Review of “Take Control of Getting Started with DevonThink 2” by Joe Kissell, TidBITS Publishing

Monday, May 28, 2012

I review for the O'Reilly Blogger Review Program

Now that we’ve entered the ‘post-PC’ age, the spotlight is often on small, simple apps that have a narrowly-defined focus and feature set. However, I still believe there is a need for larger and more complex apps to do the heavy lifting of our digital lives. DevonThink, a personal information database for the Mac, is one of those apps. The sheer number of options and features for getting information into and out of DevonThink practically demands a third-party manual, which Joe Kissell effectively provides in his Getting Started with DevonThink book from TidBITS.

After some (unsuccessful) experimentation with DevonThink a few years ago, I have recently found myself once again longing for an app that manages the massive amount of information I want to archive and organize. If I could abstract my current organization and writing process, it would probably look something like this:

An image showing my organization process. I start by discovering articles from various sources like e-mail, RSS, and social networks, where I tag interesting items for later reading via Pinboard or Instapaper. I archive articles I've read and liked into an EagleFiler database, which I use as a source of information for outlining and writing articles.

While I have a substantial archive of full articles in my EagleFiler database, I’d like a way to archive just the snippets of articles I find interesting, which is what has led me to consider adding DevonThink to my knowledge acquisition loop. Instead of wandering around the app like last time, trying to figure out how to use it, I sought out Kissell’s book in an attempt to wrap my head around the app, to see how to use it properly and if it will ultimately fit my needs.

For books like these which cover a complex app, I’m looking for two separate things: 1) an easily-digestible survey of the app’s features, and 2) suggested workflows or patterns that use those features effectively. Thankfully, Kissell’s book is successful at both objectives. There are many, many ways to get information into a DevonThink database, and Kissell outlines each of those methods clearly and concisely, recommending particular approaches depending on one’s individual work style and environment (e.g. those who like dragging and dropping vs. keyboard shortcuts, those with big vs. small monitors).

The marquee feature of DevonThink, and the one which sets it apart from many competing products, is its artificial intelligence, which can automatically classify documents and recommend other pieces of information in your database that are related to what you are currently reading. Given that the AI is somewhat of a black box, it’s been difficult for me in the past to wrap my head around how to take advantage of it properly. Kissell addresses this uncertainty in a number of ways, perhaps most importantly by providing clarification about AI features that sound the same but have actually have distinct roles, like when to use ‘Auto Group’ as opposed to ‘Auto Classify’. Kissell also provides tips about how to organize your database to let the AI work at its best, including how deep to organize groups and what the ideal size range of individual files should be.

The bottom line: Even though I’m still not sure if DevonThink is a proper fit for me, reading this book gave me enough information about how best to use it that I will be able to experiment with it more effectively. If you have a need to wander into the forest of information management and wouldn’t mind having a little AI help along the way, it’s worth checking out DevonThink, but only as long as you get a copy of Getting Started with DevonThink to use as a field guide.

Note: I received this book for free through the O'Reilly Blogger Review Program