A very quick introduction to DEVONthink

That which is striking and beautiful is not always good, but that which is good is always beautiful.
Ninon de L’Enclos

I have written some postings about DEVONthink, usually long and complex. But you can’t use something efficiently until you have understood what it is, so here is my very quick take on DEVONthink, without consulting Instruction Manuals, How-Tos and the like:

All computer users are familiar with files and folders. It’s a nice metaphor, it works, but it has some downsides. In the following I list a few of these downsides and the ways in which DEVONthink addresses them to help you in your work:

  • You quickly lose track whether you already have saved the file before, e.g., when downloading something, especially images, documents, etc.
    DEVONthink automatically recognizes duplicates. If you put two files with the same content into DEVONthink, it will mark both files in blue and they appear in a smart group called duplicates. The file name and date do not matter here, it looks at the content itself — which is what matters.
  • A file can only be in one folder — it’s the bureaucratic mentality which works for some tasks. But in many cases you need files in different places — one image, for example, can be relevant for multiple projects, one data file with your results might belong to multiple articles, etc. You can use aliases/file links, but they are inconvenient to use. Tags are not supported.
    DEVONthink offers replicants. They are similar to Aliases but can be created easily and there is no “original” and “link” distinction. Both files you see in DEVONthink are the “original” and what you do with one file is also done in each of its replicants.
    DEVONthink also allows you to easily tag files. You can create smart groups based on a tag or any combination of tags. For example, you might tag documents as “important for project x” and “not finished” and have a smart group display you all documents that are “important for project x” and “not finished”. This is really helpful for images, for example, an image can be both “Street Photography” and “Animals”, so in which folder would it belong to? With DEVONthink you assign the tags “Street Photography” and “Animals” and have two smart groups, one with “Street Photography” and the other with “Animals” based on whether the tag is assigned to an image, and it will appear in both.
  • Searching for files is usually difficult — you can go for the file name, the content if you want to invest time, the date. But you cannot ‘tag’ a file or folder with, for example, “relevant for project x”.
    DEVONthink has a very sophisticated search window where you can search for content, names, tags, etc., including different combinations of those. Something that is introduced in Mail for Mac OS Lion is already available in DEVONthink for your files today.
  • File names (incl. the extension like .jpg or .docx) are used to identify files. You cannot have files with the same name in the same folder. One file overwrites the other. What makes sense in storing gets unnecessarily complicated if you are sorting your stuff or using the content (e.g., the image itself) to select files.
    DEVONthink manages the files and puts them in a folder structure that you never come in contact with (unless you want to). This is a huge advantage as it allows you to put a lot of files into one group and sort them there. It doesn’t matter if multiple files have the same name, which makes sorting really easy and quick. You deal with the information, DEVONthink deals with the structure on the hard disk.
  • At least in Mac OS X, the finder isn’t really useful. Whether it’s as Icons, Lists, Columns or Cover Flow, it’s harder to deal with the files and folders than with Explorer in Windows — and that’s saying something.
    DEVONthink offers multiple views, including a very helpful “as Three Panes” view, where you see your folder structure on the left, the content of the group you have selected on the top right, and the content of the selected file on the bottom right. Very convenient and useful.
  • Additionally, Finder lets you alone with your files. It doesn’t help you. You have a computer with a lot of processing power that is rarely maxed out, but it is not used to show you, for example, which files are related to each other based on their content.
    DEVONthink offers a sophisticated AI (or pseudo-intelligence) that indicates which files are similar. It can help you to quickly classify your material. It does this in an unobtrusive way — if the window is not open, you can work undisturbed, if you open the window, you get information about the file you have selected.
  • And last but not least saving small bits of information is rather complicated with Finder. You have to create a file, save it in the folder where you want to have that information. If I have my project material in one folder and want to jot down a few notes regarding the project it takes an extra step around.
    DEVONthink allows you to quickly create .txt or .rtf files (and to transfer a text file into a rich text file and vice versa with the click of a button). It’s similar to a wiki, you can quickly create files in groups and jot down information. Very useful to make more sense of the files you have in a folder.

So, in short, DEVONthink offers you more options (that matter) to deal with your files, the information you work with every day. Tags, replicants, smart lists, and much, much more. It also gives you more information and ways to make sense of your information.

Personally, I wonder why Apple never bought DEVONthink and integrated their way of dealing with files into Mac OS X. Perhaps because they want our data in an iCloud or favor let-Spotlight-find-it instead of assisting the user to make more sense of his or her data. I don’t know, but I think DEVONthink offers you a brilliant way to deal with your data.

Other Postings about DEVONthink:

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