PCWorld’s review of ConnectedText 6

ConnectedText 6 review: Personal wiki adds long-requested features – by Ian Harac

Offline personal wiki tool ConnectedText is ideal for college students, researchers, writers, and anyone else who needs the ability to mix freeform text with keywords and structure, or to perform queries and aggregations based on arbitrary criteria. The new version 6 adds long-needed enhancements to content aggregation, display, and searching.

PCWorld review of ConnectedText 6

PhraseExpander’s new algorithm

I’ve been using the text expansion software PhraseExpander Pro for about three weeks now on a continual basis, as I carry on writing up my PhD thesis. I’m also testing it to fulfil my promise to write a review of it at the end. So far it’s been working very well, as I enjoy its speed, its universal functioning across all of my writing applications, the ease of importing my existing word lists from my previous text expansion application, and the ease of adding new phrases. As I’m not a touch-typist, a text expansion tool for me is a must.

I only had one minor gripe with it so far. I’ve got used to using text expansion software in a somewhat unorthodox way. As I don’t want the cognitive burden of having to remember hundreds of shortcuts, I prefer to set up my phrase lists in such a way that I can just start typing the first few letters of a word, and a list of matching phrases in the drop-down box (that appears by the cursor as I type) gets whittled down, with the intended phrase gradually rising to the top of the list as the match becomes more complete.

Here is an example. Let’s say I want to type the word “conceptual.” I would just type “con” and I would get the following matches in PhraseExpander’s SmartComplete popup window:

PhraseExpanderThen I would just carry on typing until the desired word gets either to the top, at which point I hit the confirmation key (Tab, in my case) to insert it into the text, or near the top, so I can use the arrow key to select it first (alternatively you could also click on it with the mouse):

PhraseExpanderWell, PhraseExpander didn’t quite support my use case perfectly. It worked fine most of the time; however, because it was more geared towards supporting the use of shortcuts, its SmartComplete feature would sometimes try to match the final letter of the word after matching the first two letters, rather than produce a 100% front-end match. For example, after typing “con,” I would have a word like “competition” show up at the top of the list, presumably because the first two letters and the final letter had matched. However, that’s not what I wanted.

After I explained my problem to the developer, it only took him a couple of days to come up with the solution. I don’t completely understand what he did to his algorithm, but the new version works even better than I could have ever imagined. Not only does it fully support my way of narrowing down the phrase list in the popup box by matching 100% of my typed letters, but it also allows me to type any letter from the word beyond the first two letters, and the intended word jumps up the list! I discovered this first by accident, when I mistyped my intended word, yet it showed up at the top of my list, as if the software was able to read my mind. Then I realised that I had typed a letter that appeared further down in the word.

Here is how my earlier example works now in the latest version of PhraseExpander. First I type “con” and I get the same list as above. In order to get to the word “conceptual” the fastest way, all I need to do is type one additional letter that sets it apart from the words above it. In this case it would be the letter “l”, as neither of the words above it have it. So, I type “conl”, and, as if by magic, “conceptual” jumps to the top of the list, so all I need to do is hit the Tab key to insert it.

PhraseExpander

The point here is that the SmartComplete box gives you a visual clue as to what shortcut to type in order to select the desired word, which is much more useful (to me at least) than having to memorise the shortcut—and it also obviates the need to use the arrow key.

How many initial letters and additional ones you need to type will depend on the content of your phrase list. If there are a lot of words starting with the exact same three or four letters, then you need to do a bit more typing to get to the result. But in the case of rarer words, even typing the first two letters plus any one other letter might get you the desired phrase. It is also possible to manipulate the order in which the words usually show up, by shortening the shortcut phrases for those that are more frequently used, which will make them show up nearer to the top of the list. For example, when I start typing “emp,” I want the word “empiricist” to show up sooner than the phrase “empirical description,” and “empirical evidence” sooner than “empirical data.” So I shortened the shortcuts accordingly:

PhraseExpander

In any case, I was very impressed by the developer’s prompt response and his ingenious solution. If you are an existing PhraseExpander user, I strongly recommend downloading the latest version (v. 3.9.6) that has the new updated SmartComplete feature. And if you have not tried PhraseExpander before, the Pro version (which contains the SmartComplete feature) can be trialled for 21 days. I can highly recommend it to anyone who needs to type a lot of repetitive phrases all day long, every day, or words that are long, difficult to spell, or a nuisance to type (such as Markdown code for inserting an image with a long Dropbox link into an HTML page—I’ll say more about this very useful trick in another post).

