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Critical View of Devon Think - or the Emperor Is Missing Some Clothes

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Posted by Daly de Gagne
Sep 2, 2010 at 04:19 AM


My recent - and temporary - foray into the Mac world has left me convinced the Mac coasts on its laurels and is oversold, at least in terms of its information/outliner programs. Whatever complaints I have had about PC software paled in comparison to how I could kvetch about Mac software with grandiose claims.

My return to the PC world, on a fairly good mid-range ASUS laptop, has not disappointed me. I like Windows 7 - it is not perfect, but it has some neat features.

During my 10 days in Jobs Land, DevonThink was one of the few, if not the only, programs I would have wanted to keep. Yet aspects of it seem rough around the edges. In fact, given the edge Mac with GUI, it seems ironic that some of the programs are so crudely rendered and executed. But DT was a program I might have been interested in playing around with some more.

Anyhow, by following some links on a post of Manfred’s on another thread, I was taken to his blog - http://takingnotenow.blogspot.com/search/label/Outliner - and then a critical review of DevonThink on another blog.

I recommend the article - and think it gets at some of the issues both with DT and other Mac software.

Here’s the url: http://dougist.com/2009/02/dating-devonthink/



Posted by Harlander
Sep 2, 2010 at 11:28 AM


So, what does he criticise?

“Now I?m starting to wonder. DEVONThink is an application best described as inattentive to its appearance. It is messy in the way it interacts with others and is more worried about the mad scientist, artificial intelligence core of the program than in adding any real value to how users create or manage data.”

I have to say I don’t quite follow here. I think most parts of DevonThink are quite accessible and comprehensible, at least I haven’t had any difficulties finding what I was searching for in terms of appearance… Interaction with other programs is messy? What does that mean? Getting things into or out of DevonThink is easy, integration with other programs just fine and mostly just one click or drag-and-drop away. And the “mad scientist” inside makes it easy to find related stuff. So I think there is indeed some real value in it.

“A web buddy of mine, who also searched for another after her Journler romance failed, called DEVONThink ?realy, um?. German.? She was right. DT is rigid in its requirements and often sports a bad haircut. You get the idea.” -“It was this Arian capacity for endurance that seduced me to DT.”

Wow, what an unbelievable sense of humour.

“But the better question is what do these apps do for you that the file system doesn?t? If there is no work being done by the application then it is just an additional layer of code that will eventual corrupt or become obsolete (Anyone here ever use Ecco Pro back in the 90?s? I bet your data is lost too.)”

With DevonThink you can create, structure and search data in numerous ways. You can work with many different file types, get a concordance of all the words, search for related documents, copy text from various sources right into your notes, split notes, combine notes. You can import them via the sorter, replicate them, duplicate them, just index them etc. Of course, some of these things can be achieved by just using Spotlight, Aliases and a folder structure - but not all of them. And not in an integrated environment. As for the question whether your data is lost in DevonThink - no. All files are accessible from the finder.

He goes on that DevonThink does no tagging (as of Feb 2009). Which is not true any more. So, yes, you can tag whatever you want, though it is still in its early stages.

“It doesn?t have a common view of multiple folders.” - That’s right.
“It is more cumbersome to use than directly editing Spotlight comments.” - No. Just click on “info” and you can edit your spotlight comments.
“The text editor is forlorn. ” - No. It’s just the standard editor. If you want more, use a Word Processor. That’s why they exist.
“For some bizarre reason shortcuts (which they call replicas) are always labeled red.” Well, some people might like to see there replicas at once. If you don’t like it, just turn it off.
“Wiki links do not open in their own window.” They do.
“Tabs look like they are from the 1990?s, refuse to open in a separate window, and resist any reorganization.” He’s right on that.
“Labels are written to exported files but are not included in imports.” Maybe. I have never used labels.
“Dozens of keystrokes have to be modified to match standard OS X functionality.” No.
“Labels sort alphabetically by label name”. I don’t know what he’s talking about. You can sort your data by whatever you like. Does he really want to sort the labels themselves? Strange, as you can only have a dozen of them.
” File metadata is not accessible or searchable, and dates are considered sacrosanct, not editable except by a ?who knows if it will be there tomorrow? script.” True. But that’s also true for most applications. By the way, metadata can be a search criterion, you just have to use the advanced find window…
“The scripts just help overcome the deficiencies of an introverted application.” Scripts are a part of OS X and some programs make use of them and let users create new ones. So does DevonThink. That’s not “sloppy programming”, that’s extendability.

So, where are the valid points? I haven’t found any. Some quirks, that are minor to me, might of course be a great thing for others. But the core functionality just works as it should. If the author’s needs are different, maybe he should just use a different program. How about Tinderbox? ;-)



Posted by Harlander
Sep 2, 2010 at 11:29 AM


I wrote “there replicas” - it should be “their replicas”. Sorry.


Posted by Daly de Gagne
Sep 2, 2010 at 01:32 PM


As Harlander has noted, the review was dated, and so did not mention that DevonThink now has tagging capabilities.



Posted by Stephen Zeoli
Sep 2, 2010 at 01:36 PM


We all know there is no perfect application—that holy grail of PIMs we are all searching for. There are certainly valid criticisms that can be made of DevonThink. But if I could have an exact version of DT on my PC, I’d take it in a second over any other Windows application. And I say that as a fan of MyInfo and Zoot and OneNote. This is not to say that it does everything better than those applications. But all in all it is, in my opinion of course, a fuller, more useful application. AND, it uses a pretty standard word processing engine, unlike any of the three Windows apps I’ve just mentioned. Try doing extended selection in any of those applications and you’ll get three different responses. Do it in DevonThink and it behaves just like almost every other Mac Application and most dedicated word processors for Windows.

I know I’ve sounded this drum many times in the past, but I believe it is an important point, especially for anyone doing any extensive writing in these programs. The editors should behave in a standard way. Like it or not, the standard way has been set by Word (for the record, I think it is a pretty good standard). If I have to stop and think about how I use extended selection—or if any kind of extended selection is even supported—it breaks my concentration on my work. As an example, say you’ve written a paragraph and decide that the third sentence is really a better lead than the original, so you want to move it. With standard extended selection, you just double click on the first word of the sentence you want to move and drag to the end of that sentence—the editor scoops up words in full. Now just cut and paste it where you want it to go. Without extended selection (and the way in which MyInfo and OneNote work), you have to carefully place the cursor in front of the first word—oh, but don’t get that leading space—then drag to the end. Of course, this isn’t the worst thing in the world, but I find that when I have to do this, it pulls me right out of my thinking process, because I’ve got to concentrate on placing that cursor in just the correct spot. It’s annoying and really unnecessary.

One of the benefits of my Mac book is that almost all of the applications use the same editor. So writing in DevonThink or Scrivener or VoodooPad or MacJournal feels exactly the same. Perhaps this isn’t the most powerful of word processors, but in making notes and first drafts, I don’t need a powerful word processor. I just need something that’s easy to use. I can always export to Pages or Mellel for final primping of the text if need be.



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