Ribbons, screens and links

Why ribbons?

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

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

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

How to tame the ribbon on Microsoft Office

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

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

High DPI Screens

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

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

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

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

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

Compendium

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

WhizFolders

WhizFolders scales everything correctly and works as expected.

VUE

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

CMAP Tools

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

Scrivener

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

TheBrain

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

MyInfo

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

Ultra Recall

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

ConnectedText

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

Essential PIM Pro

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


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

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

Universal Links

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

“What is a universal link anyway?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

An Idiosyncratic Review of LyX

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LyX Badfont

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

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

LyX Main Screen

LyX main screen with the manual opened for editing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will LyX become my main word processor?

Probably not.

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

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

Long Term Usage review of ConnectedText

You might be aware if you have been following my posts on note taking software that I have been searching for the ideal (ideal for me) solution for capturing and developing ideas and organising notes.

During this time I have spent a lot of time using various programs and a lot of money on acquiring the programs I thought were satisfactory.

Now I have decided to standardise on just one program. ConnectedText.

Overview

I have now been using ConnectedText on and off since 2012. I have been using it more extensively since the advent of version 6 which introduced some significant improvements. During this time I have looked at many alternative note taking programs, the best of which were MyInfo and Ultra Recall.

My overall impression is much more favourable than in my previous review, now that I have been using it for a while and have learned to live with it’s little quirks it has grown on me. Of course I recognised the enormous power when I first used ConnectedText but it seemed difficult to use and I wondered whether it was worth the effort. It took me a while to ‘get it’ but now I see that it was well worth the effort.

ConnectedText is different from almost all the other note taking programs which I tried out. It is a wiki and essentially what you are doing is building a website, except it’s not on the Web it’s in your computer.

This is not a novel approach, the World Wide Web itself, if you ignore the advertising, can be seen as a rich and imperfect set of notes belonging to everyone and to both a greater and a lesser extent Wikipedia is the same.

With the World Wide Web there is nobody in overall control, this means that the great majority of the data contained therein is irrelevant and of the stuff that is relevant some of it is wrong. Wikipedia is more useful because of the efforts of a great many volunteers who try to ensure that articles posted are of interest to others and are accurate.

With ConnectedText you have your own intranet, where you can store notes. This is very useful, the markup language allows a great deal of flexibility in the way notes are classified and linked together. If you want a taste of the language then download the Welcome Project from the ConnectedText website.

Limitations

The program is not perfect by any means. But many of the limitations of the program are understandable for a program of this type. If there was a WYSIWYG editor it would be overburdened with toolbars full of buttons and numerous menus, it would be even worse than Microsoft word. There is a program called Info Qube which has gone down this route and the user interface is hideously complex.

It is a simpler approach to have the functionality of the pages defined in a markup language but this does have consequences for the editor.

The Editor

When I write I don’t like things disrupting the flow, the markup language does disrupt the flow but not as much as one might expect. The ‘edit mode’ of ConnectedText is just like a plain text editor with only a few distractions. Pressing F11 expands the text editor pane to fill the entire window, this is close to a distraction free environment. So I just write and don’t think about the markup until later.

For more complex pages which are not just plain text I still find it irksome that to edit a page you have to enter a different mode, where you write the ‘source code’ for your page. You will not see the results until the page is rendered i.e. you go back to viewing mode. This decreases the interactivity of the program.

But there is a way to ameliorate this, somewhat. Starting with version 6 you can open a floating window containing a read only copy of a page. You can have as many of these floating windows open as you can fit on your screen. This is so that you could refer to one page whilst reading or editing another. But the page in the floating window can be the one that you are editing, so you can see the ‘source code’ and the results at the same time in different windows. The floating window is not updated automatically but you can update it manually to see what effect your edits have had. This makes things easier for editing and is not as awkward as constantly switching between modes but it is still somewhat cumbersome to save the page you are editing and then have to use the mouse to right click in the floating window and tell it to update itself. I wish that there were a way to automate this so that it could be just one keypress.

I still think edit mode is ugly but it doesn’t seem as ugly as when I first started using ConnectedText, but I have changed many of the settings from their defaults, I found an excellent article on setting up ConnectedText here.

