A comparative review of four note taking programs

A comparison of four note taking programs

If you have been following this blog you will know that I have been searching for a good note taking program for a while now.

I thought I would share my notes on note taking programs with anyone who was interested, and for several years I have been sharing those notes in this blog.  However when I first started I made a big mistake.  When I started reviewing note taking programs I thought the programs I found were pretty good and so I gave them good marks out of ten.  But I went on finding better and better programs (and some bad ones) so the scores became compressed into the top end of the range.

By now however I have seen most of the programs which are available and can give a more balanced assessment of them.  So for this note taking review I decided to compare the four programs I actually use on a day to day basis to take notes.

Two of them are my main note taking programs and I am slowly transitioning from one to the other, one is only still in use because I have an archive of older notes on it which I sometimes refer to and one is still in use because it’s cute and has some really great and novel features, but I won’t say which is which.

I was going to include Ultra Recall in this review but I don’t use it much these days, the implementation of tables is abysmal and the pace of development is glacial (this wouldn’t matter if it had all the features it needs and if the features it does have were well implemented but sadly this is not the case).  So I decided four is enough.  By the way, the tip for rendering on a high DPI screen (revealed later) works wonders for Ultra Recall, the graphics become very clear and sharp, however the text in the menus becomes tiny.

The four contenders (in alphabetical order) :-

This review will not give scores out of ten but just compare the programs to each other on the following criteria which I think are relevant :-
  • Writing
    • The comfort of the writing environment
    • The presentation of the text for reading purposes
  • Retrieval
    • Search
    • Favourites
    • Navigation
    • Tagging
  • Big Data
    • Database or File
  • Transclusion & Linking
  • Screen Presentation
  • Ease of Use

So, let’s get started, this will be a long review.  Sorry about that.

 

The comfort of the Writing Environment

If you do a lot of writing then it is essential to use a program you are comfortable with.  Most people are familiar with WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) word processors and they have a lot of merits but it is easy to get distracted when using such a system, to become enamoured with the formatting and presentation rather than the content.

Beware, if the message you are trying to convey is not clear and unambiguous in plain text then no amount of fancy formatting can compensate for this.

One of the alternatives is to use a ‘distraction free’ writing environment.  This is essentially just a plain text editor which takes up the full screen.

Another alternative is the use of ‘styles’, these enable you to not think about the formatting, the formatting just happens, all you have to do is to select the element you are working on (this is a heading, this is a paragraph, this is a bulleted list) and that element is formatted appropriately and consistently.

One further refinement which is quite nice (but not essential) is the ability to load or select different style sets.  This means that the formatting of a document can be completely transformed without any changes to the content just by selecting a different style set.

ConnectedText

ConnectedText definitely does not have a WYSIWYG editor.  There are two modes Edit and View, when in View mode the source code of the page is interpreted and all the commands are converted into the content of the page.  In Edit mode you are in a plain text editor in which you write the source code for the page.  It is relatively free from distraction and if you choose the font and colour scheme of the editor correctly the results can be very comfortable to work with.

The one thing which I found incongruous about editing in ConnectedText is the commands which are embedded in the text.  They interrupt the flow of thought in the work.  Which is why I didn’t usually add them until I had finished the composition.

One nice thing about this system is the ease with which you can add a link to a page which doesn’t yet exist.  If you want a link to [[Page Name]] then you just type the name and enclose it in double square brackets.  If this Page Name doesn’t exist yet then following that link creates a new empty page with the name you specified and opens it for editing.  That is quite neat, and it doesn’t interrupt your flow of thought.

Tables can be quite awkward to program (yes you need to program a table in the source code) but you can get good results with some effort.  There is a table dialog but it is less than adequate.  Cell background colours are set by commands in the source code of the page, very powerful but not very user friendly.

Building a page in ConnectedText is more like programming a web page than editing a document, for anything which is a bit complex you will be editing the source code then swapping back to view mode to check the results then going back to edit mode to correct your mistakes then back to view mode to check if you got it right, and so on and so forth.  It is an iterative process.  It does not have the immediate feedback which you get from a WYSIWYG editor.

InfoQube

The InfoQube editor is very comfortable to work with.  It is a WYSIWYG editor with styles available in a drop down box, at least it is on my system, this program is very configurable and so you can compose your own toolbars with just the commands you need.  The ability to select from a number of .CSS files allows you to change the look of the document as you wish and the choice is remembered for each individual document.

The editor can be in a floating window which can be placed on a second screen and can occupy the whole of that screen with only a small amount of screen taken up by other things (just the toolbars on the top and left hand side), this is fairly close to being distraction free.

The document pane (the editor) can contain various different formats of document but the default is a HTML document whose format is set by a .CSS file.  You can have a number of .CSS files for different purposes each with different fonts, layout and colour schemes.  I tend to use a very plain one for composition and switch to something fancy once finished.

The implementation of tables in InfoQube is adequate but you cannot define the background colours of individual cells without delving into the HTML source code of the page.  Borders of cells can be dragged but the results are sometimes not what you expect because InfoQube ‘intelligently’ re-sizes the other cells to accommodate your changes and sometimes ‘intelligent’ can be quite dumb.

MyInfo

MyInfo has a WYSIWYG editor with styles selected from a drop down list.  Despite this I don’t think the writing environment is as good as InfoQube.  The editor feels cramped by all the elements around it, the properties panel can be dismissed but the tree panel cannot.  You can open the content of the document in a floating window but this is not editable.

The table implementation is quite good.  You can drag cell borders around and the results are as expected.  Cell background colours can be set but this command is hidden away in the ‘Tables’ menu, although the program is quite configurable and you could place the command on a toolbar if you wish.  I did this as soon as I discovered it.

Right Note

The programmer of Right Note did a good job with the editor which is excellent.  It is a WYSIWYG editor with styles for text and for paragraph.  The paragraph styles are similar to text styles but have additional parameters which control how the paragraph will be laid out (spacing and margins, etc.).  However these same styles are used throughout the notebase.  You can define as many styles as you want but having too many might get a little cumbersome to select.  They are not style sets so you cannot change the formatting of a document on the fly.

The editor cannot be in a floating window and so has all the same screen real-estate problems as MyInfo.

The table implementation is quite good.  Cell borders can be dragged about and the results are as expected.  Individual cell background colours cannot be set but the overall background colour of the table can be set although this option is hidden away in the ‘Table Properties’ dialog.

 

The presentation of the text

Once you have finished your magnum opus what is it like to read it.  This section is all about the comfort of the reading environment and the facilities which exist to help you absorb information.

Having multiple documents open simultaneously for reading is useful especially if they are in floating windows.  It is sometimes very useful to be able to refer to one document whilst reading another.

ConnectedText

In ConnectedText you can have multiple floating text planes open for viewing.  You cannot edit these panes they are solely for reading.  Each viewing pane has an edit button.  The edit button opens the page being viewed in the main editor and the floating pane is closed.  Although each reading pane is locked to one document (as it should be) the hypertext links on the page still work so one can navigate to another document using the links on a page.

The ability to select a .CSS file for each project (wiki) allows you to vary the look of the text but only one .CSS file can be used at any time so all the pages of the Wiki look the same as each other unless you include explicit formatting commands within the pages which defeats the object of having a .CSS file in the first place.

Overall ConnectedText is a very good reading environment, the experience is somewhat akin to browsing the web but without the adverts.

InfoQube

In InfoQube you can open multiple document panes in floating windows.  By default they are editable which means that you can have more than one instance of the same document open for editing.  The question then arises, what happens if you make different edits in different instances ?  The answer is one of them will be saved the other one lost.

The command to open a new document pane is buried in a sub menu of the ‘View’ menu of the main program which is not as useful as it could be.  So I put the command on a toolbar and now it is more accessible.

Also the command to lock a pane to a particular document is in the ‘View’ menu of the document pane (there are two sets of menus and two sets of toolbars each of which must be configured separately).  It is called ‘Lock Item’ which doesn’t really describe it’s function very well.  In my opinion it should have been called ‘Lock Pane’.  Anyway it can be placed as an icon on the document pane toolbars.

A document pane locked like this is not locked for editing it is just that the pane is locked to showing one particular document.

One really neat feature is that if you have many floating document panes open and lock all but one of them then that one becomes the default viewer, if you click on a new item then it is displayed in that pane.  If you have more than one unlocked then InfoQube cycles through each unlocked pane in turn as you click on new items.

Once you have the configuration of the toolbars sorted out the setup becomes quite useful.  You can conveniently view multiple documents in multiple floating panes and refer to one document whilst viewing another.  The floating panes can be configured to take up the whole of a screen for convenience of reading or tiled for access to many different texts.

I do think that if multiple instances of the same document are opened then the first one should be opened for editing and subsequent instances should be opened as ‘read only’, but that’s just my opinion.

Overall InfoQube is an excellent reading environment.

MyInfo

In MyInfo you can have multiple floating text planes open for viewing.  You cannot edit these panes they are solely for reading.  The edit button in the floating pane opens the document in the main document pane of the program window and the floating pane is closed.  Although each reading pane is locked to one document the hypertext links on the page still work so one can navigate to another document using the links on a page.

It is sometimes better to read a document in a floating pane than read it in the main window, this is because you can position them anywhere on any monitor and they can take up the full screen.  Documents read in the main window are limited to a subsection of the window.

Overall MyInfo is quite a good reading environment.

Right Note

Right Note has no floating panes and you can only have one document open for viewing/editing at a time in the editor pane of the main window which is a subsection of the main window.

 

Retrieval

There are four general strategies for getting the information you want and these are Search, Navigation, Favourites and Tagging.

In a personal note taking program the person who organises the information is normally the person who retrieves the information and when searching your archive you are generally searching for a specific item which you already know is in the archive.

