Ratings of popular reference management GUIs

‘Software is like sex: it’s better when it’s free’ – Linus Torvalds


macupdate (mu) versiontracker (vt) softpedia (sp) mean (mu, vt)
BibDesk 4.5 4.6 ni 4.55
Bookends * 4 4.8 3.1 4.4
EndNote * 2 2.2 ni (Mac version
not listed)
Papers * 4.5 3.4 ni 3.95
Sente * 4.5 4.4 ni 4.45
iPapers2/iPapers ni
Cloister ni ni 3.1
Yep 4 4.2 3.6 4.1

Dashes mean not yet rated; “ni” means not listed on site. Average ratings across mu and vt were 4.55, 4.4, 2.1, 3.95 and 4.45 for BibDesk, Bookends, EndNote, Papers and Sente respectively. Meanwhile, PDF manager Yep is quite popular. Data is from sometime this week.


iusethis mu d’l’s mu d’l’ current version sp users download.com (dl) dl last week
BibDesk 565 23550 942 ni 253 0
Bookends * 97 43753 1005 28 814 6
EndNote * 78 18931 686 ni 26375 240
Papers * 327 10747 718 ni 253 0
Sente * 42 15304 56 ni 677 0
iPapers2/iPapers 10 2572 1,795 0 ni ni
Cloister 2 ni ni 10 ni ni
Yep 870 68267 2467 47 42 1

For iPapers2/iPapers, the iusethis users of iPapers and iPapers2 were combined.

Seven Mac trialware outfits you ought to know

  1. Panic – makers of the highly acclaimed FTP client Transmit, and all-round web creation suite Coda. They have some free stuff.
  2. SmileOnMyMac – they have a couple of brilliant utilities, my personal favourite being TextExpander. Also recommend looking into BrowseBack.
  3. Ambrosia – search utility iSeek for quick access to popular general or topical search engines (e.g. Google or IMDB), and deep system software for video and audio capture, and arbitrary iPhone ringtone upload.
  4. Rogue Amoeba – more and similar deep system software, including stuff for audiocasting wirelessly or to the web.
  5. DEVONtechnologies – sell a suite of software that includes a desktop web search engine (it uses your CPU rather than Google’s and gives slightly different results), an application that combines bookmarking, PDF management software, and general file management in one interface (called DEVONthink), and a note taking application. I haven’t been able to make up my mind over whether I’d profit from using any of their software, but their search utility is good when you need more results than Google provides (but it’s not better than Google, it just returns a different set). Also haven’t been able to verify for myself that they have useful artificial intelligence in their software – which they claim. They have freebies.
  6. Unsanity – makers of the well-known ShapeShifter application. Many of their applications are concerned with bringing back useful features from Mac OS 9. There’s some free stuff as well.
  7. Freeverse – quite a ragbag of applications, including several applications for diverse graphics and audio creation tasks, as well as the free “Think!” – a window-shading app. You’ll also find a whole bunch of Mac games on their site which are quite entertaining.

Update: Mac OS X apps I will probably buy

This is an update to an older post of mine. I was curious whether I would still fork out for the same things that I said I would a year ago – and whether I’d actually have bought any of them. NetNewsWire, which I bought before making the first post, is now free, so we can scratch that off the list. Other than that, the list remains pretty much as was

  1. Text Expander – this is very, very likely to be my next buy, even though it does mess with the paste buffer. I got Typinator in one of my bundles, and I’m not even going to set it up, because I know it doesn’t do cursor position, so it loses out in the coding department, especially.
  2. Little Snitch – haven’t bought yet, but it’s a wicked utility indeed.
  3. Path Finder – still thinking about buying this.
  4. Parallels Desktop – still the best way to run Windows – even, by the looks of it, beyond VMware Fusion 2.0. Parallels still has the most seamless file integration, something so far overlooked by Fusion, which relies on shared folders that you have to specifically set up. So you’re always shuffling files around. Not good. Parallels FTW. And yes, I bought it as part of the mupromo bundle (about which otherwise, the less said, the better).
  5. CSSEdit – elegance incarnate. This was sitting on the substitution bench at my last commenting, but I bought it as part of MacHeist. Still loving it as ever.
  6. Mathematica – haven’t bought yet. Still a possibility.
  7. Transmit – I now think that I will end up buying this eventually. One of those really powerful and still usable apps for the Mac, every bit like Path Finder.
  8. Delicious Library – What a gem, except I don’t have a camera, may not buy one soon, and I’m not convinced that version 2.0 is so much better than the original. I might give it a spin, though. Maybe there is a way to downgrade if necessary.