Import

The export facilities of ConnectedText are excellent but the import leaves a lot to be desired. If you take the simple approach and just cut and paste into ConnectedText then the results are often not what you would expect, any formatting is either lost or messed up and tables don’t come through very well.

Import of text files is possible and works well with plain text.

It is also possible to import .RTF files although it often gets the formatting wrong and does tend to mess up tables.

The most compatible import format in my experience is HTML, this format tends to get the formatting right and to get the tables correct. This is unsurprising since HTML is also a markup language. The best way I have found of importing a Microsoft Word document into ConnectedText is to save the document in the ‘filtered HTML’ format from Word then import it.

ConnectedText needs better import facilities.

Tables

Table are usually not very pretty in ConnectedText. It is possible to get them to look good with time and effort but a standard table is ugly. Once you have produced a table you cannot just drag the borders of the cells around like you can in a good WYSIWYG editor, tables have to be planned in advance or they look cramped with only just enough room allocated to the contents of each cell.

When creating a table in ConnectedText you don’t get any impression about how it is going to look until it is actually rendered.

In my opinion this is one of the worst features in ConnectedText.

P.S. Added 12th March 2015

I have learned a lot more about CSS files in the last three weeks and have found that it is possible to get the default formatting of ConnectedText tables to be a lot better than the formatting which you get with any of the CSS files supplied with ConnectedText.  In fact the rendering of the entire wiki can be improver beyond recognition with a good CSS file.

Memory Usage for large databases

Whilst reviewing each of the note taking programs I did a stress test which consisted of loading more and more documents into them until they failed. I have a collection of approximately 20,000 texts downloaded from the Project Guttenberg website. These range in size from a few kilobytes to three megabytes but the average is about 60 kilobytes.

Most programs failed with the full set of documents. Two which did not fail were Ultra Recall and MyInfo, for these programs searches remained lightning fast and navigation did not slow down. I expect that these programs maintain an index of words contained it each document (called a Trie).

ConnectedText did slow down quite considerably with 20,000 documents and sometimes crashed because it ran out of memory, particularly with indexing and searching. Search and Replace operations were particularly hard hit and slowed to a crawl but also the memory usage went up dramatically during these operations.

With ConnectedText open on one monitor and the Windows Task Manager open on the other I sat and watched the memory usage slowly climb towards two gigabytes, it never reached that far, it would run out of memory when it got close. My laptop has four gigabytes installed but ConnectedText is probably a 32 bit program and so can only address two gigabytes.

However this is an extreme test. I expect that if the average size of document was a lot less then the performance would have been a lot better, even with the large documents of the stress test ConnectedText performed well with two thousand documents except for the searches and search & replace operations which did show significant slowing.

For databases of less than two thousand long documents or a lot more than two thousand smaller documents you should experience no problems. Few people have the need for more than this.

P.S.  Added 22nd February 2015.

The Latest update to ConnectedText (6.0.12.35) addresses these issues.  The bug which caused the consumption of memory during a Global Search and Replace has been found and eliminated, also the memory usage for 64 bit computers has been raised to 4 Gb.  This eliminates most of the complaints raised in this section.

Advantages of ConnectedText

ConnectedText is very powerful. Most of the power of ConnectedText comes from its markup language. But it is also very flexible in the ways you can structure your Wiki and in the ways you can link things together.

Classification

Some types of data have a very clear and obvious structure to them, others do not. If you are merely wanting to record details of some data which you already know the structure of then it is perfectly reasonable to define the structure in advance.

An example would be contact details. You already know about names and addresses so you can plan a structure to your data which is most convenient to you.

But there are other problems for which the structure of the data is not known and for these problems it would be a mistake to define a structure for the data in advance. Defining the structure of the data too early might impose an inappropriate structure which might limit the ways in which you think about the data.

Such a problem might be writing up some research or the writing of a thesis which by its nature it is an exploration of new ideas and new research. Most discoveries are not made whilst performing the experiments, they are made during the organising and writing up of the notes, this is where ideas come together in ways which produce flashes of insight which were not apparent from the raw data. Imposing a structure too early might mean that you miss something significant later.

