Review: OmniOutliner for iPad

I have always found outlining a post harder than just writing one with no outline. However, I knew when the OmniGroup announced that they were bringing OmniOutliner to the iPad that I would snatch it up right away because I love using that app as a note taking tool in meetings — on the Mac it lends itself well to that task.

As I had already decided to buy the app I immediately bought it and installed it when it launched, here’s my impressions of OmniOutliner for iPad after using it to actually outline a few of my posts and spending considerable time with the app.

Omni Uses the App

One thing that is immediately evident is that this is an app made by people who actually use the app on the device. Thought was put into the controls in the app, how you enter data, style it, and organize it. You don’t have to wonder how you move items around, or make children and parent items — you just do what you think you should be able to do and more likely than not you will be right.

It’s things like that which make using this app so fantastic.

Color Schemes

OmniOutliner on the Mac has always support colors, but rarely are they used because it just isn’t that easy to do so. Enter the iPad app and the OmniGroup has pre-made seven different color themes and styles that you can duplicate and use. My favorite of course is the Solarized light theme — it’s like they read my mind on this one.

The neatest thing is that these color themes carry over to your Mac. If I set the colors on the iPad and open the same file on my Mac it will look the same, what a great touch that you would expect to have in an app of this caliber.

Outlining

As I said in the intro I don’t normally outline things, but the iPad also makes it a pain to edit text and to write long form (without a bluetooth keyboard at least). This is the void that OmniOutliner has filled for me since I downloading it. Allowing me to quickly structure and “write” a post with great ease. Opening the file on my Mac, or more likely set the iPad next to my Mac screen, and I can take off writing.

I also get the added benefit of actually being able to see the flow of a post before I write it — which hopefully produces better quality content.

As a straight outlining tool OmniOutliner is one of the most robust you can get on your iPad and again the actions work just as you expect them. You can arrange items by dragging them and also delete with a swipe.

Other Uses

The great thing about OmniOutliner has always been the flexibility that the app provides — even so far back as the kGTD system days. That doesn’t stop here either, there are great preset templates for things like logs (I created whiskey log to track the whiskey I have tried) and of course for note taking and basic spreadsheet layouts.

The pre-installed spreadsheet looks basic at first until you realize that it is actually auto calculating a few cells — this is not a Numbers replacement, but it is a very nice and quick spreadsheet tool. With a few added TextMate bundles and copious use of the notes fields you could actually write an entire post in the app — though that seems bit ridiculous if you ask me.

Miscellaneous Good Things

It’s incredible how fast and light this app feels. It launches quickly and opens documents with very little delay. The app gives you access to the full range of fonts available on the iPad — a nice departure from the typical forced Helvetica apps that flood the writing app categories.

One last point before moving on: the icon is not blue or purple — it’s orange. I am not sure if they are trying to create a brushed metal look, but either way I like the app icon quite a bit. Having said that, if you put it next to the iPod icon you are asking for trouble.

$20

You can’t talk about an OmniGroup app without mentioning the price. They sell OmniFocus at $40 on the iPad and OmniOutliner keeps the high priced tradition with a price of $20. Is the price high? Yes, in comparison to other iPad apps. Is the price too high for what you get? No.

Think of it this way, the Mac app will run you $39.99 for the non-Pro version — the iPad version is half the price with no reduction in features — it’s worth $40.

File Management

One of the most important aspects of a tool like OmniOutliner is how well it will play with your Mac. That means if I have an outline on my Mac, how easy is it to get it open on my iPad — and vice versa. Sadly this is the biggest speed bump for OmniOutliner. The obvious choice would be for the app to work with Dropbox — thus allowing you to quickly and painlessly work between your device, sadly the OmniGroup did not implement this in it’s first version. 1

Instead here are your options for importing a new file to OmniOutliner on your iPad:

  1. Copy from iDisk — to which I ask who has the time to save a file to idisk?
  2. Copy from WebDAV

Let’s talk about the second option for a moment, as you perhaps don’t know what to do with it. Except Omni’s likely customer base is one that knows what this means and has a webDAV server setup. But if you don’t, you still have an options. What you may not know is that with the help of DropDAV you can create a webDAV server for free (for free Dropbox accounts) out of your existing Dropbox account — which works just fine for importing to OmniOutliner.

Once you hook the two together things work pretty decently with your Dropbox account. 2

Export gives you two options as well:

  1. Email — gee thanks.
  2. WebDAV

Again here number two is really not that useful until you hook up Dropbox and DropDAV — then it becomes all sorts of powerful. The biggest issue that still remains is version control. Importing and exporting means that you aren’t doing a modification sync so you will likely get tripped up with an old version somewhere, at some point. I’d like to see native Dropbox integration here so that I don’t have to worry about which version is the most recent.

Document Selector

One last thing: OmniOutliner uses the same document selector carousel that apps like Pages and Numbers uses. You see a smaller thumbnail of the document with name and options — scrolling laterally to see other documents. As has been noted about Pages and Numbers this only works with a small grouping of documents. Once you reach, say, 20 documents the entire system becomes very cumbersome to use.

I think a quick solution would be to implement some type of search mechanism for the file picker, but even then we need some improvements here. The Apple carousel view really isn’t made to handle a bunch of files quickly.

Brown

The top and bottom toolbars use a textured brown coloring — which I don’t quite get since it isn’t strong enough to where it feels like skeuomorphism, it just feels off. I can forgive little things like this, but it causes two problems:

  1. It reminds me of iCal, which is ugly.
  2. When you have a dark background it is too light and draws my eye. On a light document it is too dark and draws my eye. These two bars just feel heavy and there — instead of being out of the way.

The brown color seems like an odd choice when put next to the sleek silver gradient of the column header bar, this isn’t enough to say that it is a bad design, or ugly — but it is a bold choice that I don’t care for.

TextExpander

One huge missing element is TextExpander support. I asked OmniGroup CEO Ken Case about this on Twitter, to which he replied:

Not sure yet how easy TextExpander will be to integrate: it works with standard UIKit text fields, but ours are custom.

and:

(We had to build our own custom text fields to support rich styles, inline attachments, etc.)

It sounds like they are looking into adding the support, but are rightfully concerned with how well it will work with their non-standard UI. That’s a major bummer and one that I hope they find a work around for — once you get used to TextExpander it becomes very annoying when an app doesn’t support it.

Better than Good

Even with the flaws I pointed out this is still a very good app for two reasons:

  1. It is far better than the Mac version (I am seeing a trend with OmniGroup offerings here).
  2. It makes my iPad better.

Even if they only met criteria number two you would be hard pressed to call the app anything but very good. The biggest hurdle the app still has to deal with is a syncing/Dropbox solution, if and when they get that handled this will be a must have app.

  1. I really hope this is coming though.
  2. Be sure to add a trailing slash on the DropDAV url when you enter it: https://dav.dropdav.com/ and that should fix any constant re-login issues you may find.
Originally posted for members on: May 16, 2011
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