The ReMarkable Tablet, a second look

I wrote a review of the Remarkable Tablet in November 2017 shortly after I got mine, I have now been using it for about a year.  So how well has it fared ?  Well it has been pretty good.

Recap

The ReMarkable is a tablet computer used for note taking and as an E-reader.  It has an E-ink display which one can write on and draw.

The tablet is 18 cm by 25.7 cm by 0.7 cm but the screen area is 15.6 cm by 21 cm which is slightly wider than A5 size.

There are three buttons at the bottom of the screen which are (from left to right) ‘previous page’, ‘home’ and ‘next page’.

There is also a USB socket for charging and for connection to a computer.  The tablet can also connect via WiFi to synchronise with the ReMarkable cloud service and to get software updates.

The story so far

I have been using this device for about a year and during that time all the little bits of paper which I used to carry with me have disappeared.  I used to have a small notebook, a Lab book and a bundle of small pieces of paper which usually resided in a plastic bag in my backpack.  The contents of all these bits of paper and the notebooks are now in the ReMarkable tablet.  It is a lot more convenient having everything in one place, I am no longer left looking for that one bit of paper which contained that vital piece of information which I have somehow mislaid.

And all my handwritten notes now automatically appear on my laptop and desktop computers and on my mobile phone.

The ReMarkable can also be used as an e-reader and so I have various papers and articles in PDF format in the tablet.  When the ReMarkable was first released it had some problems with PDF files.  It converted them to bitmapped images (one per page) and this had two detrimental effects, firstly the annotations were not scaled properly when you scaled the page to crop the blank areas around the text.  The second was that the text could no longer be searched.  A recent software update has fixed these problems to some extent.

The annotations are now scaled correctly with the page and the OCR data in the PDF is no longer deleted so after being converted (copied to the tablet) it is still searchable.  However the PDF is still converted to bitmaps so the PDF file becomes very bloated.

It must be noted that if you copy a PDF file from your computer to the ReMarkable the original is not affected.  However the file copied to the tablet is affected and this is the one which contains your annotations.  If you want to use those annotations then when you retrieve the file back onto your computer it will be a lot bigger than it was.

It is good to use a tablet without having the distractions, reminders and alarms that come with most modern digital devices.  A pen and a blank page is about as distraction free as you can get.

The advert says that it’s just like writing on paper, it isn’t just like paper but it is by far the best writing experience of any of the touch screens, tablet computers or graphics tablets I have used or tried.  It is excellent, but it is different to writing on paper.

There are some touch screens which are glossy and smooth, these are especially bad to write on.  The ReMarkable has a satin feel with a moderate amount of friction which makes it very easy to write on.

Software updates

Since I got the tablet there have been several software updates.

Various things have been fixed and little inconveniences eradicated.  Many of the criticisms in my first review of the ReMarkable have been addressed.  The first of the updates improved the battery life considerably by switching the WiFi off when it wasn’t needed and only switching it on for a short time when it was needed.

The tablet now remembers what pen you were using and restores that pen when switching tools.

The handling of PDF files has been improved considerably as has the selection of templates.

Optical Character Recognition has been implemented so you can now convert your handwriting into text.  This feature still has a few rough edges however.

Overall the utility of the tablet has been improved quite a lot.

Pen

One disappointing thing about the ReMarkable tablet is the pen.  It functions correctly but it has the look and feel of a cheap biro.  An expensive tablet like this deserves a quality writing instrument and the pen supplied with the ReMarkable is not.

Don’t get me wrong it functions very well but it just feels flimsy.  It has a white plastic body which turns to white rubber at the writing end.  The white rubber easily gets scuffed and picks up dirt and marks quite easily.

Another problem is the fact that there is no pen clip.  This means that if you put it down on a surface which is not flat and level it rolls away.

I have found a metal pen clip which was made for a pen with roughly the same diameter as the ReMarkable pen and so my pen doesn’t roll away any more.

Replacement pen tips are now available on Amazon which is good as you get to avoid the exorbitant shipping costs.

Graphics Pad

It seems to me that the people at ReMarkable have missed a trick here, the tablet with the correct software could perform as a really good Graphics Tablet.

The problem I find with most graphics tablets is that your hand is in one place and your eyes are looking at another place.  You are writing/drawing on the tablet and looking at the screen so for me it is difficult to get the hand eye coordination to work.  I don’t know if other people have this same problem or if it might come together if I persisted.

With the right software the ReMarkable tablet could be a really good graphics tablet with it’s own display.

