OmniOutliner for iPad Review (updated)

It’s like paper…except it’s nothing like paper at all

OmniOutliner is an outlining app that supports multiple columns, images, and named styles. It isn’t much more than that, for £11.99 is it worth it?

After a couple of weeks of working my ass off to fit OmniOutliner into my workflow as full time designer and full time student who loves outlines, I have given up. OmniOutliner for iPad is UNFINISHED and any praise that you see for it on the Web is not based on real use. There is no good way to transfer outlines from OO into any usable format except OPML for other outliners. You can’t even copy/paste text into a word processor from OO. It’s BLOODY USELESS in the real world. I’m a huge fan of OO on the Mac and other Omni products and think it’s a tragedy that such a great little company can release such a crippled product.

The Good Stuff

Named styles – This is a BIG one. The ability to create, name, and template your styles is absolutely huge. Pages doesn’t even do this and it NEEDS to before it can be taken seriously. I would bet that Omni spent a lot of development time on this in order to get it right.

Basically you can create a style, give it a name, font, size, colour, background colour, and more. You can then specify that children of rows with that style also have a specific style. You can do this ad-infinitum. Very cool!

Colours galore! – Along with style comes colour. Yes, you can colour the text but you can also colour the background of the document as well as individual rows. You can also alternate colours for zebra striping. Yes, you can make some very pretty outlines that don’t even look very much like outlines. You can’t print em or export them in a truly usable format…but they do look pretty!

Multiple columns – Is this a spreadsheet or an outliner? Summary columns, popup menu columns, free-text columns, currency columns, number columns, and checkboxes. What is particularly cool about these columns is that you can resize them without going into a mode and scroll them independent of the first column. This is also something I’m sure Omni spent no small amount of time on.

OPML – All in all, OmniOutliner’s handling of OPML files seems robust enough. Tests were run with CarbonFin and iThoughts HD. iThoughts mind maps were brought in with hyperlinks intact in their own column. I thought that was rather slick.

HTML export – Kind of cool though not sure how useful it will be. You can export outlines in simple HTML or dynamic HTML which includes javascript to open and close levels of your outline.

The Bad Stuff

What? The bad stuff already? Are you sure this thing costs 20 (US) bucks?! C’mon, it’s a first release product and is bound to have some flaws!

No Dropbox – A productivity app of this price to not include dropbox is inexcusable. OmniOutliner does support iDisk and webDAV so one can use DropDAV when it works.

No copy-paste from OmniOutliner – Yeah, a text editor that you can’t copy text from. This is probably something that got by the testers. I can’t imagine they’d actually do this on purpose.

Can’t resize images – You can copy/paste from your camera roll or another graphics app but you cannot resize the image once it is in your document. The sample screenshots that Omni used in its advertising literature are a bit misleading as they show thumbnails. Not only do you have to make those thumbnails in another app, there is also no way to link them to larger size images.

Can’t drag and drop images – The teaser video showed a user dragging an image on her notebook to a place in her outline. Unfortunately you can’t do that.

No import image, only copy paste – There is no import from camera roll option, you have to copy paste an image in. Kind of non-standard. Fortunately you can copy paste from many places (graphics programs, omnigraffle, etc…)

No carriage returns in rows – Each paragraph must be its own row in an outline. You can make notes for each row and those notes can have paragraph breaks in them. This seems a bit of an oversight for a text editing tool.

UI is cluttered – There is no way to hide the two toolbars. If you’re writing you don’t want the UI cluttering up your screen. Unfortunately you don’t have a choice here. Couple that with the fact that there aren’t many tools and you wonder if Omni couldn’t have dispensed with one of the toolbars altogether. This would have given more screen space to what is important to us: our data.

Oh and the UI is brown. Whose idea was that?

No PDF – PDF export would be kind of obvious given the styling options you have available. You can create some really pretty outlines. Too bad nobody will see them.

No real way to get your outline elsewhere – It’s got OPML which is great for iThoughts and other outliners but if you want to bring your outline into word or pages, forget it. The HTML export puts bullets in front of all your outline items whether you want them or not. To some extent you styles are saved but you’ll have to redefine them in Word once the file is there. What we need is a good solid word processing format output.

