programs have not got the idea that a computer can have two different resolution screens, so windows and dialog boxes are scaled correctly on the screen that they were drawn on but if you drag them to the other screen some programs re-scale the dialog box or window properly, some programs don’t scale the dialog box so it becomes very small, some programs make the window or dialog box disappear whilst other programs just crash.

The problem is the new ‘Windows Presentation Foundation’ which is an API for rendering text and images on a computer screen. Somewhere between Windows 7 and Windows 10 it has been updated to include new features to handle the scaling of text and GUI elements, so programs which use the new features in the API need to be re-written, or at least the GUI needs to be re-written.  The change is not trivial, it isn’t just like compiling to a different library, the changes cannot be done automatically so the code needs to be edited manually to include the new features.

Of course all the Microsoft applications handle this correctly, as you might expect, but other programs sometimes don’t handle it quite as well. This has meant that some of my favourite programs either don’t work properly or are completely unusable on my new laptop.

I tried out a few of the programs I have been using and which I have used in the past using my laptop with it’s high DPI screen and a 1600 by 1200 monitor plugged into the HDMI port of the laptop.


Compendium ignores any scaling factors you have set on your screen and draws its user interface at the native resolution of the screen. The text and icons are microscopic and the program is unusable without a magnifying glass.  On the external monitor things are scaled to the same size but the pixels are bigger so that even with a magnifying glass it is unreadable.


WhizFolders scales everything correctly and works as expected.


VUE ignores any scaling factors you have set on your screen and draws its user interface at the native resolution of the screen. The text and icons are microscopic and the program is unusable without a magnifying glass.  On the external monitor things are scaled to the same size but the pixels are bigger so that even with a magnifying glass it is unreadable.  This has left me looking for a new mapping program, I relied on VUE quite heavily.

CMAP Tools

Because I can’t use VUE on my laptop anymore I revisited CMAP Tools, a program I tried a while ago, but alas CMAP Tools ignores any scaling factors you have set on your screen and draws its user interface at the native resolution of the screen. The text and icons are microscopic and the program is unusable without a magnifying glass.  On the external monitor things are scaled to the same size but the pixels are bigger so that even with a magnifying glass it is unreadable.


Scrivener draws most of its user interface correctly but the icons in the toolbar are now small and the text in the binder panel looks cramped, it has been drawn at the correct scale but too close together. This can be solved by switching fonts to a font which has a larger line spacing, Calibri worked on my system.  The toolbar icons in Scrivener were too large, having them much smaller is a little tiresome but not as bad as it would have been if the icons had started out at normal size, this problem is trivial.  Scrivener works well on a high DPI screen.


TheBrain scales its user interface correctly but cannot handle having two screens with different scaling factors.  If any of the panels are put into a floating window and dragged to the other screen then the program crashes if the scale factor is different on the two screens.  If the scale factor is the same on both screens then everything works as expected.


MyInfo scales everything correctly and works as expected.  Embedded OLE objects are rendered at the correct scale.

Ultra Recall

Ultra Recall scales its user interface correctly and works as expected apart from one problem.  Embedded OLE objects are rendered at a ridiculously large scale.  The developer said that he is using Internet Explorer to render the objects within Ultra Recall and so cannot do anything about the scale factor at which they appear.  However developers of some other programs seem to have been able to do this correctly.


Unfortunately ConnectedText has some problems with high DPI screens, the icons on the toolbar become microscopic and the titles of topics show only the top half of the text.  Apart from those problems it works correctly.  I still use ConnectedText despite the problems.

Essential PIM Pro

This is a curious one.  I was using Essential PIM Pro 6 which had all sorts of problems with scaling when I was forced onto Windows 10, so I wrote to the developer telling him what the problems were and he wrote back saying that ‘Unfortunately there is no way to overcome this problem’ which I assumed to mean that he wasn’t going to do anything about it and started looking for a new e-mail program but then just a couple of weeks later Essential PIM Pro 7 came out which solved almost all the problems.  He could have told me that the new version was coming out and to wait a little while but for some reason he didn’t.  There is still a problem with some of the text in some of the panels and dialog boxes looking too cramped, this could be solved by switching fonts but you cannot change the interface font in Essential PIM Pro like you can in Scrivener.

So, which laptop should I have bought?  Well I think there is an optimum screen resolution for each screen size, you want it high enough that the individual pixels are not visible but not so high as to cause the scaling issues detailed above, and for the external screen you want it to have enough pixels so that you can set the scaling factors to be the same for the two screens.  So the external monitor should be high resolution. But I am stuck with the monitor that I have (1600 by 1200) unless I want to purchase another one.

For a screen which is 13 inches between diagonally opposite corners I think the optimum resolution would be 1920 by 1080.  If the screen were bigger then the resolution could be higher to keep the DPI (dots per inch) the same.

Universal Links

I sometimes get e-mails about the blog and sometimes people put comments on my posts.  One thing that has been asked more than once is :-

“What is a universal link anyway?”

A universal link is a link to specific content within the file of an application.  For instance Essential PIM Pro allows you to copy a link which will point to a specific e-mail in a specific database created in Essential PIM Pro.  This can be activated from another application and will not only start up Essential PIM but open the specific e-mail to which the link points.

There is a protocol which the application needs to register with the operating system when it is installed, once registered if the operating system receives a link of the correct format it will pass the link to the specified application.

As an example of what they look like a link to one of the e-mails in Essential PIM looks like :-


the bit up to the :// is the string which is registered with the operating system, the rest is application specific.

As another example a link to a topic in my ConnectedText notes looks like :-


again the bit before the :// specifies the application to which the link points but the rest of it is almost human readable once you realise that ‘%20’ is the space character.

So a universal link is like a URL but it points to specific content within a specific application on the local machine.

A Fonts Tale.

I’m back. Did ya miss me?

My last post on this blog was nearly a year ago. I have been working on something big which didn’t leave me much time for other things but that is finished now so I now have time to post again.

So, what have I been doing?

Well I have been a connoisseur of fonts for a long time, back before the days of true type I designed bitmap fonts for the Atari ST.

Since getting the PC many years ago I haven’t actually designed any fonts, just used and collected them, and I have a sizeable collection.

I was always looking for the perfect font for body text. One which fulfilled my personal preferences. There were many which ticked a lot of the boxes but there wasn’t one which ticked all the boxes.

For body text you want something which is very legible and without too much character, Fonts with a lot of character are fine for titles or short captions but if you are reading long passages of it then bland is best, having said that there are certain elements of style which are beneficial in body text.

In January 2015 I became aware of a program called Font Forge, it is a true type font editor which is free and open source. I downloaded it and started work to create my perfect font.