This often makes searching easier.

Navigation to the location of the data is the way most people prefer to retrieve their data even when extensive search or tagging facilities are available.  People remember visually where their data was and with a hierarchical tree structure they can classify things into groups which are easy to remember.  Navigation generally requires less verbal attention and more visual attention.  Usually when searching people are in the middle of a task which requires verbal attention i.e. composing a piece of text.

It is easier for people to split their attention between two tasks if those tasks require different types of attention.  That is why it is easy to have a conversation with your passenger whilst driving but difficult to have a conversation with someone whilst reading.  This is why navigation is so popular.  The person can keep concentrating on the verbal task whilst navigating to the data they want more easily than if they are trying to formulate search terms whilst also concentrating on the verbal task.

A list of Favourites is not a list of favourites, these are probably not your favourite documents, they are an arbitrary list of the documents you think are most important or noteworthy to you at the time, the ones you want to be able to locate quickly.  And this list will probably change over time.

Tagging is the attachment of meta-data to a document to indicate some salient characteristic of that document.  These may not be just tags but includes all the meta-data associated with that document, or even the absence of such data.

For a really useful note taking program all four of these facilities should be available.

ConnectedText

ConnectedText has some on-the-fly search facilities, they are not complex and can not be saved for re-use.  However complex searches are usually built into the source code of a page and these can be extremely complex and they are automatically saved with the page.  The results in view mode are presented as a table which displays a list of pages which match the search criteria, each entry in the table is a link to that page.

Navigation is done by following hypertext links on the page.  There is no tree, but other parts of the program contain trees which may be used for navigation in place of the tree of a two pane note taking program.  The wiki in ConnectedText is analogous to a network of web pages which the user designs and the experience of using it is similar to browsing the Web except without the adverts.

Outlines are possible in ConnectedText but the titles within the outline need to be linked manually to the pages within the wiki.

Another type of outline is the ‘Table of Contents’.  If a page is built with more than a few headings in the body of the page then it automatically gets a ‘Table of Contents’ at the top of the page which lists all the headings used in that document.  Each of the entries in the table of contents is a link to the heading it represents.

There is a list of ‘Favourites‘ which are called ‘Bookmarks’.  This is not a simple list, it may be organised into a tree.  The list can contain named folders which can contain bookmarks and folders.  This is quite a neat innovation.

There is a hierarchical tagging system but it is not called a tagging system.  The tags are called Categories.  There is a command which can be placed on a page which places that page into a named category, category pages themselves can be placed in a category so that category becomes a sub-category of the category it has been placed in.  The resultant tree can be navigated and double clicking on a particular category will bring up a list of all the pages in that category.  The $TREE command can also retrieve a list of pages in the category and all sub categories (recursively).

Furthermore in the Categories pane there are checkboxes next to each category, if you tick an arbitrary set of checkboxes then there are icons at the top of the pane which bring up either the Intersection (AND) or the Union (OR) of all the categories ticked, as a list of pages which meet the criteria.

Arbitrary named meta-data may be associated with each page as text strings, dates, numbers, logic values (True/False) or drop down boxes containing lists of values which may be exclusive (only one of many) or non exclusive (n of many).  This meta-data may be used in searches or displayed on a page or used in calculations (pages may have a Python script associated with them which runs every time the page is rendered).

This text does not represent all the sophisticated features provided by ConnectedText, it is just the start, but suffice to say that all four of the facilities necessary for finding your information are very well represented.

InfoQube

InfoQube has good search facilities.  There is an ‘Omnibox’ which searches for a text string in the text contained in the Title or in the Document pane of an item.

There is also a ‘Live Search’ pane which does much more, and an ‘Advanced Find’ dialog which can search for a text string in arbitrary fields.

There is a Favourites list in InfoQube but it is just a flat list with no separators or grouping.  However you can make a grid and call it ‘Favourites’ (or whatever) and set the ‘grid source’ (more on this later) to ‘Favorites’ and the entire list of Favourites appears in the grid and you can then arrange the entries into a hierarchy and as it is a normal grid it is amenable to all of InfoQube’s tools for managing items in grids.

The arrangement of documents in InfoQube is not like other note taking programs.  An InfoQube notebase has ‘items’ and ‘grids’, an item is the basic unit of information, it has a title, a document pane which may or may not contain a document and it has a set of meta-data.

A grid is just a table of items, it is a filter which shows those items that meet the requirements for membership of that grid.  It can be thought of as a database query.

Items exist independently of grids and is possible to have an item which doesn’t appear in any grid.

Each grid acts like a two pane organiser the navigation is simple as the items in the grid can be arranged into a hierarchy, so an item can have a number of ‘child’ items and this list may be expanded or collapsed just like a two pane organiser.

A grid can have a simple ‘grid source’ which is just a flag to say that the item is a member of that grid, all items with the flag set appear in the grid (this is the default).  A grid may also have a ‘custom source’ which is an SQL SELECT statement or the name of an existing flag, all items meeting the conditions of this statement are included in the grid.  This is similar to inline queries in ConnectedText or saved searches in MyInfo.  Setting a Custom Source field for a grid can be a little complex for people who are not familiar with SQL (like me, but I am learning).

The contents of a grid like this get updated automatically when any item is changed.

Tagging in InfoQube has recently been updated to have a hierarchical tagging system and it has become extremely useful.  Simple AND/OR type selections are very easy to do via the ‘Live Search’ pane.  If more complex searches are required then a grid with a ‘custom source’ may be used and the criteria for selection can include Tags.  InfoQube has very powerful search facilities.

This text does not represent all the sophisticated features provided by InfoQube, it barely scratches the surface, but suffice to say that all four of the facilities necessary for finding your information are well represented.

MyInfo

MyInfo has very good search facilities which can be used to build complex searches based not only on the content of the documents but also on the meta-data associated with the document and the tags.  They are called filters in the program documentation.  Filters (searches) can be saved for later re-use.

Navigation is easy with a tree associated with each ‘Topic’ (a MyInfo file is called a topic).  You can hoist a branch of the tree so as to focus your attention more narrowly.  You can have multiple ‘Topics’ (files) open simultaneously.

There is a list of Favourites which may be organised into sections, but it is still just a flat list.

There is a tagging system which is quite good.  It is a flat list.  A drop down list of possible tags appears as you start to type a tag name and the list diminishes as you type.

User defined meta-data can be added, but the meta-data is common to all documents in the ‘Topic’ (file) so if you add a piece of data to one document that piece of data also exists for all documents whether it is appropriate or not.  The software developer states that if you have documents representing different things which require different meta-data then they should be in different files (topics).

Right Note

Right note has simple search facilities which can find a string in the body text or the title of an document.

Navigation is very simple in Right Note.  documents are arranged in several trees and you can hoist a branch of a tree.

Right Note has a list of Favourites which is just a simple flat list although the target of the link can be in a different Right Note file.

The tagging system in Right Note is a simple flat list which displays all the documents which have a specific tag, however this list can be refined by selecting more tags in another panel which then does an AND between all the selected tags.

 

Big Data and the underlying file structure

All the programs ultimately store their data on a disk but some do this by saving the notebase to a file and others do it by using a database program to store the data.  The big difference is that for a file storage you have to explicitly save the notebase at which point it gets written to disk.  With a database the data is usually written to disk continuously as it is changed and so there is no command to save the notebase, it just happens in the background without user intervention.

There are some other differences.  Generally databases are more reliable than file storage and can handle larger amounts of data.

For the load test I import text files into the notebase and see how it’s performance deteriorates.  I have a set of about nine and a half thousand text files downloaded from the Project Guttenberg website which I generally use for this test, these are not trivial files, they range in size from a few kilobytes to two and a half megabytes with an average length of about sixty kilobytes.

This is a severe test and a lot of note taking programs would either fail or slow down to unacceptable levels.  However this is a comparison of the note taking programs which I have found to be the most useful and reliable.  A bad performance when loaded up to this extent does not mean that a program is not useful for normal note taking purposes.

ConnectedText

ConnectedText uses a database in which to store it’s data. There is no need for the user to save the document as it is continuously kept up to date.  Each page is saved when you go from edit mode to view mode.

ConnectedText slows down quite considerably as the number of pages (documents) increases particularly with searching. Search and Replace operations were particularly hard hit and slowed to a crawl.  ConnectedText does not maintain an index of the words used in the wiki.

For databases of less than two thousand long documents or a lot more than two thousand very small documents you should not experience many problems. Few people have the need for more than this.

ConnectedText can open multiple wikis simultaneously.  They appear as multiple tabs so switching wikis is very easy.

InfoQube

InfoQube uses an SQL database as it’s storage mechanism and there is no need for the user to save the document as it is continually updated on the disk.

I was not able to carry out the load test as there is no way to bulk import text files, each one would have to have the text copied and pasted individually.  So no information is available at this time.

InfoQube can open multiple notebases simultaneously however each one is opened in a separate instance of the program.

MyInfo

MyInfo saves it’s data as a file which the user has to explicitly save.  The files took some time to import, but after they had finished importing there was very little slowing of the performance.  The places where it did slow down was on loading or saving the file (unsurprisingly), especially when the file was encrypted.  There was a slight delay when doing a search of all documents but nothing which would cause problems.

The size of the file increases rapidly for the first few dozen documents but does not increase so rapidly for larger numbers of documents.  I think the programmer possibly has some sort of word index for searching the notes, this will have a much larger increase in size for words which were not already in the index but will only increase in size by a small amount for words it already knows.  The searching in MyInfo is very fast compared with many of the other programs I have reviewed in the past.

MyInfo can open multiple notebases simultaneously, they appear as tabs so switching notebases is very easy.

