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Outboard Brains for Mac OS X

by Giles Turnbull
08/05/2003

Anyone who has read the Harry Potter stories will probably have stumbled across a magical device employed by Harry's headmaster, Professor Dumbledore. It's called a Pensieve, and it's used to store memories. Dumbledore periodically points his magic wand to the side of his head, sucks out a thought, and dumps it in the Pensieve so he can look at it again later.

The Pensieve, he tells Harry, helps him spot patterns and links between pieces of information, as well as acting as an all-purpose memory archiver. Wouldn't you just love a piece of software that did that?

Before you rush off to find your way to Hogwarts School, take some time to consider some of the brain assistants that already exist. This article is going to take a brief look at some applications designed to be digital brain-dumps; electronic Pensieves into which you can throw any information you want, knowing that it will still be there when you need it later.

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What Should a Brain Offer?

We're not going to be too restrictive here, because that might seriously limit the choices we have of applications worth looking at. But let's say that a Mac user's electronic brain needs to be able to store the basics: text and images, perhaps URLs and addresses.

Adding new data must be blissfully simple. Consider the likely usage of a secondary brain: most people will want to throw things into it quickly, probably while doing another task elsewhere. Multiple clicks is a no-no, as is having to open new windows or begin new database fields. It should be as simple as cut and paste or drag and drop.

Having put all that stuff in there, people have to be able to find it again. A built-in search is probably a good idea, but we're not going to insist on it. If there's no search, it should still be a trivial task to find stuff again; again, because the brain is likely to be in use in the background, visited briefly while the important work is being done in another application.

For that reason, it's probably a good idea if our chosen brain doesn't draw a lot of CPU cycles while it's running. And, since it's going to be an important place to store things, it should either back itself up or offer a simple means of doing so.

That's our starting point established. So what's out there?

Getting Sticky

The obvious starting point is Mac OS X's very own built-in Stickies app (see Figure 1). A sticky note is easily created (there's a system-wide Service shortcut, Shift-Command-Y, for adding selected text to a new note), and its appearance is configurable.

Stickies works because it is simple, but simplicity means limitations. Notes are either visible or hidden, so it's all-or-nothing. If you created hundreds of them, finding what you wanted could become difficult. You can use the provided Find utility, but that's not going to be the best solution if there's a lot of information.

Figure 1: Stickies, supplied with Mac OS X
Figure 1: Stickies, supplied with Mac OS X

There are other sticky-style applications, though, that offer more power and flexibility than the one that comes with Mac OS X. Gramotki, for example, is a Russian-made replacement for Stickies that offers additional features such as a built-in calendar and the ability to encrypt any note. On the downside, it can't handle images, and offers no instant-note shortcut or Service, so if you're browsing the web and want to add something you've found to Gramotki, it's a case of select, copy, switch to Gramotki, hit Command-N, and paste. A little on the fiddly side for our purposes.

Figure 2: Stickies alternative, Gramotki
Figure 2: Stickies alternative, Gramotki

Stickies on the Brain

StickyBrain takes the sticky concept pretty much as far as it can go. If we're looking for a non-magic-powered Pensieve for Mac OS X, this is starting to look like the right sort of thing.

StickyBrain's best feature is its tight integration with the rest of your computer. Once installed, it adds a couple of items to context menus throughout the system, allowing you to grab data from all sorts of places. In addition, there's a bunch of configurable keyboard shortcuts for adding selected data to the StickyBrain database, even when StickyBrain is not running. This is the point where things start to get really clever.

StickyBrain can be used just like the simpler sticky-style applications we've already discussed, but it doesn't have to be. It's easy to change the settings so that it behaves more like an information box, an electronic in tray where you can dump anything that interests you.

Using StickyBrain this way opens up new ways of accessing the information. Having built up a couple of hundred notes (and StickyBrain comes with all sorts of useful pages of information, like conversion tables, pre-added for you) there's no need to go pecking around to find the one you're after. Instead, StickyBrain offers what it calls the "Sticky Browser", a very simple overview of everything that you've stored with the program (see Figure 3)

You can simple scroll down through the browser's window, which sorts all notes according to when they were created, last modified, or alphabetically by title. Better still, type in a few words and the browser displays search results instead of the full list. Searching is swift and efficient.

Figure 3: StickyBrain's browser window
Figure 3: StickyBrain's browser window

Just because it has "Sticky" in its name, there's no reason to consider StickyBrain as merely an alternative to other sticky note applications. For one thing, it can be configured to look quite different, for example, just like a database of text documents (see Figure 4); and for another, it works in a completely different way. You don't even have to see StickyBrain when you want to store something in it, and that's a powerful feature that makes it a lot more like a brain than a replacement for a piece of paper.

Figure 4: StickyBrain's notes
Figure 4: StickyBrain's notes (click for larger image)

StickyBrain has a lot of other features too. Notes can be allocated to various categories, each with its own adjustable settings. They can be made private, trigger alarms, and become to-do lists. The app also backs up all stored data automatically. This is starting to look like a Pensieve.

But Wait, There's More

StickyBrain's only drawback is that it costs just under 40 dollars, which isn't a lot of money for what it offers, but for some people even that is too much. Are there any cheaper alternatives? Well, sort of.

Xnippets (Figure 5) is a free open source application for storing, well, snippets of stuff. It lacks the feature set of StickyBrain, but some people might consider that a good thing. It operates in almost Zen-like simplicity.

Figure 5: Xnippets note recorder
Figure 5: Xnippets note recorder

A Service menu item or keyboard shortcut (Command-Shift-() adds selected text to a new Xnippet, but Xnippets has to be running and will bring itself to the foreground while it adds the new item. The main window shows the most recent Xnippet, and a drawer lists all Xnippets. They can be grouped into folders if required.

Xnippets is limited (you can't put an image in a Xnippet) but its delightful simplicity might appeal to some. It costs 15 dollars to remove the 40-Xnippet limit in place when you download.

Brains Plus

For really serious users of electronic brains, there are a couple of other contenders for the crown that offer a lot more than organizing of text, images, and files.

NoteTaker has made quite a splash recently, attracting positive comments for its clever design. While the imitation-notebook look (see Figure 6) might not suit everyone, NoteTaker is a very capable program that hides a sophisticated database.

NoteTaker's unique interface
Figure 6. NoteTaker's unique interface

It goes beyond the other programs mentioned here in that you can throw almost any kind of content into a NoteTaker page. Fling a file in, or record audio through your Mac's microphone and embed it directly into a note. It's powerful, but you have to pay for power. A license costs just under 70 dollars. NoteBook is a very similar application, available for about 20 dollars less.

Tinderbox has an almost cult following. While it makes more demands of users and has a steeper learning curve than other apps we've covered, it's also a lot more powerful. It has "agents" that can act on user-defined criteria to make things happen to data. Tinderbox notes can be categorized, posted to a weblog, and searched very simply. It's a great brain helper, but at 140 dollars, by far the most expensive piece of software covered here. Fans would no doubt argue that you get what you pay for.

We've only given these last few a brief mention because they all, in an ideal world, deserve an article in their own right, and we just don't have the space in this piece to cover them in detail.

For me, StickyBrain stands out as pretty much the closest thing you can get to Dumbledore's Pensieve on a computer running OS X. It's very reasonably priced, given what it offers. No magic required.

Giles Turnbull is a freelance writer and editor. He has been writing on and about the Internet since 1997. He has a web site at http://gilest.org.


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