Gingko app reviewed in The Chronicle

Natalie Houston, associate professor of English at the University of Houston, discusses Gingko app on the ProfHacker blog at The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Write in a New Way with Gingko

I’ve been using Gingko for a couple of weeks and really like it. I find it’s especially valuable for collecting ideas and notes about a topic and then developing more structured pieces of writing from them. As a spatial thinker, I often write ideas or paragraph stubs on index cards or half-sheets of paper and move them around on a table; this tool lets me integrate the same kind of planning with my writing process. I already do a lot of my work in plain text format, so I appreciate the ease with which Gingko exports files and integrates in to my existing workflow. Finally, although I certainly could (and often did, before finding this app) simply create a lot of individual text files as virtual “cards” on my desktop, the clean visual display that Gingko offers really appeals to me. This is the first digital tool that offers mindmapping-like features in what is for me a truly intuitive design. I’m going to continue using Gingko for my own work and look forward to its continued development.

From Greenshot to Screenshot Captor

My screenshot-taking needs are usually not very complex, which is why I had been a happy user of the easy-to-use Greenshot (free and open source). However, recently I ran into a problem where another software’s pop-up box I wanted to capture would disappear as soon as I’d touch the keyboard to take a screenshot with Greenshot.

Then I remembered that I still had a copy of Screenshot Captor (SC), which the first time put me off with its busier interface. However, having spent a bit more time with SC, I was amazed with all the extra and really well-thought-out functionality. Its Quick-Capture bar turned out to be the solution to my problem, as I could take the screenshot with one click of the mouse, which overrode the keyboard sensitivity of the software window I wanted to capture.

Screenshot Captor's Quick-Capture bar

Screenshot Captor’s Quick-Capture bar

Since then I’ve switched to SC as my main screenshot software, as it speeds up greatly the whole process of capturing the screenshot, editing the file name, and editing the image itself, as part of e.g. creating screenshots for this blog. All the shots for my previous post on Gingko were taken with Screenshot Captor.

Going gung-ho with Gingko, the horizontal outlining app

I’ve tried a wide range of outlining and writing tools for Windows over the last few years, in preparation for the big task of writing up my doctoral thesis, so I managed to surprise even myself when after all that careful consideration I chose a web-based tool that I have only found out about barely a month ago. But when push came to shove, and I had to start writing according to a regimented writing schedule, I opted for the newcomer called Gingko app over my old-time favourites oft discussed here.

It is actually not that easy to describe with one concept what type of an application Gingko is exactly, as it cuts across a number of categories (which surely must be a sign of greatness:). What is special about Gingko is the way these disparate features are brought together. As I’m primarily interested in academic work, and more specifically in outlining and writing, for me Gingko is an outliner and a writing app. But even before I began to use it as such, I was already using it as a project planning and task management app. This might give you an idea of its versatility.

Let me focus on Gingko’s outlining and writing capabilities for now. It allows you to outline your writing in virtual index cards, in which your text can be as short or as long as you like, and which can be joined together vertically and horizontally to form columns and rows. The cards can also be freely rearranged on a virtual and more or less infinite ‘corkboard.’

Gingko app

Creating your first card in Gingko

Gingko app

Adding more cards to Gingko horizontally and vertically

Now you might say that there are some other index-card-based software out there, such as those targeting fiction writers, or that there are other virtual corkboard software where you can freely position your notes and even link them with arrows and such. Or you might say that these rows and columns sound and look just like MS Excel or tables in Word.

