Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Getting Things Done App Reviews: OmniFocus, Things, Life Balance, ThinkingRock and Chandler

Ok, I spent several hours over the last few weeks trying to seriously pinpoint the best Getting Things Done (GTD) app for my needs. The following is not a thorough review but might be useful to you, keep in mind your needs and tastes obviously differ from mines. Also take into account the timing: by the time you read this, it's probable these apps have been updated and may offer significant improvements. I tried five apps: Things, Life Balance, Chandler, ThinkingRock and OmniFocus. All the reviewed apps can run on MacOS X. I wish I could tell you I found the one app that fully fill all my needs, but it's not case.

First, why a GTD app? So many things I try or hope to accomplish in a diversity of overlapping contexts, I believe an app will help me keep track, thus not forget, the numerous next steps required to actually complete projects. A GTD app is also a mean to review ongoing and future projects and help me get the big picture of my life, personal and professional. Another expectation and intended goal is to reduce stress and frustrations.

At the moment, I use a combination of calendar events and reminders, a few flat to-do lists and inbox emails for organizing myself. To be honest, it works relatively well, but there's a lot of room for improvements. I feel I'm now ready for the next level: a dedicated GTD tool. Maybe I'll find out in the process that it doesn't help me that much after all, but I'm ready to try.

You'll find a lot of similar GTD app reviews on the Internet. It's worth reading many of them. It has been useful to me in order to identify the apps deserving review and providing clues about their general strengths and weaknesses. GTD apps require more than 10 minutes of exploration to get a good feeling of it and its ability to fulfill your needs and fit your task organization style. Screenshots and screencasts are never as revealing as actually trying the app for a few days.


Things



I evaluated version 1.1.3 of Things.

Good:
* The user interface is great looking and mostly efficient. That really matters.
* It's really easy to use. Easy learning curve.
* Things relies on tags, which are very flexible but require some appropriate organization (example).

Bad:
* Version 1.0 of Things was release at the beginning of the year, and as much as it's great looking, in terms of features, it shows.
* There is no way to export anything from Things to html or other sharable document. This is problematic to me since I work on Debian Linux and don't have access to MacOS X at work. This might be Things' showstopper to me - you see, I really want/need to be able to share the status of my work related tasks with my supervisors and colleagues. Highly probable that this is a feature that will "soon" be added to Things, but I'm not sure I wanna wait an unknown period of time. You can print groups of tasks to pdf, but that's a fairly limited workaround.
* Search is poor to the point of being almost broken. You can't use the search to find next actions related to two tags or more. This is a real inconvenience. Selecting tags in the top bar is the workaround.
* "Saved searches": you can't save a search (e.g. a user selection of tags) and add it to your left column. Since Things relies on tags, it would make sense to have automatically updated searches in your vertical bar.
* Missing: a web client to access and manage the Things database.
* No specific reviewing capabilities or easy why to set up automated focus criteria.

iPhone Things :
It's the iPhone/iPod Touch app that I could actually try, thanks to a colleague. Since there are no contexts in Things, you need to browse your next actions by "projects" and then filter by context tags: not the most efficient.

Final take on Things:
I'd like to choose Things, just because of its UI and tags approach. But you can't export to anything yet, making it impossible to share with colleagues at work, and you must systematicaly reselect the multiple tags to browse by context and projects or anything else (all represented by tags), which is a serious shortcoming in terms of efficiency. Sure, the developers will add these features eventually, but I don't think it's wise to go down that road not knowing when and if these missing features will make it. There is a Things forum, but it's strangely "hidden" in the sense that there is no link to it from most of the Things web pages. I'll keep an eye on Things' progress.


OmniFocus



I evaluated version 1.6.1 of OmniFocus.

Good:
* In general, offers many more features than all its competitors. This can quickly become important for many in the long run.
* The review mode. It's the only other reviewed GTD app (exception made of ThinkingRock) that specifically offers review mode capabilities. You can set next actions to be reviewed at a specific frequency, such as every week, every month or every year. Being able to review tasks every week without being distracted by long term projects that should be reviewed once every 6 months or so seems important to me.
* Tasks can be set as parallel or sequential, helping you focus on tasks you can accomplish now that don't require another task being completed first.
* Their "support Ninjas" are helpful and friendly.

Bad:
* Average user interface. Not bad, but average means there's obvious room for improvement.
* Contexts are exclusive. Despite the use of "perspectives" (which -must- be used for an efficient use of OmniFocus) to circumvent this limitation, this is annoying.
* Their implementation of "Contacts" is limiting. People are considered as contexts, and since next actions in OmniFocus can't have multiple contexts, that forces you to use perspectives, this too can be annoying.
* Missing: a web client to access and manage the OmniFocus database on the web. Hopefully, you can export subsets of your tasks to a beautiful enough html.

Final take on OmniFocus:
OmniFocus feels like a tool that has everything for me to start using it efficiently now. It meets my most of my requirements (such as exporting capabilities that provide a significant advantage over Things). It offers the most complete feature set of all GTD apps that I reviewed. OmniFocus is the tool I selected and will start using extensively.

