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, outliner, writing tool 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.
- WordExpander [FREE] – a text expander programme that displays a popup menu next to the cursor when you type an abbreviation for a phrase that you have previously set up. I use it to speed up the qualitative coding process in CT, by setting up recurring codes as phrases that can be called up by their abbreviations. But it can also be used for any type of recurring annotation task. E.g. when annotating a reading in CT, I can type “=” and call up =quote=, ==quote==, ===quote=== etc. in the popup menu, which allows me to insert this heading over a section of the text that I want to use as a quotation later on, within a particular hierarchy of headings to be displayed in the Table of Contents [This explanation will probably only make sense if you had already gone through my CT tutorials first or you are a CT user already].
- Nebulous Notes on the iPod Touch and iPad, synced with the PC via Dropbox and imported (or copied and pasted) into:
- ConnectedText (which is the main database after all).
- Dragon Dictation on the iPod Touch [FREE] – for recording quotes and notes when reading an actual (paper-based) book, which then I paste into Nebulous Notes (and again, they go to CT via Dropbox).
- Surfulater – for capturing, storing and organising web page content on the PC (could do this with CT as well but I prefer to keep web content separate from my written notes).
- 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).
- Greenshot [FREE] – open source screenshot tool with editor for annotations.
- 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), plus as a general Notepad replacement. 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.
- PureText 2.0 [FREE] – a single hot-key for removing rich formatting from copied text.
- 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.
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.
- PDF-XChange Viewer [FREE] – for reading and annotating PDFs on the PC.
- ABBYY FineReader 11 Pro – for extracting text from (scanned) PDFs to be imported 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.
- Debenu PDF Maximus – for large scale creation and manipulation of PDF files.
- WhizFolders Organizer Deluxe – Although CT has now replaced WhizFolders for me as my central database, I still keep some old reading notes in WhizFolders. It is another one of these impressive software that can be used for so many different purposes: note-taking, outlining, writing etc. It’s similar to Scrivener in some respects. I was initially attracted to it because of its wiki features, however CT is far superior in that regard.
Reading Help files on iPhone/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.)
- BrainStorm – I’ve only just began to play around with this tool but it’s got some very idiosyncratic features that you’re unlikely to find in any other application. It seems to be particularly good for developing and organising lists of ideas quickly.
- TreeSheets [FREE] – a similarly 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 format with shapes and arrows.
- SketchBook Express [FREE] – (on the iPad, with a stylus) for freehand sketching of process flows.
- Story Turbo – an infinite virtual corkboard where you can organise your thoughts using virtual (expandable) post-it notes (that can also have images attached) [There is also a slightly cheaper Story Lite version without image support]. It has some good export features, including HTML, PNG, and RTF. Here is a mini case study of how I used it to organise my library of books.
- 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.
- Noteliner [FREE] – for quick outlining jobs.
- Natara Bonsai 5 Desktop Edition – for sophisticated large-scale outlining jobs (see my review of it here).
- CarbonFin Outliner – on the iPod Touch and iPad when I’m on the go. Also for hierarchical lists that I need to sync with the desktop (e.g. I keep my reading list in it). CarbonFin integrates with Natara Bonsai (sort of), as it can export as an OPML file, and Bonsai can import it (provided you install the OPML template from here). But you can also just use CarbonFin’s online companion in a browser, which still works as a basic outliner.
- Outline 4D (formerly StoryView 2.0) – for developing a final sentence outline and an initial draft. The main benefit of Outline 4D is that it allows inline notes (which Bonsai doesn’t). It also includes a so-called “Timeline View,” which converts your outline to be viewed as a series of index cards on an infinite cork board. One could construct such a view manually using TreeSheets, however Outline 4D does it at a click of a button and with some interesting viewing options. A truly unique feature.
- 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).
- Notebox Disorganizer [FREE] – a quirky writing tool that I use for planning out the exact number of paragraphs in columns and then I track the word count progress for both the paragraphs and the draft as a whole. I usually write the draft in O4D and then paste the text for the above purpose into Notebox.
- VUE [FREE] – for free-form conceptual mapping.