But this is where Gingko’s magic kicks in. It doesn’t just connect these cards in the manner of a spreadsheet or a table. Gingko in fact is a horizontal outliner. This means that e.g. when you attach a new card to an already existing card horizontally, together they are starting to form a branch within a hierarchical outline. The card on the left becomes a parent, and the card on the right becomes the child, and so on, ad infinitum.

Gingko app

A single branch of a simple horizontal outline in Gingko

But it gets even better. If you now add another card below that child, within the same column, the new card becomes a sibling of the card above, and another child of the aforementioned parent.

Gingko app

Horizontal and vertical hierarchies in Gingko

Now you might wonder: how do multiple clusters of cards connected across both columns and rows can possibly fit in the same space, if they have a different number of cards all connected in different formations? After all, outlines don’t usually have the same number of children and siblings under each parent. This is where the second bit of magic happens. When you click on any of the cards, the card and its entire cluster of parents, grandparents, siblings, children and so on rotate into view through an ingenious mechanism that works a bit like a “fruit machine” (if you’re reading this in British English), or like a “slot machine” (if you’re reading this in North-American English). The same happens if you are navigating with the keyboard arrows. It’s an incredibly clever way to navigate such a complex arrangement.

Gingko

Clicking on “Parent 1 item” rotates its branch into view and centres it, highlighting all connected offsprings

You might still ask: but what is the advantage of writing in such an application? A horizontal outline after all is just like a vertical outline, except it is laid out horizontally… But Gingko is not only a horizontal outliner. As it utilises Markdown, you can add six levels of headings anywhere in the text, which means that you can also do ‘vertical’ outlining, by promoting and demoting the text within a card (or the card itself) without having to actually move the card anywhere. E.g. by adding a Level 1 heading to a card, and a Level 2 heading to its sibling connected from below, the second card now also becomes the child of the card above (while remaining a child of any card to which its “sibling-parent” is connected on the left).

Gingko app

Using Markdown headings to create a vertical hierarchy in Gingko

I put ‘vertical’ above in quotation marks, as—and this might sound a bit confusing initially—you can also apply this parallel or ‘vertical’ hierarchy horizontally, across the columns.

Horizontal and vertical outlining in Gingko

Markdown headings used to create a hierarchy both horizontally and vertically

The Markdown headings are the same thing as headings in MS Word, and if you export a Gingko tree (as a Gingko document is called) as HTML and copy and paste it into Word, the headings will be automatically converted into Word headings. There is another bit of Gingko magic to exporting: horizontal and vertical hierarchies and the Markdown headings (as long as you’ve used them consistently) are all neatly arranged into a single, classical (yes, vertical) hierarchy of headings in the exported document.

Gingko Markdown export

Gingko tree exported as Markdown with horizontal hierarchy converted into a vertical hierarchy

Gingko HTML export

The same Gingko tree exported as HTML, with headings now formatted

Gingko imported into MS Word

The same Gingko HTML export pasted into MS Word, with headings correctly recognised

But I still have not mentioned the killer feature of Gingko. Although the cards are horizontally connected through the “slot machine” mechanism, you can also ‘deactivate’ this hierarchical connection by simply scrolling away to any note in the other columns, while carrying on writing in your centred index card in your focal column. It is immensely useful to be able to call up a note that otherwise might be connected to an entirely different and distant part of the hierarchy, and view it side-by-side with the index card you happen to be editing. If you were using a traditional vertical outliner, you would have to abandon the text you are writing to scroll up or down and drill deep into branches to look for your note, losing both your original place in the outline and your train of thought.

Gingko app

While the edited card remains centred in column 2, the cards on the left and the right are “scrolled up” to be displayed alongside it for reference

There is a lot more to say about Gingko, but I’ll keep that for another post. In the meantime, do check out Gingko’s blog and their Youtube video, as they offer many other user case scenarios.