Right Note

Right Note uses file storage to save it’s data.  The user has to explicitly save the file to disk, although sometimes (like after importing text documents) the program automatically saves the notebase for you (whether you wanted it to or not).

Some aspects of the performance slowed considerably beyond two thousand documents.  Right Note does maintain an index of words used in each document however the search times went up noticeably with thousands of documents.  The hardest hit was navigation which became slow with quite a noticeable delay in displaying a tree with two thousand documents in it.

When the texts were split up into sections (split by Author and genre) the performance improved considerably, searching was still just as slow but the display of a trees improved considerably.

Right Note can only open one notebase at a time.  If you open a different notebase then the current notebase is closed, you are prompted to save any changes if necessary.

 

Transclusion & Linking

In a hierarchy everything has a place and this can be a problem if there are many documents in the hierarchy.  A hierarchy can be viewed as a tree with documents as the leaves, as the number of leaves on the tree increases the number of places where an item might legitimately be placed also increases.  That is why transclusion is important, transclusion in this sense means the ability to place an item (document) in multiple places at once.  These are not just copies of the item, they are the same item appearing in different locations so if one is edited then all instances of that item change, if a new child item is linked to one of the instances it is linked to all of them.

Transclusion changes a Tree into a Directed Graph which is much more useful.

Universal links (or URI links) enable a link in one program to point to specific content within the documents of another program.  It also allows other programs to have links into specific content within the files a program.

ConnectedText

In ConnectedText there is no tree, pages exist and can be linked to so a link to a specific page will appear wherever it is placed.  This is a wiki and transclusion comes automatically.

ConnectedText can generate incoming Universal Links to pages within ConnectedText, but you can only link to a page not a place within that page.

ConnectedText can link to files, folders, e-mail addresses, web pages and Universal Links generated by other programs.

InfoQube

InfoQube is very flexible with respect to the layout of trees.  Documents (items) can appear in multiple places in a tree and in multiple trees.  Also the links to those documents are duplicated so if you add a child item to one instance it is automatically added to all instances of that document.  This is transclusion done correctly.

InfoQube can generate Universal Links to content within InfoQube, you can link to various things within InfoQube like the Calendar, the Surface (a sort of mind map thing) or a specific document (but not to a position within that document).

I have placed an icon on one of the toolbars to generate a Universal Link to the current item.  InfoQube didn’t have a suitable icon but InfoQube has an icon editor built in so you can roll your own.

InfoQube can link to files, folders, e-mail addresses, web pages and Universal Links generated by other programs.

MyInfo

The programmer of MyInfo missed the point of transclusion, the program can ‘clone’ nodes (documents) and if you edit one then all instances change but the child links from that node can be different for each instance of the document.  When you clone a node it is cloned without it’s children.  You can add the child links in but if you subsequently change any of them the links on the sibling clones are not changed.

These are not true clones.

MyInfo can generate Universal Links to content within the MyInfo file it can also use Universal Links to link to content within other programs.  The incoming links point to a specific paragraph within the document (the paragraph containing the cursor position when the link was generated) which is rather neat.

MyInfo can also link to files, folders, e-mail addresses and web pages.

Right Note

In Right Note the trees are strict trees no element can be duplicated.  There is no transclusion whatsoever within Right Note.

Also Right Note cannot generate Universal Links so it is not possible to link to specific content within Right Note.

Right Note can link to files, folders, e-mail addresses, web pages and Universal Links generated by other programs.

I believe that a new version (v 4.8) has been released which does have a full implementation of Universal Links but as I bought my license more than a year ago I am not entitled to this upgrade without paying for a full license again or getting their Lifetime Upgrade License which is nearly twice the price of a full license.

 

Screen Presentation

Things have to be presented well and be aesthetically pleasing for me, if not then it detracts from the overall experience of the program.  This is one of the reasons I have a laptop with a ridiculously high resolution screen (3200 x 1800), alas few programs can take advantage of this high resolution.

Most programs have fuzzy edges as if they were drawn on a lower resolution screen and then the pixels were scaled and interpolated to fit on a higher resolution screen.  The effect is slight but noticeable.

Before Microsoft introduced screen scaling with Windows 10 they made sure most of their applications were able to take advantage of it.  Only then did they release the new ‘improved’ Windows Presentation Foundation API to the outside world and all the other developers out there were left playing catch up.

There is a trick which can be applied and it works with some programs but not with others.  Pierre Landry the developer of InfoQube told me to try setting the ‘High DPI scaling override’ to see what happens.

To quote his post :-

With v110, try this:
  1. Close IQ
  2. In Windows Explorer, right-click on infoqube.exe > Properties
  3. In the Compatibility tab, click on Change high DPI settings (should be there unless you don’t have a recent version of Windows 10)
  4. At the bottom, select System (Enhanced)

The results were spectacular, but not just for InfoQube.

ConnectedText

ConnectedText has a problem with high DPI screens.  Some things would be rendered at their correct size and some things would be rendered at the correct number of pixels which meant that on a high resolution screen the icons were microscopic and the titles of pages were rendered with only the top half visible because the title bar scaled to the size of the pane manipulation icons which were now microscopic.

It also had a problem with fuzzy edges.

Applying Pierre Landry’s high DPI tip made no difference to the fuzzy edges, but it did cure the problems with the icons.  The icons were now drawn at the correct size and the page title bars were now correctly rendered.

For ConnectedText it is better to set the high DPI override to ‘System’ rather than ‘System (Enhanced)’ because the ‘System (Enhanced)’ setting slows down the rendering of the pages noticeably.

Being able to set a .CSS file improves the viewing of pages and with the settings of the editor you can make a comfortable distraction free editor to work with but the disconnection between edit mode and view mode is still incongruous to me.

The icons and toolbars are configurable so the user interface can be customised.  ConnectedText also has many themes which change screen colour schemes and toolbar backgrounds.

You can customise the different panes used to display various things in ConnectedText so this gives you an instant unconscious prompt as to the function of the pane if you set the background colours to be different for each function.

InfoQube

InfoQube is one of the most configurable programs I have used, except that it doesn’t support themes.  Panes can be viewed and arranged on the screen in virtually any configuration.  Panes can become floating and may be placed on a second monitor.  You can also dock panes into various sections of the main window.  This program is extremely flexible.

You can make your own toolbars or re-configure the existing toolbars, you can re-configure the menus.  Although InfoQube has a very dense user interface this may be simplified somewhat by taking out the bits you don’t need.

InfoQube also had a problem with fuzzy edges.

Applying Pierre Landry’s high DPI tip sharpened up the edges.  InfoQube now renders at the full native resolution of the high DPI screen and the text is incredibly sharp even at low point sizes.  It now has stunningly sharp graphics.

The editing experience is excellent, my preference is to have the document pane taking up the full screen just above the laptop keyboard with the rest of the program full screen on the second screen.

The ability to set a .CSS file for each individual document is also really good.

In InfoQube you can use Internet Explorer 11 mode to render the HTML documents, this means that the .CSS files can include Linear Gradients and drop shadows.  This may seem like a novelty but it is actually useful.  Having a vertical gradient as the background colour to a page gives the user an unconscious visual cue as to how long the document is and where they are in the document.

The result is stunningly sharp and clear documents with excellent formatting in a WYSIWYG editor in a full screen almost distraction free view without the effort of having to format everything being edited.  What more could one ask for?

MyInfo

The aesthetics of MyInfo are good.  The editing area is a subsection of the screen which is not good.  The graphics are slightly fuzzy which is probably an artefact of the way screen scaling is handled by the program.

Applying Pierre Landry’s high DPI tip made no difference at all to the fuzzy edges.

There are no skins (themes) so the user interface can be any colour you like as long as you like pale blue.

The aesthetics of text editing are OK, you can set the background colour of a page and the default font.  The background colour is the same for all pages in a file.

Meh.

The icons and toolbars are configurable so the user interface can be customised quite a lot.

Right Note

In Right Note you cannot re-configure the toolbars or menus, they are fixed.  You can move the toolbars around to a certain extent but this is quite limited.

Right Note also has lots of skins (themes) some of which are very pleasing to the eye.

In the default configuration there are a lot of ugly icons, one associated with each document which also take up a lot of space and serve no useful purpose.  But it is easy to switch off these icons in the ‘Options’ dialog.

Right Note also had a problem with fuzzy edges.

Applying Pierre Landry’s high DPI tip sharpened up the edges quite a lot.

There are settings for the background colour and font of the documents but this is for all documents and if you change it these things are changed in all documents.

Editing in Right Note is quite good but the editing pane is always a subsection of the screen, it cannot be detached into a floating pane and moved to another screen.

There are named styles for both text and paragraphs which can be customised and added to but this would become cumbersome to use if you had too many of them.

 

Ease of Use

How easy are these programs to use.  This breaks down into two components, how easy is it to learn and how easy is it to use once you have become used to it.

All four programs allow you to configure the keyboard shortcuts so if there is a particular set of keys that you are used to using you can set any of the programs up to match what you are used to using.

ConnectedText

ConnectedText is difficult to master.  The basics are easy enough to learn but then when you are familiar with the basics there is a markup language which is every bit as difficult as any programming language to get your mind around.  Sometimes the syntax is obscure and arcane.

There is a very good help file which comes with the program and is itself a ConnectedText wiki and this serves not only as documentation but also as a demonstration of techniques.

ConnectedText is a wiki and so you have to adjust your thinking a bit as it is a different kind of program from the two pane organisers.  For some people (myself included) it takes a while to ‘get’ ConnectedText.

Easy to learn, difficult to master.

InfoQube

This program is so packed with features that the user interface is very dense.  Until you become familiar with where to find things there are many times when you feel lost, this is the same for any complex program but perhaps InfoQube is a bit more complex than the average complex program.

