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Taking DEVONthink To Go for a Spin

My digital life seems to revolve around PDF files. I have thousands of them, and the number grows daily. Some come from documents I scan and save in searchable PDF format (see, for example, “ScanSnap S1300 vs. Doxie: Two Portable Document Scanners,” 24 July 2010); others appear when I save Web receipts, capture archives of Web pages, or download manuals, data sheets, or books. I have even been known to write the odd occasional PDF-format ebook myself. My tool of choice for cataloguing, searching, annotating, and otherwise managing all those PDFs has for several years been DEVONthink Pro Office. (DEVONthink handles dozens of file types, it just happens to excel at PDFs, and that’s
what I mostly use it for.) I liked it enough that I wrote a book on it—distributed primarily as a PDF, natch—“Take Control of Getting Started with DEVONthink 2.”

Naturally, I’d like to have access to all my PDFs and other documents from DEVONthink when I’m away from my Mac, too. My iPhone and iPad display PDFs brilliantly, but there’s been a problem. Although I can use any of a gazillion apps to copy PDFs to my iOS devices and display them there, the process of getting documents out of my DEVONthink database and into an arbitrary iOS app is tedious at best. So for the most part I haven’t bothered—until now. Thanks to DEVONtechnologies’ new iOS app, DEVONthink To Go, I can wirelessly sync any or all of my DEVONthink database with my mobile devices, so I’m never without any of my crucial data.

Before the release of DEVONthink To Go, the recommended way to get at your DEVONthink library from an iOS device was to use the Web server built into DEVONthink Pro Office and connect to it using Safari. That sort of worked, but its capabilities were limited and it wasn’t practical to use when away from my home network. So I’ve been eagerly awaiting the arrival of DEVONthink To Go, and now that I’ve had a chance to put it through its paces, I want to share my impressions. (This is the season for iOS apps that sync with Mac snippet keepers, incidentally—DEVONthink To Go 1.0 shipped less than two weeks after the similar Yojimbo for iPad, which Glenn Fleishman discussed in “Yojimbo
3.0 Gains Scanning and iPad App
,” 19 October 2010.)

I wrote a draft of this review shortly after the initial release of DEVONthink To Go, but ended up spending far too many words talking about serious bugs. I decided to give version 1.0 the benefit of the doubt. After all, there’s always pressure to ship, and I know how software development goes—things take longer than you expect, problems crop up at the last minute, things that should have been easy turn out to be hard, and so on. So I put my opinions on hold until I had a chance to work with version 1.0.1, which appeared on 23 November 2010.

The short version: DEVONthink To Go works, and version 1.0.1 does indeed fix the bugs I personally found most irritating. The app still feels like an early effort, though—not quite fully baked. The current limitations don’t prevent me from using it, but as I discuss later, they may frustrate certain types of users. At the same time, after discussions with DEVONtechnologies president Eric Böhnisch-Volkmann, I’m optimistic that in another version or two, this could become an app to be reckoned with.

The Basics — DEVONthink To Go is a universal app that works on any iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch running iOS 3.1 or later, and its interface is individually optimized for each type of screen. It’s available in the App Store for an “introductory price” of $14.99, though the company has not announced how long the current price will last or what it might eventually be. It’s possible to use DEVONthink To Go on its own, but it’s mainly designed to work with version 2.0.5 or later of DEVONthink (Personal, Professional, or Pro Office edition) or DEVONnote. (I’ll refer to these products
collectively as “DEVONthink” for simplicity.)

To get documents into DEVONthink To Go, you first put the documents you want to sync into the Sync group in DEVONthink. A group in DEVONthink is basically a folder, and thanks to something called a replicant (somewhat along the lines of an alias, not a bioengineered being from “Blade Runner”), a document can appear in many groups without taking up any extra space. That means you can create a replicant in the Sync group in order to sync a document without changing its location in the hierarchy of your database.

And, if you put a replicant of a group in the Sync group, then any document in that group—now or in the future—is synced to your iOS device. That turned out to be the path of least resistance for me; I selected half a dozen of my most important groups and Command-Option-dragged them to the Sync group to create the replicants and specify what I wanted to sync. In addition to any documents you manually add this way, DEVONthink To Go can sync the contents of your Global Inbox. However, you can’t create replicants of database-specific inboxes at all, so that precludes adding them to your Sync group. And that’s irritating, because I prefer to use a particular database’s inbox, but I currently have no way to sync its
contents to DEVONthink To Go automatically.

You follow a simple initial procedure to pair an iOS device with a copy of DEVONthink on your Mac; the two devices must be on the same Wi-Fi network. (By the way, a single copy of DEVONthink can sync with more than one iOS device.) Then you wait for your documents to sync, which in my tests happened surprisingly quickly. Future syncs require a few taps to initiate—I talk about that a bit later.

