Miscellaneous Ramblings

Miscellaneous Ramblings Review

DEVONthink Professional

Charles Moore - 2006.04.04 - Tip Jar

I've been using DEVONthink Personal Edition, and, more recently DEVONthink Professional, as my main information storage and retrieval manager for research data and suchlike for several years now. It's been an impressive piece of software for the most part and has only gotten better with continued development.

If you've never checked out DEVONthink, which you can do for free, it's a document and information manager - a notepad, outliner, scrapbook manager, information manager, freeform database, archive, bookmark manager, and image database, and it also includes a built-in Safari-based Web browser and RSS newsreader.

DEVONthink intelligently stores your text files, PDFs, images, bookmarks, even QuickTime movies and MP3 files, and helps you organize them. A hierarchical filing structure and AI functions for sorting in and finding documents makes it ideal for both keeping a simple notebook and organizing large information collections. DEVONthink Pro is particularly useful if you have a large quantity of information that needs to be cross-referenced, indexed, searched and retrieved - a powerful database without a lot of database geekiness.

Last week, DEVONtechnologies released DEVONthink Professional Edition 1.1, which is now a universal binary (it runs natively on both PowerPC and Intel Macs). The developer claims that version 1.1's overall performance on Intel Macs is up to two times higher than on current PowerPC machines. That's good news, because while I love DEVONthink Pro, it's a tad sluggish - even on my 1.33 GHz PowerBook with 1.5 GB of RAM.

I haven't tested it on an Intel Mac, but if you're fortunate enough to have one, it sounds like the performance boost with this application is substantial.

searchBesides optimization for Intel processors, DEVONthink Professional 1.1 comes with a number of enhancements that make it easier to use, including removal of some unnecessary preferences, simplified import options, and a redesigned search dialog window that I like much better than the old one.

Import

In previous versions, while available import options were extremely flexible, they could also be confusing. Version 1.1 cuts them down to importing and indexing, and it cleans up the various import preferences for different file types. "Alone this simplification helps making importing files into the database less error-prone and flattens the learning curve for new users," says Eric Boehnisch-Volkmann, President of DEVONtechnologies.

Because of changes obligated by the Intel transition, DEVONthink Professional 1.1 also uses systemwide proxy settings and a more sophisticated download manager. Indexed documents are compatible with the phrase and wildcard search, and the reliability of synchronizing documents in the database with files in the file system is claimed to have been heavily improved.

Automation

DEVONthink Professional 1.1 also delivers a number of new automation scripts as well as updates for existing scripts and Automator workflows. The scripting support in general has been extended, and the PDF Services as well as mail import scripts are more reliable.

There have also been dozens of detail enhancements, such as nicer indicators for locked items, indexed items, and items with attached scripts, or more contextual menu commands. The "See Selected Text" command is more precise, localizations have been updated, and databases have to be optimized less often. Also, the overall compatibility as well as the performance have been improved and some minor bugs fixed.

DEVONthink Professional 1.1 imports complete Apple Mail or Microsoft Entourage mailboxes, including all sub-mailboxes, while recreating the original mailbox structure within the database, making the program a versatile email archiving tool for major email applications: Apple Mail, Microsoft Entourage, Bare Bones Mailsmith, Eudora, and PowerMail.

Appearance and user interface functions-wise, DEVONthink Professional is pretty similar to the Personal Edition. Upon first startup after installation, DEVONthink Professional automatically imported and assimilated my existing DEVONthink archive files, making this switch to the more powerful program no hassle at all.

New Documents

One of the slickest features of DEVONthink (either edition, as well as the companion "light" DEVONnote application), is that you can create a new document in your database simply by selecting a block of text in another Services-savvy program, such as a browser or word processor, and export it into any of the DEVON applications via the Services menu command, which gives you the option of RTF or plain text. You can also append a subsequent selection to the last created document.

I use this feature a lot. My only major criticism is that it would be nice to be able to name the new document rather than having DEVONthink use the first few words as the title. In that context, a naming dialog when you create a new document in DEVONthink itself would be a big convenience, perhaps as a contextual menu option. This isn't a big deal, but one of the few niggles I have with the way this program works.

Actually, DEVONthink Personal Edition is capable of a lot more than I require of it for my needs, and in that sense the Professional Edition is sort of gilding the lily, as it were.

DEVONthink Professional has Automator support offering 14 actions and 10 sample workflows that demonstrate their possibilities using Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger's automation tool for creating workflows and to integrate DEVONthink Professional with other applications, the Internet, or the iPod.

