12 July 2014

Idealist: sounding the death knell

Judging by the statistics, most readers of this blog will know that I have been a faithful user of Blackwell Idealist (a simple fully indexed free text database) since the mid 1990s. It has several strengths that have kept me going back to it after every dalliance with another database:

  • It is extremely simple and rapid.
  • It is utterly reliable. To give you some idea of what I mean, I have used it on every version of Windows from Windows 3.11 for Workgroups through to the 64-bit version of Windows 7 Professional (and for several months I also used it on Linux Mint with the help of Wine) and unlike some well-known programs I could mention it has never crashed and it has never lost any data.
  • It is easily manipulable. For example, unlike most databases you can create new fields within a record on the fly.
  • These days it effectively has no limits regarding size of database: originally it was limited by the amount of RAM available, but it is a very small program and the 8GB of RAM on my laptop would have no difficulty in handling an Idealist database far larger than the largest one I currently have (which contains about 25,000 records).
On the other hand,  I increasingly find myself rubbing up against its other limitations:
  • It works exclusively with ASCII plain text files. If you want store other kinds of data (e.g. images), you have to look elsewhere. In an ideal world, I need a database that allows me to store Unicode text files and equations in LaTeX.
  • While you can create links between records or to other files, it is not straightforward and the links have to be updated manually if any changes are made to those records or files. These days, life would be so much simpler if these things were done at least semi-automatically.
  • Most seriously, I’m not sure how much longer it will work with Windows. It runs happily enough on Windows 7 Professional, but the setup program does not work so I had to install it manually by copying the Idealist program directory from an earlier version of Windows into the Program Files (x86) directory and create shortcuts manually.
So, after years of dithering, I have started the long, slow process of moving my data out of Idealist. In the end, I have settled on two programs rather than one:
  • Evernote is a relatively simple notetaking program with some database features, which I now use as my primary notetaking application. My main reason for opting for it was the ease of syncing notes between my Android tablet and my laptop, which means that I no longer need to lug my laptop around everywhere. It is also a convenient home for a couple of my smaller databases, but it is not sophisticated or robust enough for me to trust it with my main databases.
  • For my main replacement for Idealist, I have finally settled on ConnectedText. Like Idealist, it seems to be flexible, powerful and reliable. Unlike Idealist, you can throw Unicode and LaTeX at it and it won’t blink. Because I’m into mind mapping in a big way, I also appreciate its visual navigator, which displays how individual records are linked to each other.

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