Miscellaneous Ramblings

DEVONthink, a Powerful Information Collection, Organization, and Analysis Tool

Charles Moore - 2005.02.07 - Tip Jar

DEVONthink is as close to the Mac incarnation of the paperless office as I've yet encountered. It is a notepad, outliner, scrapbook manager, information manager, freeform database, archive, bookmark manager, and image and multimedia database, all in one integrated application for users who need to store a lot of text or image contents they can collect, store, edit, and retrieve efficiently.

DEVONthink intelligently stores and helps organizing all types of data: text or RTF files, PDFs, images, bookmarks - even QuickTime movies and MP3s. Its hierarchical filing structure and AI functions for sorting and finding documents make it ideal both for keeping a simple notebook and organizing large information collections.

You can modify, rename, duplicate, touch, or delete all objects stored in DEVONthink's database. An integrated text and RTF editor features a real-time paragraph/word/character count and many other editing and highlighting functions, from fonts, styles, rulers, and alignments up to find & replace, check spelling, and speak text.

There is even an integrated Safari-based browser that displays Web pages within the DEVONthink workspace.

Emails can be imported using a provided AppleScript, and all documents that DEVONthink does not natively recognize can be "printed" directly into the database from any other application. Any Services savvy application can dump highlighted data directly into DEVONthink without the hassle of cutting and pasting.

Without the need for indexing, DEVONthink fully or semi-automatically classifies elements, lists similar contents and words immediately using fuzzy algorithms, finds and compares text and even images, summarizes texts intelligently, and provides high performance concordance tools.

As a Cocoa application, it's integrated into Mac OS X including its own Services for storing and summarizing text clippings. It provides a Finder-like interface with contextual menus, Dock menus, different views, and drag-and-drop.

DEVONthink works on a "group" metaphor. When you create a new group by checking an icon in the toolbar, a new folder icon appears in the left pane of the interface window. You can then drag files into that group's folder from the Desktop or create new documents in DEVONthink itself to be stored in the database or exported. Documents can be moved among various groups using a contextual menu.

The contents of a group folder are displayed in the right pane when the folder icon is highlighted in the left column. You can click the folders "flippy" triangle to display a list of the folder's contents. Click on a particular document icon in the left pane and it will be displayed in the right pane.

You can drag pictures, text files, HTML, or HML files from the Finder into the browser window or onto the application icon. DEVONthink will import all of the data and store it as contents. It can resolve aliases, scan through packages, and import original files or folders. It accepts any graphics format supported by Cocoa, plain text, text clippings, source codes, RTF, RTFD, SimpleText, and HTML. For images, you can create thumbnails (automatic) and optionally sharpen them for better quality so it's possible to preview and work with images even if the originals are temporarily not available.

browser window

DEVONthink provides the main features of many standard applications such as Finder, Sherlock, Safari, TextEdit, Stickies, Preview, iPhoto, QuickTime Player, and Help Viewer with one consistent, easy-to-use Mac-like interface.

The main purpose of DEVONthink is to collect, store, edit, and retrieve data, so many of the key features address these issues. If you need to file an item in more than one group, you can make a replicant copy using the Content > Replicate command. When you modify a replicant, all copies will be updated. Titles of items with replicants are shown in red in the browser windows. Items with duplicates (same content but different attributes) are shown in blue.

Double click on a document icon when the folder contents are displayed (a handy slider on the toolbar adjusts the icon sizes), and it will open in a separate document window for editing.

document window

Click the "Classify" button, and a drawer with a list of the most appropriate groups will appear. Below the list is an LED rating the quality of the results: red = poor, yellow = quite accurate, green = dead on.

key wordsA popup menu in the lower left corner of the content window displays a list of what DEVONthink considers to be the keywords contained in the displayed content. When you select a keyword from the menu, DEVONthink lists all other contents with the same keywords. Yo activate this feature, click the checkbox on the left hand side of the menu.

concordance windowA "concordance" of the displayed content document appears when you click on the Concordance button and displays a list of statistics in the pop-out drawer about the frequency, length, and weight of every word in the document. You can also get a concordance from the tools menu.

One of the most impressive features of DEVONthink is its fast and powerful search engine. To search for specific contents, use the "search" dialog from the tools menu or the handy field in the toolbar. To broaden your search, you can use the spelling and context buttons to show words with similar spelling or similar context to those you have entered.

You can also use the search field in the browser toolbar. This mode of searching uses the Boolean "or" operator and is case insensitive. All searches can be made exact, case insensitive, or fuzzy (to catch slightly different spellings). Wildcards and Boolean operators are allowed.

Additionally, you can look up similar words or words with similar semantics.

The DEVONthink knowledge base is located in the folder "-/Library/Application Support/DEVONthink/"and separated in a couple of files, all named "DEVONthink -n database". Additional files are collected in the "files" folder. To backup the complete knowledge base, simply copy the whole folder to backup media. A complete backup of the knowledge base is also produced by DEVONthink when you select "Tools > Backup & Compress". This command compresses the knowledge base and writes modifications back to the file system.

Optionally, DEVONthink can write backup copies of its knowledge base files automatically every time you open the application or compress the knowledge base and quit. Configure your preferred option in the preferences.

