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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.

Endgame

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.

Links:

OmniOutliner iPad Forums

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ZeptoPad for iPhone review

ZeptoPad review

ZeptoPad is billed as a vector-based drawing app for the iPhone.

Shapes are dropped into the work area and then modified using oversized handles. Lines have two handles, squares and circles four. If you want your shape to be very small then the handles will munge together, the solution is to simply zoom in but I’d like to see, instead, the handles stay distinct no matter the shape size.

Manipulating objects in the drawing area can be somewhat tricky but I found most of the issues were resolved by zooming into the object I wanted to change. You point and drag anywhere on an object and it moves. You use two fingers to zoom and rotate objects. You read that right, you can rotate any object on the page. The app offers some text functionality as well though you cannot change the typeface. You change the size of the of the text the same way you resize other objects and it works fairly well.

The app also gives the user a clipboard and full cut, copy, paste functionality making it one of the few graphic apps on the iPhone that does. Its editing features don’t stop there either. ZeptoPad also supports grouping and ungrouping as well as sending to back and bringing to front.

ZeptoPad does have a few features that really do shine and were added as a direct result of some previous reviews. Early in its lifecycle it referred to itself as a mind mapping tool but received some criticism for that claim as building a mind map with it involved far too much work. As a result the developer added shapes and what are called ‘connectors.’ These connectors are lines that automatically attach to objects when their endpoints are dragged to an shape. You can then move the shape around and the line moves with it, staying attached. The feature works relatively well and even supports detaching easily. You can assign an arrow tip attribute to the connector so you can have the line terminate in an arrowhead.

The feature list for ZeptoPad is nearly endless. Gradient fills, alpha blends, realtime display of drawings on your computer screen, P2P sharing of files without wifi…breathe. The program is vast and I thought I’d have a hard time saying this given its cost but, well, it justifies its price tag.

I like it when a developer builds a UI to suit his app and doesn’t try to shoehorn a huge list of features into Apple’s UI standards. I like it even better when it works well. I have to say that it works fairly well in ZeptoPad. Things are a bit small but with a careful finger mistakes will be quite few.

I’m finding very little to make issue of with ZeptoPad. Like any powerful tool on the iPhone it is going to have its quirks but after using it a while the quirks feel a little less annoying because you realize that no other app on the iPhone can do this very powerful task.I’m going to give ZeptoPad a huge recommend. This isn’t something I thought I’d say when I first started using it but given the response of the programmer to his users and the good times I’ve had with the app I think it’s warranted.

[Edit: The Help in this app is almost impossible to understand and in some cases out of synch with the features of the app. I put forward the offer of rewriting the help files if the author of this app is interested. I’ll do the task for free.]

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iPhone Painting Apps Reviewed

[Bloggers note: Sorry folks, this was lost thanks to a bug in WordPress for the iPhone removing my published post and substituting a very incomplete draft. I’ve reconstructed some of it however it’s sorely lacking. I’ll try to fix it better later, just wanted to get most of it up asap.]

I decided that I’d launch one of the few paint programs I have for the device. Lo and behold within minutes I was lost in a world of technicolor hues and pixel-pushing goodness. I’m speaking of painting programs on the iPhone and I thought I’d write a few words here about each of them.

Brushes

Release: 27 August 2008
Current Version: 2.0 (5 updates)

Released about a year ago, brushes claims to be a natural media painting application so when I first started it I was hoping for as close to a “Painter” app as could be done on the iPhone. What I got was pretty damn amazing. I find working with Brushes to be a real flow experience. The menu disappear as soon as you start brushing the canvas with your finger. To get the menu back simply tap the screen. Pressing and holding within the canvas for as second will bring up the eyedropper tool, pick up a colour and start painting again.

The application supports up to four layers and you can export your drawings (via web browser pointing to the broadcasting Brushes app) as PNG or Brushes file type. You’ve also got tons and tons of undo available.

The limitations in this software are a distinct lack of brushes, it has 3 of any size. This is a bit of a surprise given the app’s name. The drawings are limited to the iPhone’s native screen size but that is almost to be expected…but wait several of these apps work with much larger canvases. Read on.

Layers

Released: 20 July 2009
Current Version: 1.2 (2 updates)

Layers is another entry into the ‘real’ painting genre on the iPhone. It was released on the 20th of July of this year. Layers, as its name implies, supports layers–up to five per painting. You’ve got quite a lot of flexibility with the layers too. You can merge layers down, duplicate layers and rotate layers by 90 degrees. When creating layers you can automatically populate them with a photo or fill.

Layers does have the nifty ability to send your painting through email as a Photoshop document with layers intact. Layers also builds documents at a nice 512×512 resolution, a bit higher than Brushes 320×480. The menu in Layers hides when painting but it reappears after any pause in the work. One can also bring the menu back by shaking the iPhone.