- CmapTools [FREE] – VUE has now replaced CmapTools for me as my conceptual mapper of choice, however I did use it for years and I still like it for its speed.
- 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.
- SmartDraw – 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.
- FocusWriter [FREE] – an easily customisable distraction-free writing environment. Although I’m happy with the default colour scheme, here are some fancier additional themes [FREE].
- Outline 4D (StoryView) – is my main drafting and reverse outlining tool.
- The Guide [FREE] – a light-weight, easy-to-use dual-pane notes-organiser/outliner. I use it to store and organise fragments of text that I remove from the draft during editing.
- Scrivener for Windows – I occasionally use it as a two-pane outliner. 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.
- Logitech Trackman Wheel – a trackball mouse is essential to avoid repetitive strain injury.
- ClicKey [FREE] – for keyboard sounds. Makes it sound like you are working really hard.
- I don’t really have a favourite here. I use EndNote but 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.
- Zotero – I only use it to capture bibliographic information from Amazon and then I export it out to EndNote.
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.) Combine it with Listary for increased productivity.
- 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).
- Listary Pro [there is also a FREE version] – a search utility that allows you to find files very quickly from within your file manager etc. without having to click through a forest of folder hierarchy. It’s a bit like a combination between Direct Folders and Everything Search Engine (both among my favourites).
- RecentX – it remembers recent files, folders, programmes and websites. It replaced Windows Explorer’s “Recent Places” function for me, as it is more versatile and has longer memory (remembers the last 500 items, which can also be searched). I have its icon docked at the bottom right of the Windows taskbar, so I’m only two or three clicks away from a file I had used recently;
- 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 the iPod Touch and iPad.
- Fences – for organising icons into groups on my desktop. Double-clicking hides all icons to create distraction-free environment.
- Mindsystems Amode V2 – although Amode has many uses (check out their Youtube channel for an overview and other tutorials), I use it as my main project management tool, by monitoring the progress of my project in a Gantt chart.
- Recently I switched to RationalPlan for project management, as I find it is quicker to set up a project plan in it than in Amode.
- WorkFlowy [FREE] – for cross-platform task management (Windows PC & 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.).
- 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. You can include other web pages in its pages, e.g. Google Doc spreadsheets. Protopage has a large choice of productivity widgets, it is highly customisable. I mainly use it as a personal web portal with my most important bookmarks, links that I visit daily, and as an RSS reader. (The free version does have a little banner ad at the top but you can close it, and as long as you don’t refresh the page, it will remain ad-free.) Apparently there is even a way to embed your Google Calendar into Protopage (although I haven’t tried it).
- Google Docs (Google Drive) [FREE] – I use Google Doc spreadsheets extensively to manage elements of my project, e.g. to track productivity.
- iDoneThis – an online diary service, which prompts you by sending you a scheduled daily reminder. It helps to stay disciplined about journalling and aids reflection at the end of the day about daily progress.
- Classic Calendar [FREE] – a bare-bones desktop calendar application with text-only interface. The great thing about this app is its simplicity. I use it for planning and tracking my daily work, as it happens, for my main project only. It’s good to have this separated from all the noise created by personal, family, work etc. appointments in Google Calendar.
Collaboration and communication:
- iMessage [FREE] – for chatting on iPod Touch and iPad.
- FaceTime [FREE] – video talk on iPod Touch (I barely use Skype now).
- TeamViewer [FREE] – for sharing desktop and controlling someone else’s desktop remotely.
- MozyHome – I use Mozy to back up all my important files twice a day. It kicks in automatically, whenever the PC is idle for a specified amount of time (e.g. 15 min.). 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…
- Repeat Timer [FREE] – simple Pomodoro timer for the iPod Touch.
- two monitors – having two monitors at least is essential for serious work with the software tools listed here. I like to have one main monitor (a 19in one) facing me and where I’m doing the main work and another monitor (22in) angled on the right for reference, where I might have my data displayed, or an outline, mind map, concept map etc., etc.
- 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 2 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] – to scroll windows under the mouse (across two monitors) without having to click first.
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.