But it was hard work, there is a lot to learn. Font Forge is cumbersome and non intuitive. Some parts of it, like hinting, are very arcane. And then there were the bugs, the program hasn’t been finished to a point where it is stable. I kept getting crashes. To be fair the community surrounding this program is very helpful and new versions are constantly coming out to fix problems when they arise.

One of these new versions fixed some of my problems and the program was much more stable after that.

About two or three months into the development of the font I bought a font editor program called Font Creator. At the time I wondered about the wisdom of spending so much but looking back it was a good move.

Many of the Font Editors which are available are very expensive so I was surprised at the modest cost of Font Creator compared to some font editors , it is less than the price of a well known word processor (you know the one I mean).

Font Creator automates a lot of functions which are done manually in Font Forge. The drawing tools are quite intuitive, for anyone with experience using a mechanical CAD program they will be very easy to learn.

At some point I will do a comparative review of Font Forge and Font Creator, but that will be a separate post.

At first I had intended to do a small font just for my own use with a minimal set of characters but then other people became interested in it and I decided to make it suitable for a public release. I tried to make it generally useful to as many people as possible and so I started filling in the blanks, the European accented characters, the Eastern European characters, the Nordic characters and eventually Cyrillic, Armenian and Georgian.

At this point I had to come up with a name and it seemed that all the sensible names were already taken. If you do a search for ‘<prospective name> font’ on a web search engine then it always comes back with a hit. One of my colleagues at work suggested that I call the font after my main character on the MMORPG Guild Wars 2 and so the name of the font is ‘Kelvinch‘ for reasons which are unlikely to become clear to anyone who doesn’t know the origin of that name.

Kelvinch Advert

A friend on the font forum called Bhikkhu Pesala gave me permission to use some of the blocks of characters from his Pali font and so my font acquired Dingbats, Miscellaneous Symbols, Geometric Shapes and Arrows. Bhikkhu Pesala has produced many really fantastic free fonts.

Eventually my font grew to about three and a half thousand characters, there are some easter eggs in there as well. If you want to know where these can be found you might find some clues in the fontlog.txt file which documents the development of the font.

Kelvinch was started in January 2015 and finished in May 2016, a lot of work has gone into it and it is yours for free, all you have to do is download and install. It can be downloaded from the Deviant Art website. Don’t let the ‘Deviant’ bit put you off, Deviant Art is probably the largest art repository on the internet and only a very small percentage of the content is pornographic.



An Idiosyncratic Review of LyX

I tried LyX some years ago but I didn’t really ‘get’ the program, it just seemed like a needlessly complex word processor, and it wasn’t WYSIWYG. But since that time I have been using ConnectedText which definateley isn’t WYSIWYG and have gradually become accustomed to working in different modes. I was reminded of LyX recently and so have given it another go.

LyX is a free and open source document processor running on Windows, Mac OS X and Linux/Unix. Its proponents call it a ‘document processor’ rather than a ‘word processor’ because unlike a standard word processor, LyX encourages an approach to writing based on the content and structure of the document, not it’s appearance.The writers of LyX have adopted the term WYSIWYM to describe the approach.

It is a graphical front end for a LaTeX typesetting engine (MiKTeX) so the final output can be quite good if you manage to get a font you like.

Using LyX you are expected to concentrate on writing, leaving the typesetting to the software. This is a similar approach to using styles in a conventional word processor but instead of styles being optional they are mandatory, you may override them if you wish but that takes extra effort.

LyX is a bit overkill for short notes or letters. But for long and complex documents LyX can save a lot of time and effort. There are many pre defined document templates which make it easier to make a document which conforms to a particular set of requirements. For instance there are templates for writing articles in the format required by academic journals, there is a book template, there is another template for writing a film/play script.

LyX automates the formatting according to a predefined set of rules, this gives consistency throughout the document. For example, you can have all your headings in the size and font you want but when you make this change it will affect all the headings, you don’t have to go through your document changing them all individually.

LyX has a concept called ‘environments’. These are just like styles in a conventional word processor. Each piece of text in your document has to be put in the correct environment, if no environment is set then it will be in the default body text environment of ‘Standard’. No text exists without being in an environment. The environment sets the font, the size, the indent and everything else about the text is defined by its environment. There are environments for headings, subheadings, sub-subheadings, bulleted lists, numbered lists, tables, bibliographies, footnotes, references, etc..

There is also some intelligent automation, by default all headings (at whatever level) get placed in a table of contents, if you want a table of contents then you need do nothing, but if you don’t want a table of contents then you can delete it. References are also intelligent, if you refer in your text to ‘figure 1 on page 7’ and then you add more figures and text before the target of the reference it automatically changes the number to refer to the same figure on whatever page it ends up on.

One thing which I thought was quite neat, usually the reference would be something like ‘refer to Section 3.7 on page xx‘ where xx is the page number but if the target is within one page of the reference then it changes to ‘refer to Section 3.7 on the previous page’ or ‘refer to Section 3.7 on the next page’.

The types of environment available is different for different document types.

And of course you can insert tables, graphics, bitmap images and even SVG files which are good for drawing diagrams in Inkscape but which Microsoft Word has great difficulty with. There is an excellent equation editor. The equations have a particular LaTeX styling which sets them apart from the main text, but that is not a bad thing. The equations can be numbered to make it easier to refer to them from the text.

When you install LyX you get a lot of other programs installed as well, Ghostscript, Perl, Awk and MiKTeX amongst others. MiKTeX is an open source implementation of LaTeX, this is the program which produces the output. With the default settings the output produced looks exactly like all the Linux DocBook documentation files along with that thin ugly anaemic looking font they use.

Fonts are a problem, LyX uses postscript type 1 fonts, you can use true type fonts in your documents but you then limit the options for the rendering of your document. If you use the postscript fonts then there are only a few supplied with LyX, most of them are not very pleasing to the eye, there are a couple which are OK but the default serif font is perhaps the worst of the lot.

This is very frustrating for me because I have many postscript type 1 fonts available but installing these in MiKTeX is a hideously complex task and so far I have been unsuccessful. The task of installing a font should not be that difficult, it should at least be documented somewhere.

LyX Badfont

An example of the hideous postscript font used by default if you don’t choose another, but the choice is very limited.

At first sight LyX looks like a conventional word processor, it is not until you start typing that you realise how different it really is, you have no control of spacing. Hitting return many times inserts one carriage return, hitting space many times inserts one space, hitting TAB does nothing. All the content is typeset and rendered by LyX, you don’t have to think about the spacing and the layout. Someone who only has experience of Microsoft Word will find this disconcerting at first.