An AppleScript droplet converts AppleWorks 6 documents for DEVONthink Professional, three new scripts import complete mailboxes from Apple Mail and Microsoft Entourage and copy emails from PowerMail to the database. The Microsoft Entourage scripts also import only short headers now, and all scripts have been overhauled for compatibility and performance.

Compiled scripts and Automator workflows can be added to the script menu making it even easier to extend DEVONthink Professional's functionality.

Multiple Databases

DEVONthink Professional handles multiple databases instead of everything being stored in just one, as with Personal Edition, allowing users to split up their information collection into several smaller databases for specific projects. Databases are simply packages and can be copied, emailed, and backed up like any other file or folder. However, only one database can be open at a time, and in order to switch databases, you have to quit the one that you are in, and then find and start up the other one using a menu selection and dialog box. This is a pain - and something for the developers to work on for the next update.

A data type area records and sheets which hold table-like data like reference lists, information collections, or any other type of structured data. Unlike spreadsheets, sheets and records combine the database-oriented approach of records with a comfortable table-like view for easy entering and managing structured data.

DEVONthink

Structure

Data management and structuring is one of DEVONthink's strong suits. As well as data stored originally in DEVONthink, you can import documents archived on your hard drive (which remain untouched in their original location, but are indexed or copied into the DEVONthink database). This can be done manually or just drag a folder (say, your Documents Folder) into the DEVONthink window to let the program do its stuff.

DEVONthink classifies data into "groups" of documents sharing a common focus or theme. You can create groups yourself and manually drag or transfer documents into them. Groups appear in the DEVONthink interface as folders and function pretty much similarly to the Mac OS Finder's folders.

likely groupsWhen you open a document in the DEVONthink window, a Classify button will appear, which, when clicked, opens a drawer offering suggestions of likely groups into which you might want to move the document. A bar graph icon appears next to each group suggestion with longer lines denoting higher thematic relevance.

To move a document into a group, choose one of the suggestions from the list in the drawer (I find that DEVONthink's judgment is amazingly good, and most often it will be the top suggestion that is appropriate) and click the Move button. The document will disappear from where it was and show up in the target group's directory.

Smart

menuThere is also an Auto Group command under the Data menu, which uses the same sort of logic to put a random batch of files into some kind of order. A particular document can belong to more than one group. Right- or control-click a document, and one of the selections that appears in the contextual menu is: "Replicate to..." which creates an identical copy of your document and deposits it in the group you specify. The replicant document will henceforth mirror the original if the original is edited or changed, and vice versa. In other words, replicants are synchronized copies of their originals.

Another of DEVONthink's major virtues is its fast and powerful search engine, now with the improved interface, which can be configured in a variety of search options. In my estimation, it works the way Spotlight should, and it is integrated with Spotlight searches.

Websites

There is a download manager for downloading complete websites and storing them for offline editing and browsing in the database, as well as the possibility to save single pages as Mac OS X standard "webarchives". Webarchives can be edited in WYSIWYG directly in DEVONthink Professional.

The built-in Safari-based web browser handles RSS, RDF, RSD, and Atom news feeds, effectively making DEVONthink Professional a news reader and aggregator.

DEVONthink Professional supports more file formats than the Personal edition and comes with new import/export plug-ins. In addition to text files, rich text, Microsoft Word documents, HTML/XML, webarchives, PDFs and PostScript files, images, movies and MP3s, DEVONthink Professional exchanges data with OmniOutliner, all OPML compliant applications, BibTeX, iData 2, and the Mac OS X Address Book.

AppleScripts further integrate it with email applications such as Apple Mail, Microsoft Entourage, Bare Bones Mailsmith, Qualcomm Eudora, and PowerMail. The new website export plugin lets users publish information from DEVONthink readily prepared for their homepage, and an iPod export plugin converts selected documents for viewing on-the-go.

No other application on the Mac has ever been so open for all kind of standard file formats.

The convenience of DEVONthink's ability to quickly open MS Word documents with formatting intact simply by dragging them to the DEVONthink icon the Dock can't be overemphasized for users who don't have Word itself on their hard drives. For that matter, even if you do have Word, you get to see your document faster by opening it in DEVONthink (if the latter is already open, which it almost always is on my Mac) than waiting for Word to lumber into action.

Options

Other features include full screen mode, which allows the user to write and browse without any interface clutter, the Mail-like three panes view for easy navigation, and two Dashboard widgets for searching the database and for quickly jotting down notes in DEVONthink Professional.

DEVONjot Pro widgetThe DEVONjot Pro widget allows you to take notes and export them to DEVONthink Professional. It can be configured to send the note to a particular database and group.

On the front side of the widget is a field where you can type your message. Devon notes that because of a peculiarity of the current WebKit from Apple, you can only start typing after you click in the upper left corner of the widget if there is no insertion caret visible.

