My favourite software and hardware tools
[For qualitative information processing and writing on the PC, iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad. For Mac, Linux or Android alternatives search the Outliner Software forum or use a Windows emulator.]
Qualitative data analysis:
- ConnectedText (CT) – a personal (or desktop) wiki, database for notes (i.e. Zettelkasten), outliner, writing tool, diary application, and whatever else you make of it. It has not been marketed as a dedicated CAQDAS tool (such as Atlas.ti or NVivo), however being the flexible tool that it is I have been using it as my main CAQDAS solution (I was an NVivo user before). My intention is to explain how I do that on this blog, (an earlier version of my description of how I use CT for qualitative data analysis was posted on the Outliner Software forum). To run CT on a Mac or iPad see this, for Linux, see this.
- WorkFlowy [FREEMIUM] – for quick and short notes (especially to-dos) on the PC, iOS devices, and Chromebook.
- Caret and Writebox [FREE] – for taking textual notes on the Chromebook.
- Boogie Board Sync 9.7 eWriter – for taking handwritten notes, syncing them with PC via bluetooth, converting them to PNG image files, and dragging and dropping them into ConnectedText for archiving.
- Surfulater – for capturing, storing and organising web page content on the PC (I prefer to keep web content separate from my other notes).
- LinkStash – bookmarks/favourites manager for web pages.
- ABBYY Screenshot Reader [used to be FREE; it may also come as bonus with FineReader Pro] – for extracting text from screenshots (or scanned PDFs) using OCR (though it has some other capture features as well).
- Screenshot Captor [FREE/DONATIONWARE] – sophisticated but easy-to-use screenshot tool with editor for annotations.
- Notepad2-mod [FREE] – text editor for general text manipulation. My Notepad replacement.
- NoteTab Light [FREE] – using it as a clipboard catcher and for cleaning copied text (e.g. removing line breaks and extra spaces when copying from PDFs). I created a permanent file called “clipboard.txt,” which is always open. I hit Ctrl+Shift+P to activate the “Use as Paste Board” feature, and NoteTab keeps a copy of anything that I capture with Ctrl+C. Then I just click Ctrl+A to select all the text, and then Ctrl+J to “Join Lines” which removes the line breaks. Then if necessary, I go to Modify > Spaces > Single Space to remove any extra spaces that can creep in when you copy text from a PDF. And then I copy and paste the thus cleaned text into CT, my main database. NoteTab is also great for dealing with very large text files, e.g. to search them.
- ClipCache Pro – a clipboard extender. I have it running constantly in the background as a kind of a note-taking back-up service, should I need to find something that I had copied at some point and then lost somehow. Originally I bought it for cleaning copied text but I actually found that NoteTab was better at that.
- Olympus Digital Voice Recorder WS-331M with Olympus RS28 foot control (for transcription) – these models are probably very out of date, however they’ve served me well and are still functioning perfectly after many years. I use Olympus DSS Player Plus 7 transcription software and felt no need to upgrade.
- HP Chromebook 14 – my laptop for note-taking and surfing (and general iPad replacement).
Reading and managing PDFs (and note-taking):
- PDF Expert and GoodReader on the iPad – I annotate the PDF as I read, export the notes into an email (Gmail) and copy and paste them into CT once I’m on the PC.
- Notable PDF - for reading and annotating on the Chromebook.
- PDF-XChange Viewer PRO [there is also a FREE version] – for reading and annotating PDFs on the PC. Recently changed to PDF-XChange Editor.
- ABBYY FineReader 11 Pro – for converting PDF articles into Word, so quotes can be imported via direct copy and paste (i.e. without the NoteTab process described above) into CT.
- A-PDF Comment Collector – a nifty little tool for extracting pages with comments from a large number of PDF files and collecting them in a single PDF document, with links back to the original PDF files.
Reading Help files on iPod Touch/iPad:
- CHM+ Lite (looks like it’s only available now as ChmPlus Pro – CHM Reader) – it’s a CHM (Microsoft Compiled HTML Help) document reader. I use it for example to read the CT Help file (download here: Welcome.chm 2.9MB) on the go. (But there must be other free CHM readers in the App Store as well.)
- Boogie Board Sync 9.7 eWriter – for handwritten notes and diagrams to be synced with PC (and dropped into CT).
- WorkFlowy [FREEMIUM] – online outliner with iOS and ChromeOS apps and a cross-platform Chrome app.
- Noteliner [FREE] – a very easy-to-use outliner for quick outlining jobs.
- Natara Bonsai 5 Desktop Edition – a (one-, two-, or three-pane) outliner, for when the list gets more complex and needs more careful analysis and sorting. “Colouring in by hierarchy level” feature is priceless. It’s also very fast to use.
- Freeplane [FREE] – a mind mapper, for when I need to separate out the thoughts a bit.