LyX Main Screen

LyX main screen with the manual opened for editing.

You can control all the aspects of the layout, the spacing between paragraphs, the margins and all the rest but you do it for the whole document. You have to get used to working at a higher level of abstraction.

LyX has no problem with handling very large documents. The table of contents which is continuously updated can be viewed as a panel at the side of the text. This acts as an excellent outline, you can jump to whatever section or subsection you want just by clicking on it and sections can also be moved about, promoted and demoted just like in an outlining program.

In some ways the separation of edit mode from output mode can be more convenient than a conventional word processor. You can enlarge the screen fonts to suit your needs but the text wraps so it is all still on the screen, but this does not affect the formatting of the final output.

There are many manuals supplied with LyX, all in LyX format. They are a very comprehensive reference for LyX. They can be printed out to PDF format to read and if you use the default settings with postscript fonts everything will work as expected, however if you typeset them with true type fonts sometimes they will cause errors or crash the program when you try to export them.

LyX has very limited import facilities, it can import LaTeX or plain ASCII text from the clipboard or from a file, it can also import various spreadsheet files or a CSV file into a table. It also lists LyX files as an import option but to me importing files in the format of the program is not an import, I think what they mean is inserting one LyX file into another.

The export facilities are a little more extensive, you can send the output to DVI, EPS, HTML, LaTeX, Open Document Format, PDF (various flavours), plain text, postscript and even to a printer.

Will LyX become my main word processor?

Probably not.

For short documents, notes and organisational stuff I use ConnectedText. For longer documents Scrivener is hard to beat. But LyX is free and Scrivener costs $40.  I can see that LyX could be very useful if I were writing something like a book or a doctoral thesis and I didn’t want to spend any money.

LyX is a very powerful and quirky program but it still has some rough edges.

Quick Review of Auto Hot Key

It is sometimes useful to be able to automate things on a computer. To have a Batch file which will follow a set of instructions which you have prepared earlier.

Also Keyboard Macros can be useful, a Keyboard Macro is where a keystroke or a short sequence of key presses are replaced with a much longer sequence of keystrokes usually to save you having to type the longer sequence.

Auto Hot Key is a free/open source program which combines both these functions with a whole lot more. It is a program designed to control other programs, it can simulate keystrokes and mouse button presses for other programs.

Using Auto Hot Key you can change the way your computer behaves. You can write scripts which will be activated when a keypress or a sequence of key presses are made. Auto Hot Key becomes the glue which binds different programs together.

It usually hides in the background (terminate and stay resident) waiting for the appropriate sequence of keys before performing its assigned task but if you don’t set a keystroke or key sequence to wait for then the program will run once and then quit just like a normal batch file. Even many Auto Hot Key aficionados were not aware that you could do this.

As a batch processing language or scripting language it is very good. You can put forms and dialog boxes up on the screen, it has the full compliment of if statements and loops, it has a good set of functions and expressions for mathematics and string handling.

As a simple example of Auto Hot Key in use I use a program called ConnectedText quite a lot and I also use a program called VUE quite a lot. I had a problem that when I had a link to a VUE file in ConnectedText and clicked on the link it would open the file in a new VUE instance regardless of whether it was already open. This sometimes led to multiple instances of VUE open with the same file, this would be a problem if one of them were edited, or if two of them were edited in different ways.

The solution was to use Auto Hot Key to open the file instead, it would first check to see if that particular file was open in VUE, if it was then it would activate that window. Only if the file was not already open would it open the file in a new instance of VUE. So only one copy of each file would be open at any one time. It is a trivial program but quite useful.


IfWinExist VUE: %1%
    Run "C:\Program Files (x86)\VUE\VUE-launcher.exe" %2%
    WinWait VUE: %1%


There is another slightly more sophisticated AHK script I use which allows me to link into Compendium (normally Compendium does not support links into its contents). However this program will not be reproduced here. It is quite fragile and things need to be set up correctly for it to work.

The icing on the cake is that once you have a working script AHK files can be compiled into .EXE files.

Highly recommended.

A Cornucopia of Programs

Information Tools

I have not posted in a while (I’ve been busy) so I decided to do something special.  This is a list of all the information tools I could have found in my search for the perfect note taking program.  This is just a list, these are not reviews, just a few remarks on my impressions of the program.  I haven’t even tried many of them so being on this list is not an endorsement it just means they exist.  Not being on the list doesn’t mean anything either, it only means I must have missed it.  Some are free and almost all the others have a free trial period.

The prices were correct in October 2014, after that they may change.


My Personal Preferences

Out of all the note taking programs which I have tried Ultra Recall and MyInfo are undoubtedly my favourites.  Ultra Recall is more powerful and is probably the one I should be using but MyInfo has a better user interface and although it is not as powerful it is easier to use and the information you want is easier to find in MyInfo.  I ought to be using Ultra Recall but the program I find myself using on a day to day basis for general organisation tasks is MyInfo simply because its easier.  This blog post is being composed in MyInfo.

For serious writing Scrivener is unrivalled.

If I wanted a Wiki then Connected Text is the tool I would use.

For drawing concept maps, organisation charts and just laying out ideas graphically to sort out my thoughts VUE is the tool which I use, for mind maps I use Freeplane.


So.  What is available?


Note Taking Programs

Ultra Recall

Usage       Regular
License     Commercial
Price          $99  or $49
Website    http://www.kinook.com/UltraRecall/

This is a very powerful note taking program with a lot of facilities.  It can handle very large amounts of data without a slow down in either the navigation or searching.  Arbitrary metadata may be associated with any item in the database.  A full review is here.

Although Ultra Recall is very powerful I can’t help feeling that this is a program which keeps adding feature upon feature until the simple things you used to do are no longer simple, and the whole thing starts to feel overwhelming.



Usage       Regular
License     Commercial
Price          $99.95  or $49.95
Website    http://www.milenix.com/myinfo

This is a powerful note taking program with a lot of facilities, it is not quite as powerful as Ultra Recall but it is more user friendly.  Tagging/Keywords are much easier to use and searching is easier.  It can handle very large amounts of data without a slow down in either the navigation or searching, but the opening of a large file does slow down.  The metadata is the same for all items in the database but multiple databases with different data sets and different metadata may be open simultaneously.  A full review is here.


Usage       have used in the past
License     Commercial
Price          $49.95  or $24.95
Website    http://www.whizfolders.com/

This is a classic two pane organiser with a hierarchical tree.  It does have tags (keywords) but it feels like they were added as an afterthought.  Editing is a little awkward as you have to switch between edit mode and view mode.  It has little to recommend it over MyInfo or Ultra Recall except for the price. There is a review.