And if I ever got serious about web design, I would add the following:

  1. SubEthaEdit – still looks good, but getting pushed further down the list. Is now getting competition from several open source efforts, but seems to still be the best of breed in spite of everything. For one, it has syntax highlighting for every language with a shaking stick attached.
  2. Coda – I think this would be a good investment if I got serious about web dev. Not likely to happen right now.

On a further note, I’m still looking for a tabbed, syntax-highlighting text editor that recovers an entire crashed session (not like Vim, where you have to remember which files you were working on to have them re-open). Also, Cocoa would be nice. I was working with Smultron for a bit, but I’ll have to ditch it because it kills my files when it/the OS crashes (yes, surprisingly, Tiger does crash – I’m sure Leopard does, too). I’m also beginning to think that BrowseBack is kind of a neat idea.

Revival of patronage

It’s now clear to me that with our capacity to distribute large works of art, such as books, music, and films, to global audiences of millions, and many computer programmers’ opposition to paying for digital goods (resulting in quick breaking of any digital rights management system yet deployed), that we will have a re-emergence of patrons who will support artists for recording albums, writing books, and making films. It is also possible that these patrons will be corporate bodies rather than individual persons, especially in the early days of this cultural trend. Once audiences have become fully accustomed to TV and online ads, such sponsorship will be the best way to reach audiences disenfranchised from traditional media, whose advertising already communicates little about the product and services portrayed, and instead tries to appeal to emotions, which can be seen as deceptive. Additionally, it is clear that many corporations are wealthy enough to pay for high quality works of art and may prefer this opportunity to not be limited to the typical duration of a TV ad. Agencies that put corporations in touch with promising artists stand to make good margins, and will be a desirable employer. Most of the actual trade will be carried out online. As an example of this trend, I would cite the TED conference.

Addendum, same day: I also think it’s likely that this will raise the quality of pop culture, as patrons with economic interests won’t want to be associated with mediocre contributions. More education and genuinely witty entertainment, less l’art pour l’art.

Apple for seamless backup

Bear with me for a few seconds more. I’m the first person to see shortcomings in the MacBook Air, and I was disappointed with Apple’s MacWorld announcements in general, BUT their backup concept is beautiful, and finally coming together. Time Machine was included in Mac OS X Leopard, and initially looked like a bit of a gimmick. The 3D representation for time going backwards is of course well known and established in many academic fields. Nothing new there. However, further research reveals (and their marketing material won’t satisfy here) that backup is incremental, that is, it focuses on the files that have actually changed. And now it seems you can use your laptop anywhere in your home and send files to the imo very reasonably priced $299 or $499 Time Capsule (essentially a network drive). The maximum data rate based on the 802.11n specification used, would seem to be 31MB/s, with a range of about 70m through walls (using SI units, m=metres). It remains to be seen exactly how seamlessly Time Capsule integrates with Time Machine and multiple user accounts on multiple computers. It also remains to be seen whether connecting a 1TB drive externally is seamless and, once connected, invisible to the Time Machine user. I have a suspicion that although using hubs, you can in principle connect up to 128 (iirc) devices through a single USB port, Time Capsule may not support this at the data rate one would hope for. On the other hand, I would be quite upset having to buy multiple Time Capsules and not know which one holds the data I want. Certainly, a recent software update re-enabled Time Machine backups to USB drives connected to an Airport Extreme or Time Capsule. It’s not clear what market Apple envisages for the device, because 1TB is not enough for people who seriously work with video, so the eligibility of Time Capsule for that market will crucially depend on whether several devices can be connected by USB, and whether the device keeps performing well under such conditions.

Speech to text vs. keyboards: Will any computer languages die?

I recently witnessed discussions of new keyboards that provide no tactile feedback, and are potentially rough on the finger joints. Keyboards of this kind have been proposed, and in some cases, manufactured, for some time, but there is no doubt that even Apple with its former focus on usability, is now succumbing to making the slimmest devices they can, no matter the cost to ergonomics. In essence, the keyboard is slowly walking out the door, in spite of previous predictions that most input into computers would remain keyboard-driven for the next ten to fifteen years. What are the alternatives?