- Gingko App [FREEMIUM] – for arranging textual fragments on an infinite board, and organising them into a horizontal and vertical outline.
- TreeSheets [FREE] – an idiosyncratic software for brainstorming in table form (although it can also do mind maps). The Fullscreen view (F11) is simply fabulous! It shuts out all the noise and you can just concentrate on your table (I recommend colouring in the rows for easier analysis).
- VUE [FREE] – brainstorming in a flow-chart or concept map format with shapes and arrows.
- ConnectedText – there are at least four different ways of doing outlining in CT: 1) using the built-in Outliner tool, 2) using the Table of Contents pane, 3) using the ‘topics’ (documents) themselves as outline items (by either linking them to the Outliner or viewing them in the Navigator), and 4) in the body of a topic by turning on the “folding” option.
- Notepad2-mod [FREE] – for ad hoc outlines during writing (with folding turned on). I use these tweaks to turn it into a single-pane outliner with basic highlighting.
- Noteliner [FREE] – for quick outlining jobs.
- Natara Bonsai 5 Desktop Edition – for sophisticated large-scale outlining jobs (see my review of it here).
- Outline 4D (formerly StoryView 2.0) – for developing a final sentence outline and an initial draft and for reverse-outlining existing drafts. The main benefit of Outline 4D is that it allows inline notes (which Bonsai doesn’t).
- Freeplane [FREE] – an excellent mind mapping tool that works well with CT. It can import CT’s outline files with links to CT topics. It also works as a single-pane outliner with inline notes (plus the additional links to CT notes).
- Gingko App [FREEMIUM] – for simultaneous horizontal and vertical outlining.
- Boogie Board Sync 9.7 eWriter – outlining by hand.
- VUE [FREE] – for free-form conceptual mapping.
- Freeplane [FREE] – no nonsense mind mapper (I prefer it to its predecessor, FreeMind). One cool feature (in conjunction with CT) is that if you import a CT outline that contains internal links to CT topics (documents), Freeplane will preserve those links, so you can launch those links from Freeplane and it will open CT and bring up the given topic.
- iThoughts – mind mapping on the go with iPad. Excellent for converting various mind mapping and outliner file formats.
- SmartDraw 2012 (Enterprise Edition) – I use it to prepare graphics for presentational purposes (e.g. as figures in publications). It’s too convoluted to use as a tool for real-time thinking (even though it’s got a template for every imaginable activity from flow charts to Gantt charts), however it does a reasonable job of turning existing content into visuals for wider consumption.
- WriteMonkey [FREE/DONATIONWARE] – a distraction-free writing application with Markdown support. My primary writing application.
- Gingko App [FREEMIUM] – a web-based outlining and writing tool (with Markdown support), using an index-card method and allowing for both horizontal and vertical outlining.
- Outline 4D (StoryView) – is my main drafting and reverse outlining tool.
- Scrivener for Windows – I occasionally use it as a multi-pane outliner and distraction-free writing environment. I like using Scrivener’s handy “Split with Selection as Title” command for breaking up existing text into smaller chunks.
- Dragon NaturallySpeaking Premium 12 – for actual writing by dictating (occasionally). DNS 12 now can also be used with CT and Outline 4D, via Dragon’s Dictation Box.
- Apple Wireless Keyboard – for typing. I have a PC and I have tried all kinds of ergonomic keyboards and nothing comes close to the Apple Wireless Keyboard. The amazing thing about it is that it is so small, yet the actual keyboard area is wider than any of my much bigger keyboards for the PC.
- Expert Mouse Optical Trackball – my ergonomic multi-button and multi-function mouse.
- ClicKey [FREE] – for keyboard sounds. Makes it sound like you are working really hard.
- PhraseExpander Professional – for inserting often used, long or difficult-to-spell words (or Markdown and ConnectedText markup expressions) as I write. Especially useful in combination with CT during the qualitative coding process, as you can save your list of codes as a separate glossary and use it effectively as a boilerplate.
- DesktopCoral + Samurize [FREE] – I combine these two utilities to display my research question as a single line of text in a narrow banner that stretches across the top of my screen, so that it is always visible, regardless whether any of my applications are maximised or in full-screen view. I make its background the same colour as WriteMonkey and Scrivener, so that it blends in to form a distraction-free environment. This is to remind myself at all times what should be my central focus as I’m writing in a variety of applications. Here is an example, although this solution didn’t have Samurize yet (the point of which is to also make the text visible in full-screen views without having to use WinSplit as a stop-gap measure).
- I don’t really have a favourite here. I use EndNote not because I particularly like it but because I’ve had it for a very long time and I don’t have a good enough reason to switch to something else.
File and folder management:
- Directory Opus – a replacement for Windows Explorer, for managing files and folders, navigating your way in the jungle that is the hard drive. I highly recommend installing Andy’s custom configuration and icons [FREE]. (Sometimes he also has a 10% discount for Dopus on there.)
