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Delve into DEVONthink

by Giles Turnbull
08/26/2005

I first noticed the buzz surrounding DEVONthink way back when I was putting together my "Outboard Brains for OS X" article back in 2003.

Several people mentioned it as a worthy kind of snippet archiver, one that offered unique features. I did try it out, but like other newcomers to the software, my first attempt left me feeling a little nonplussed. I couldn't see the usefulness.

Then earlier this year, author Steven Berlin Johnson wrote a widely linked and oft-cited weblog post about how he made use of DEVONthink as a reading and research tool. By throwing enormous amounts of data into it, he was able to make best possible use of the application's built-in semantic searching and cross-referencing. The result was that DEVONthink made suggestions and links between materials that Johnson could never have spotted himself; it actually did some of his research for him.

This kind of endorsement sparked a lot of interest in the software. The buzz really took off, and over time it metamorphosed into speculation as to what shape the next version of DEVONthink would take.

Now the world of productivity geeks is turning a thoughtful eye toward Devon Technologies, following the release of DEVONthink Professional 1.0.

For a couple of weeks, a beta version of this application was available as a free trial, something that has prompted a lot of people to download it and experiment. Initial reports were varied, but some users said the new features and Tiger-specific technologies make it a very exciting release.

So here, for the uninitiated and the unenlightened, we present a guided tour of DEVONthink Professional. Our guide is based on the beta version, so some features may have been changed in the final release. What does this app offer and how does it work? More importantly, why are some people so buzzed up about it? Come with me, and I'll show you.

Getting Started

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One thing that can leave people flummoxed when they first use DEVONthink is that, on starting it for the first time, there's not much to see. The standard view offers a toolbar at the top, a folder hierarchy on the left, and a large viewing/editing window dominating the screen--which on initial start is empty.

The best way to think of DEVONthink is as a database for the rest of your stuff. It's empty because, right now, it doesn't know where your stuff is. You just need to tell it.

The simplest way to do this is to tell DEVONthink to import your documents; just drag your Documents folder into the window and sit back while the application builds a database of all of your information. DEVONthink indexes everything you throw into it, building up a map of the content of the files and their metadata.

But as well as being a database environment for viewing what you've already created, DEVONthink makes a very good editing environment for creating new stuff. With built-in RTF, plain text, and HTML editing smarts, it becomes a very capable and helpful writing tool. Best of all, it makes connections between what you're writing and the rest of your database, while you are writing.

One of DEVONthink Pro's most important new features is the ability to manage multiple databases (in previous versions, everything had to be stored inside of just one). Unfortunately, only one of those databases can be open at any time. Should you wish to switch to another, DEVONthink saves everything in the first one and closes it first. This might be frustrating if you often intend to move data from one database to another.

While DEVONthink's viewing panes can be rearranged in many ways and dragged around to suit your monitor settings and the way your eyes work, the simple concept is that the app always offers a view of the files currently being used, searched, or indexed, and a view of the one file that is the current focus of your attention.

There's one further thing, a feature unique to DEVONthink. At the bottom of the window are two buttons marked See Also and Classify. These are essential to DEVONthink's success as a personal database, since they are the controls used to find, or create, connections between different documents. We shall look at them in more detail later in this article.

Once you've dragged some documents into DEVONthink, it's time to start exploring what it can do.

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