The area with the "Warning" or "Error" icon will indicate if you can take your note. Or if something went wrong when you clicked the "Take Note" button it will show an "Error" icon. If you hover your mouse over these icons, you can see the exact message on the screen.

If your note was stored successfully in the application, it would have been erased from the widget to make space for a new one. All the onscreen information is preserved even if you leave Dashboard, as long as you don't close the widget.

You can flip the widget by clicking the "i" button that appears when you move the mouse into the lower right corner of the widget. The back side contains some preferences that you can use to customize DEVONjot Pro to your needs.

DEVONsearch widgetThe DEVONsearch widget allows you to search your DEVONthink Professional database directly from Dashboard. The widget lists all results and shows a preview in a drawer.

On the front side of the widget you can enter your search term into the search field and click the DEVONthink Professional icon to start the search run. If DEVONthink Professional isn't running, it will be opened. The result list include the name of the found documents and the score.

Scroll through the results and select them to open a preview drawer. Click the yellow up arrow to close the drawer.

You can flip the widget by clicking the "i" button that appears when you move the mouse into the upper right corner of the widget. The back side contains some preferences that you can use to customize DEVONsearch to your needs.

Websites

To view a web page in DEVONthink , you have first to create a URL document ("Data > New > Link"). Then name the new document with the URL (with or without http://). The naming is done in the left window column list, which is less than intuitive and not terribly convenient. Alternatively, drag any Internet location file from the Finder or bookmark from Safari into the DEVONthink browser or onto the DEVONthink icon in the Dock.

view a web page in DEVONthink

As soon as you select a link document, DEVONthink will start to load the website in the preview pane (in horizontal or vertical split view). A progress indicator will appear in the status bar. You can also double-click it to open the page in a separate window or use the contextual menu to open it in an external browser.

As in Safari, you can navigate back and forth through all visited web pages using the back and forward buttons in the status bar, stop loading with the "X" button, and reload the page with the round arrow button.

Selecting the URL in the status bar or option/command-clicking a link opens the current or linked page in your default browser (e.g. Safari).

However, to make this feature really appropriate for routine use, there should be a one-click command to create a Web page document with a conventional URL field - and preferably tabs. There is also no bookmarks function, although it is possible to create one manually by making a folder full of URL links.

If you enter a URL as the name for a new link, DEVONnote automatically sets the URL of the item, too. Create a link, enter "www.apple.com" - that's it.

Via the contextual menu you can grab complete web pages or frames and store them as separate RTF or HTML contents in the DEVONthink database. Depending on where you're opening the contextual menu or if you have text selected, various options appear: "Capture Note", "Capture Page", "Capture Frame", "Capture Image", or "Capture Link". They are all context-sensitive - they appear only when applicable.

You can also just grab the page's location. Control-click the page background and select "Copy page location to clipboard" to copy the URL of the page you are viewing to the clipboard. This also works for images, frames, and links. You can then rename the generated link document or use the contextual menu or "Action" menu command "Set Title As" to rename the document to any piece of selected text.

Unlimited

DEVONthink Professional has no restriction on the number of PDFs and images in the database, and it comes with both a comprehensive tutorial written completely in DEVONthink Professional itself and a complete documentation as online help and downloadable PDF.

DEVONthink

DEVONthink Pro is a wonderful tool, although I would prefer to have a more comprehensive set of text editing tools and an Applescript menu dedicated exclusively to text editing with configurable keyboard shortcuts, similar to the one in Tex Edit Plus. Also, one annoyance is that some standard Mac keyboard shortcuts, such as F4 for Paste or F3 for Copy, aren't supported in DEVONthink's word processor.

DEVONthink is a Mac-only application, and it's tightly integrated with the operating system and its frameworks. It provides a Dock menu and the aforementioned Services menu commands, and it makes heavy use of the Safari Web browser engine and advanced PDF library of Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger.

If you work with a large amounts of information that you need to frequently search and reference, you will probably find DEVONthink Pro worth the cost of admission. For users with less stringent information management needs, DEVONthink personal edition or DEVONnote, which is amazingly powerful for US$20 shareware, could well do the job for you.

However neither of the lower-priced applications include the widget support, and the widgets are pretty cool.

System requirements: DEVONthink Professional 1.1 requires Mac OS X 10.3.9 or Mac OS X 10.4 "Tiger". It is immediately available as a free demo download.

DEVONthink Professional must be purchased for US$79.95 after the evaluation period of 150 hours of noncontinuous runtime. DEVONthink Professional is also available together with DEVONagent as the "Infoworker's Pro Bundle" for US$99.95. LEM

Link: DEVONthink

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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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