Essential PIM Pro

Usage       Regular
License     Commercial
Price          £26.88
Website    http://www.essentialpim.com/pc-version

This is an E-mail program with a calendar and reminders, it has tasks which may be given deadlines and it also has a hierarchical note taking section.  There are no keywords or tags but there are a limited number of categories (editable) which may be assigned to all types of items.  Linking (both in and out) is very good.  It is also available for various platforms, there is an android and iOS version available, the different versions can share data.

The note taking section is not as good as some of the note taking programs in this list but note taking is not the primary purpose of this program.

Memo Master

Usage       used to use this
License     Commercial
Price          £39.00
Website    http://www.jbsoftware.org/memomaster/details.htm

Memo Master is a two pane organiser.  It supports spreadsheets as one of the types of document instead of just text documents.  There are many facilities but a lot of them are well hidden in the interface, this makes it awkward and tiresome to use, but it does tick the box in the list of features in the advertising.  The user interface feels like it was designed by someone who never had to use the program.

There is a free version of this program with a lot of the facilities disabled, but annoyingly the menu entries and buttons for these parts of the program are still there.  If you click on one it brings up a dialog box telling you that you need to buy the full version to use this feature.

Right Note

Usage       never used
License     Commercial
Price          $59.95 or  $29.95 — £40.78 or £20.37
Website    http://bauerapps.com/rightnote/

I have never used this program, not even the free trial version but it looks good on their website.  This is a two pane organiser with a very colourful user interface.  It supports spreadsheets as one of its document types.  I don’t know how easy it is to use so I will not pass any judgements but it’s probably worth taking a look.

Silver Note

Usage      Tried it out
License    Commercial
Price         $49.95
Website    http://www.silver-note.com/

This may well be a good program when they get it finished but at the moment it is a beta test version being sold as a finished product.  There are no import facilities.  The drawing tools are buggy.  However this program shows great promise.  It has a novel hierarchical tagging scheme which is truly innovative.  I wish them good luck with their development of this program.

Debrief Notes

Usage       Tried it out
License     Commercial
Price          $39.95
Website    http://debriefnotes.com/

This was one of the most awful restrictive badly designed programs I have ever had the misfortune to use.  The user interface looks like it was designed in the mid 1990’s with a Borland style, don’t get me wrong many user interfaces built using the Borland tools were very good, it just depends on the programmer who designed it.  I only mention this as an indication of the vintage of this program.  No development has gone on since that time.

This program makes the assumption that you don’t need to link in or out (no you can’t even have a link to a file on the local file system) and that you will use their program for everything.

This program is no longer being developed it is just being sold.


Usage       Tried it out
License     Open Source/GPL
Price          Free
Website    http://keepnote.org/

This is a free and open source note taking program.  It is a three pane organiser, the pages are formatted in HTML.  This program performed very well under load, it can handle very large data sets easily, the navigation did not slow down but the searching did slow down in proportion to the size of the data set.  This program does not have keywords/tags and has very few advanced facilities but it does perform well as a very basic (simple) organiser and it is free.

Keynote NF

Usage       Tried it out
License     Open Source/GPL
Price          Free
Website    https://code.google.com/p/keynote-nf/

This is a free and open source note taking program.  It is a two pane organiser, the pages are rich text format.  This program did not perform very well under load, it slowed down considerably with a moderate data set, the navigation slowed down in proportion to the size of the data set, a few very large items could slow it down just as much as many small data items.  This program does not have keywords/tags and has very few advanced facilities but it is free.

SEO Notes

Usage       Not used
License     Open Source/GPL
Price          Free
Website    http://www.seonote.info/

This is a very basic free two pane organiser with very few facilities.  I have not tested this program, reading the documentation was enough to convince me that there were much better offerings out there which are free.

The Guide

Usage       Used to use it
License     Open Source/GPL
Price          Free
Website    http://theguide.sourceforge.net/

The Guide is a simple two pane hierarchical outlining program with no keywords or tagging.  I used it as a writing tool some years ago but there were some instances where it lost some of the text, I think there is a bug or two in there somewhere.  Even when working perfectly it has little to recommend it over some of the other free outliners (like KeepNote).

Personal Knowbase

Usage       Used to use it
License     Commercial
Price          $49.95
Website    http://www.bitsmithsoft.com/product.htm

This is a strange program, there is no tree, the tagging scheme is how you locate the items you want.  This program has one of the best tagging schemes that I have seen but it’s a bit of a one trick pony.  Although the tagging scheme is excellent the editing of notes is not very good and there is no support for tables or images in items and only very basic formatting of text.  This program is no longer under development, for the past few years there have been only very few updates and these are only maintenance updates (fixing bugs).


Usage       Haven’t tried it
License     Commercial
Price          $34.95 or free for a very limited version
Website    http://www.mytreedb.com/treedbnotes_pro.html

I have not tried this program but it seems like a fairly ordinary two pane organiser with a hierarchical tree in the left pane and the item content in the other pane.  The paid version does have tagging but I don’t know how easy this feature is to use.

Leo Editor

Usage       Not used
License     Open Source/GPL
Price          Free
Website    http://leoeditor.com/

Leo is a plain text outliner and organiser which is also an IDE (integrated development environment).  This was written by programmers for programmers, the people who designed it definitely use it the user interface is well designed but a little esoteric.  Leo was written in python and it works well as a python IDE.  Python scripts can be associated with any outline item.  Leo is very powerful but not very graphical.


Usage       Haven’t tried it
License     Commercial
Price          29.95 Euros
Website    http://www.aignes.com/notebook.htm

AM-Notebook is a two pane organiser, but with a few extras.  It has spreadsheets as one of its item types and it has diagrams as one of its item types.  It also has a Calendar, todo list and contacts list, these features are very similar to Microsoft outlook features.  There is no tagging or keywords.


Usage       Haven’t tried it
License     Commercial
Price          $395.00 or $149.00
Website    ?

This program used to be the biggest (and one of the more expensive) two pane organisers around but its web page seems to undergoing maintenance, but it has now been undergoing maintenance for a couple of years.  Now I get an error message when I try to go to the page.  Version 7 is the most recently released version.  It has lots of features but it’s very expensive compared to Ultra Recall.

Black Hole Organizer

Usage       Haven’t tried it
License     Commercial
Price          $24.95
Website    http://www.starresoft.com/bho.htm

This is a three pane organiser like KeepNote.  I have not tried this but it seems to have a lot of good features including user defined metadata.