Once you have learnt the basics of InfoQube the learning curve becomes less steep especially when you find out how to re-configure the user interface.  But the problem is that the first part of the learning curve is especially steep for someone who is unfamiliar with the program and this is a big barrier to new users, but if you persist the rewards are well worth the effort.

Re-configuration to place the commands you need where you can find them is essential in my view.  Different users will want different configurations but one of the beauties of InfoQube is that it is so configurable.

Also there are one or two concepts which you need to learn which will make everything else fall into place.  Like the relationship of items to grids.

Unfortunately the documentation lags behind the actuality of the program because of the pace of development and the vast amount of material there is to cover.

It took a while to get my mind around InfoQube, I am still learning and there is still a long way to go.

MyInfo

MyInfo is about in the middle.  It isn’t the easiest to use or learn but it is not the most difficult.  It has all the feature you would expect of a competent two pane organiser.

Right Note

This is the easiest of the four programs to learn and to use, but that is because it is the simplest.  It is not as powerful as any of the other programs in this post.

 

Conclusions

As far as a comfortable writing environment goes InfoQube gets my vote.

Also for a reading environment InfoQube with it’s great .CSS files with the linear gradients and razor sharp graphics also gets my vote.

Looking at Retrieval MyInfo has the best Search facilities closely followed by Right Note. Both these programs build indexes of words within the notebase and this makes searching very fast.

Navigation has to be a joint first for three of the four programs, InfoQube, MyInfo and Right Note.  Navigation in ConnectedText is somewhat different to the other three and it takes a different mindset to become good at.

InfoQube has the best Favourites list, but only if you put the Favourites list into a grid.  If you don’t know this trick then the best Favourites list is in ConnectedText.

The new tagging system in InfoQube is just as effective as the Categories system of ConnectedText although this may change as the tagging system in InfoQube is still being developed.  So as far as tagging goes at the moment it has to be a joint first between ConnectedText and InfoQube.

Overall as far as retrieval goes, taking everything into account I would say it was a joint first between ConnectedText and InfoQube.

If you have vast amounts of data then the first prize must go to MyInfo but the tests on InfoQube could not be performed because of the inadequate import facilities.

Transclusion & Linking is difficult but it has to be a joint first between ConnectedText and InfoQube.

As far as the presentation on screen goes InfoQube with it’s razor sharp graphics and detachable floating panes is without question better than the other three.

But if you want something that is simple and easy to use then Right Note might be the right one.

Other Factors

There are other things to be taken into account.

The developer of MyInfo is in the process of writing version 7.  The current version is version 6 and this is the one looked at in this post. The new version might have great things to offer and might be a lot better than the one I have but his current plans are to release the new version as SaaS (Software as a Sentence) i.e. a rental version.  If this is the case then I will not be upgrading my license.

ConnectedText is no longer being developed.  The current version is good and still works just as well as it did when it was released.  The problems it had with high DPI screens have been largely sorted out but it still has the fuzzy edges.  It has a lot of good things to offer and the bugs which have been found have been fixed but the fact remains that it is no longer being developed and this may cause problems in the future.

The pace of development for InfoQube is frenetic.  In the last six months it has acquired Universal Links, CSS sheets for the Document pane, Google Calendar synchronisation (both ways) and a hierarchical tagging system.

New versions are being released every few days.  The pattern usually goes that a new version with a new number is released about once a month which has some major new feature, the interim releases which follow clear up bugs which have been found in the major new feature until it is working flawlessly.

The pace of development in Right Note is fairly steady and it does have some splendid features, like spreadsheets.  Think of it, a note can be a spreadsheet!  This is a very useful feature.  Also it has a fairly decent tagging system.  If you buy a license you get free upgrades for a year, after that you have to pay for any new versions or bug fixes.  It is a good program which is simple to use.

I think there is a new version of Right Note which has introduced full support for Universal Links.

 

The bottom line

Taking everything into account if I had to choose just one program from the four and give up the others I think it would be a close run decision between ConnectedText and InfoQube.

They are very different programs and each one does things that the other cannot but these are mainly the features I don’t use.  For example, all the project management and Gantt Chart stuff in InfoQube and the named blocks and all the CAQDAS stuff in ConnectedText.  Looking at the features I do use the capabilities seem fairly similar.  But they are very different programs.

However looking to the future the development of ConnectedText has stopped.  There will be no new versions or new capabilities, this is OK as the features it already has are pretty comprehensive.  If we are very lucky any new bugs which are found will be fixed, but I think this unlikely as the developer seems to have abandoned the user forum.

InfoQube however is under rapid development by a developer who listens to the users of his program and tries to provide them with what they want.  In one sense this is bad because it has led to a vast jumbled mish-mash of features which take some time to comprehend, and it leads to a complex user interface.  In all other senses this is a good thing because everyone is getting what they want.  It really is everything and the kitchen sink’, whoever heard of an icon editor in a note taking program?  But on the other hand I did find it useful to have a built in icon editor in InfoQube when none of the existing icons met my requirements.

But it makes for a very steep learning curve, and I am still finding facets of the program which I was unaware of.  The very steep initial learning curve presents a barrier to new users which is unfortunate.

Pierre has tried to make InfoQube everything to everyone and on the whole he has succeeded.  It is a very open ended program which the user can adapt to solve many different problems.

And it is still under rapid development, who knows what next year will bring, or even next month.

Pierre Landry deserves our support !  He is doing a phenomenal job.

Taking everything into account if I had to choose just one program from the four and give up the others I think it would have to be InfoQube.

 

Search over.

 

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A Review of Right Note

Right Note by Bauer Apps is easy to use and to understand. It has many useful extra features than a basic two pane outliner/note taker but it also has some limitations which mean that it won’t be taking the prize for the best note-taking program. The interface is a bit cluttered by default but the superfluous icons can be turned off in the options dialog.

I love the many different types of note and the colourful interface and it nearly has a decent tagging system, if it had notes which could be cloned and appear in many places in the tree, a decent calendar with repeating reminders and if it supported Universal Links properly then this would be my ideal note taking application. But it does not have these features and it is unlikely to get any of these features any time soon.

Verdict = Simple to use but not as powerful as some. Potential to be very good and much more useful if a few things were changed. However sometimes an easy to use simple program is all that you need.

40 out of 60

 

1. Connectivity = 5

Right note can have links in its articles which can point to another note in the same Right Note file or to a URL, a file, a folder or a Universal Link. However it provides no mechanism for allowing other programs to use universal links into a Right Note notebase.

So there is only partial support for Universal Links (outgoing). I suspect the support of incoming universal links requires a lot more programming work than outgoing links.

Links are coloured blue with an underline but you cannot just single click on them to follow the link, you have to either double click or press control and then click.

Although a note cannot have attachments there is an ‘attachment’ note type which embeds a file in the notebase and a ‘link’ type note which can point to a file on the local disk (just one file for each attachment/link note). For some types of file a preview of the contents of the file appears in the note. I suppose if you wanted to attach a number of files to one note you would just attach a list of attachment or link type notes as children of that note.

 

2. Classification = 7

The tagging system isn’t hierarchical, just a flat list. But it does have the useful feature that you can refine the search by selecting more Tags, this just does a simple AND between the selected Tags (this AND that) which is all you want most of the time. When you have selected a tag in the Tags panel you can then click on extra tags in the top of the search panel, if you click on another Tag in the tags panel then it will be the only tag selected.

With other programs like Ultra Recall, MyInfo and ConnectedText the searches can be much more sophisticated with combinations of AND, OR, NOT & brackets or a tree to define the order of combination, and in InfoQube you can write an SQL expression to select your results, oh joy!  These complex searches are sometimes nice to have but mostly you just want to locate something by remembering a few salient features of that item and searching for those tags.

The tagging system in Right Note is certainly useful enough for day to day use.

Right Note has many types of note and this might be used to classify information. Also some of the notes may be designated as ‘Folders’. A note designated as being a ‘Folder’ is just the same as any other note except that you can view a list of Folders in a hierarchical tree of their own. It is another option for the classification of information.

As far as classification goes Right Note is just a standard two pane outliner with a flat tagging system. If that is all you need then this program is great but it does not have some of the extra things which make a program much more useful. There is no arbitrary meta-data, the only meta-data a note can have is a list of tags. Again this may not be as much of a limitation as it might at first seem because the meta data can be put in the main body of the note. This approach allows you to search for the meta data but does not allow numeric comparisons (price < 42) only text searches.  Arbitrary meta-data would be nice but I don’t think that will come any time soon either.

The main limitation I find with Right Note is that the trees and outlines are strict hierarchies, an item can only have one parent and this limits the usefulness of the program. As trees get bigger it becomes harder to find one unique place where a note should be placed. As trees get bigger it becomes more likely that there will be several places in the tree which are appropriate for any given note, if the structure of the tree is used to classify notes then you have to choose what you think is the most important category from all the possible categories that the note might fit into. However if the program has transclusion (cloned notes) then the note can be placed in all the appropriate places at the same time. This is not the case with Right Note, a note can only be in one place in the tree.

The ability to have an outline tree as a type of note is also good but not as useful as it might first appear, having a tree as a note type is just the same as placing that same tree as a child of the note, in that way having a tree as a note type is equivalent to a hoist.

All the trees in Right Note suffer from the same restriction, they are strict hierarchies. Notes are restricted to one parent per item and entries can only appear once in a tree. This makes them trees as opposed to directed graphs.

Directed graphs are more useful especially for larger notebases.

 

3. Text Layout and Formatting = 9

The editing facilities of Right Note are excellent, the developer has done a really good job of crafting comfortable well designed text editors for this program. Unicode characters are supported in most of the editors and in the trees.