Buttons

On the ReMarkable there are three buttons along the bottom of the screen.  This can be a problem if you are writing near to the bottom of the screen in Portrait mode.  The tablet ignores your hand resting on the display, however it can cause problems if your hand rests on one of the buttons.

One of the software updates did address this issue and disables the buttons when you are writing near the bottom of the screen and this has improved the situation but it can still be a problem.

Another solution would be to turn the screen through 180° so the buttons are now at the top of the screen, this would mean that the functions of the left and right buttons would need to be swapped but this is not difficult to do.

This could be extended to have modes for left handed and right handed people when working in Landscape mode so that the buttons could be at either end of the screen.

Text formats

The ReMarkable functions as an e-reader for PDF files and EPUB files but these are the only two formats it supports.

Bizarrely it cannot display plain text files, this seems a very bad omission to me, there are still an awful lot of files out there in plain ASCII text and it is the simplest and most compact format to handle and display.

I have raised this issue with the support team at ReMarkable and I was told to print the text file to a PDF file and everything would be OK.  Yes but it makes the file many times bigger than it would otherwise have been, especially once it has been converted for display on the tablet.

Folio

The Folio is also disappointing.  It is very expensive and not very good quality.  I have one of the original folios which I got with the tablet, they were on sale separately for £59, these are no longer available, there is now a new version which comes in various colours and materials from £79 to £119.

I don’t know if the new ones are any better but the one I got with my original purchase started to delaminate within a week and the stitching started to come apart at one corner.  They are not worth the money and not very well made.  There are many sleeves which will fit the ReMarkable tablet on sale on Amazon and they are a lot less expensive.

Conclusion

The ReMarkable has become indispensable to me.  All the handwritten pages are synchronised with the ReMarkable cloud service whenever the ReMarkable is switched on and within range of my WiFi so they get synchronised with my computers and my mobile phone.  Even simple things like having my shopping list appear on my mobile phone is very convenient.

As an e-reader the ReMarkable is good, it would be even better if it supported plain text files.

As a note taking system it is limited by the fact that it tries to imitate paper notebooks so something more is needed to organise the pages.  I regularly copy handwritten notes into ConnectedText and InfoQube.

I can do OCR on pages and send them by e-mail.

Worth the money?

Yes, well worth it!

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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.

 

Editing Fonts

Font Editors

There are many people who couldn’t give a damn about how their documents appear, they just want to get the message across and don’t care what it looks like.  This is why Times New Roman and Arial are so overused.

Most of these people ignore the excellent typefaces like Constantia, Cambria, Corbel, Candara, Calibri and Consolas which Microsoft have spent a lot of time and effort optimising for good rendering on LCD screens at small point sizes (they also work quite well in printed documents).

I am not one of those people.

Then there are others who want their document to look just the way they want it to, they don’t want to compromise on any detail including the typeface.  They usually have a large collection of fonts none of which they consider perfect.  These are the type of people who are likely to know how to use Open Type features in their documents.

I am one of these people.

I believe there are many people in the situation I was in several years ago, they would like to create their own typeface if they could, or at least alter a typeface they are using to make it more suitable for them.

There were many occasions when I would hunt through my collection of typefaces looking for the one which was just right.  One which had all the right features.  But I became frustrated that none of the typefaces in my collection were completely suitable for the purposes I wanted them for.

It’s all very subjective, but if you want a typeface which is just right for you then why not design it yourself ?

Free Font Editors

As you may have realised from reading this blog I am a fan of free software.  But only where it provides a good usable alternative to commercial software.

There is a free open source font editor called ‘Font Forge‘ however it does have many bugs and the user interface is quite messy.  It can produce good fonts but using Font Forge is much harder work than it needs to be, oh well, at least it’s free.

I used Font Forge for eight months before buying Font Creator.  Font Forge is complicated to use, it opens many independent windows on your monitors and there are many bugs.  When I bought Font Creator editing fonts suddenly became a whole lot easier.

I wish that the open source offering was of a higher quality but unfortunately it is not.

Non Free Font Editors

There are a few commercial Font Editors.  There aren’t as many for Windows as for the Mac but since I only have a Windows computer I have not concerned myself with any of the Mac editors.

High Logic

High Logic is a Dutch company run by Erwin Dennisen.  They produce several font related programs but Font Creator the font editor is their main flagship product.

I use Font Creator, however I have no connection to the High Logic or Erwin Dennisen other than being a user of their products.

Font Creator

There is a full review of Font Creator on Bhikkhu Pesala’s website which also contains his excellent collection of fonts which are free to download and use !