Usage       Tried it out
License     Commercial
Price          $59.00
Website    http://www.wjjsoft.com/mybase.html

This is one that I have tried.  It has a lot of good features but there are also some bad features, like the linking not being very good, it doesn’t support universal links.  One of the good features is a hierarchical tagging/keyword system.  It does not handle large data sets very well, there seems to be an upper limit of 300MB on the file size.


Usage       Haven’t tried it
License     Commercial
Price          $79.00
Website    http://www.surfulater.com/

I have not tried this program but maybe I ought to have done, from the information on the website and a review I read the main emphasis of this program seems to be collecting copies of web pages into a database which can then be viewed offline at a later date even if the web page has changed or no longer exists.  Of course you can also take notes with it.  The web clippings are arranged into a hierarchical tree.  There is also a hierarchical tagging scheme, which seems surprisingly good.


Usage       Haven’t tried it
License     Commercial
Price          Sign up for free or paid account with a monthly subscription
Website    https://evernote.com/

This is an online note taking solution.  You need to get an account to use it.  If you always have a connection to the internet then it is probably a good idea but if like me you spend a large percentage of the day without a connection then it doesn’t look so attractive.  There are versions of this program for android and iOS and you can share data between devices.  It is possible to get a ‘Premium Account’ which you pay a monthly subscription for.  If you have a Premium Account then you can download your notes onto your computer or phone or tablet and use them without a connection.  But you are paying each month for the privilige.  In my opinion ‘software as a service’ is a BAD idea, you rent the software, if you use it for a long time then you end up paying far more than if you had bought a high end piece of software to do the same job.

Zoot XT

Usage       Tried it out, didn’t like it
License     Commercial
Price          $99.00
Website    http://www.zootsoftware.com/

Zoot is an unusual program, I am not a fan of it but you might like it.  It is a not taking software but it also includes an e-mail program, an RSS feed viewer and a web browser amongst other things.  It treats your notes just like e-mails to yourself.  The user interface is complex and I didn’t get along with it very well.


Usage       Tried it out, didn’t like it
License     Commercial
Price          39.90 Euros
Website    http://www.lexican.net/

Yet another two pane outliner.  This one has some limitations.  There was a significant reduction in response times when the file grew to just a few hundred notes or a couple of hundred kilobytes, this is very poor in my opinion.

When you open this program it takes a very long time before even the splash screen appears, this is annoying.

LexiCan has some serious issues which hamper its use, most of the other programs can have multiple databases or files open at once.  LexiCan can only have one file open at once and when you open another file it automatically closes the file you had open.

This program is produced by a German company, it has been translated into English.  However some of the more obscure menus and dialog boxes are still in German and if you get an error which happens frequently the error message which comes up is always in German.


Usage       Tried it out
License     ?
Price          Free
Website    http://www.noteliner.org/i/Main.html

This is a single pane outliner but has an optional second pane which can be displayed or hidden.  This program is free but not open source.  This program has a lot of hidden depth to it, for instance I didn’t realise until quite recently that it does Gantt charts.

Total Text Container

Usage       Tried it out
License     ?
Price          Free
Website    https://sites.google.com/site/totaltextcontainer/Home

This is a quirky little program which does a lot of different things but which also has some bugs.  It is free.  It has many different item types including spreadsheets and diagrams.  There has been no development of this program for a long time.

Cinta Notes

Usage       Haven’t tried it
License     Commercial
Price          Free version or a $39.00 uncrippled version
Website    http://cintanotes.com/

Cinta Notes stores its notes in a chronological order but in the Pro (paid for) version you have a good tagging scheme with a hierarchical tag tree and so you can gain access to your notes organised in a way you define using this tree.  This is a plain text organiser.

Cherry Tree

Usage       Tried it out, undecided
License     Open Source/GPL
Price          Free
Website    http://www.giuspen.com/cherrytree/

This is one of the better free and open source note taking programs.  There is a tagging scheme but it is not terribly useful.  There is syntax highlighting for a number of different computer languages.  Images can be pasted into items.

AllMyNotes Organizer

Usage       Haven’t tried it
License     Commercial
Price          $25.50 or Free for a version with limited capabilities
Website    http://www.vladonai.com/

A standard two pane organiser but with a quirky colourful interface and a number of different ‘skins’ which change the appearance of the user interface.  There are lots of customisation options.  No tagging scheme but items can have alarms attached to them so that they will remind you of their alarm at a given time in the future (if you are running the program at that time), or as soon after that as they can run.

The website seems to run a perpetual ‘limited time offer’ just for your country (wherever you happen to be from).  This offer has been running for several years now, I don’t know what the limit on the time is but I don’t think there is any need to rush!

Idea Rover

Usage       Haven’t tried it
License     Commercial
Price          $89
Website    http://www.idearover.com/

This is a standard one/two pane outliner which is supposedly pitched towards academic writing, it has special facilities for what they call ‘structured citation extraction’ whatever that is.  In my opinion it doesn’t have anything to recommend it over Scrivener which is cheaper and better.

This program has an awkward interface with a large ‘ribbon’ of icons across the top of the screen, on a small screen (a laptop) this could get annoying.

Linked Notes

Usage       Haven’t tried it
License     Commercial
Price          Free version or a $19.95 uncrippled version
Website    http://www.linkednotes.com/default.aspx

A very basic two pane organiser program with no tagging and nothing to recommend it over one of the free organiser programs like Cherry Tree or KeepNote.

Notecase Pro

Usage       Haven’t tried it
License     Commercial
Price          It’s complicated
Website    http://www.notecasepro.com/

A two pane organiser program with lots of facilities.  There is a tagging scheme.  Files can be attached to items and alarms can also be attached to items to bring up a reminder at some point in the future.  There is a spell checker and there is a version for Android.

It might well be a good program, I have not tried it out.  The prices start low but there are many different prices you can pay for this program depending on the platform, the upgrade options, and whether you want it for more than one platform.

Microsoft OneNote

Usage       Tried it, didn’t like it
License     Commercial
Price          It’s complicated, there is a free version but it isn’t really free.
Website    http://www.onenote.com/

This is Microsofts offering in the genre of note taking programs.  I used OneNote 2007 for a while.  The more recent versions have become less useful as Microsoft moves more towards the ‘Software as a Service’ business model.

My comments here refer to the 2007 version.  The user interface is slick and well thought out, it follows all the standard windows conventions.  However many of the features aren’t as useful as they could have been, I think that many features were added in order to tick boxes in the advertising, this program is full of gimmicks which don’t really add to the usability or usefulness of the program.

For example, it has a tagging scheme but the entries are in a drop down box so when you get more than about thirty tags/categories selecting one becomes very awkward.