There are many different note types and some of the names aren’t as self explanatory as they could be, two of the editors are nearly identical and this could be confusing to new users. Yes I know they are based on two different GUI tools but ordinary users don’t want to know about the internal workings of the program they are more interested in editing text.

The available types of note are :-

  • Memo (Plain Text)
  • RichEdit (Word Processor)
  • RichView (Word Processor)
  • Syntax Highlighter (Source Code)
  • Spreadsheet
  • Webpage
  • Evernote
  • Attachment
  • Link
  • Outline
  • Task List

Mostly the rich diversity of note types is a good thing but it has a disadvantage. For instance if you want to store a simple piece of text you can choose either Memo, RichView, RichEdit, Syntax Highlighter or Evernote. Two of these are equivalent (RichView and RichEdit) so one of the pair should be retired and the other re-named, there is little point in having both.

A Memo note is plain text with no formatting.

A Syntax Highlighter note is plain text with no formatting but with syntax highlighting for the language you declare the source code to be in. You set which programming language the note is in by selecting it in a drop down box in the toolbar of the editor, much the same as the text styles in the RichView editor. One nice touch is a thumbnail of your entire note in the top right hand corner of the editor pane, this can be used to scroll to a place of interest in the text by click and drag.

The program supports syntax highlighting for about fifty different programming languages plus ‘Text’, a brief experiment seemed to show there is no highlighting for ‘Text’ but you do have the scrollable thumbnail which could have some advantages for long texts.

The Syntax Highlighter note type ought to have been called the Source Code note type which would be a better representation of it’s purpose in my opinion.

An Evernote type note has all the same characteristics and formatting options as in the Evernote program but in order to use this type of note you must sign up to an Evernote account. All the pages which are of the Evernote type will get synchronised to your Evernote account whenever you go on-line.

RichView and RichEdit note types are both variations on the Rich Text Format but with slightly different capabilities. They are for formatted text. The names are not as well thought out as they could have been in my opinion. Something suggestive of a word processor document would have been better or just RichText.

RichView can contain tables and has better support for hyperlinks and images. This review is being written in a RichView note.

RichEdit supports OLE embedding but cannot contain tables.

I think it was a mistake to have two different types of note with such similar capabilities. This just causes confusion for users. Basically unless you want to embed a file form another program as an OLE object then you can just forget about the RichEdit note type. As a test I tried embedding a small Excel spreadsheet into a RichEdit note and it failed to display (perhaps I was doing something wrong).

The RichView editor has default styles for text and paragraphs which can be easily applied to text so you can set up a customised ‘look’ for the documents and have them all look the same with little effort. Setting up the styles is easy but the paragraph styles could appear a little intimidating until you become familiar with the dialog box, it is a little complex. The option for setting up the styles for both the text and paragraph styles appears in the drop down list at the end of the list.

Apart from these Right Note has spreadsheets as notes. I think this is great! I don’t know about everyone else but most of my use of spreadsheets is as a table. I would say that about three quarters of my spreadsheets have little or no calculations at all, the grid of data is what is useful about it. That and being able to set the background colours, borders and format of cells.

Right_Note_Review_2

A spreadsheet as a note in Right Note

Having spreadsheet type notes is much more useful than it might seem at first. Each of these spreadsheet notes is a fully functional spreadsheet. You can even use them to do calculations with numbers! 🙂  The Spreadsheet note type supports a large number of functions for use in formulas. These spreadsheets are probably suitable for small scale scientific and business number crunching.

Right Note also has outlines and task lists as note types, so you can have an outline within an outline. This may seem innovative but it isn’t quite as innovative as it might seem, it is just a hoist. If you have an outline within an outline this is equivalent to having that outline attached as the child of the parent note and when you are within the child outline it is just the same as if you had hoisted the parent of that outline.

The variation on this theme is the task list which is just the same as the outline note except that it has check-boxes. The addition of check-boxes is quite useful.

There is also a Webpage note type into which you can download and store the contents of a web page and this page is stored as a local copy so you can still view it even if the page on the web is changed or deleted, your local copy remains untouched. It is possible to edit these stored web pages.

This is all very well but special items like mathematical formulas in TeX are not rendered correctly. But it should be able to cope with ordinary web pages that have nothing but text and pictures.

It should be noted that if the web page was generated by a PHP script then it is only the HTML output from the script which is stored so some web pages may not work the same as the ‘live’ version but this same restriction would apply to all systems which store local copies of web pages.

There are attachment notes and link notes, an attachment note may be used to copy a file into the Right Note notebase. The file is stored within the Right Note file. A link note is almost the same except that the file is not stored in the Right Note notebase, the note contains a link to that file on the local file system.

 

4. A sense of Time = 2

There is a very rudimentary reminder system but no repeating reminders and no calendar.

This program allows you to set a reminder on a note, this can be a simple reminder with no date or time or it can have a date and time. If it has a date and time and if the program is running at that date and time then it will bring up a reminder dialog box.  If not then it will bring up the reminder next time you run the program after the date and time.

There is also a ‘Journaling’ mode, if you have ‘Journaling’ switched on then the default title for all new notes is the time and date of the note’s creation. This might be OK for keeping a diary.

 

5. Ease of use = 8

This program is simple and easy to use. Most things in the user interface are where you would expect to find them and most things work as you would expect them to work.

There are keyboard shortcuts for moving notes in the tree and dragging the notes around with the mouse works as you would expect.

There is a limited amount of customisability of the GUI, you can set skins (themes), some of the colours and the font used in the tree. That’s about it. The newer skins are colourful and most of them are good.

You can configure the keyboard shortcuts but you can’t change any of the toolbars.

Apart from having a couple of note types which do the same thing and might cause confusion about which one to use it is a good user interface.

By default there are some superfluous icons in the trees indicating the type of each note, they take up screen space without any clear benefit but they are easy to switch off in the options.

 

6. Visual Appeal = 9

Right Note has a pretty interface. It is colourful and there are several themes to choose from. The default font for the tree and tabs can be set. The user interface is fairly configurable but it is not the most configurable interface I have seen.

Right_Note_Review

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There are a lot of icons with the program which can be used in the program and there is an even larger collection of icons which can be downloaded for free from the Bauer Apps website, this is a single file in the format used by Right Note for it’s icon database. The file is free but is useless to other applications.

These icons can be placed before note titles and assigned to tags and notebooks, but beware, having too many icons on-screen at once can make the display appear too busy and cluttered.

 

Note Taking Software, back to basics.

There are many note taking programs but there are none which are ideal in my opinion. Many of them do a lot more things that I don’t need and don’t do all the things which I do need. A couple of them do come tantalisingly close to my ideal.

So what do I actually need from a note taking program. Let’s build it up from basics.

I like things to be simple!

What is the simplest note taking system?

A pencil and paper!

But a pencil and paper is not connected, you can’t search a large paper document easily. Organising and re-organising paper documents is difficult even if you have scissors and glue.

It would be more useful if it were electronic and on a computer.

So what is the simplest note taking system on a computer ?

Plain text files!

This is true, but having lots of plain text files scattered about on a hard disk can also be frustrating.

“I’m sure I had that information in a text file somewhere, if only I could remember what it was called and what folder it was in, dammit!”

There are problems with organising and re-organising a body of information which is contained in plain text files. What is needed is a way of structuring them and indexing their contents so they can be searched as a whole.

Keeping all your notes together is a good idea. Being able to add structure to them so that they can be grouped by their salient features is a good idea. Being able to explicitly express the salient features of a note (tags & metadata) is a good idea. Having a mechanism whereby one note can refer to another note (or indeed something outside the program) is a good idea. That is why note taking programs are a good idea.

With a note taking program you can keep all your notes in one place, link them together and define a logical structure, add meta-data to express the significant features of the data, link to other files or websites and search for things which you want to find.

Everything over and above this is either the icing on the cake or superfluous and unnecessary depending on your point of view.

Of course there are programs which provide a myriad of extra facilities and functions but if they fail to provide these basic facilities then they still fall short.

All the extra functions do is obfuscate the basic functionality. I am not saying that programs should not offer extended functionality but if the basic functionality ends up hidden in a sub-menu of a sub menu or in a context menu somewhere obscure then that is a bad thing.

The basic and most often used functions should be in obvious places, the extra functionality can be hidden in obscure places. The developers task is to decide which functions are the most often used and which ones get used once in a blue moon by just a few people.

If a program tries to be all things to all people then what usually happens is the user interface becomes complicated in one way or another.

 

Organisation

Almost all note taking programs organise their notes in either a tree or a directed graph. Most of the other types of organisation are either trees or directed graphs if you look at their topology.

A wiki might be thought of as a free form structure but the notes are connected by links and thus it is actually a directed graph. A mind map might be thought of as different from an outline but they are both trees, they are just displayed differently.

Directed graphs are more useful than trees.

Trees have the problem that as they get bigger it becomes more difficult to place nodes within them, that is, it becomes more difficult to find a single place which is correct for that node. There are usually several places where it could plausibly fit. That is why directed graphs are more useful.

For example, if a node could fit in the tree under the project it is part of or under the person whose responsibility it is or under the problem which the project is supposed to address then with a tree you have to select which is the most important feature of the node. This leads to difficulty in finding the node later when you have forgotten what your original decision was. It also leads to inconsistency of placement.

With a directed graph you can put the node in all the appropriate places simultaneously. If a node in a tree can have more than one parent then that tree is a directed graph. If you can ‘clone’ a node so that it appears more than once in a tree then that tree is really a directed graph.

It should be noted that a clone is not a copy, it is the same node which appears in more than one place.

 

Tags

Tagging nodes to indicate properties of the node is a necessary feature of a note taking system in my opinion. Well thought out tags are very useful.