Font Creator is a moderately priced font editor which does most of the things which the very expensive font editors do.  You can edit and create fonts in Postscript (with CFF cubic curves) format and true type/open type fonts using quadratic curves.  It also supports Web Open Font Format (WOFF and WOFF2) and colour fonts.

The ‘Visual OpenType Designer’ for adding or editing open type features is better than the equivalent open type editor on any of the more expensive font editors in my opinion.

At the time of writing the Home edition of Font Creator costs $79.  This version has some restrictions however.  Union and Intersection of contours is not included in this version, also the batch transformation of glyphs is not included.  This version doesn’t have automatic composition of composite characters either.

The more expensive version of Font Creator (Standard) has many features like real time validation and a more thorough validation which can be run to identify and correct errors in your font.

The Standard edition can also automatically Kern your font and of course you can still do the kerning manually if you want.

There is a comparison of the editions on the High Logic website.

At the time of writing the Standard edition of Font Creator costs $149 however this price is set to increase to $199 on 28th September 2018.  The Standard edition has all of the features except for Optical Metrics (setting the spacing of your characters so that text appears to be evenly spaced on the page).

Optical Metrics is useful but not essential and the price jump between the Standard edition and the Professional edition of Font Creator has become quite large.

Even if you know nothing about spacing characters it isn’t rocket science, there is a preview window which can be viewed in which you can display many different strings of characters (including your own strings) and the display adjusts as you alter the spacing of a character.  Just adjust them until they look correct.

Preview Window

The preview window showing a selection of Cherokee characters from the upcoming Munson v2.0 to be released ‘real soon now’.  As you can see these are not correctly spaced yet.

If you want to go a little deeper then get a good book on typography like ‘Letters of Credit’ by Walter Tracey or ‘Optical Character Spacing’ by David Kindersley then you will be able to set the spacing manually without too much trouble, trust your eyes, if it looks right then it’s right.

However I must admit it does save a lot of work to just let the computer do it.

At the time of writing the Professional edition of Font Creator costs $199 however this price is set to increase to $299 on 28th September 2018.  Three hundred dollars is a lot of money, the price has increased a lot since I bought my copy several years ago, this is disappointing as it is getting to be a comparable price to some of the Font Labs editors.  I’m glad that I have kept my license updated to the latest version.


Edit :- Apparently the discounts on the standard and professional editions of Font Creator are ongoing.  Once the deadline runs out it just renews with a new deadline.  This is probably to persuade people to buy now rather than later.  The price of the professional edition of Font Creator has been $199 since 2009, ten years at the same price probably means it will actually increase in price in the near future.


As you might expect the Professional edition has all features enabled.

Overview Window

The overview window showing the Cyrillic characters (itallic) from Munson v2.0

The font overview window is what you see when you first run the program and create a new font or open a font for editing. It displays a view of all the glyphs in the font although you can view a subset of glyphs, for instance a Unicode block or all punctuation or after doing a validation of your font you can display all the glyphs identified as having potential problems.  Double click on a glyph to edit it.

Edit window

The glyph edit window. Toolbars can be placed anywhere round the window and can even be floating.

The glyph edit window is where you edit a single glyph.  Either using cubic (CFF) curves or quadratic (TTF) curves.  You can add shapes, add points or draw freehand to create a glyph.

Open Type Designer

Open Type Designer showing the placement of an anchor used to position diacritic marks relative to a character.

The Open Type designer is an easy way to add and edit open type features to a font.  Although it is complex it is much simpler than editing the code manually although you can still edit the code if you really want to.  In most cases the results of your changes are illustrated in the dialog box so you can see what is happening.

Code Editor

You can also edit the code manually if you want to.

Font Labs

There is an American company called Font Labs which produces font editors amongst other things.  Apart from one (Type Tool) the editors they produce are quite good but very expensive.  Expensive enough to discourage someone who is only mildly interested in producing their own font.

Type Tool

Type Tool is the cheapest font editor that Font Labs produce. The facilities it offers are very basic, so basic that it is not useful for producing anything but the simplest of fonts with no open type features.

At the time of writing Type Tool is being sold at $47.99 which may seem cheap but for that price you don’t get very much.

Why would Font Labs produce such a limited editor ?  They don’t want their customers to see it as a viable alternative to their more expensive editors.

Fontographer

Fontographer is a font editor designed for graphic designers. It is a very competent editor but doesn’t do Open Type features.  Apart from the fact that it doesn’t do Open Type features the interface and features seem somewhat similar to Font Creator.