Layers encourages a bit more of a flow experience than Brushes. There were more pauses when I waited for the menus to reappear when working in Layers but I found that they weren’t so long as to be annoying and actually gave me a bit of breathing space between my transitions between colours or brushes. The one thing about Layers that truly contributes to the flow experience is that the brush selector and the colour selector are on the same screen. I can press either of those tools and get to whatever I want whilst painting. I found myself using Layers more than Brushes for this reason.

Speaking of brushes, Layers does have a good selection of them. In addition they are labelled “Default Brushes” leading me to believe there are more on the way. The user has full control over brush sizing of each of them as well.

Colors

Released: 24 September 2008
Current Version: 1.2 (2 updates)

Colors is a rather simple painting program that makes no pretence at simulating natural media. It does have a couple of features that make it stand out from both Brushes and Layers. One of them is that you can simulate pressure sensitivity by tilting the iPhone as you draw a stroke. This does take some getting used to and it seems a bit finicky but is a fine idea on paper.

The other feature that is kind of neat about Colors is that you can offset the stroke from the location of your finger. This allows you to see what you are painting and it works surprisingly well. I wish that Brushes and Layers had this functionality as well.

The selection of brushes you have in the program is basic, nowhere near the quality of brushes in Brushes or Layers. The program allows you to upload your renditions to their online gallery, you can also browse the gallery from within the app. Unfortunately there seems to be no way to import anything from your camera or other painting app into Color.

Finally, you can export your images via mail or to your photo library in positively huge (for iPhone images) sizes. Up to 1280×1760. Unfortunately I saw no way to zoom that closely into an image whist working on it but the program apparently is working with a bitmap that large in the background.

Doodle Buddy

Doodle Buddy is a very straightforward drawing app that goes as far as simulating chalk. It even has smearing capability which is a function I wished for in both Layers and Brushes. Unfortunately that is as far as the ‘art’ element of Doodle Buddy goes. It’s primary strength is its ability to share a screen between two devices (iPhones/iPod Touches) over wifi.

It’s ability to share screens over wifi allows for some fun games and the app includes several game ‘templates’ including hangman, tick tack toe, and a few other games. My girlfriend and I played a pictionary-like game on it and had a great time. The app did crash a few times and there were some other minor issues but all in all being able to share screens can be loads of fun.

You can save your Doodle Buddy images to the Photo Album and you can also import from the same. Since Doodle Buddy is the only app that allows smearing (a technique I love with the finger touch of iPhone painting) it is a good tool for this one purpose. The pictures that Doodle Buddy works with are 580×800.

That’s Doodle Buddy in a nutshell. A smear tool 🙂

iShodo

Released: 06 January 2009
Current Version: 1.0 (0 Updates)

iShodo is a Japanese calligraphy app that simulates not only the style of the art but also several of the materials as well. The canvas is simply the paper on which you paint uncluttered by menus. To bring up the brush selection, one simply taps the left side of the screen. To open the ink and water wells one taps on the right side. The top edge of the screen opens a menu with the app’s options.

iShodo gives the user a selection of three brushes and one colour: black. One can save a painting to the camera roll or send it to Twitter.

The program does what it is meant to do very well but offers no frills. Still I have one minor complaint about it: it would be nice to have the selected brush hilighted both when choosing one and when returning to the brush selection menu. This is a small issue thouh and I’d recommend the app to anyone interested in the medium.

Type Drawing

Type Drawing is another specialist painting program. like the other tools we’ve seen, one paints pictures on a work area. Unlike the other tools, one paints in Type Drawing with text.

Before drawing with Type Drawing the user defines a string of text to paint with and the typeface to use. One also has control over the paper colour.

TypeDrawing does something rather interesting with simulated pressure sensitivity. the speed at which you draw determines the thickness of the stroke; go slow and you draw a thin stroke, faster and the stroke gets thicker.

TypeDrawing does what it does very effectively.

SketchBook Mobile

SketchBook Mobile is a brand new entry in the painting app realm and for a first version it has a nice selection of features under its bonnet. Offset painting, decent resolution, a wide selection of brushes, mirror painting, export to photo library and email.

For a first version it’s fairly robust and I’m anxious to see where this one heads.

NetSketch

NetSketch is another collaborative painting app for the iPhone and iPod Touch. It’s a vector based painting program with a nearly infinite sized canvas on which to paint. It doesn’t have any of the standard vector based things you might expect (select a stroke, resize/rotate a stroke, etc…) but you can zoom in as close as you like without seeing pixels.

Sorry for cutting this short but I lost my previous entry thanks to a ‘bug’ in WordPress for the iPhone overwriting a published entry so I’ve had to go through and reconstruct much of this article. I’ll add more as time permits.

I’ve found that I use Layers and ZeptoPad more than any of these other apps and will post a link to my ZeptoPad review here.

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