Hierarchical tagging systems are in my opinion most useful, but few note taking programs have hierarchical tagging systems. Ideally the use of a tag should also imply the node having the parent tag as well (inheritance) i.e. if the node is tagged as belonging to this electronics project then it should also be tagged with the parent tag of ‘electronics’ and if electronics is the descendant of another tag then it should inherit that one too, recursively right back to the root of the tree.

One caveat with this is that when selecting the tags to apply to a node the list should be just a flat list of all the tags in alphabetical order, i.e. the tree should be flattened out.

Tagging systems can become a mess if the user doesn’t think about what the significant features of their data are. If the collection of tags just develops ad-hoc then they will probably be inconsistent with each other and this can lead to confusion.

A tagging system is even more useful if on can refine a search by selecting from a list of tags held by the results of the current search. Similar to the system used by the website ‘Del.icio.us’ before it was discontinued to make way for Pinboard’s subscription service. One alternative to this is if you can build a query using tags combined with AND, OR, NOT and brackets.

Meta-data is just another form of tagging, the meta-data expresses something about the node and as such it should be able to be searched and nodes should be able to be grouped on properties expressed in the meta-data.

One unhelpful characteristic of many programs is that their meta-data is common to all nodes. For example, let us suppose I have a notebase in which I have some notes on a selection of vacuum cleaners in order to choose which one to buy. One of the pieces of meta-data I might define for those nodes is ‘price’ and give each vacuum cleaner a number which represents it’s price. In a well designed note taking program that ‘price’ meta-data would only exist for those items I had assigned it to. In a badly designed note taking program all nodes in the notebase would now have a ‘price’ even where it is inappropriate. This would make the list of meta-data extremely long for every node because every node has an entry for every piece of meta-data defined for any node in the entire notebase.

Tags are all that is really necessary, other meta-data can be placed in the text of the node in a minimalist system.

 

Links

Linking notes together makes them much more useful. The information in one node can refer to information in another node and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The basic link is like a hypertext link and occurs in the text of a node, it refers to another node. Clicking on the link takes you to the node which the link points to. This basic link is all that is necessary in a note taking system. Just with this type of basic link you can build a wiki.

There are usually other types of link in a system, especially if it is structured as a tree or graph. The structure of the tree implies parent/child links and this is used to arrange the nodes on the screen.

In my opinion there also needs to be links where the information in one node needs to cite or refer to the information in another node. There needs to be a mechanism whereby a node can list other nodes which provide supporting or related information. These are sometimes called ‘see also’ or ‘related items’ or ‘reference’.

 

Text

The function of a note taking system is to hold notes, i.e. information. This can be plain text but the necessity of including links to other nodes implies something more than just plain text. And a bit of formatting is quite nice too.

The inclusion of pictures and diagrams is really useful as well. There is an old saying that ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’, pictures can aid comprehension and understanding of the information. The inclusion of pictures in the text of a node although not strictly necessary is a good feature to have.

Tables are also quite useful.

 

Conclusions

So my ideal note taking program would not have a lot of extra features which I don’t use but would include the all the basic functionality described in this article.

What would such a program look like?

It would have a directed graph structure presented as either a tree (or many trees) or preferably as a network (map). Each node could appear many times in the network/tree as a clone of the same node.

If the structure is presented as a map then the map should centre on the node which has the focus and if the user moves to a new node then the map should be re-drawn with the new node as the centre of the map, this allows you to see the node of interest ‘centre stage’ whilst still being able to see it’s context.

If displayed as a tree then it would be able to ‘Hoist’ a node so that it becomes the centre of attention and would be able to expand/collapse branches of the directed graph/tree.

Each node would be associated with a pane of text which could contain pictures, diagrams, tables and links to other nodes. Links should be opened by a simple single click just like a web browser. In addition each node would be associated with a list of ‘related’ nodes and/or a list of files associated with that node each of which could be opened by clicking on the entry in the list. Ideally the text pane should be floating so that it can be placed on a second monitor.

There would be a hierarchical tagging system with inheritance which could be searched by clicking on the tag in the tag tree but in which the search could be refined by clicking on further tags narrowing down the selection each time, similar to the system used by the ‘Del.icio.us’ website.

The text of each node would be indexed so that full text searches can be carried out quickly. In addition complex searches would be possible by building search criteria in a ‘search table’ each row having columns defining what is being searched for, what is being searched (node text, tags, meta-data etc.), what the conditions are (greater than or equal to, less than, equal to, text contains, matches wildcard etc.) and what the relationship is to the other search criteria (AND, OR), maybe a tree structure would be more useful here instead of brackets. Furthermore these complex searches should be able to be saved for later re-use. This does not mean that a quick and simple search should not be available as well.

There are a few (very few) programs which come close but there isn’t yet a program which ticks all the boxes for me.

This is a bit more complicated than a simple pencil and paper but I think it would be a lot more useful.

 

InfoQube followup

InfoQube is a complicated program with many capabilities but it is difficult for a new user to understand.

It is very easy for a new user to feel lost, partly this is due to not knowing where everything is but its because the program is capable of doing so many different things, when faced with so many possibilities a new user might think “What the F*&@ should I do now ?”, option paralysis is a well known phenomenon in psychology.

InfoQube is almost completely opposite to Microsoft OneNote, with OneNote the user interface is superbly designed to help the new user and to make the operation of the program obvious.  But the program itself sucks, many of its capabilities are superficial and gimmicky.  They are included just so that the advertising department can tick the box saying it has that capability.  If you use OneNote for any serious work then you come up against its limitations very quickly.  It is a typical product of Microsoft ‘focus groups’ which tend to make things so they are easy for the new user and difficult or impossible for the power user.

InfoQube on the other hand does not have a user interface which is simple and intuitive.  The user interface is very dense.  What do I mean by dense ?  It is packed with sub menus, drop downs and context menus and some of the sub menus have sub menus.  This can be confusing for a new user who doesn’t know where everything is.

There is a lot of depth to this program, but it can be intimidating to a new user. I am still learning and so I am sort of a new user but I don’t feel lost anymore. I was helped a lot by finding the option to customise menus and toolbars and experimenting with what I could and couldn’t move and/or get rid of.

Toolbars can have icons taken out of them and other icons put into them. New toolbars can be defined. The same is true of menus, the menus themselves are fixed but the contents of each menu can be changed. There are a few things in the menus which are fixed and you have to work around these entries but you can almost completely re-arrange everything else.

I was not aware how customisable InfoQube was until I went looking for the command to set up keyboard shortcuts.  In the sub menu there was an entry called ‘Customize’ (pardon the Americanism but that’s the way its spelled in the program).  This is a key feature and shouldn’t be hidden away in a sub menu.  Once I found out what it was capable of I dragged it up one level onto the ‘Tools’ menu between ‘Help’ and ‘Options …’ where I would have expected to find it in the first place.

I then butchered the interface until I was comfortable with it.

I am now using the cut down interface.  I have deleted many of the capabilities of the program, the things I am not interested in.

  • Like Pivot Tables and Pivot charts, since Microsoft Office is no longer installed on my system I can’t use these anyway.
  • Like sending e-mail to InfoQube, someday I may want the capability to send information to my InfoQube database from anywhere or for others to do so but for now I’m not interested.
  • Like Gantt Charts, maybe one day I will have to manage a project and if that is the case then I will be grateful for this capability but for now its something I don’t need.

These facilities are still there, they have just been deleted from the user interface.  If they are ever needed then they could easily be re-introduced.

Without all the stuff I don’t need and with the stuff I do need re-arranged I have a sensible manageable, comprehensible (to me) interface.  Actually I haven’t taken that much out, but in the process of re-arranging things I became much more familiar with where things are.  I have assigned a new set of keyboard shortcuts so that the operations which are common to the other programs I use are now in familiar locations where my fingers can find them on their own without too much thought.

So, what have I got left ?

I have a two pane organiser similar in operation to MyInfo with the columns in the left hand pane similar to Myinfo but it has the dockable panes which can be detached and placed on the other monitor just like Ultra Recall and it has a form of hierarchical tagging similar to ConnectedText.  It has the ability to assign different meta-data to different items like Ultra Recall and the capability to have saved searches like the $ASK command in ConnectedText (except the results appear in a table (grid) not on a page).

The hierarchical tagging is not native to InfoQube but it shows the flexibility of the program that something like this is possible with only the things which are already built in.

I am aware that I am not using InfoQube to it’s full potential but the question is, do I need to use the program to it’s full potential ?  If it does what I need then that is enough and the extra capabilities are there if I ever need to use them.  I didn’t use ConnectedText to it’s full potential either.  So what!  If InfoQube does become my main note taking program then my usage of other parts of the program would possibly expand over time.

If only the linking of pages (placing a link on a page which links to another page) was as good as ConnectedText then I could rebuild my ConnectedText wiki within InfoQube.

Moving lots of data over to InfoQube has highlighted the fact that the import facilities of InfoQube are very rudimentary unless you are importing from EccoPro or Evernote.

This is the reason I have not done a load test on InfoQube, importing a couple of thousand text files is only practical if it can be automated.  I suspect InfoQube would perform rather well in such a test but I cannot say that for certain until I do the test.  If I drag and drop files to the left Pane then all I get is links to the files on disk, the file contents aren’t inserted into the database.

The pace of development of InfoQube is quite rapid and things have changed (for the better) since my review.  I look forward to seeing what new developments are coming.  If there are substantive changes then it may be worth doing a second review.

A different approach to Note Taking

I take a lot of notes. I use them for reference. I use them for speculation about topics of interest. I use them to note down ideas so that I don’t loose them.

Before the digital age I had many paper notebooks and boxes full of index cards.