At the time of writing Fontographer is being sold at $259.

Although the drawing tools are very good the editor is limited in what it can produce.  Open Type features are being supported by more and more software as time passes.  If the font you produce is to be used with a good word processor or desktop publishing program then open type features are important.

I have not used this program but from looking at the available documentation it seems expensive for the features it offers.

FontLab VI

FontLab VI is an extremely competent editor with just about every feature you could want for producing a font.  It does open type features, automatic spacing and kerning.  It has all the facilities which you might need to design fonts.  The user interface is quite complex but the job it is doing is complex so this is perhaps understandable.

At the time of writing FontLab VI is being sold at $459 which in my opinion is quite expensive for what you get.

I have used a trial version of this program and it seemed complicated to use.  Perhaps the user interface would become more comprehensible with time but I didn’t want to spend the money to get a license when I already have a perfectly good program for this purpose.

FontLab Studio 5

At the time of writing FontLab Studio 5 is being sold at $649.

I cannot pass any comments on this program because I have not used it or read the documentation.

Other Companies

There are a few other offerings for those who want to produce a font.

Like DTL FontTools and Letter Modeller or TruFont or even FontArk.

Please note I have only taken a quick look at some of these.  DTL FontTools seems like a commercial editor, Letter Modeller and TruFont seem like they might be free and FontArk is online and runs in your browser.

Conclusions

If I was in the position of wanting a font editor and knowing what I do now, having used some of the products looked at here (albeit some of them only the trial versions) I would still choose Font Creator.

I cannot recommend the free open source ‘Font Forge’ because it has a messy user interface and there are many bugs.

The editors from Font Labs are very good but also very expensive.  Apart from ‘Type Tool’ which is crippled in it’s functionality to the point where it is not a real alternative.

Font Creator does everything you need to create a professional quality font and in my opinion it offers the best value for money, although the prices have risen quite steeply since I bought my copy several years ago.

 

A Review of InfoQube

Introduction

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

There was once a program called ECCO Pro which arranged data in grids very much like InfoQube. If you are familiar with ECCO Pro and liked it then you will probably like InfoQube, InfoQube is like ECCO Pro on steroids. However in my opinion the program tries too hard to be like ECCO Pro. A personal Wiki (ConnectedText) is a better place for your data in my opinion.

This program has been in development for a long long time, the final version has always been predicted to be six months away. In 2007 it was predicted to be six months away and now in 2018 it is predicted for the last quarter of 2017 but it isn’t here yet, I suspect the website hasn’t been updated and pretty soon it will be six months away yet again. Development seems to be progressing at a steady pace but I suspect that there has been some mission creep because no endpoint has been set. So how will the developer know when it is finished ? I think the answer might be that he will stop when there are no more features to add.

On the InfoQube website it says:-

While in beta, InfoQube is free to download and use. Initial release is planned for Q4 2017.

Each version is fully functional for 90 days, after which time it turns to read-only mode. Simply download an updated version to get another free 90 days. Simple and totally free !

Personal licenses will have a special introductory price of just $49.95

In the meantime … you’ve seen what can be don with InfoQube and you think it has a great potential.

Perhaps you’d like to give us a helping hand … You certainly can:

  • Donate $50 USD or more and you’ll receive a free Personal License ! (PayPal account is not required. All major credit cards are now accepted)
  • Participate in the Community forums
  • Contribute to the Documentation

Spread the word on how great and unique InfoQube is, to friends and in other forums.

Update – 15th May 2018 : The website has been updated, the ridiculous statement about paying for a free license has been removed and the price of a license has been dropped to $30.  And yet again release date is six months from now, but the development of the program is progressing at a fairly brisk pace.  I will wait and see with interest.

The developer is a guy called Pierre Landry from Canada. I don’t know what he means by a ‘Free Personal License’ because if you are ‘donating’ $50 in order to be issued with that free license then surely you are just buying the license for $50 in which case it wasn’t free.

So I tried the program out and decided it was worth further investigation, I made a donation and got a ‘free‘ license. I have tried this program out before but failed to understand it properly, this time however I did get a little further than previously. Try it out if you want but you can expect a very steep learning curve, you practically have to read all the documentation before you start understanding any of it.

InfoQube started out as a program called SQL Notes, this was a GUI front end for the MySQL database but it has developed a lot since then. It is difficult to describe it’s function because it quite literally can do so many different things, it tries to be everything for everyone. Imagine a program written by an enthusiastic and talented programming geek who tries to add every conceivable feature which has been suggested on the forum, all this backed by a very powerful database. Well this is what InfoQube appears to be.