In my opinion this is where ConnectedText is at its best. You can just dump all the raw data in there and classify it organise it and re-organise it, because you can have the same data represented in many different ways simultaneously and just switch between the different views.

Connected Text has very powerful facilities for classifying things. Pages can have category, attribute and property commands embedded in the markup language. A page which contains a category command assigns the page to that particular category. Properties and attributes are similar to each other and both assign a value to a variable which is associated with that page. The only difference is that attributes are displayed as part of the page whilst properties are invisible in the text in viewing mode.

Assigning categories, properties and attributes is only half the story. Once you have a set of pages classified like this you can write queries to select the pages you want to see. Each category has an automatically generated virtual page which contains links to all the pages in that category. The categories are hierarchical so a category can be a subcategory of another category.

A page can contain a query which selects pages with certain categories properties or attributes, when this query is run it will generate a list of links to pages which fulfil the selection criteria. If selecting on a property or attribute any page which assigns anything to that property or attribute is considered to ‘have’ that property or attribute. However queries can also select pages which have a property or attribute equal to (or less than, greater than or not equal to) a specific value. Also the result can be sorted according to the values in a property or attribute.

For instance you might have a set of pages with the category ‘Task’ with an attribute ‘Priority’ and a date associated with each page. You could then have a page containing a query to display tasks which would display a list of all pages in the category ‘Task’, this list could be sorted by priority or by date. The page would be automatically updated each time the page is rendered.

Pages can include other pages (either the whole page or just a part of the page) so a page can be a patchwork of parts of other pages, if any of the source pages change then any pages which include that page also change. When used with ‘named blocks’ using a query to select which blocks are included in the page has made ConnectedText very useful for CAQDAS.

Connectivity

Basically you can connect anything to anything else. All the links are embedded in the text of a page so you don’t connect a note as an entity, you embed a link in the text of the page. The link can be to another note in the wiki or to a note in another wiki or to an external file or to a URL on the internet. The fact that the links are embedded in the text makes them both visible and editable, nothing is hidden. In view mode if you click a link to a file then the program will run that file just the same as if you had double clicked on it in file manager.

Creating a link to a page in the same wiki is easy, you just put the name of the target page within square braces like [[Target Page]] , if the target page exists it is linked to, if it does not then the link appears in red when you go back to viewing mode. But if it does not exist then when you click on that link a new empty page with that name is created and opened in edit mode for you to start writing. This method of creating links on the fly does not interrupt the process of writing when you want to refer to a page which does not yet exist.

The program has a menu item entitled ‘Copy as link’ which copies a universal link onto the clipboard which can be pasted into another Connected Text wiki or into any other program which supports universal links. When activated this link will open Connected Text if it is not already running and direct it to open the page which is the target of the link. So you can link to specific pages within other Connected Text wikis.

Connected text also supports universal links to and from other programs, so I can link to a specific E-mail or contact in my E-mail program from within Connected Text.

There is also a set of ‘Bookmarks’ just like a web browser, you can bookmark favourite pages within your wiki and jump to them.

Adaptability

I was once told on the ConnectedText forum that there is no ‘incorrect’ way of using ConnectedText. Whatever way works for you is correct. Indeed this program is very versatile.

I found an implementation of much of the functionality of ‘Lotus Agenda‘ (an organiser which I once used back in the days of DOS) written in the ‘ConnectedText’ markup language on the Taking Note blog. I am now using this to implement Dave Allen’s GTD method of organising tasks.

The Hierarchical tree is a classic model for the organisation of data. There are many note taking programs which base their whole organisation model on hierarchical trees. The big mistake most note taking programs make is to only allow a page to appear at one location in the tree, but sometimes it might be appropriate for a page to appear in multiple locations. For instance if you have a research project which needs equipment to be bought, does the record of these purchases go under the project or under finances? The answer should be both but often a program will force you to choose which is the most appropriate location. As the tree expands this problem gets worse.

The programs Ultra Recall and MyInfo allow this type of cloning of pages.