In those days I used to carry a HP 200-LX computer in my pocket and I thought it was an ideal note taking solution, oh if only I could buy one again, oh the nostalgia …

Whilst I was doing my degree I used to take notes at lectures on paper despite having several digital solutions available. I found that writing on paper helped me recall the material that I was writing much better than if I typed it onto a computer.

The physical act of writing is more visceral, it connects with the consciousness at a more basic level than typing. When typing one can go into autopilot and concentrate on the sequence of letters rather than the meaning of the words, the material gets typed accurately but it leaves little lasting impression in the memory.

But computer solutions are better organised and more compact. If one relies on paper then one accumulates many scraps of paper and old notebooks which are difficult to keep organised or refer to.

What I am looking for it the best of both worlds.  A paper notebook with unlimited pages which can transfer it’s content onto a computer, without many scraps of paper to keep track of, and hopefully without the paper.

Trees generate oxygen for our planet, we should not chop them down to be made into newspapers or chipboard furniture or paper notebooks.

For a long time I have relied on an application called ConnectedText which has served me well for a long time. It is a wiki with many powerful features, but recently I have found it to be less satisfactory than it used to be.

This is because I bought a new laptop and monitor with very high resolution screens.

The advent of high DPI screens and Windows 10 screen scaling has meant that the icons on ConnectedText are now microscopic and the titles of topics are only partially displayed.

The development of ConnectedText has now ceased and so it will probably never be updated and will continue to fall further behind as operating systems change until finally one day some update will break it.

This is particularly annoying for me because some while ago I paid quite a lot of money for perpetual licenses, the developer sold me licenses which would be for life, if there were any new versions of the software I would get an update to my license so I would get the new version for free.

He probably already knew that version 6 would be the last one and I already had a license to version 6.

If the developer has abandoned development it would be better if he were to release the source code as an open source project but I suspect he is keeping it going just to get a little more money from the current version.

I cannot now recommend ConnectedText for anyone wanting a new notetaking solution.

Perhaps it is time for some lateral thinking.

It would be nice if one could have digital paper, a screen on which one could write and draw but which could send these images to a computer and/or recognise the handwriting. Like a paper notebook with unlimited pages, no more stray scraps of paper to keep track of.

There are several possibilities.

One could use an Android tablet.

In my experience handwriting on an Android (a Sony Xperia mobile phone) is awful, the line drops out at random and the screen is slick, there is no friction and this tends to make my handwriting more messy. Also the note taking apps I have tried are cumbersome and awkward to use.

An Android device can also act as an e-reader for PDF and text files.

Despite this Android is not a good solution.

Dr Andus recommends a Boogie board.

I have tried a Boogie board and writing on the screen is much better and it is more responsive than an Android phone. However the Boogie board is not a very good solution for other reasons.

It is a write only solution, this is not what I want.

Once you have written a page or drawn a diagram, once you move onto a new page you can never go back to the previous page. The device stores them but it cannot display them. You can upload the stored pages onto a computer and this is the only way to see one of your previous pages.

The Boogie board is cheap but it is not a solution to the problem.

There is another device by Sharp, the WG-N20 which seems more capable than the Boogie board. It is an electronic notepad. You can look at and edit any stored page, sounds good, but there are problems.

The first big shock you get when buying one is the hidden costs. This is a Japanese import and so the price you see on the Amazon website is not the price you end up paying.

On the Amazon website it boasts free shipping to the UK but the UK Customs and Excise will open your package and impose an import duty on it. The shipping company will then demand this import duty plus an ‘administration charge’ before it will release your parcel for delivery.

The price you end up paying is about one and a half times the advertised price.

The manuals are in Japanese. So is all the text displayed by the machine, on the on screen buttons and in the dialog boxes.

The screen is slick and has little friction but despite that it has a better writing experience than an Android phone or tablet. The screen contrast is not very good, you are writing on a grey screen with slightly darker grey. This tablet needs good lighting to be able to use it adequately and there is no backlight.

The screen is a conventional LCD screen not e-paper. It is not an e-reader, it cannot import or display text files or PDFs.

It is not a good solution.

I have even been into the local Apple store to try out an Apple iPad.

I didn’t get along with it very well, the iPad suffers from a frictionless slick screen and the note taking application seemed to have some fundamental flaws. The iPads are expensive for what you get.

The staff in the Apple store are so full of artificial enthusiasm, everything about their products is wonderful and the fact that the annotations can be in any colour you like more than compensates for the fact that if you insert text the annotations don’t move with the text and are now in the wrong place.

I didn’t agree with the sales person!

I would rather have something in black and white that works properly than something multi coloured that doesn’t.

A random search (a clutching at straws exercise) pointed me at a potentially good solution for note taking which is the reMarkable tablet, but it is not available yet and it is expensive. If the advertising on the website is to be believed then they are trying to produce something which seems to fit almost exactly with what I want.

It is an e-reader, it can display PDF files (and e-pub files but I have no e-pub files), it cannot display plain text files which I think is a bad decision on the part of the designers.

There are an awful lot of legacy text files out there. But to be fair the text files could be printed to PDF files but this will increase their size.

Which brings us to the question of storage. The reMarkable tablet has 8 GB for storing documents and notes and drawings. This may seem like a lot but it’s only 100,000 pages. I can envisage filling that, maybe not very quickly but it is possible that I might be able to fill it up. There is no expansion, no SD card slot and the USB socket seems to be only for charging.

Once the storage is full you will have to either delete something or transfer something to a computer to make room for new items.

It is also big, just a little less than A4 size, 18 cm by 26 cm (7 inches by 10 inches). This is good for reading but definitely not pocket sized. What is needed is a small version which I could put in my pocket, 5 inches by 7 inches would be ideal, I wouldn’t use this as an e-reader just as a notepad.

Although it is not ideal it is far better than any other solution I have yet discovered so I ordered one. At the moment (in June 2017) there is a 33% discount on pre orders but I will have to wait five months, current delivery schedule is October but that keeps going up because demand is greater than their production rate.

If they had a pocket sized version then I would probably be ordering both the big and small versions, especially if they could transfer notes and documents between them.

I will write a review of it when I get it.

 

 

 

 

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

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

WhizFolders scales everything correctly and works as expected.

VUE

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

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

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

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.

ConnectedText

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 :-

epim://D:\Data\EPIM\Pauls.epim/mails/544385275277860595

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 :-

ct://Potek/HD%20Clone%20Notes

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 Review of TheBrain

It is my opinion that in a mapping program moving the map to keep the node of interest in the centre of the screen is a very useful feature which should be more widely available than it is.

A long time ago I used a free mapping program called Cayra, it was unlike any of the mind mapping program which I had used before.  It was not organised into a hierarchical tree, anything could be connected to anything else and the map moved to position the selected node into the centre of the screen.  One of the results of this type of organisation was that your map could be any size and only the things which were one or two connections away from the node you had selected would be shown.

Sadly Cayra is no longer viable, it was not being maintained by its author and the original download site lapsed. The author didn’t release the source code and abandoned the development. Then an update to Microsoft .NET 3.5 broke something in Cayra and it started crashing every few seconds.  It is a pity, it was a good program.  Today I don’t think there is anywhere you can still download Cayra.

TheBrain Technologies have brought out a mapping program which exceeds the capabilities of Cayra in every way, but it is not free.  There is very little to dislike about the program itself, but there is a lot to dislike about the jingoistic documentation, marketing and support, also there is a lot to dislike about the licensing.

There is a free trial version which works like the Pro version for 30 days, then it reverts to the free version.  The free version has a lot of useful features disabled but annoyingly the icons and menu entries for these features are all still there, if you click on one then a dialog box opens telling you that you need to buy a licence in order to use this feature.  Very annoying, if the feature is not available the icon or menu entry should be either greyed out or absent.

The Pro version is $219 for which you get four activations (more on that later) each activation is locked to the computer upon which it was activated.

Finally there is the subscription version which is $299 for the first year and $159 for each year after that which works out at $25 per month for the first year and $13.25 per month for subsequent years.  Again you get four activations.

So, what extras do you get with a subscription?

You can store your maps online in the company servers or on the web where you will have access to them from a web browser.  You can allow others to have access to your maps, either read only or read/write, and so the maps can be used by groups of people to share ideas, communicate and collaborate.

You can also synchronise maps from different computers to the ones in the company servers.  So you can work on the same map at home or at work on different computers and keep them in sync.  Also the maps can be transferred and synchronised to Apple Mac computers and phones, both Android and Apple iPhones.

This would be useful for the stand alone program to be able to do.  If I have the same map on my desktop machine and my laptop both of which have access to disk drives on my local area network then it would be very useful to be able to synchronise the map to another map which is on a disk drive which is local to the machine.  TheBrain Technologies have already developed the code to do this, that is what they do when syncing to the cloud, syncing to a local drive would be less complicated.  But they are probably never going to do this because they want to encourage people to take up a subscription to provide the company with a continuing revenue stream.

To activate the program you need an account.

The company seems to assume everyone is going to get the subscription version, the documentation assumes a subscription and they have deliberately made it more awkward to use if you want to use it as a stand alone desktop program.

Then there is the licensing, for your $219 you get to activate the program four times. This may at first seem like an adequate number but it is not.  When I first got the program I activated it on my laptop and on my desktop machine (1 & 2) but when I updated my desktop machine to Windows 10 the program required re-activating (3) and when Windows 10 destroyed my laptop I had to get a new laptop and this was a different machine so required another activation (4).  It may be that the desktop upgrade to Windows 10 might not have used up an activation but I have no way to find out until I have the need to activate it again and it says ‘no, you’ve had your four’.

There are only two other software companies I know of which lock licenses to individual machines like this and one of those is Microsoft, and Microsoft do allow the transfer of a license if you ring them up and explain that the previous installation has been uninstalled.

