They must often change,
who would be constant in happiness or wisdom.
I have made a major change in the way I deal with my (now > 9000) ideas. I have switched from a DokuWiki to DEVONthink. Unless something unacceptable happens (e.g., losing data), I will continue using it. I have already invested time, effort and money in it and transferred part of my Wiki into it.
So, what’s DEVONthink?
On first glance, it looks like the Finder of Mac OS X. But looks are deceiving. Sure, you can import your files into it and it will display them like a directory, but in truth DEVONthink is a powerful database that helps you to deal with huge amounts of information, with text files, documents, images, anything.
Once you have imported files into DEVONthink you can work with them, and you can do a lot:
- You can tag files easily. DEVONthink uses autocompletion — once you have used a tag for the first time, the second time you write part of the text DEVONthink will make suggestions for autocompletion. It will also point out tags that often appear with the ones you have assigned.
- Files can be grouped, which essentially assigns the same tag to them but makes it look like they are in the same folder. You can prevent DEVONthink from showing these tags (which I do) and simply use them as folders.
- Smart groups are also possible — similar to smart lists in iTunes — based on anything from file name, to tags, to time/date, etc. Very convenient. The scope can also be defined, from the whole database to specific groups. As a lot of ideas/files/documents belong in different folders/to different projects this is a great way to handle this. Simply give a file tags from multiple projects and they appear in the smart groups of all projects whose tag they have.
- DEVONthink identifies duplicates — not regarding the file name (this doesn’t faze DEVONthink and it treats these files differently) but regarding content. Very convenient when they are displayed in a smart group.
- Easily the most impressive thing is DEVONthink pseudo-intelligence. It makes suggestions where files could be sorted to, it can show documents that are related to the current document regarding the content, and much, much more.
- The search function allows a detailed yet easy search of the content. Much better than spotlight.
- DEVONthink supports replicants (think file aliases). You can replicate files into different folders (groups) and when you change the content of one of these files, all the other files change as well.
- While doing all this DEVONthink doesn’t send the processor (and the fans) into breakdown. Even when importing huge amounts of files it stayed cool, never going beyond acceptable levels in processor load.
There are a lot of other things DEVONthink can do, including scanning and much, much more.
Other useful aspects
There are also two things that are quite helpful — the sorter and the dashboard widget.
- The Sorter looks like a bunch of drawers that’s on the side of your desktop. You can assign any folder (group) to this drawer and when you drag a file onto it, the file gets imported into that folder (group) in DEVONthink. Very convenient. You can also make notes with it, which are also imported into DEVONthink, either as text files or rich text files. Tags can also be assigned, although autocompletion works different here. Pressing enter while having partly written the tag creates a new one with that part. Unfortunately, the sorter vanishes after a note.
- The Dashboard Widget also allows you to create notes — only as text files. It also allows you to assign tags. Very convenient if you want to jot down something while working. Unfortunately, the Dashboard Widget vanishes after a note (which makes sense but is inconvenient, if you want to do more than one note). While the Widget can be used while DEVONthink is not currently running, it will start it when you save the note. A solutions that places the notes in a direction that gets imported when DEVONthink is running later would have been better.
Things that are not so good
Of course, not everything is perfect. The main issues I have with DEVONthink are:
- Backups are large. Given that you save the whole database, Time Machine Backups have become larger. Nothing unwieldy (a few GB — which is nothing, even considering that I grew up in a time where 640K was still an issue) but it’s noticeable.
- The folder structure is strange. You can create something in the database itself but it is not in any folder (or group). You don’t see it in the Inbox and it’s only visible if you choose a database but not any folder in it.
- Tags use autocompletion, but a nice tag window like the one in Aperture is missing. There is also no way to sort tags hierarchically.
- You chain yourself to the Mac and to DEVONthink. However, you can export your files, DEVONthink is not a data island. You might lose your tags (keywords) and some structure, but you get your information out. Given it’s strong support for Apple Script, exporting shouldn’t be a problem.
- It costs you money — there are different products (which is another disadvantage). I choose DEVONthink Pro Office as I rather have features that I do not need than working with a crippled product. You find an overview of the different versions here.
- The content windows (showing the content of the file you have selected) are not updated when switching databases (only when you click on something). Nothing wild, but strange.
However, the greatest problem is that it is not that user friendly. I think they say in their product video that it might appear confusing at times (uh-oh!), and if you do not grasp the concept and have a clear idea how you want to use it, it might overwhelm you. It is very powerful but you need to have a structure in mind how to sort your information, how to deal with them.
And DEVONthink doesn’t make it easy for you, for example, their handbook starts with release notes that aren’t of interest. I got the impression that they are hiding their light under a bushel or do not know how to convey in simple terms what DEVONthink can do for the user, how it should be wielded.
The software allows you to deal with an insane amount of information but like the problem they have created their product for, they fail to convey the big picture. It loses itself in the details. And while DEVONthink can be used for almost any purpose, a simple test database would have been nice just to see how one can work with it.
Two things are missing which would make DEVONthink more useful for me. It’s not implemented but I think that it would be a very nice and useful addition to DEVONthink:
- Outlines. You can create text and rich text files (and some other things like URLs, Tables, etc.) but there is no support for outlines. Which is a shame, outlines in the style of Circus Ponies Notebook or Omni Outliner are extremely useful and the best way to structure almost any kind of information before you go to the actual writing. I’m not talking about Microsoft Words outline-like view with header functions but a real outliner. Well, no matter, I can still use Circus Ponies Notebook — and I do, for example, for writing this posting.
- Connecting an image/video/audio file with text other than grouping it. When you import images, videos or audio files, you can enter Spotlight Comments. However, I like to make notes in text files. It would be nice if one could assign a text file directly to another file, e.g., an image. It would also be useful for comments about articles I read (usually PDFs). These are also text or rich text files and while I can give them the same name as the PDF (authorNames_YEAR) having to deal with both separately is somewhat inconvenient.
Mobile Version: “DEVONthink to go” (or rather: no go)
DEVONthink also offers a mobile version for iOS (“DEVONthink to go”). I tried out the iPhone version (which is rather expensive) and was disappointed. You need to be in the same network as your Mac to sync information and you have to move the files you want to sync into a special folder of the database (or create a duplicate or replicant in it). Very, very inconvenient and absolutely of no use for me (it also takes you 3 clicks to sync, interrupted by a slow flip view animation).
I’d expected being able to tag files that should be synced but not luck. Perhaps with iCloud some improvements will come. Until then it’s “DEVONthink no go” for me. A shame because it has a huge potential.
Despite these drawbacks and missing aspects DEVONthink is an incredible piece of software. In the next posting I’ll go into more depth why I did change from a DokuWiki to DEVONthink, followed by a posting about doing literature research and reading with DEVONthink.