ConnectedText also has trees in the form of outlines. Dragging a page to an outline inserts the title of that page and a link to the page into the outline. There are two types of outline available in ConnectedText, there is one generic outline which is saved with the project automatically and another which you explicitly create (but you can only have one of these open at once). The outline allows the same page entry to appear in multiple locations.

You can have as many outlines as you want and each one can give you a unique view of your data. So ConnectedText can function as a classic two pane note taking program based on a hierarchical tree.

Hierarchical trees are very useful but they are not the whole story.

Some note taking programs rely on Tagging (sometimes called Keywords or Categories), Personal Knowbase is an example of this type of program. This is also a good approach to searching for the data you wish to find if the search and filtering is well implemented. Most of the programs I have reviewed (including Personal Knowbase) use a flat model for the categories, it is more useful to have the tags in a hierarchical tree as implemented in the program MyBase, so that a category can have subcategories. This is the approach taken by ConnectedText.

Some note taking programs allow the association of arbitrary metadata with a page, this is useful for searching and filtering of pages, generating sorted lists of pages which meet arbitrary criteria or seeing information about pages.

Ultra Recall allows you to define different arbitrary metadata for each individual page within the database. Scrivener and MyInfo allow arbitrary metadata to be defined but it is common to the whole database. For ConnectedText the metadata is defined within the markup for that page and so it can be unique.

So ConnectedText has implemented all of the most useful aspects of information organisation from other note taking programs, but they are more useful when used together.  There are other aspects to the program like being able to generate directed acyclic graphs on a page as well as normal graphs, being able to embed Python scripts within a page and have it execute each time the page is rendered, you can even put musical staves along with their notes on a page although this is one facility I have never used.

Conclusion

ConnectedText is not as pretty as some of the note taking programs I have reviewed but if you are happy with the aesthetics of the program then I know of no other program which can match its power and flexibility.

 

A Cornucopia of Programs

Information Tools

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

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

 

My Personal Preferences

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

For serious writing Scrivener is unrivalled.

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

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

 

So.  What is available?

 

Note Taking Programs

Ultra Recall

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

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

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

 

MyInfo

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

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

WhizFolders

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

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

Essential PIM Pro

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

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

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

Memo Master

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

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

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

Right Note

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

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

Silver Note

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

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

Debrief Notes

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

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

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

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

KeepNote

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

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

Keynote NF

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

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

SEO Notes

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

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

The Guide

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

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

Personal Knowbase

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

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

TreeDBNotes

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

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

Leo Editor

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

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

AM-Notebook

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

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

AskSam

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

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

Black Hole Organizer

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

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

MyBase

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

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

Surfulater

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

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

EverNote

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

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

Zoot XT

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

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

LexiCan

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

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

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

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

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

Noteliner

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

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

Total Text Container

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

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

Cinta Notes

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

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

Cherry Tree

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

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

AllMyNotes Organizer

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

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

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

Idea Rover

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

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

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

Linked Notes

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

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

Notecase Pro

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

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

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

Microsoft OneNote

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

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

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

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

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

Writing Programs

Scrivener

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

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

yWrite 5

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

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

SuperNoteCard (Mindola Software)

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

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

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

Wiki Programs

Connected Text

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

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

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

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

ZimWiki

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

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

WikidPad

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

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

Mapping Software

VUE

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

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

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

design VUE

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

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

Compendium

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

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

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

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

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

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

CMAP Tools

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freemind and Freeplane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scapple

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

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

Inspiration

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

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

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

MindRaider

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blumind

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

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

Instrumind Think Composer

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

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

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

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

Good Luck!

Other Programs

Tree Sheets

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

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

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

InfoQube

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

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

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

On the website it says:-

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

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

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

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

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

TreeLine

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

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

Some thoughts on Writing Tools

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

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

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

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

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

Just write.

Good luck!

 

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

I think Anonymous missed the point slightly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For organisation it just depends on what you want.

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

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

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

Addendum to the review of Scrivener as a note taking program

It has not escaped my attention that there has been some comments on various fora about my review of Scrivener as a Note Taking program, so perhaps some clarification is in order.

I don’t normally group all my notes together, normally they are all grouped by subject in separate files, that is why interconnections between files are so important.