Once the sync is complete, DEVONthink To Go lists all the synced documents, including any group hierarchy, in exactly the same way as all other iOS apps. Tap through folders to see documents; tap a document to display it. You can also tap an icon to display some of the document’s metadata, such as its size, tags, and labels. You can email a document or open it in another iOS app that accepts that file type; you can also edit plain text documents, with support for Smile’s TextExpander touch snippet expansion (see “Third-Party SDKs: The Future of iPhone Apps,” 1 December 2009). DEVONthink To Go also offers fast, full-content searching of your synced documents, and has shortcuts to
display recent and unread items. You can adjust the sort order, opt to show only flagged or labeled items, and apply or remove flags, labels, and comments.

Unlike Yojimbo for iPad, DEVONthink To Go lets you create new plain text documents, bookmarks, and groups; you can also add images from your photo library and, if your device has a camera, add photos right in the app. When you create a document (of whichever kind), if you have Location Services enabled for DEVONthink To Go, it records the location where that document was made. You can later display a map showing pins where each of your documents was created—which seems like a cool feature that I can’t quite think of a practical use for yet.

One thing I was very excited about is that you can set up DEVONthink To Go so that when you add a new photo and sync it to your Mac, OCR is performed automatically on the photo, making any text on it searchable. (Tap Settings > DEVONthink > Run OCR on Images.) And this sort of works, but man, it’s weird. First, because the OCR takes place on your Mac, nothing happens until you sync; and you have to sync a second time, after the OCR is finished, to get the version of the image with searchable text back onto your iOS device.

That’s not a big deal, but I was expecting the result to be a searchable PDF, since that’s what DEVONthink Pro Office creates when you use its OCR feature on scanned documents. But no: what DEVONthink gives you is the same JPEG image from your camera, with the recognized text as metadata in the Comments field. That means you can search it, but you have to work with the data in a strange, artificial way. When I inquired about this, DEVONtechnologies informed me that they did things this way due to feedback from beta testers who didn’t like having their photos converted to PDFs, and that they could easily change the behavior if there’s sufficient interest. So I’ve registered my interest, and if you’re also a
DEVONthink To Go user, I urge you to register yours too!

Of course, if you have DEVONthink Pro Office, you can select the JPEG and manually choose Actions > Convert > to Searchable PDF and sync the resulting file to your iOS device. But although DEVONthink To Go comes tantalizingly close to being a great tool for OCR on the go (as I discuss in my ebook “Take Control of Your Paperless Office”), it’s still a bit too labor-intensive for my taste.

Ins and Outs — On the Mac, DEVONthink provides a great many ways to get files, text, Web pages, and other information in—drag and drop, browser bookmarklets, a system-wide Sorter, a Mail plug-in, a global Inbox in Finder sidebars, keyboard shortcuts, AppleScript support, and several others. The hardest thing about capturing information is deciding which method to use! So one might expect that DEVONthink To Go, too, provides comparable ways to capture information from your iOS device.

As of version 1.0.1, you can get information into DEVONthink To Go directly on your iOS device in the following ways:

  • Copy and paste (as plain text only).

  • Take a photo.

  • Import a photo from your Photos app.

  • Create a new plain text document.

  • Select text in any document in DEVONthink To Go (including a Web page displayed in its internal browser after following a link in another document) and tap Capture.

  • Open a document in another app (say, a PDF in Safari or a Word file in GoodReader) and tap Open In > DEVONthink.

That may sound like a lot of methods, but three crucial options are conspicuously missing:

  • You can’t capture a Web page (using a bookmarklet, for example), although several other iOS apps let you do this—GoodReader, Instapaper, and Evernote among them.
  • You can’t use the Open In command with certain common document types that are supported in most iOS apps—including Pages, Numbers, and Keynote.

  • You can’t create rich text documents.

According to DEVONtechnologies, all these features are in development, and some of them are already working in-house. One sticking point is that they’d like to offer PDF capture of Web pages, but although that capability is built into Mac OS X, it’s not a native part of iOS. The same is true of rich text editing—an iOS app developer who wants to offer this feature has to figure out how to build it from scratch, whereas it would be trivial to implement on a Mac.

Getting information out of DEVONthink To Go is a bit more flexible; you can tap Open In followed by any compatible app to send a document somewhere else. For example, you can use this technique to send a PDF to iBooks or GoodReader. You can also send any document as an email attachment from within the app. However, DEVONthink To Go 1.0.1 doesn’t yet support AirPrint, so if you want to print a document on your iOS device, you must copy it to another app first.

Syncing Feelings — Of the many techniques an app could use to get documents from a Mac onto an iOS device, Wi-Fi sync is one of the more convenient ones—but DEVONthink To Go does it in a less-than-ideal way. To sync DEVONthink To Go with DEVONthink after the first time, you tap the home icon, then tap the sync icon, then tap your computer name (even if syncing is set up with only one), and then tap Synchronize. That’s four taps, compared to apps like Things and 1Password that sync with zero taps—you just make sure the Mac application and the iOS app are both running, and everything else happens automagically. DEVONtechnologies said they’re hoping to move
to a zero- or one-tap sync in the future.