All the text on a page is in boxes.  This is very different to using a word processor, it is a sort of hybrid between a word processor and a desktop publishing program.  It ends up being not as good as either of them.

Writing Programs


Usage       Regular
License     Commercial
Price          $40 for Windows, $45 for Mac (Mac version is more advanced)
Website    http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php

Scrivener is in my opinion the best word processor around.  It supports not just the creation of a document but also the organisation of the notes and research for that document.  It may be used as a note taking program although this is not it’s primary purpose.  The interface is well thought out, this program has the feel of a program designed by someone who uses the program rather than by someone who’s job it is to design a program.

yWrite 5

Usage       Tried it out, didn’t like it
License     ?
Price          Free
Website    http://www.spacejock.com/yWriter5.html

yWrite 5 is free but not open source.  It tries to be the same sort of composition tool as Scrivener but is not as good in my opinion.  Whereas Scrivener is just as good for academic writing as it is for fictional writing yWrite 5 is locked in to fictional writing.  Scrivener has a free format note taking section for research and you can organise it the way you want but yWrite 5 has sections for notes on characters and scenes and has a chronological order in which the scenes take place.  This may be OK for fictional writing but it cannot be changed if you do not want to organise your notes in this way.

SuperNoteCard (Mindola Software)

Usage       Haven’t tried it
License     Commercial
Price          $29
Website    http://www.mindola.com/index.php

This program tries to mimic note cards used by some authors to organise information.  The note cards can be very large in that they can hold an enormous amount of text.  There are many facilities for organising research and background material for the story.  It can also be used for non fiction writing and as a note taking program as the ‘factors’ and ‘categories’ can be edited to suit your own way of organising things.

Having said this I can’t help feeling that although this program is very good at what it does Scrivener does it so much better.  However Scrivener is more expensive than SuperNoteCards.

Wiki Programs

Connected Text

Usage       Used to use it regularly but has decreased recently
License     Commercial
Price          From $39.95 up to $114.95
Website    http://www.connectedtext.com/

Connected Text is a desktop Wiki.  It is incredibly powerful, there is a markup language which is relatively easy to learn the basics of but has a lot of depth so that you can perform extremely useful and complex processing of text.  But the depths are not that easy to learn.  There is an edit mode where you edit the source code for the page and a view mode where that source code is executed and the resultant page is displayed.

If you are a tech head who is completely at home working with a command line interface then you will probably like Connected Text and you will get one of the finest pieces of Wiki software ever written.  If you like doing things with a graphical user interface and like to see what you are going to get without having to switch modes then you will find it uncomfortable.

One of the major drawbacks is that you cannot cut and paste formatted text from another application and paste it into Connected Text without it looking completely different.  The style pages are formatted with is controlled by a .CSS file and formatted text will be stripped of its formatting when you paste it.


Usage       Never used
License     Open Source/GPL
Price          Free
Website    http://zim-wiki.org/

Zim Wiki is a simple wiki without a lot of the facilities or the complexity of Connected Text.  It is still a useful program, it is written in python and so you can run it on both Linux and Windows.  Zim Wiki is free and open source.


Usage       Never Used
License     Open Source/GPL
Price          Free
Website    http://wikidpad.sourceforge.net/

Wikid pad is another free and open source simple wiki without much of the power or the complexity of Connected Text.  It runs on WIndows, Linux and Mac.  The appearance is like a two pane organiser with the pages listed down the left side of the screen and the selected page displayed on the right.

Mapping Software


Usage       Regular
License     Open Source/GPL
Price          Free
Website    http://vue.tufts.edu/

VUE or Visual Understanding Environment is a way of setting your ideas out in a graphical way.  It is free to download from Tufts University.  It does most of what you need and very little of what you don’t need.  The user interface is simple but it has a lot of depth.  One thing it doesn’t do is print out the maps to PDF files.  However a Mac will do this natively and a Windows machine can do this if it has a PDF printing program (like PDF Creator) installed.

In my opinion this is one of the best mapping programs around, I use it regularly.

design VUE

Usage       Tried it out
License     Open Source/GPL
Price          Free
Website    http://www3.imperial.ac.uk/designengineering/tools/designvue

Someone took the source code of VUE and added the IBIS relationship types and icons from Compendium to it.  This program does all the things which VUE does but may be used to produce Argument maps as well.  This program comes as an executable JAR file rather than being an installable EXE file.


Usage       Used to use it regularly, not so much recently
License     Open Source/GPL
Price          Free
Website    http://www.compendiumng.org/

Compendium by the Open University must be one of the best open source free mapping tools around.  It is easy to use once you get used to the quirky user interface.  The user interface shows it’s Unix/Linux heritage and does not conform to Windows conventions very closely.  The maps produced are easy to understand and the program has an over abundance of features.  This program feels like it was designed by a committee.  On the maps there are several different types of node including a ‘Map’ node which contains a map. When you open this node you are taken to a new map.  This means that large maps may be split into chunks.  This is quite a useful feature.

Compendium also has a tagging system, nodes may be tagged and the tags may be grouped into folders.  Sort of like a semi hierarchical tagging system.  The tagging system is quite useful.  Compendium also supports transclusion (cloning) which is also useful.

Compendium is let down by a couple of issues, one trivial and the other is a limitation on usefulness.

The trivial issue is that nodes containing text are limited to 32,767 characters of text.  If you put any more text than this into a node then it will only exist until you close the program.  When you re-open the program that text will have disappeared.  No warnings, no error messages it just isn’t there any more.  I class this bug as trivial because very few people will put 32 thousand characters (about 10 to 15 pages of A4) into a node.  But it is something to be aware of.  The text would be better split up amongst several nodes.

The limitation on usefulness is that there are no links in to the program and it does not support universal links.

CMAP Tools

Usage       Tried it out
License     Open Source/GPL
Price          Free
Website    http://cmap.ihmc.us/

CMAP Tools is a concept mapping program from IHMC (the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition) in Florida.

In the documentation there is a heavy emphasis on collaboration and the sharing of maps.  There are several public servers which can store your CMAPs so that they might be shared with others and IHMC provides the server software so that you can set up your own private server so that maps may be shared within an organisation.

CMAP Tools when used with the server software supports simultaneous collaborative editing of maps so that several people can edit the same map at the same time.  It also has facilities for placing annotations on the map, making suggestions and setting up discussion threads (similar to a bulletin board or forum) to facilitate communications between separate users/viewers of the same map.  Of all the programs reviewed here this one probably has the best facilities for supporting multiple users.  Compendium is the next best and it’s multi user facilities are not as good although it comes close in my opinion.

There are versions of CMAP Tools for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux.  A portable version is also available which can run from a USB memory stick.