The test with lots of files was just that, a test, load the program until it breaks and see what happens.  If the program doesn’t break then you can be confident in using it for any normal sized set of data, and if the program does break then it usually reveals interesting things about the program.

The comments I made in the review about Scrivener slowing down when working with ten thousand notes was not really a criticism merely an observation.  It is a good thing that Scrivener works at all under these circumstances.

These are not trivial documents, they were downloaded from Project Guttenberg, the smallest is only a few kilobytes but the largest is two and a half megabytes.  The whole collection is around three quarters of a gigabyte.  I used these documents for the test because they were convenient, I had them for another purpose but whilst I was reviewing the note taking programs it was convenient to just import some of them to see how the various programs performed under stress.  The point is to stress the program until it breaks and see what breaks.  First with a hundred documents, then with one thousand, then two thousand, then five thousand and if the program is still working throw the full ten thousand at it.

Scrivener performed very well with three quarters of a gigabyte of notes.  The automatic backups were slow but that was the only effect, this is unsurprising given the amount of data and the fact that saving data to disk takes time.  Searches slowed down but not by as much as one might expect.

With MyInfo the only effect was that that the notes file took a long time to load and save, again unsurprising given the amount of data to be saved and loaded.  But MyInfo doesn’t do automatic backups so it may be that the data is less secure.  Searches were still lightning fast and the overall performance did not slow down noticeably.

At the time I reviewed ConnectedText I only tested it with about a thousand notes and experienced no problems, this was my first review.  ConnectedText is one of the programs I continued to use so later I loaded the full set onto it just to see how it would cope.  With the full set of documents ConnectedText became slow in some aspects of its performance.  Searches in ConnectedText slowed down to the point where using the program was difficult, also it sometimes ran out of memory whilst doing a search, I think the search engine (and probably the rest of the program) is only 32 bit.  Also I put an index of documents grouped by author on one of the pages, the rendering of this page slowed down to the point where it was very inconvenient to view.  But to be fair ConnectedText has some very sophisticated facilities and this was using a facility not present in the other note taking programs.

Memo Master performed quite well with about two thousand documents, I did not test it with ten thousand documents.

WhizFolders was another of the programs I continued to use after the review, until I looked at MyInfo which has taken over from it for everyday use.  WhizFolders performed well with one thousand documents but with ten thousand the load and save times were quite long, searches became slow and there was a few seconds delay when adding a new document.

Debrief Notes slowed down considerably with just one thousand documents.  It is not a good program to use for other reasons and no further testing was done but it would probably have slowed down still further if more documents had been added.

LexiCan slowed down to an unacceptable degree with only four hundred documents.  This seemed to be related to the size of the documents.  There would be less slowing with short documents than with large documents.

Essential PIM is my current e-mail program.  I tested it with a thousand documents and it didn’t slow down very much.  I didn’t test it with any more than that and deleted the documents soon after that.  I don’t use this program for note taking but it can generate links so that I can have links to e-mails from MyInfo and ConnectedText.

Personal Knowbase didn’t slow down with a thousand documents but with ten thousand documents the load and save times went up considerably, much more than would be expected.  Once it was running the performance was good, even with ten thousand documents.

Keynote-NF slowed down with only two hundred documents.  With one thousand documents it became unusable.  The slowing seemed to be proportional to the size of the document rather than their number.  A small number of documents containing high resolution images virtually crippled it.

Microsoft OneNote was not tested due to the lack of a bulk import facility.

MyBase slowed down quite noticably with one thousand documents but also there seems to be a physical limit on the size of the database, if you exceed this limit the program crashes.  The limit is approximately 300 megabytes but it may be lower than this.

_______oOo_______

I hope this clears up the point that I was not advocating that people should put all their notes into one file.

Review of Scrivener as a Note Taking program

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

_____________oOo_____________

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

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

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

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

But I digress.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Overall Score  = 42 out of 60

 

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

 

1. Connectivity            =    6

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

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

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

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

 

2. Classification            =    8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

3. Text layout and formatting    =    10

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

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

 

4. A sense of time            =    0

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

 

5. Ease of use            =    9

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

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

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

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

 

6. Visual Appeal            =    9

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

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

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

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

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