Cover flow for document management – Probably the biggest workflow issue of all. If you have more than 20 or so outlines (and most of us will) then the cover flow method of organising them is absolute FAIL. Couple this with the fact that they are sorted by recent modification date and you might as well just write it off. Until this is fixed and we get folders and a file list this program will be more toy than tool.

The Mediocre Stuff

External Keyboard Support – It’s okay to a point. If your insertion point is at the start of a row then tab or backspace will indent/outdent the row…most of the time. Sometimes backspace will back up to the previous row. It’s not always predictable.

It’s a no-frills affair when it comes to the external keyboard, which is unfortunate really.

But is it an outliner?

Over the last few days I’ve been wondering if OmniOutliner can even be classified as an outliner. I mean, it does indents and numbering like an outliner should but are there other facilities that are inherent in a tool that we’d call an outliner? The ability to collapse all of a certain branch level of a tree is conspicuously absent. This feature seems to be fundamental to reviewing outline material. Instead a user has to manually collapse each branch.

Also, an ability to export the outline in a format that is accessible by word processors is also noticeably absent. Isn’t an outline a mechanism for organising one’s thoughts in preparation for a report or paper or book? Why do I have to jump through hoops in order to get the outline into a format that Pages understands? It seems the very process of outlining was forgotten in this revision and what we got was an outlining engine in its absolute simplest state. Let’s hope subsequent releases put some meat on these bones.

Better than CarbonFin Outliner?

If you like ‘pretty’ outlines then OmniOutliner wins this battle hands down. If simple functionality is all you need then it’s almost a draw. CarbonFin’s web integration is hard to beat. You also get one extra row (16 instead of 15) when the iPad is horizontal. CarbonFin will likely have DropBox integration soon as well. If your wallet is the deciding factor then you can’t really lose by choosing CarbonFin over OmniOutliner as you’ll get a very slick functional outliner with a better file management system than Omni’s.


Omni bills its products as premium products and in the case of OmniGraffle and OmniFocus for iPad that holds true. OmniOutliner is an exception that I hope Omni rectifies in the coming weeks. OmniOutliner works when you work within its limited scope but that scope is very limited.Even if you dig the text stylings and the scrollable columns, when it comes to actually using the program for a productive task OmniOutliner for iPad breaks down. It’s worrying that the Omni Group is already ‘voting’ on additional features when what they’ve released is nothing more than a sketch. OmniOutliner is an incomplete product and for it’s cost it just isn’t worth it.

If Omni makes good on the product I will update this review and let the world know. This is a product I want to work well. I need a good outliner on the iPad and I believe Omni can do it. Their Mac product is awesome. Until then, keep it honest and avoid the hype.


OmniOutliner iPad Forums


Filed under iPad

2 responses to “OmniOutliner for iPad Review (updated)

  1. Thanks for the review; been wondering if OmniOutliner is worth the £11.99 being charged. I guess it’s early days and hopefully a version 2 will address the deficiencies raised. Until then, Outliner seems like a bargain 🙂

  2. MikeP

    This review is spot on even 12 months later. I’ve recently started using OmniOutliner iPad and find it superb in some ways. But so frustrating in others. The limitations are captured here perfectly. Strengths: Putting stuff IN (iThoughtsHD integration is great), formatting, once set up, is very smooth. Weakness: Getting stuff OUT! I’ve had to resort to buying OOO Mac (which is good but don’t get me started on that). So much potential but if you want a smooth workflow from the iPad into a corporate Windows based environment … expect inconvenience. Such a shame. And the really concerning thing is the desperately slow rate of development.

    OmniGroup seem to do this a lot i.e. release truly excellent curate’s eggs. i.e some class leading good bits with some big gaps which take forever (for never) to fix. OmniGraffle iPad is the same – superb right up to the first staggeringly obvious shortcoming (in comparison to Touchdraw … which is half as sexy but half the price, twice as functional, twenty times the pace of development). I so badly want OmniGroup to do better. Great customer service. Potentially brilliant apps for which I’ll happily pay their premium prices. But they just keep missing mark in spite of unrelenting feedback from users. IMO they need to rationalise their product set to match their development capacity.

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