Linus Torvalds once said that Linux developed when his terminal emulator program grew legs. Well InfoQube started out as a GUI front end for SQL and it grew legs and just about everything else, including a kitchen sink!

Score 48 out of 60

Verdict : Very Powerful but not very User Friendly.

 

1. Connectivity = 10

Some programs organise their data as a hierarchical tree. A node can only have one parent. InfoQube is not one of these programs, anything can be connected to anything else, a node can have multiple parents so the organisation in InfoQube is a graph and nodes (or items in InfoQube parlance) can appear multiple times. These multiple appearances are not copies or clones they are the original item appearing in a different place. So InfoQube supports transclusion.

Each item in the database has an area of text associated with it, in InfoQube this is called the HTML pane and every item has one.

The text in this area can contain links and/or the title text of the item can contain or be a link. Each link can link to other items in the database, other grids in the database, URLs, e-mail addresses, folders or files. This program supports universal links, both inwards and outwards. If the link is a universal link then the target program will be opened at the appropriate place. If the link target is an e-mail address then your default e-mail program will be opened on a new mail to the target e-mail address. If the link target is a file then the file will be opened with it’s default application. If the link is to a URL it will be opened in your favourite web browser.

Also you can generate universal links to the items, grids or views within InfoQube. If you right click on an item then go to the ‘Copy’ section of the context menu then one of the items will be ‘Copy items URIs’, if you click on this it will copy a universal link to the item onto the clipboard which can then be pasted into another application. If one of these links is used in another application it will open InfoQube and open the database the link points to and open the item, grid, view the link points to.

Items can have a link in their title so each item in a grid could be a bookmark to a URL. Thus InfoQube could take on the role of storing bookmarks to interesting web pages.

InfoQube can be set up to receive e-mails, it can be set up to poll a mail server and receive e-mails which are then imported as items. This means you can send items to your InfoQube database from a mobile phone or from a computer not running InfoQube and it also means that other people can send you items if you give them the e-mail address.

 

2. Classification = 10

The basic unit of information in InfoQube is an item, items exist independently of anything else. So what I usually refer to as a node is called an item in InfoQube. The basic mechanism for the display of items is the grid, a grid has criteria for the display of items and will display any items which meet those criteria. Items do not ‘belong‘ to grids, you can have an item which appears in no grids.

Normally grids are ‘simple’ which means that any items created in that grid will have a flag in the meta data with the name of the grid and the grid just displays all items with that flag. However you can set up grids with complex criteria for the selection of items (a valid SQL statement which will return TRUE or FALSE) in the ‘grid source’ field. So a grid itself can be a search with the results of the search appearing in the grid.

Having an item which doesn’t appear in any grid is not good and so I wanted a grid which displays all items unconditionally, this proved to be ridiculously easy you just set the ‘grid source’ field to ‘item’ which returns true if the item exists, so it tests each item to see if it exists and so for all items it always returns true.

The program organises items in a different way to most programs. The hierarchical tree is present but it is not the way things are organised, it is there to arrange things in a way which is convenient for humans to look at. Items may have multiple parents so they may appear in many places (even in the same tree) so transclusion is inherent in the system and the hierarchical trees are really graphs.

An item has a title, it also has a page of text associated with it (known as the HTML pane) but an item may have any arbitrary meta data which the user adds. Different items may have different meta data. Usually you create an item in a grid in which case it will have a flag with the grid name automatically (if the grid is simple).

InfoQube has some powerful search facilities using multiple criteria combined with AND plus OR. For number and date fields you can use AND, OR plus the following operators are allowed: <, <=, >=, >, = the powerful search is unsurprising for a program which has the MySQL database engine at its heart.

You can also display a mind map of items from your database but these facilities are rudimentary compared to programs whose primary role is mapping.

https://i2.wp.com/www.infoqubeim.com/drupal5/files/1/images/Gantt8.png

There are various different ways to attach tags or categories to items.

Firstly there are Wikitags, you can add a list of named tags to items which can be searched for and linked to. They can also be used in the selection criteria for a grid.

Secondly you could add meta data to any item which could be a drop down list. The list either has a predefined set of categories or gets populated as things are added to it.

Thirdly you could set up a hierarchical tree (or graph) of ‘categories’ and assign them as parents to the items you want to categorise. Hierarchical tagging is not built in to InfoQube but that is essentially what I have added using the built in facilities of InfoQube.