You can also move your knowledge base back and forth between two locations - for example, your office Mac and your PowerBook. Just copy a complete DEVONthink folder from within "Library/Application Support" to the Application Support folder on another machine or another user folder on the same computer. Activate "To DB folder" or "Into Database" in the import tab in the preferences to copy all image files automatically to the DEVONthink folder or the knowledge base itself when adding them to the knowledge base. The knowledge base size is theoretically unlimited.

You may also store the knowledge base at another location than the Application Support folder if you wish.

Other Features

I've found DEVONthink very convenient for opening Word documents, since I don't use Microsoft Word, but from time to time I receive Word files as attachments.

DEVONthink allows you to set the background color on selected text. Simply select the block of text you want to highlight, choose Tools > Show Colors, check the option box "Background" and select the color of your choice. This is useful for highlighting interesting contents clipped from other data sources like emails or Web pages.

DEVONthink provides its own Dock menu that you can use to open the import dialog windows; create new plain text, RTF, or HTML contents; create new content from the clipboard; and open the search dialog with one click directly from the Dock. You can also use the Services menu to copy selected text into DEVONthink as new content. Just select any text you would like to store and choose Services > DEVONthink > Take Plain Note or "Take Rich Note" from the application's main menu.

DEVONthink 1.9, released last fall, has an overhauled user interface and more than 200 new functions, commands, file formats, and other improvements, one of which is is that it starts up and initializes substantially quicker than version 1.7 did.

icon button clusterThe interface revamp is not terribly dramatic, but is does have a cleaner look and seems more intuitive. There are five optional views that can be selected using an icon button cluster in the button bar. The views are list, icon, column, top browser, and the default left browser.

actions menuAn Actions menu is available via a toolbar button or a Control click contextual menu,

As before, classification of documents for relevance appears in a Cocoa drawer.

The integrated Safari-based browser displays Web pages directly within the DEVONthink workspace. Conceptually, this is very convenient, and the Safari-based browser is fast, but in practice it needs some work and is too cumbersome for regular surfing.

To view a Web page in DEVONthink, you have first to create a URL document ("Content > New > Link"). Then name the new document with the URL (with or without http://). 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.

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.

Like in Safari, you can navigate back and forth through all visited pages using the back and forward arrow 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.

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 (e.g., 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, i.e. 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.

The Web browser in version 1.9 is easier to navigate and supports Java, JavaScript, and plug-ins.


The new preference panel in version 1.9 allows you to configure DEVONthink more easily, but also to modify DEVONthink's behavior to a much wider extent. The preference panel is divided into logical sections, just like System Preferences. Select the section you want to check or modify with the icon at the top of the preferences window.

DEVONthink 1.9.1 allowed you to drag emails from Microsoft Entourage to the database or to take notes, improves compatibility with Apple Mail and Bare Bones MailSmith, and features a completely rewritten zoom mechanism for text and RTF documents.

New in DEVONthink 1.9.2, which was released last week, are a new option to open groups within the current window, support for recently updated DEVONagent 1.5, and a few more QuickTime, XML, and plain text file formats. Also, 1.9.2 has many internal enhancements and kills a few bugs.

DEVONthink is a very nicely conceived and executed desktop database application. It will take a while to get up to speed on how to exploit its power efficiently (I'm not quite there yet after using it for a couple of years), but I think it is worth climbing the learning curve.

My main criticism of DEVONthink is that as the application has become more powerful and extensively featured - and probably also as my DEVONthink databases have grown larger - the application noticeably taxes the processor and hard drive speed of my 700 MHz G3 iBook. I suspect this is much less noticeable on more powerful hardware.

Key features:

  • Stores whatever you like, from texts, images, PDF, HTML, and XML over text clippings, iChat logs, scripts and Microsoft Word/RTF files to links
  • Is able to index contents only instead of storing them in the database
  • Integrated browser based on Apple's WebKit ("Safari Engine")
  • Helps you to sort in new stuff ("Classify", "See Also", keywords, etc.)
  • Advanced text editing including rulers, highlighting realtime statistics and display of invisible characters
  • Lightning-fast, intelligent search function
  • User-defined labels
  • Dynamic Wiki-style links and static cross links
  • Built-in outlining capabilities
  • Easy-to-use interface providing Services and a Dock menu
  • Supports Services (like CalcService or WordService)
  • Supports drag-and-drop in both directions

What's unique:

  • Imports and exports Finder comments
  • Captures contents from the built-in browser or from Safari
  • Imports e-mails from Apple Mail
  • Plays QuickTime movies and MP3 files
  • Stores aliases to local files
  • Groups or ungroups documents, organizes them into hierarchies - Works with much more file formats than all alternatives
  • Batch imports and exports data extremely fast
  • Works flawlessly with huge databases ( > 300 MB)
  • Does not need indexing but searches faster than the competition
  • Uses all major features of Mac OS X

DEVONthink 1.9.2 requires Mac OS X 10.2.7 or Mac OS X 10.3 and is available as a free 30 day evaluation from Devon Technologies. It may be purchased for US$40.

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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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