CMAP Tools is free to download but you must first provide your details and a valid E-mail address.  I have not received any spam E-mail from IHMC.

CMAP Tools is a good program but in my opinion for individual use VUE is even better.  CMAP Tools is probably better at fast layout and capture of ideas but VUE is more expressive.

Freemind and Freeplane

Usage       Often
License     Open Source/GPL
Price          Free
Website    http://freeplane.sourceforge.net/wiki/index.php/Main_Page

Freemind and Freeplane are free and open source mind mapping programs.

Freeplane is a fork of FreeMind which was one of the first free mind mapping programs available. The developers of FreeMind had a disagreement about the way in which FreeMind was to be developed and so some of them left and started Freeplane.

The programs are pretty much identical apart from one or two extras you get with Freeplane, like being able to embed universal links.

At the moment both programs have the same file format so maps may be exchanged freely between the users of both programs but this is not guaranteed to continue as the programs continue to be developed along different paths.  For me this is not an problem as I only use Freeplane, but it might be a problem for some people.  The file format used by FreeMind and FreePlane has become something of a standard, and can be imported into many other mind mapping programs, including some on the iPad and iPhone, and some browser-based, on-line mind mapping services.

These programs only do mind maps, they do not do cognitive maps.  The nodes are in a strict hierarchy and although you may create floating nodes and ad-hoc connections between nodes it would be possible but very cumbersome to construct a concept map this way.

These programs are easy to use, most of their interfaces are very simple and obvious in their functionality but there is also a lot of depth to the programs which are not obvious at first glance.  There are many advanced features, like the scripting and node attributes, which are available but do not clutter the user interface.  There are keyboard shortcuts for most common functions so that once you have learned the shortcuts you can use this program almost without reaching for your mouse.

There are versions of FreeMind and FreePlane for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux.


Usage       Never used it
License     Commercial
Price          $14.99
Website     http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scapple.php

Scapple is a mapping program similar to VUE.  I have never tried it out because VUE is free and this is $14.99 but the  video  looked very good, it seems well thought out and easy to use.  It is from the same people who wrote Scrivener and so it should be good.  It is available for Mac and Windows.


Usage       Tried it out
License     Commercial
Price          $39.95
Website    http://www.inspiration.com/Inspiration

Inspiration is a mapping program.  It allows other types of map besides a mind map.  Mind maps are limited to a strict hierarchy but Inspiration allows links which break the hierarchy.  It also has other ways to view the data so your map can also be viewed as an outline.

This is a well thought out and competent program but it is commercial.  Freeplane does the same thing and is free.  Inspiration does have a few extra bells and whistles but these are not particularly significant and are mainly gimmicks.


Usage       Used to use it regularly
License     ?
Price          Free
Website    http://mindraider.sourceforge.net/

MindRaider tries to be everything.  It is a mapping tool which is also an outliner and a wiki.  One of the problems with it is that it tries to cram too much onto the screen.  There are many panels around the central map and so the map is smaller and the screen looks cluttered.  On a small screen like a laptop this can be a problem.

The map is innovative in that it keeps the map centred on the selected node, very few mapping programs do this.

The notes which can be stored in nodes are plain text.

MindRaider could be quite a useful program but I must admit it is not a program I have used for any length of time, I installed it and tried it out but got frustrated with the small size of the map and all the panels clustered around it and so it fell into disuse and was eventually uninstalled.

This program is no longer being developed.  This is not a problem as long as changes to the operating system or updates to various components of the software environment don’t break the operation of the program, remember what happened to ‘Cayra’.


Usage       Tried it out
License     Open Source/GPL
Price          Free
Website    http://blumind.org/

Blumind is a very simple and very basic mind mapping tool.  It is free to download but its facilities are uninspiring.

Instrumind Think Composer

Usage       Tried it out on two different machines, it failed!
License     Commercial
Price          $149.25 to $49.75
Website    http://www.thinkcomposer.com/

Instrumind Think Composer looks like a very interesting program, the documentation is long and detailed and shows off some very impressive capabilities.  Pity about the program.  I installed this program and ran it and the screen looked exactly as the manual had pictured it.  Unfortunately if I tried to use the program it crashes, not just once but every time and not just one type of crash but it fails in different ways, sometimes it locks up the machine so badly I have to switch the machine off to get it out of its catatonic state.

The customer support at Instrumind were monumentally unhelpful.  I have so far tried to install this program on two machines, both with the same result.

This looks like a good program and I would like to try it out.  If you want to try it then go ahead, it might work for you.  I can’t imagine the company would be able to make a living if their program failed on all machines.

Good Luck!

Other Programs

Tree Sheets

Usage       Tried it out
License     ?
Price          Free
Website    http://strlen.com/treesheets/

Tree Sheets is just like a spreadsheet for text.  It has a quirky interface which follows no conventions other than its own.  It will compress text to fit it into a box on the sheet.  So you can have pages of text compressed into on small box, it is only when you zoom in that the text becomes readable.

Apart from this one novel trick you would probably be better off using a spreadsheet.


Usage       Tried it out. Twice
License     Sort of Commercial but ambiguous
Price          $50
Website    http://www.infoqube.biz/

This program is just weird.  It is also very complicated.  It tries to do everything which Connected Text can do but without the markup language so everything is done through a GUI with tables of properties and context menus but there are so many options that it all becomes very messy.

This program has been in development for a long long time, the final version has always been predicted to be six months away.  In 2007 it was predicted to be six months away and now in 2014 it is still six months away.  Development seems to be progressing very slowly, I suspect that it is being developed by one person in his spare time.

On the website it says:-

While in beta, InfoQube is free to download and use.  Initial release is planned for Q4 2014.
Personal licenses will have a special introductory price of just $49.95

In the meantime … you’ve seen what can be don with InfoQube and you think it has a great potential.
Perhaps you’d like to give us a helping hand … You certainly can:

You contribute through donations which will be credited towards your purchase of InfoQube licenses!
Donate $50 or more and you’ll receive a free Personal License !

Pardon the bad grammar, this was copied straight from the website.  First thing to note is that the program stops working after the 60 day free trial period so if you want to continue using it you have to get a ‘Free Personal License’ but if you are being forced to ‘donate‘ $50 to be issued with that free license then surely you are buying the license.

The second thing to note is the mobile deadline, Q4 of 2014, when this deadline passes (which it has almost) it will be moved, probably to Q2 of 2015 untill that deadline also passes.


Usage       Tried it out
License     ?
Price          Free
Website    http://treeline.bellz.org/

This program is like a free form database.  It is OK but I think any of the two pane organisers would work just as well and be just as useful.  Try KeepNote or Cherry Tree instead.