- Direct Folders [FREE] – remembers to keep “open and save” dialog box size large (you can set desired size); keeps windows of other apps float over other windows (particularly useful when CT is maximised across two monitors).
- Copernic Desktop Search [FREE] – for finding text content within files.
- Everything [FREE] – super-fast file and folder locator.
- Allway Sync – for syncing folders across my PCs, notebooks and netbooks over LAN and wifi.
- Dropbox [FREE] – for syncing folders between my computers and devices.
- Fences – for organising icons into groups on my desktop. Double-clicking hides all icons to create distraction-free environment.
- WorkFlowy [FREE] – for cross-platform task management (Windows PC, ChromeOS & iOS). Replaced all my other to-do apps.
- Google Calendar [FREE] – I use it in a very non-GTD way by tracking my daily to-dos (work and personal) and recurring tasks on the desktop, the iPod Touch and iPad. Whatever I don’t get done, I reallocate into the future. I don’t dump all to-dos here, just the things that definitely need to get done. The key thing about this system is the audible and visual pop-up reminders, especially on the iPod Touch that is always with me. (I used to be a huge fan of DateBk6 on my Palm TX, however the screen was dying and iPod Touch crowded out my Palm in a number of ways.).
- Google Docs (Google Drive) [FREE] – I use Google Doc spreadsheets extensively to manage elements of my project, e.g. to track productivity.
- Classic Calendar [FREE] – a bare-bones desktop calendar application with text-only interface. The great thing about this app is its simplicity.
- Progress Bars of Life [FREE – donationware] – an ingenious little app that I dock to the bottom of my screen and which uses progress bars to show much time time is left from the current hour, current day, until the intended deadline of the current chapter and my complete PhD, and until Christmas…
- Natara Bonsai 5 Desktop Edition – has a variety of task and project management tools in an outliner framework.
- Pimlical – for keeping an offline backup of my Google Calendar.
- MozyHome – I use Mozy to back up all my important files. Having spent years collecting data and writing, the last thing I would need is to have a hard drive failure or a break-in or a fire and lose everything I toiled over for so long… You can’t be careful enough… It is supposed to kick in automatically, whenever the PC is idle for a specified amount of time (e.g. 15 min.), though this feature doesn’t always work. I would like to replace it with something better, but unfortunately it would be a too time-consuming a process right now. Maybe after I’d finished the PhD…
- Freedom – to block access to the no. 1 distraction on my PC (you guessed it: the Internet).
- Repeat Timer [FREE] – simple Pomodoro timer for the iPod Touch.
- three monitors – I find having three monitors essential for serious work with the software tools listed here. My left monitor (19in) is used for project and task management apps (calendar, to-do lists, productivity tracking), I do the writing in the vertically positioned (portrait mode) central monitor (22in) directly facing me, and I use the right monitor (22in) for reference (displaying data I need to refer to while writing in the main monitor).
- Winsplit Revolution [FREE] – is an excellent little utility for managing monitor real estate. It allows you to partition the screen (or both screens in my case) and have whatever is opened arranged side-by-side.
- a reasonably powerful PC – you will need plenty of processing power and RAM to run some of the software listed here. Dragon NaturallySpeaking is a massive resource hog, and Directory Opus also needs some juice to run smoothly. My PC is 3 years old now, but it’s running reasonably well with an Intel Core i7 CPU 860 @ 2.80 GHz, with 8.0 GB RAM, ATI Radeon HD 5700 series. I’m running Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit.
- SE-TrayMenu [FREE] – application quick launch from the tray menu.
- Classic Shell [FREE] – so I can actually see what’s in my Windows Start Menu (Windows Classic style!).
- WizMouse [FREE] and KatMouse [FREE] – to scroll windows under the mouse (across three monitors) without having to click first.
- InoReader [FREE] – online RSS reader for reading blog feeds mostly (on my PC and on the iPad). Simple, effective, and fast.
- PureText 2.0 [FREE] – a single hot-key for removing rich formatting from copied text.
- Protopage [FREE] – is a personal web portal service which allows you to create your own customised home page (and many other tabbed pages) for your browser. This is the first thing that I see when I turn on the computer every morning.
- VistaSwitcher [FREE] – Alt-Tab replacement to switch between applications across three monitors.
- Stick A Note [FREE/DONATIONWARE] – a nifty little tool I use to stick notes to specific application windows to remind myself of keyboard shortcuts that are specific to those applications. But it also works as a general sticky note that can be attached to any specific file.
- TaskSpace [FREE] – a utility I use to organise ConnectedText’s floating windows (e.g. to move them together from one monitor to another) and to detach their behaviour from the main window, so they can be viewed independently, when the main CT window is minimised or hidden.
If you have any questions about these tools or suggestions for better ones, please use the comments form below. I’ll be happy to expand on my existing tools or consider reviewing new ones.