Reading the comments in the forums informed me about what's coming in version 2, such as user-generated custom tags, so it should become even better later on but I prefer betting on a system and features I can use right away.


Life Balance



I quickly evaluated version 5.1 of Life Balance.

Good:
* I seriously considered Life Balance because it offers somethings the other GTD apps do not provide: a mean to help you spend more time on the things that really matter to you, not only a long list of tracked tasks. It prioritizes tasks to fit your goals, something you have to figure out without any help if you use Things or OmniFocus.
* Places, used as "contexts", are adequately designed: places can encompass multiple types of places, which is very convenient.

Bad:
* Nice colors, but overall, relatively poor user interface. Examples: (1) you can't move the events on the calendar by dragging them! (2) Entering a new task requires a lot of clicking on different tabs, moving sliders, etc., (3) search results are shown sequentially, no way to see all the results at once, etc. This is not efficient.
* No html export capabilities.
* No specific reviewing capabilities.

Final take on Life Balance:
Overall, Life Balance looks interesting, but the user interface annoys me. This, added to the fact that it does less than the other apps, has remove it of the realm of possibilities.


Chandler



I evaluated version 1.0.3 of Chandler, an open source GTD app.

Good:
* Open source, meaning free as in freedom. I can install it on as many computers as I want without having to wonder about licensing.
* Multiplatform. I will be able to used it at work (Debian Linux) as well as at home (MacOS X). This is a major plus to me and a real advantage over the other reviewed GTD apps.
* Web based too, meaning I can access it from work even if I don't/can't install the Desktop app. Thw web-based version is surprisingly usable, but miss a lot of features.
* Can send emails directly from the Chandler interface.
* Chandler web can be accessed from an iPhone provided you're connected to the Internet. There's also a free iPhone app, but it seems it only allows task entry, no task browsing.

Bad:
* It's a first version and it shows. Lots of missing features.
* No projects grouping or hierarchy, no contexts, only "Collections". This makes the browsing of tasks pretty difficult with only basic sorting capabilities, no filters. This can be a showstopper to many potential users, including me.
* Average user interface. No auto-completion, must drag and drop tasks to associate them with collections. No great MacOSX integration, such as with Mail and AddressBook.
* Limited set of features in regards to tasks: no way to set a start or due date, only a single date for the calendar display and alerts.
* No specific reviewing capabilities.

My final take on Chandler:
The great thing about Chandler being open source, you can easily try it for a long period of time to find out if it suit your needs or not. If you have some coding skills, you can even help by adding the features that you really need. However, at the moment, Chandler definitely looks like the least mature of these GTD apps - try it yourself!


ThinkingRock



I also took a look at another open source GTD app, namely ThinkingRock, version 2.2.1.

Good:
* It's also multiplatform but doesn't have a web-based client.
* It's pretty loyal to the GTD methodology.
* You can log and filter next actions adequately.

Bad:
* I personally don't like much the user interface (it's Java and far from being Mac-like) and the integration with other Mac apps such as iCal or Mail is poor to inexistent.
* I admit also not liking the fact that despite being fully open source, some modules are pay-for and syncing requires a yearly membership that can quickly end up more expensive than other apps.
* There is no iPhone app (one in the works).

Final take on ThinkingRock:
Overall, the ugly interface (that's subjective) and lack of a mean to sync between work and home makes me favor Chandler as an open source GTD app. Otherwise, ThinkingRock looks pretty solid (really) and may fit your needs, take a look at it.


Concluding remarks



Ok, I took a look at more than Things, OmniFocus, Life Balance, Chandler and ThinkRock, but they were the main competitors to me. For instance, I also took a look at the donationware iGTD2, which looks promising for a free app, but its development seems rather very slow (works with tags but awkward UI and no export capabilities at the moment, which seals the deal for me). You may also want to take a look at this recent comparison of GTD software.

What's was missing to help me decide is the ability to try the iPhone/iPod Touch apps for those software. It matters because I expect I'm going to frequently deal with my "GTD database system" directly on such a mobile device.

As you read above, I'm going the Omnifocus way, but I'll be keeping an eye to Chandler and Things. Things mostly out of curiosity, and Chandler because if it really gets improved over time, I could directly use it at work on Debian Linux (OmniFocus very likely staying a Mac-only app).

But I did not discussed the price? That's right. Whether it's free or 100$ is not a big enough difference to change anything. I want the best GTD for me and I'm ready to pay for it. Too bad I ended up selecting the most expensive of them, OmniFocus being 80$ (+ 20$ for the iPhone app), but it's not that a huge investment if you consider the importance that such an app can have on your life (big picture, reducing stress, not forgetting anything, etc). As an open source enthusiast, the fact that Chandler and ThinkingRock are open source gives them a real plus to me - they're just not mature enough yet.

Hope this was useful to you. Good luck finding the best Getting Things Done app for your needs!
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