Some thoughts on Writing Tools

Some while ago I wrote a review of Scrivener as a Note Taking program.  Some people liked it but there were some negative comments.  So this set me thinking about the process of writing and the tools we use to aid that process.  This is the process of writing which I am talking about, the tools will not make you a better writer, they will just make it easier to transfer your ideas into a document and to organise your thoughts in the first place.

A person who didn’t leave his name had this to say about the review :-

I have written seven novels and a memoir (all major imprints) and did it all with a nice pen and stacks of cheap composition notebooks. I wrote two of my books with a typewriter when I was younger, but gave it up as the technology got in my way. Tonight, I sit in a hotel in Oklahoma City and open an email that tells me I “MUST” read your blog post. I read it with a sense of bewilderment, as I do many of these “process” articles, because I fail to see how any of these fancy tools could ever help a person become a better writer. Writing is a creative pursuit, and as such requires the mind to be free of everything except that which involves your characters, your story, your dream world of creating fiction. All of those windows and outliners and tree notes that I see so often from young writers today take up enormous energy in – process.

God, give up thinking, discussing, arguing, writing, and putting so much effort into all the “cool” tools that can be used in the – process. Just write! Damn, a writer – writes!

Tonight, I allowed myself to be thrown off my rhythm by making the mistake of opening my email. Then I made the mistake of clicking on the link, and then I actually read this review of this tedious piece of processware called Scrivener, and then – seeing the passion you have for this – felt oddly compelled to write and offer my opinion. Why? I have no idea.

Just write.

Good luck!


Let’s call this person Anonymous since he/she didn’t leave their name.

I think Anonymous missed the point slightly.

Why don’t we go back to using quill pens or why not use the Roman idea of scratching your thoughts into a layer of beeswax in a wooden tray with a bronze stylus?  Why not?  Because a good modern pen and good quality paper is easier to use.  But then why not take this one step further and use something which is even easier to use, like a computer for instance?

Anonymous complained that he didn’t use a typewriter because he found that it got in the way of his writing.  If I were forced to use a typewriter I think I would find it getting in the way too, but that is no reason to abandon all technology.  The distraction free mode in Scrivener (try pressing F11) is about as close as one could come to the perfect writing environment where the technology doesn’t get in the way of the writing (in my opinion).

I do have some sympathy for one of the points Anonymous was trying to make.  Some people get so caught up in the style of their documents, pretending to be typesetters and layout artists.  They mess about with the font, the size of the text, the style and positioning of the headings, all the formatting which should be done as the very last step is seen as an integral part of the writing of the document and so the document becomes more about style than substance.  The document does not need all that, it should be just as powerful if it is delivered in plain text without any of the polish.  The polish can be added later, the document must be able to stand on its own because no amount of fancy formatting will make the content any better.

To write you need a good idea and enough intellect and eloquence to capture that idea and make it understandable to others.  That is a given.  But the process can be made a lot easier by the tools you use.  Yes you can write a novel with nothing more than a pen and a notebook, but it is hard work.  And if you develop a new idea for some section of your work which you have already written down then you have to either re-write the whole thing or get out the scissors and sellotape.

I have always found that a piece of writing takes on a life of its own and continues to develop during the writing process, new ideas come to mind, things change, and if that has repercussions for an earlier part of the work then so be it. The work is a lot easier to revise using a word processor than it is using a typewriter.

Having the right set of tools doesn’t make you a better writer, there is no substitute for inspiration and intellect.  It just makes the writing process a whole lot easier.

But having the right tools to hand can also help in other ways.  The note taking programs I have been reviewing in this blog can help to organise and develop ideas.

Many people think of a word processor as just a glorified typewriter.  Indeed some word processors are just glorified typewriters, a tool for dumping your thoughts into a document, but just dumping your thoughts into a document from memory rarely produces any new insights.

The correct writing environment can help the thinking processes which produces good writing.  It can help organise and re-organise thoughts in a way that produces new ways of looking at things and helps the ideas jump off the page and into the readers mind.  If you ask someone who does research at what point they actually make their discoveries.  Usually they say that it is not whilst collecting information in the lab, but during the organizing and writing up of their notes when ideas come together in ways that produce new insights.

Good thinking is hard work and so anything which aids this process is helpful.

Fundamental to the process of writing is the ability to organise the document into a meaningful structure.  The tool usually used is the hierarchical outline, so in my opinion a word processor which does not do outlining is just a glorified typewriter.

Creating hierarchies (naming, categorising and organising) is very important for producing insights.  Hierarchies are everywhere, almost any document divided into sections started out as an outline.  Anonymous talked of Scrivener as “processware” which implies a linear process, I think it is just the opposite of “processware” instead it can be used to represent the relationships between ideas, people and events, and help to analyse the relationships and organise the whole thing into a structure that is meaningful to the writer and hopefully to the reader as well.  Usually a clear and well thought out hierarchy leads to a well structured and understandable finished document.

All scrivener needs is a mind mapping tool and it would be perfect (in my opinion).

The most commonly used word processor is Microsoft Word and it is no surprise that has an excellent outlining mode.  I hate to support the Microsoft hegemony but I must admit that Microsoft Word is a good word processor.  But there are free and open source word processors out there (Open Office and Libre Office) so given the high price of Microsoft Word why hasn’t everyone switched to the free ones?

It’s because Open Office and Libre Office are just glorified typewriters.

I think the main reason for this is that neither Open Office or Libre Office have an outline mode, they do have something called Navigator which is a pathetic partial implementation of an outliner.  Furthermore I think that if the designers of Open Office and Libre Office had implemented a good outlining mode then these tools would be much more widely used by writers, business people and academia, and they would challenge Microsoft Word for supremacy.

So … What are the best tools for writing and organising thoughts.  Well  …  It just depends on what you want to do with it.  These are all my personal very subjective opinions so feel free to disagree.

For writing, both fictional writing and academic writing the best program has to be Scrivener.

For organisation it just depends on what you want.

If you want something like a database of notes where the way the program works is already sorted out and you just have to learn how to use it then Ultra Recall is hard to beat but beware, don’t get slack on adding the metadata or it will become a disorganised mess very quickly.

If one the other hand you want a Wiki where you define how your notes will look and you define the structure of the notes (how they are arranged and connected) a bit like writing a website for your notes, and you can even define how the notes will behave (by writing a script in Python), then Connected Text is the program for you.  It is more powerful than any of the other note taking programs reviewed but the learning curve is quite steep.

As an adjunct to an outliner or note taking program VUE as a mapping tool is very useful.