The way things are organised in InfoQube is very open ended and you can arrange things the way you want them which can be very good if you think about what you need and how to achieve it before you start organising things but a consequence of this is that things can degenerate into a disorganised mess if you don’t know what you want or if the objectives are poorly specified.

InfoQube also does not have the concept of place, things appear wherever it is appropriate for them to appear. InfoQube and ConnectedText are the only two systems which I know of that have this characteristic. Patterns and insights can emerge from the data which were not apparent in the input once the data has been properly classified.

 

3. Text Layout and Formatting = 9

Each item has a ‘HTML pane’ associated with it. This is like a word processor document attached to each item. It is HTML but what you see is a WYSIWYG editor that supports tables, images, diagrams in SVG format. It can hold a copy of a web page or may hold a document formatted in a markup language called ‘Markdown’.

The HTML pane has a competent word processor/editor more than adequate for a note taking program. Links can be embedded in the text and all the usual formatting can be applied.

 

InfoQube has good facilities for using tables within text on the HTML pane. Cell borders can be dragged about to resize the cells. All the usual formatting can be applied and the cells can contain icons and images as well as text. Just like using a word processor.

 

4. A Sense of Time = 9

Usually this is the section which note taking programs fall down on but not InfoQube which has a very good calendar together with facilities for project management.

The calendar supports reminders and repeating reminders. You can add a date to any item as part of the meta data and these will appear in the calendar. There are some pre-defined dates and durations which can be added to items to tell InfoQube that these items should appear in the ‘Gantt chart’, if you add a Gantt chart to a grid then any items with the relevant meta data will appear in it. Dependencies can be added so that the items will appear in the correct sequence in the Gantt chart.

https://i1.wp.com/www.infoqubeim.com/drupal5/files/1/images/Gantt1.png

‘Gantt charts’ can illustrate a sequence of events and show dependencies, the facilities for project management in InfoQube are not quite as good as Microsoft Project but InfoQube has many other facilities for general information management and organisation which would in my opinion make it far more powerful if it was used to manage a project.

The calendar in InfoQube can be synchronised with the online ‘Google Calendar’ (both ways).

 

5. Ease of Use = 3

Ahh … there had to be a downside didn’t there and to be honest this program has a pretty big downside.

This program has so many features crammed into it that the user interface has become complex and is certainly not intuitive or consistent. There are features hidden away in context menus which if you don’t know about them you might never find them.

Pierre Landry the developer has spent most of his time and effort adding new features to the program but I think there should be some time and effort put into making the user interface simpler and easier, looking at how the features work together. Perhaps take a look at how some other programs have designed their user interfaces. For example the support for universal links has only recently been added and on the forums Pierre was asking users about what the best way to implement the links were not about how they would be used. But the user only sees the user interface, usually they don’t know or care about how it is implemented. It is much better to have a clunky feature with a slick user interface than a slick feature with a clunky user interface.

On the plus side it does get easier with time but you can expect a very steep learning curve, even steeper than for ConnectedText.

You can customise the toolbars and set keyboard shortcuts for any command but the basic problem is that there are so many commands and so many features everything is too densely packed in. This program tries to provide anything and everything you might need but it ends up providing none of them very well. Often it is better to have several programs which are each good at one task than to have one program which tries to do everything.

InfoQube has Visual Basic built in. You can write programs in Visual Basic which have full access to the database. This can be used to customise the database still further but it is a whole new level of complexity to master (especially if you don’t know Visual Basic to start with).

When put under load InfoQube eventually performed very well and did not noticably slow down with a very large database of text files, but importing the files in the first place proved to be more challenging than I had anticipated.  Text files were perhaps not the ideal source of data to import but that was the data I had.  The InfoQube documentation states that it does support database formats like .CSV and Tab delimited files and many other formats but if you try to import a simple text file it wants a specification of how to split it up into fields.  In my case there were no fields I just wanted the text of the file in the HTML pane and the filename as the item name.

 

6. Visual Appeal = 7

The user interface is a pale blue colour with a standard toolbar (not a ribbon). There are no themes and I have not yet found a way to alter the colours of the interface.

Everything else is configurable. Items and grids can have their default colours set but this can be overridden for each item. You can change the font used for each item and include icons in the text.

The various panes which can be displayed can be docked in any part of the main window or they may occupy a floating window of their own. The floating windows can be placed on a second monitor if you have one.

Overall the interface is OK visually but not the best I have seen, and certainly not the worst. However having said that a lot can be done to configure it and reduce the clutter. The icons on the toolbar are configurable so one configuration of InfoQube can look quite different from another.