Update (14-Oct-13):

In response to a reader’s query, here is how to emulate a footnote using the superscript tag with Markdown,

<sup>1</sup>

and the Level 6 heading with Markdown, which produces small font suitable for a footnote:

 ###### 1

The footnote area is separated from the body text by the horizontal line:

---

Here is a screenshot of the card in view mode:

Footnote in Gingko

Emulating a footnote with Markdown in Gingko

And here is the same card in edit mode (the English spellchecker in my Firefox went a bit crazy with the Latin text :):

Footnote in Gingko

The same card in edit mode, showing Markdown syntax

ConnectedText v. 6 is out

A new version of ConnectedText (the personal or desktop wiki that I use as my main notes database and qualitative data analysis tool) was released last week. The complete list of new features, improvements and other changes is here. I have been using the beta version for some months now but I still haven’t had time to try everything out yet. Nevertheless, here is a list of the new features that I find the most significant from my perspective as an academic researcher and writer.

ConnectedText v. 6

ConnectedText v. 6 with floating windows

  1. Floating windows – now it’s possible to see multiple topics (CT’s word for “document”) in freely positionable windows, while editing another topic. You can also preview the topic you are editing, if you wish.
  2. Named blocks –  effectively a qualitative data analysis feature to mark up passages and gather them in another topic. It expands CT’s abilities as a CAQDAS alternative, although to run it on big projects one would need a powerful computer (but isn’t that the case with most CAQDAS?). I’m still trying to figure out how to make the most of this new feature, but I’m excited about the possibilities.
  3. Table of Contents pane –  acquired some outlining capabilities, as it now works as a two-pane outliner in conjunction with the edit window. One is able to edit headings in the TOC pane and use keyboard shortcuts to move them around, and their associated text will also move with them in the editor pane.
  4. Outliner pane – one is now able to drop files and folders onto the tree, and save outlines as templates to be used in the edit window. Ctrl+C and Crtl+V shortcuts are now working within the Outliner.
  5. Ability to disable inclusions (transclusions) for a project (a CT database), which enable faster navigation of complex projects with long daisy-chains of inclusions that require a lot of processing time.
  6. Navigator – ability to remove nodes (topics) from the Navigator view allows for purposeful analysis of the network relationships between linked topics (by eliminating unimportant links from the picture, to reduce ‘noise’). I also like the new “Back” button, which allows you to backtrack in the network tree if you had wandered too far down into a branch.
  7. Auto-numbering (legal numbering) of headings in the editor.
  8. Conversion of imported OPML outline headings into hierarchical bullet-point outline in the editor.

Here is Manfred Kuehn’s selection of his favourite new features in CT v. 6.

From WordExpander to PhraseExpander

In my tutorials on how I use ConnectedText for qualitative data analysis, I mentioned that—following a suggestion from a reader—I had adopted an application for text expansion during the coding process. If you haven’t used such a software before, the main point of them is to speed up typing, by being able to call up frequently used words from a saved list by just typing a shortcut. I am not a touch-typist, so not having to retype long words with complicated spelling is a godsend.

Being the busy PhD student that I am, I didn’t have either the patience or the time to spend a huge amount of time evaluating these software. I downloaded a few, tested them quickly, and if they looked too complicated or wrong for the job, I promptly uninstalled them. I narrowed down my requirements to one single, simple feature. After entering the first few letters of a frequently-used word, I wanted some kind of a pop-up list to show up right next to the cursor, from which I could quickly select the word with up and down arrows, hit Tab, and have the word automatically inserted.

text expansion example

The “EasyComplete” feature in WordExpander

It turned out that that particular feature was not very common. In fact, it seems to be considered a premium feature, mostly included in expensive professional editions, which sometimes are beyond a student’s budget. Naturally, I gravitated towards freely available options. First, I checked out PhraseExpress, which claims to offer its software for free to personal users, but with some kind of a tool to detect if one is a professional user. It seems that being a student puts you in this second category, as I started getting some nagging screens saying that I was a professional user. It just got too annoying, and I uninstalled it soon thereafter.

As I kept searching, I came across the free WordExpander, which did actually do what I wanted to accomplish, and it seemed fairly easy to use, even though it did not look as polished a product as some of the others I looked at. I used it almost on a daily basis for about nine months, and stopped using it about a month ago.

