Asset management tools

iaian7 » blog   John Einselen, 21.02.11    

I work with a lot of files as a digital artist; while most assets are project specific and management is simple, I’m also always collecting images for research, reference, and inspiration. Wouldn’t it be lovely if I could catalog and tag my collections to more quickly access a wide range of subjects? Especially as I want to better organise and consolidate my research on, say, historical costuming for Roman legionnaires, architectural inspirations from ancient Asia, painting styles of the Renaissance, typography from the 1920’s…

There are quite a few options in OS X, but no clear winners for me when reading the available reviews and website articles. Not that there aren’t some great reviews (such as the comparisons over on Minimal Design), but none of them seemed to address the issues and needs I was seeing in my own workflow. Setting out to test the apps myself, I’ve documented my (admittedly limited) impressions using the following list as a baseline for features and functionality.

Requrements:

— Mobile entry and syncing

If I’m in a museum and take a picture, I need to be able to tag it, save it, and be done…trying to import a couple hundred photos the next day, and more importantly, remembering the correct data and time period, just isn’t going to work. I understand this may not be useful 100% of the time (asset management is a lot easier on a desktop), but it’s key to living portably. Having historical references handy when shopping for cloth patterns, or pulling up architectural details while working on location with a set designer? Life saver.

— Batch editing

Being able to select large numbers of files for group editing is a must, otherwise, what’s the point of large numbers of files? When editing, tags common to all selected files should be displayed in the editable list (along with the ability change or delete them if needed), while uncommon ones can simply be hidden (and obviously never, ever overwritten!). At the very least, adding new tags to groups of files should be simple.

— Online sync

MobileMe should never be the only option. I don’t know anyone who uses it, though somehow developers still seem to think it’s popular. Well, it’s not, and it’s not just me who finds Apple’s underwhelming/expensive service a hard sell! There are plenty of other options out there, and I’d love to see Dropbox, FTP, Amazon S3, and other services included as syncing alternatives. Even simple network folder syncing would be better than nothing.

— Tag browsing

This goes without saying, but you should be able to filter folders, search results, or simply browse files from a dynamic tag list. Extra points for smart tag groupings or creative use of smart folders.

— Nested folders

Sure, tags are awesome, but when I’m keeping track of research for various projects, stylistic references, inspirations, and a myriad of other resources, nested folders quickly become a big deal. Management depends on flexibility, both expanding and adapting to meet the needs and styles of the user. Nesting may not always be crucial, but it’s a strangle hold if you need it and it’s not available.

— Sharing

In addition to the far more important device sync (listed above), read-only public sharing, much like iTunes and iChat via Bonjour, would be pretty cool.

With these features in mind, let the reviewing begin…

(app links are for MacUpdate.com and the Apple Mac App Store, where you’ll find more user reviews and information, along with trial downloads and/or purchase information)

SOHO Notes

Available online for $39.99.

Now in version 9, SOHO Notes is a database engine claiming a robust client/server design for both single and multi-user setups. The UI isn’t bad, but isn’t great either; the tag explorer is well laid out, but UI elements are inconsistent, and certainly show the age of the app, mixing garish styles from several different OS X iterations. Functional, but not particularly fun to use.

The wide variety of note types is cool, but extends well beyond my purposes, and things like online password storage are handled better by a dedicated app like 1Password ($39.99). Beyond extensive entry types, every entry can have attachments as well, from other files, notes, even tasks like in a to-do list. While obviously very powerful, it’s not something I see being particularly easy to manage; seems like that’d be key for a data management app.

The companion iPhone app is basic, but does offer two-way syncing, albeit via local network only (though I could be mistaken, as SOHO Notes does claim syncing via MobileMe).

The Good:

— supports nested folders and tag exploration simultaneously
— well laid out tag explorer
— iPhone app (not tested, but it’s available)

The Bad:

— no group entry editing, not even tags
— not very fast
— not a great UI
— images are never scaled to fit preview area
— widescreen mode isn’t particularly usable (click-drag doesn’t work, etc.)

Yojimbo

Available online for $38.99, also available on the Mac Appstore.

This is the option many people suggest, given it’s long history on the Mac. The UI is well designed, and though the tag browsing layout is slightly odd, it’s fast and functional. Unfortunately, entry editing is relegated to a floating popup that’s never open by default – as if tagging items isn’t part of the core functionality. A small complaint, some might say, but a frustrating UI decision when the extra window could have been far more svelte and easier to use if integrated in the main UI, not to mention far more accessible! Shouldn’t it have been a tab system, switching the right hand panel view from tag explorer to tag editor?

Developed by BareBones Software (the same people behind TextWrangler, which I depend on daily), the Yojimbo team have kept a very rigerous limit on features, shooting down requests and turning a deaf ear to user complaints. In some cases this can result in an app that’s well defined, sleek, and tuned to perfection (having ignored the vast majority of crazy demands). In other cases it results in an app with vastly limited functionality, stalled development, and a sour taste in your mouth. I get the distinct impression Yojimbo is leaning towards the latter; a well-tuned, well-focused app is one thing (and Yojimbo certainly looks the part), but the developers seem to show nothing but disdain for customer input and needs. Seriously people, it’s 2011! Data management should not be this limited, and syncing with your iPhone and iPad should not be this unintelligent.