A review of the ReMarkable tablet

A review of the ReMarkable Tablet

This tablet has had a long and some might say drawn out gestation, the website has built up a lot of expectations that it will be hard to fulfil.  But they are now being shipped.  My overall impression of it is that it is quite good and very useful but maybe not quite as remarkable as the hype on the website would have you believe.

The design

The tablet is 18 cm by 25.7 cm by 0.7 cm but the screen area is 15.6 cm by 21 cm which is just as tall and slightly wider than A5 size.

There are three buttons at the bottom of the screen which are (from left to right) ‘previous page’, ‘home’ and ‘next page’.

One of the claims on the website is that it is almost like writing on paper and the screen is described as being matt.  Well my perception is that the screen is not matt, the screen has a silky sheen which can give slightly troublesome reflections (diffuse reflections) to lighting which is shining down onto the screen from behind the device.

The screen is not black on white but rather dark grey on light grey.  However the contrast is better than many of the e-ink screens I have seen and worked with.  It is comparable with the best e-ink screens but I can’t help but get the impression that the contrast of the screen on the videos on the ReMarkable website might have been artificially enhanced a little.

Writing on the screen is definitely not like writing on paper.  Nevertheless it is much nicer than the slick frictionless writing experience of one of the many smooth glass like tablets.  It is the nicest tablet I have ever written on (but it does nothing to improve your handwriting 🙂 ).  Various drawing tools are available including move, scale, rotate and erase.  Imagine having digital editing tools available for handwritten notes.

It is better to use the tablet in well lit conditions, there is no backlight, e-ink can be viewed from any angle but suffers a lot in dim conditions.

When writing on the tablet there is no perceptible lag, the pen is extremely responsive, the line appears as the pen nib touches the screen, this remains true even when the nib is travelling quite fast.

The tablet can be configured in either right hand (the default) or left hand mode and the writing screen can either be set to landscape or portrait (the default) mode and you can rest your hand on the display whilst writing without any problems however when you are writing near to the bottom of the page it is possible you will accidentally press one of the buttons with your wrist, so far this has happened three times to me and two times the button didn’t respond.  It seems that the software disables the buttons if you have your hand resting on the display but this is not as reliable as it could be.

The Pen

The pen is quite disappointing.  It has the look and feel of a cheap ballpoint pen.  Very light and feels flimsy.

Another problem is that the pen has a round cross section and there is no pen clip so if you put it down on a sloped surface it will roll away.  This could have been avoided with either a pen clip or designing the pen with a triangular cross section (at least for part of its length).

Battery

On the videos on the ReMarkable website they say you can “use it for days without recharging”.  I think that is an optimistic assessment.  If you turn on the WiFi then the battery goes down fairly quickly.  Turning the WiFi off is quite easy once you have found the ‘Device Settings’ screen (tap the rM logo in the top left hand corner of the home screen).  But even so after a full charge and using the tablet without WiFi for an evening’s jottings (several hours intermittent use) the battery was on 75%.  I think the “use it for days without recharging” claim is fairly optimistic.  Perhaps if I were using it as an e-book reader then it would live up to that claim.

The software and hardware

The tablet is running Linux on a relatively old ARM processor but you never see or get to interact with the operating system.

There is 8Gb of storage which the people at ReMarkable reckon will hold about 100 thousand pages, although they don’t say whether that is 100 thousand pages of handwritten notes or 100 thousand pages of PDF documents.  The storage is not expandable.

What this tablet doesn’t have and what would be very useful is some removable storage in the form of a micro SD card slot.  I know there are problems with Linux and removable storage (Linux needs storage to be ‘unmounted’ before it is removed) but there are ways around that.

Another thing which would have been useful and which would have cost nothing to design into the tablet is a hole for a lanyard loop in one corner of the tablet. But it doesn’t have this.

Mostly the software on the tablet runs perfectly but there are one or two rough edges.  The home screen sorts the notebooks so that the most recently used notebook is at the top.  You can sort by other orderings but as soon as you move away from the home screen or switch the device off this setting is forgotten.

Similarly (but even more annoying) when writing on a page you can select which type of pen you want to use and this setting is remembered until you use a different tool or a different page.  When you select the pen tool again it defaults to the pen they call ‘ballpoint’.  It would be better to remember the pen which was last used and default to that.

Apart from these two minor problems the software on the tablet is pretty good.

The software lets you make notebooks or folders, a notebook has a name and consists of one or more pages.  A folder has a name and can hold notebooks, PDF files, ePUB files or other folders.