WordExpander

This is what WordExpander looks like

Why did I stop using it? The main reason was that it started interfering with my AutoHotkey scripts I’ve been using in conjunction with ConnectedText, my main tool. I’m not an AutoHotkey expert. I’m not able to debug my AHK scripts or even to determine whether they are the source of the problem. But when I switched WordExpander off, things returned to normal.

There were a number of other limitations in WordExpander that started to get to me. Firstly, it does not work in every application. It did happen to work with CT and some other text editors, but it wouldn’t work properly in browsers for instance. If you’re writing a forum post, for example, the popup word menu would show up in the top left corner of the screen, which was just too cumbersome for the eye to follow. As I use multiple monitors, sometimes the popup menu would show up on the wrong monitor, not the one I was typing in. I  avoided using it in Windows Live Mail altogether, as WordExpander made any kind of typing painfully slow, due to some strange interference.

detection active

The “Detection active” feature that would not deactivate…

Another problem with WordExpander was that some of its features just wouldn’t work. There is e.g. a “detection active” option when you right-click on the WordExpander icon in the Windows taskbar, to switch WE on or off. It has never worked, so I would have to completely quit the application, if I wanted it to stop the popup menu from showing up. A rather annoying shortcoming that cut into my workflow was its inability to keep the capitalisation of a word I had typed: it would just turn it into lowercase, so I had to backtrack every time to correct that.

Also, for some reason at system startup WordExpander would launch multiple copies of itself, with a row of WE icons sitting in the taskbar. I would have to quit WE and relaunch it again to get rid of the other occurrences.

12 instances of the WordExpander icon after booting up

12 instances of the WordExpander icon after booting up

As time went on and my phrase library grew, the application got increasingly slower. I got to 415 words in my main library (the other 4 libraries had about another 40 words), which I didn’t think was a terribly big database to handle. But when I installed WE on my Windows XP netbook with 2GB RAM, it was so slow it was simply unusable.

Maybe I shouldn’t complain too much, since the app was free and I did get some use out of it. But my point is that the benefits of the free version do come to an end at some point (and I don’t even consider myself such a heavy user, given my small phrase library). Plus one needs to be prepared to put up with the above problems.

So, I was left without a text expander, just when I was about to get back to my writing after the summer holidays. I probably would have had to start looking for an alternative fairly soon, but as luck would have it, just a few days ago I was offered a review copy of PhraseExpander, which is another major player in this arena that formerly escaped my attention.

PhraseExpander

This is what PhraseExpander looks like

As many software in this category are very similarly named (TextExpander, WordExpander, PhraseExpander, PhraseExpress etc.), it’s quite easy to overlook one of them or confuse them with each other. In fact, WordExpander is marketed as the “free PhraseExpander” on its website and Facebook page—as it turns out, by the maker of PhraseExpress—which almost sounds like a compliment from a rival (imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, as they say), but it also exemplifies the extent to which competitors are prepared to go to confuse the unsuspecting online shopper.

For all the above reasons I was very curious to see what the “real” PhraseExpander looks like and how it compares with the “free” version offered by its competitor. I will be testing PhraseExpander Professional over a three-month period (which happens to coincide with the writing of my thesis), and I will post my reflections on my experience here. I have only been using it for two days, so it’s a bit early for me to say too much about it just now. I will write a short post soon with my first impressions. But let me just say for now that none of the problems I’ve mentioned in relation to WordExpander are occurring, which is a relief. It’s fast, it works in all applications I’d tried so far (in browsers the popup window would be in the upper middle part of the screen, at eye level, which is an improvement on WordExpander’s top left positioning), detection “on and off” works, capitalisation works, and most importantly, it does not interfere with my AutoHotkey + CT setup.

The "SmartComplete" feature in PhraseExpander

The “SmartComplete” feature in PhraseExpander

The contrast in user experience is pretty obvious from the moment “go,” but then perhaps one should expect that from the professional version of an application that competes in the premium segment of its market.