The obvious answer is, speech to text, but while add-on packages for medical terms or for various other industries are available for some speech to text systems, I’ve yet to see programs being written by STT. My main gripe here is that many computer languages contain characters that are difficult to dictate because their pronunciation is not unique, and one or two words need to be said to dictate just one character (e.g. “semi-colon” or “open parentheses”). Granted, verbal shortcuts could be used in some cases, e.g. “O P” for “open parentheses”.

Nonetheless, I am left wondering whether among the myriad programming languages, many of whom are very similar to each other, those that do not require characters other than alphabetic and numerical ones (except for containing strings, which may be a harder problem otherwise) will fare better than those that have copious amounts, such as Perl, where every variable name is prefixed with a punctuation character of some sort, or sometimes two, and every instruction needs to be followed with a semi-colon (usually at the end of a line). Being “white-space agnostic” comes at a price.

There are other areas where STT may have difficulty making inroads, including customer service, where the ability of the human operator to speak to the customer is more important than obsoleting the keyboard. It’s possible to imagine a STT enabled software that listens in to the conversation and takes down customer data autonomously. Such a system would need to have a tiny error rate, however.

And it’s still unclear to me whether:

  1. people could be equally productive using STT as they can using keyboards, especially programmers;
  2. you could use your voice as continuously through the day as you can with a keyboard; and
  3. people who have been using keyboards for a long time can be retrained to now use STT.

So I think there’s a lot of work remaining to be done before STT can be widely used, and I’ll personally be using proper, ergonomic keyboards for some time yet.

Package sizes iWork ’06 vs. ’08

iWork ’06:

  • Keynote 1.12 GB
  • Pages 0.85 GB

iWork ’08 Demo:

  • Keynote 280 MB
  • Pages 266 MB
  • Numbers 136 MB

I’m unsure whether to congratulate Apple or wonder why they delivered bloated binaries in ’06. At least in iDVD (part of iLife, not iWork), the number of templates available seems to have shrunk through the years.

Update 1, 4 February 2008: I’ve been able to confirm, with some help from #macosx on Freenode (special thanks to jgarbers), that the package sizes for iLife have slightly increased in the same time frame, except for iPhoto, which has halved from 552MB to 227MB, and the installation media, which have also almost halved from about 6.1GB to 3.5GB.

Update 2, same date: In the case of Pages, the decrease in size was because each language originally had separate themes (aka templates), but now they share them, while Keynote seems to have shrunk due to sharing some data between different themes.

The OS X speech-to-text myth

There is a widespread myth in the Mac community that Mac OS (yes, not just OS X) has included “speech recognition” for many years. I would argue that through well-publicised Jobs keynotes, in-store lecture theatres, many fansites with documentation, mostly in the form of two-paragraph “tips”, and, more recently, instructional videos on the Apple website, user knowledge of OS X is much better than user knowledge among Windows users. How is it, then, that very few Mac users actually use “speech recognition” (my claim)?

You will find that historically, speech recognition has been synonymous with “speech to text” (which the Wikipedia article still redirects from: speech to text). During the sometimes claimed twenty years that OS X has included “speech recognition”, third party applications such as iListen and ViaVoice for Mac have continued to sell. So is this an anomaly of history, where Mac customers have for years continued to buy third party software for functionality that was actually included in their OS out of the box? No, something perhaps more perfidious. There has been a semantic shift, where “speech recognition” for Mac users has become identical with “Speakable items“, a feature of Mac OS introduced as part of the OS in March 1994, although available from 1993 as a stand-alone program called PlainTalk. Speakable items includes phrases that allow you to navigate windows and certain programs; it also lets you define your own phrases which you can associate, for instance, with Automator scripts. I’ll reiterate again: PlainTalk and Speakable Items are not speech recognition! At best, it might be called phrase recognition, and its 1993 release date is very little to show for “20 years of history”.

Finally, as of this writing, speech to text in Tiger can neither be found in the System Settings, nor in the Services menu. Since it hasn’t been mentioned in any of the keynotes preceding Leopard, I doubt it will suddenly appear. (Remember the “top secret features”? Where are they?) If you wish to prove me wrong and demonstrate that scores of Mac users have been morons to buy third party software that did real speech recognition, and that purported experts have been ignorant, please post a reply!

That failing, I have to conclude that a certain gadget website (to be punished with a non-link) has been quite unfair in its recent comparison of Mac OS X 10.5 and Windows Vista, which ignores Vista’s true speech recognition.