This is a system of notebooks modelled on physical paper notebooks.  There is no tagging or categorisation so it needs something more to organise the pages, if they could be automatically exported to a PC and made available as compatible bitmaps in a known location in the PC then they could be linked to from other programs and therefore the latest version of the page would be available in the third party program but this is not possible at the current time.

The pages are bitmaps but they are in a strange format, there are one or more ‘layers’ overlaid and a ‘template layer can be displayed as a background.  This makes some advanced drawing techniques possible but makes the raw files incompatible with anything on the PC until they are exported and then they loose their ‘layers’ and the template.

A more compatible format would be much appreciated.

Desktop application and getting files into and out of the device

The tablet can function as an e-reader for PDF files and ePUB files and it works very well in that role.  You can crop the pages of PDF files to eliminate the blank area around the text and this setting is remembered for that file.  This makes reading the files easier.

Bizarrely it cannot display plain text files, this seems a very bad omission to me, there are still an awful lot of files out there in plain ASCII text and it is the simplest format to handle and display… oh well ‽

To get files into and out of the tablet you need to use a cloud storage facility run by the people at ReMarkable and to use it you must create a ReMarkable account which your tablet automatically connects to when it is in range of your WiFi and you don’t have WiFi switched off to save battery life.  All your notes (and PDFs) are uploaded to this cloud storage.

Meanwhile on your desktop PC or on your Android or Apple mobile phone there are apps with which you can log in to your ReMarkable account and all your notes (and PDFs) become available on each device.

The desktop PC app seems a bit rough, it doesn’t handle high DPI screens or multiple monitors well, although it doesn’t fail like many other programs it just has a few window sizing issues.  The desktop app can transfer files to the tablet but it does this through the cloud storage and WiFi.

There is a USB connection on the tablet and when the tablet is connected to a PC by USB then it is possible to open the tablet in a web browser by opening http://10.11.99.1/ and you can see all the files and folders on the device.  You can also drag and drop files onto the web browser screen and they will be copied to the tablet but they will only be copied to the root directory of the tablet no matter which directory is being displayed.  Also the traffic is only one way, pages updated on the tablet cannot be transferred to the PC using the USB connection.

The software for the PC and the web browser connection seem a bit clunky and rough as though they were a hastily set up afterthought.

One of the things I wanted to do with this system is to have the pages of notes available on the PC as bitmaps to be able to paste them (as a link to the original file) in to other note taking programs.  Preferably the bitmap files would be updated whenever the tablet was connected to WiFi but this is not the system they have implemented.

Instead the notes are available only on their application, if you need the notes for an external program then you have to export the pages you want and re-export them each time a page is changed.

Being able to view your notes on a mobile phone is useful.  However the app they provide for Android is not terribly good, you cannot zoom in on your notes so the notes you wrote in a space just bigger than A5 is now scaled to the phone screen size, this could be a problem unless you have good eyesight or you wrote your note with the phone screen size in mind.

One other facility which is overhyped on the ReMarkable website is the ‘Live View’ in which whatever you write on the tablet screen instantly appears on the PC screen.  I can see this would be useful for someone in a business meeting or for a teacher giving a lecture, if the desktop app was running on the PC and the PC had it screen connected to a projector then the students in the lecture theatre could see what the teacher was writing or drawing on the screen of the tablet.  I can think of no other circumstances under which this facility would be useful.

Conclusion

This is a good tablet and has been quite useful so far and I have no doubt it will continue to be useful in the future.

As an e-reader the ReMarkable is good, it would be even better if it supported plain text files.

As a note taking system it is limited by the fact that it tries to imitate paper notebooks so something more is needed to organise the pages.

Worth the money?

Yes .. I think it’s worth it!

P.S.  After having used the ReMarkable Tablet for about ten days the grey sleeve supplied with the tablet has started to delaminate.  The sleeve is soft black plastic on the inside and grey felt on the outside.  I suspect the layer between the inside and outside is cardboard, that is what it feels like now that it has started to come apart.

This means that the outside has become very loose and crumpled, the layers have separated and the sound when you insert the tablet or handle the sleeve suggests that the intermediate layer is cardboard.

I think the sleve is of a very cheap and flimsy construction, if you are thinking of buying a ReMarkable Tablet then save your money and don’t buy the outrageously overpriced sleeve, there are many tablet cases and sleeves available at a much lower price and I think most of them would be better constructed than the ReMarkable sleeve.

 

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.

 

Quick Review of Auto Hot Key

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

 

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

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

Highly recommended.