Some DEVONthink To Go users have asked for the additional option of syncing via iTunes—for example to add documents directly to DEVONthink To Go without having to go through DEVONthink (an option I’d probably never use myself). But what many people, including me, really want to see is syncing via the cloud. That is, I want DEVONthink to automatically copy my data to, say, my Dropbox or iDisk, and I want DEVONthink To Go to access that data in the cloud directly, even if DEVONthink isn’t running on my Mac (or it’s not on the same network). 1Password, for example, offers this type of syncing as an option, and I’ve found it much more usable than direct Wi-Fi sync.

In fact, in a roundabout way, I had this very capability in a previous version of DEVONthink. I once used SugarSync to sync my entire DEVONthink database to the cloud, and then accessed those files using the SugarSync app on my iPhone (see “SugarSync Sweetens Online Syncing,” 30 August 2008). I could even send someone a link to a huge file in the cloud while on the go without ever having to download the file to my iPhone at all! This clever hack is no longer feasible due to changes DEVONthink made to the way it stores its database. However, according to DEVONtechnologies, a future version of DEVONthink To Go will sync with MobileMe, WebDAV, and Dropbox. And, plans to adopt a different
database structure that might lend itself to methods such as the one I used are also being discussed. Although I’m not privy to the details, I gather that DEVONtechnologies is working on a scheme whereby multiple Macs and iOS devices can freely interchange DEVONthink data via the cloud, which would solve numerous problems (including the current awkwardness of sharing a DEVONthink database between a desktop and laptop Mac).

Other Considerations — DEVONthink To Go 1.0.1 is missing a number of other features that seem (to me, at least) to be crucial in an app of this sort:

  • Searching within documents. The search feature tells you which documents contain the search term, but if you’re looking at a 100-page PDF, there’s no way to find the term within that document.

  • Document management. With a couple of minor exceptions, you can’t rename, delete, or move documents with DEVONthink To Go; all those tasks must be done on your Mac. And, of course, all of DEVONthink’s much-hyped “artificial intelligence” features (such as automatically classifying a document based on its content) are absent. Along with the limitations I mentioned earlier concerning getting documents into the app, this makes DEVONthink To Go a tool much better suited to consumption than creation. (Where have I heard that before?)

  • Per-device settings. I have enough space on my iPad to hold my entire DEVONthink database, but on my iPhone, I can spare room for only a handful of documents. Unfortunately, DEVONthink has just one global Sync group; I can’t specify that some documents will sync only to one device or another.

  • PDF annotation. DEVONthink on the Mac can annotate PDFs, but if you want to add comments or highlights to a PDF in DEVONthink To Go, you have to send it to another app, such as iAnnotate. That isn’t so bad, but DEVONthink To Go can’t even display PDF annotations, and that may seriously limit its utility for some users.

According to DEVONtechnologies, adding support for searching within documents is a high priority, and some aspects of document management are also in the queue. The other features are harder to implement, but may appear farther in the future.

I should also mention that even though DEVONthink To Go 1.0.1 fixed some of the most serious bugs (including syncing problems and a disappearing toolbar), it’s not problem-free by any means. Although I haven’t experienced crashes or syncing problems, as some users have reported, I know there are several outstanding issues that DEVONtechnologies is actively working to resolve.

The Bottom Line — If you look at the user ratings for DEVONthink To Go on the iTunes Store, you’ll see that it’s almost an inverted bell curve—lots of one- and five-star ratings, a modest number of two- and four-star ratings, and very few three-star ratings. In other words: this app provokes strong feelings—users either love it or hate it!

That doesn’t surprise me; I think it’s largely a matter of the extent to which users’ expectations were or weren’t met.

For one thing, consider the price. If you paid $149.95 for DEVONthink Pro Office, then an incremental fee of $14.99 to be able to carry all your data with you may be a no-brainer. At the other extreme, if you’re using the $24.95 DEVONnote, that same $14.99 could seem absurdly high. (DEVONthink Personal and DEVONthink Professional, at $49.95 and $79.95, respectively, are of course somewhere in between on the continuum of perceived value.) But what you paid for the desktop software is only part of the equation.

Another factor is how heavily you depend on DEVONthink. If you keep thousands of documents in your DEVONthink database and rely on it every day to get your work done, having an easy way to view and search that data on the go could be invaluable. If you use DEVONthink more casually or have a limited number of documents, a less-expensive tool such as GoodReader or ReaddleDocs may better suit your needs.

Finally, think about how you want to interact with your data with your iOS device. If your dream is to be able to capture Web pages into DEVONthink on your iPad as easily as you can on your Mac—or to be able to work through a full DEVONthink Inbox on your iPhone while riding the bus (categorizing, renaming, and deleting documents as you go)—I’m sorry to say that must remain a dream for the time being.

For now, DEVONthink To Go is focused almost entirely on letting you take your DEVONthink data with you. If that meets your current needs, you’ll probably be delighted with the app. If you need something more robust, however, check back in a few months—I fully expect DEVONthink To Go to rise to the occasion.

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