The Good:

— very popular, well designed UI
— automated tagging when dropping files into smart groups
— reasonably fast (though not tested with massive archives)
— printer (PDF) integration for easy website saving

The So-so:

— tag explorer isn’t perfect (tags on left, applied filters above…why?)
— mobile application is iPad-only (no iPhone support)

The Bad:

— editing multiple entries overwrites original tags (catastrophic)
— no mobile input (read-only, no editing or adding entries)
— syncs only via MobileMe
— no nesting of folders
— slow development (out of date and out of touch)
— dare I say, contempt for users?

Together

Available online for $39.99, also available on the Mac Appstore.

Seemingly taking the opposite approach to user requests, Together implements far more features while mimicking many of the same UI touches found in Yojimbo. Things like the drop-dock (used in pretty much all the management apps being reviewed) are implemented well enough, and the extra features like file ratings, Finder-like sorting (including size, which Yojimbo doesn’t reveal), and folder systems are great.

Unfortunately, the app lacks a certain amount of usability, and underlying issues seem plentiful. Accidentally delete all the tags on an entry? There’s no undo for that. Want to filter the files in a folder based on specific tags? Can’t do that either, since you can’t view tag lists at the same time you view folders. For what is clearly a more fleshed out app than some of the competition, the core management features are lacking in basic functionality.

However, there’s one more interesting note: Together doesn’t actually use a database to store the files. Instead, everything can be found on your hard drive in a folder system of your choosing. In addition, tags are implemented using the OpenMeta standard, ensuring compatibility with a wide range of other applications. This is significant not just for data portability, it also means you can browse your Together entries with Punakea, HoudahSpot, Leap, and other OpenMeta apps. This also means things may be a bit slower; when quickly moving through lists of image files, Yojimbo seems to respond a bit more smoothly than Together, though not by much of a margin. Having not tested either one with extensive collections (thousands of entries or more), I’m not sure how they’ll fair under more strenuous day-to-day use.

The Good:

— nested folder support
— file system setup includes OpenTag support
— easy file rating is a nice touch
OSX services integration
— printer (PDF) integration for easy website saving

The Bad:

— editing multiple entries overwrites original tags (catastrophic)
— tags are additive, not filters (making tags entirely useless)
— can’t browse tags and folders at the same time (bizarre limitation)
— no mobile companion
— syncs only via MobileMe

Evernote

Available online.

An online service offering both free and paid subscriptions, Evernote has enjoyed increasing popularity in the past couple of years. I’ve had an account for a long time, but rarely use it. Which is a shame, because its cross-platform sync beats out every other competitor on the market; it’s seriously top-notch.

Unfortunately, the desktop client feels poorly developed, and features aren’t great at all. To top it all off, bandwidth is limited unless you want to pay monthly fees. While it’s cheap for casual use, it’s not something I want to depend on for scalability. Reoccurring fees may be low, but they’re monthly, and that adds up. I’d much rather use an app that I can “own,” both in the sense of paying once, and in the sense of keeping the data on my system, not depending entirely on cloud services.

The Good:

— instant syncing across all systems, both desktop and mobile
— great mobile input

The Bad:

— can’t drag-and-drop files
— can’t add multiple files
— can’t edit multiple files
— limited storage, bandwidth, and ads (unless paying for monthly service)

So what’s the verdict?

Unfortunately, the search is far from over — none of the apps include all of the features I’m looking for, and while I’m happy to debate the stringency of my feature wish list (I could live without nested folders if the rest of the app made up for it), very few of the apps even come close to what I’d call usable! For now, I’m hoping development continues; definitely won’t hold my breath for Yojimbo, but there’s a chance Together can improve, given some hard work from the developer to fix the underlying engine and streamline the workflow. I’m hopeful.

I’ve also tested a fair number of other options, including DEVONthink Pro ($79.99) (folder based notes storage, too outmoded to bother with) and Punakea ($25.00) (OpenMeta based tagging with system-wide search). They were divergent enough from the above list that their comparisons didn’t feel as helpful, and weren’t included.

Incidentally, I’m looking more closely into the OpenMeta standard now. It may not be a centralised system for managing research collections, or offer mobile syncing and input, but there’s the potential for cross-system tagging and asset management that goes far beyond what I could ever accomplish in a database driven application. That’s certainly worthwhile, even if it’s not what I set out to find at first.

redc, 15.03.11

Thanks for this post. I’ve been looking for something recently that would provide tagging and OpenMeta seems like such a good idea. I have a client who’d like a simple file server (aka a Mac OS X client machine, possibly a mini) that’d host his small asset library (photos and KeyNote files), and Tags by Gravity Apps seems like the standout in the simple tagging field, but doesn’t look like you can share tags between multiple users (the kicker is that he wants his assistant to be able to browse the same mini and see the same tags.)

iaian7, 17.03.11

@redc A key feature of OpenMeta is that it’s file system, not database driven – so long as the files reside on an HFS+ system, they should retain their tags, and remain fully searchable by any user (including users connected via the network, so long as Spotlight is enabled on the server!). It’s inherently multi-user. (do note that not all OpenMeta apps are multi-user though; Punakea, for example, will only search files that are manually added, whereas Deep will find any tags present in the currently selected folder)

I haven’t finished testing some of the OpenMeta apps (namely, Tags), but so far most of them are working out pretty well. I’ve had a couple instances where tags disappeared (was using Tagoman, whose development is now discontinued), but nothing too concerning as of yet. There are plenty of discussions about OpenMeta support on the Google group, and it could actually be a great system for your clients. That said, it would be wise to implement some sort of backup system (for instance, copying tags to comments periodically) just to make sure information isn’t lost (though comment information will still only exist in an HFS+ file system – if files are copied, saved as a new file, or transferred to a non-supported drive format, the data is lost).

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