So what about the program itself.

As well as being a mapping program notes can be stored in the nodes and they can be categorised.  As an organisational tool TheBrain is nearly as powerful as ConnectedText but much more graphical, which is good for people like me who think in pictures, diagrams and patterns rather than in words.

There is a fundamental difference between TheBrain and ConnectedText other than the graphics, that difference is the concept of ‘place’.  When you add data to ConnectedText it is not necessary to decide where to put it, in effect the data finds it’s own place in the matrix based upon the links you give it and the categories you assign to it and the properties and attributes it is given, these things define the place of the data within the matrix.  When you add data to TheBrain then you must decide where to put it within the matrix.  The node is dragged out from another node and that is it’s place.  The user can then connect it to other nodes within the matrix but it’s place was the very first thing which the user decided on before creating the node.

This difference may seem trivial but has some big implications, when building a wiki in ConnectedText you can sometimes stumble upon new insights into the data and be surprised at the patterns which became apparent which were not apparent in the original input. ConnectedText is a tool of discovery as well as organisation and recording.  When building a plex (map) in TheBrain you are unlikely to come upon any new insights simply because the placement of the nodes is entirely based on your pre conceived notions of where things should be placed and this is unlikely to reveal anything which you didn’t already know.  TheBrain is a tool of organisation and recording of data.

Ignoring the licensing, the only other thing I dislike about the program itself is the terminology.  Maps are called ‘plexes’ or ‘Brains’ and Nodes are called ‘Thoughts’.  This cringeworthy terminology is used throughout all the documentation and video tutorials.  The video tutorials exude a feigned gushing enthusiasm about the program which makes me feel like I’m being sold a used car.

I think this hype is an attempt to create the impression that this program is something special and not just another mapping program.  Undoubtedly the program is extremely good and has many technical merits but that doesn’t mean that it is something new and completely different from other mapping programs.

 

 Overall Score = 40 out of 50

  1. Organisation  = 9

Like Cayra TheBrain always keeps the selected node in the centre of the screen.  There is no hierarchy, anything can be connected to anything else.  The fact that the selected node is always kept in the centre of the screen means that the map can be very large without getting cumbersome because only the things which are relevant to the selected node are displayed.  There is a ‘Home’ node which you nominate but this is the only hint of a hierarchy.

In the normal display mode the map arranges itself and you have no control over where nodes are placed, in the normal mode you only see the nodes connected to the node of interest but this can be expanded to include the nodes connected to those nodes, this view can start to look cluttered.

There is also a mode where nodes can be arbitrarily arranged manually on the screen and the connections to other nodes can be expanded or collapsed.  This mode is just like most other mapping programs.

There is even an outline view.

Icons from the library supplied with the program may be assigned to each node, a screen capture of part of the screen may also be assigned to a node as an icon, if you have any icons or images of your own on disk you have to copy them to the clipboard before you can paste the image onto the node as an icon, this works for .png image files but does not work for icon (.ico) files.

New nodes are placed by dragging out from one of the anchor points on an existing node.  When you start to type the name of a new node the program pops up a list of existing nodes which match what you have typed, clicking on one of these entries will auto complete what you were typing and link to the existing node.  A node may appear in many places on the map.  You can generate several nodes at once by separating the names with semi colons but the auto complete doesn’t work if you go on typing and put a semi colon at the end of the name so you end up generating different nodes with duplicate names, probably not what you wanted.

Nodes may be ‘Tagged’, a tag is a keyword or descriptive term applied to the node which has been tagged.  The tags can be searched for and used as a selection criteria in a report.  By default tags appear on the map as text appended to the node but they can be hidden if the user wants.

You can also define ‘Types’ of node.  A type can change the appearance of a node, assign default tags to a node and assign it an icon.  All the characteristics defined for a type become the defaults for that type of node but they can be overridden if any of the characteristics are later changed manually.

As far as finding information goes the search facilities are good.  You can also generate reports which allows you to specify date ranges, tags, types and type of attachment, any node which meets the criteria will be included in the report.  Moreover the reports can be sorted in several different ways.  This is useful, but the similar facilities in Ultra Recall, MyInfo and ConnectedText are much more sophisticated.

An unusual feature for a mapping program is the inclusion of a calendar, nodes can be assigned to a date and a reminder set if needed, when that date arrives a reminder is shown.  Events can be set to repeat.  This feature is more reminiscent of a normal note taking program than a mapping program but it is a welcome change.

The repeating event dialog needs improvement though, the developers need to take a look at the repeating event dialog in ‘Thunderbird‘ for inspiration. With the repeating event dialog in TheBrain I would not be able to set a reminder for two days after the last Thursday of the month for instance (two days after the last Thursday of the month is the weekend after my salary gets paid into my bank if you want to know the significance).

However even having a calendar is a huge leap ahead of any other mapping program I know of, this probably reflects the purpose of TheBrain as an organisational tool rather than just another mapping program.

 

  1. Attachments to nodes  = 9

A node may contain many attachments.

Firstly notes.  Each node has a notes field which contains text, in this case it is formatted rich text which can contain tables, checkboxes, all the usual formatting you would expect in a word processor and hypertext links.  I tried out the limits of the field by inserting one of the Project Guttenberg texts which was about 450 kilobytes long.  It did slow the program down significantly but it still worked and it was still there after closing and re-opening the program.  The notes field will hold all the text anyone might reasonably expect it to hold.  There is no obvious way of inserting images into the text, but they can be attached to a node as a normal file attachment.

Files may also be attached to a node, many files.  There may be some limit to the number of files you can attach but I only tested it up to sixteen.  The files may be attached as a link to a file on the local file system or may be attached as a file embedded within the map.

Also you can attach a folder to a node.  The attached folder opens in Windows Explorer.

There is another method of attaching a folder which creates a ‘virtual folder’ within the map.  The files and folders are not moved into the map, a virtual folder is a link to the external folder.  All the files and folders within the attached folder are represented as subordinate nodes and so the tree structure of files and folders on the disk is reproduced as a hierarchical tree within the map.  This has the advantage that you can attach notes and links to files and folders in that tree.  This gives you an alternative view of your file system.

Links may be inserted into the text of the notes field or a link may be attached to a node.  Links may point to a website, a file, an e-mail address, a node either in the map you have open or in another map or it may be a universal link which points to content opened by another program.  Universal links may either be pasted into the node as an attachment or pasted into the text of the notes field.  TheBrain can also generate universal links, by right clicking on a node and selecting ‘Copy Local Thought URL’ a universal link is copied to the clipboard which points to the node which is currently selected.

This is very useful, TheBrain fully supports universal links in both directions and everything works as expected.

 

  1. Appearance  = 8
The Brain

A screen shot of TheBrain in action.

This is the appearance as I have it set up, the wooden wallpaper is one of my desktop wallpapers. The appearance is very configurable. You can change almost anything so don’t be put off by the dark appearance of my particular setup.

The program has a somewhat idiosyncratic but attractive appearance.  There is a lot of customisation including setting an image as the background to the map.  The colours of most elements displayed on the screen can be set and the customisation is on a per map basis, different maps can be set to display different colours and background.

The positioning of nodes is automatic in the normal mode and is well behaved.  The map can convey its information clearly.

The map has a somewhat organic look.  The links between nodes can be labelled with any relevant information if required.

 

  1. Ease of use = 8

The program is simple and easy to use.  It is certainly a lot easier to use than ConnectedText. Most thing are easy to figure out or become obvious after a bit of experimentation.

There are some points which are not clear to a new user but there is a lot of help available.  There is a .PDF manual free to download from The Brain Technologies website and copious video tutorials are available to view if you can stomach the meretricious gushing enthusiasm about the program where every problem is trivial and every feature is wonderful, but having said that the videos are helpful and informative.

There is also a forum on which questions may be asked and the users of the forum are generally helpful.  However the forum is monitored and any posts which criticise the program in any way are removed immediately, even posts which ask questions about bugs which they have decided not to fix will be removed. I posted about a bug I found, they sent me an e-mail saying it would be fixed in the next version but they weren’t going to do anything about it in this version. My post was removed from the forum.  Anyone posting such things must be careful what they say because they can get their forum access removed.

Collaborative working on maps is possible if you have a subscription to the companies continuous revenue stream scheme.

 

  1. Import – Export  = 6

There are quite a lot of options for getting information into and out of TheBrain. It can import a folder (as a child of the selected node).  It can import the Internet Explorer Favourites list, but why not Firefox or Google Chrome favourites?

It can import and export a special Brain XML format.

It can import a MS Word outline, a Mind Manager file, an OPML file, a FreeMind mind map, an OWL ontology and a text outline (using indentation to set the levels).

TheBrain can export to a bitmap image.

It can export a map to HTML, either SiteBrain HTML or Simple HTML, I have yet to try this out so I can’t comment on the difference but SiteBrain is supposed to reproduce much of the functionality of the map as it appears in the main program but on a website (either on the web or as a local site on your LAN). Whereas Simple HTML reproduces your map as an outline with much less functionality.

The XML export formats are Brain XML which can be imported into TheBrain on another machine or Brain EKP XML which can be imported into TeamBrain which is a multi user collaborative mapping program.

There is also an option to synchronise the calendar with a Google Calendar.

 

Conclusion

Nice program, shame about the licensing.

There is a lot to like about this program, technically it is brilliant but the company have made the decision to milk their customers as much as possible and I don’t feel safe and secure buying a program from a company like that.  Nonetheless I did buy the program and it is extremely good but because of Microsoft’s dirty tricks two out of the four activations have been used up, the other two have been used up legitimately.

Overall I like this program a lot, it is just a shame it has so much baggage.