Curio: A Workshop for Your Creative Projects

How do you like to plan? Do you create a mind map? Make a list? Outline? Shuffle index cards? Pour out your ideas in stream of conscious writing? Stimulate thoughts with pictures? Build diagrams?

If you can answer yes to most or all of these methods of planning and organizing, then you really, really need to take a look at Curio, an application that combines a stunning array of tools for collecting ideas and putting them to work. Today we are going to take a look at one of the most versatile information organizers available anywhere.

Don’t Call Me a Mind Mapper

Let me start this review by telling you what Curio is not. It is not an outliner. It is not a mind mapper. It is not a diagrammer. It is not a task manager. It is not a clip board. It is not a word processor. It is not spreadsheet. It is not a photo album. It is not an information manager.

It is none of those things, and yet you can use Curio to handle all those jobs and more.

Curio's Interface

Curio's Interface

I emphasize what Curio is not because if you expect it to be one of those types of applications you will be disappointed. But if you understand just what Curio is intended to be, you may well find it an indispensible software tool.

So, what then is Curio?

Curio is an unlimited white board on which you can jot, doodle, collect, think and develop ideas. Build on them. Communicate them. Make them grow. Curio can be almost anything you need it to be as you manage projects. I think of Curio as a workshop for my creative projects, one loaded with all shorts of great tools.

Let’s get started.

Pro vs. Standard

Curio is the only product from Zengobi, a software company established in 2004. Curio comes in two editions, Pro and Standard, selling for $169 and $129 respectively. You can also get a family license for the Pro edition for $199. Students and teachers qualify for an academic license of the Pro edition for $89. There is a two-week free trial, which you can request to have expanded to two months.

The Pro edition is worth paying for if you use Curio for more than quick brainstorming and random jottings. This screenshot shows a Curio Idea Space with a table listing the features included with the Pro edition:

Pro Features

Pro Features

A Place to Expand Your Ideas

To install Curio simply download the zipped file, which should automatically decompress into your download folder. Then drag and drop the Curio file into your applications folder. After purchasing one of the Curio editions (Pro or Standard), you will receive a license key via e-mail, which you can register manually by selecting the License option from the Curio menu, or you can do so online with the supplied link.

How Curio is Divided Up

How Curio is Divided Up

The Curio screen is divided into five panes, all but the central one can be hidden, so they may not all be visible when you first run Curio. The big pane in the center is called the “Idea Space.” This is where work is done in Curio. The items you place into an Idea Space are known as figures. A project is a collection of Idea Spaces – it is what you create when you make a new file.

The Curio Shelf

The Curio Shelf

You organize all the Idea Spaces for a given project in the Organizer, located immediately to the left of the Idea Space. You can set the Organizer to open and close automatically when you move the cursor to the left edge of the Curio window. The Organizer behaves much like the tree-pane in typical information managers, but you can optionally display an icon for each node that approximates the appearance of the respective Idea Space.

Below the Organizer is the Project Center. This small window gives you access to all your projects, which can be further organized into categories.

Below the Idea Space is the Library, providing a quick overview of all the “assets” embedded in the currently open project. Assets can be jpegs, PDFs, and native application files such as a Numbers spreadsheet.

The right side of the screen is optionally occupied by the Shelf, which provides access to various sets of tools. Which tools depend to some extent on which edition of Curio you are using – more about this below. The main shelf space is devoted to the Inspector, which you will use to control the appearance and behavior of the various figures you can put into place in an Idea Space.

Other Shelf tools include a Search panel for finding information in the current project; Flashlight, an amped-up Spotlight; the Scrapbook for stashing common assests for re-use in other projects; an integrated Evernote tool; and, in the Pro edition, the Status Shelf for project management, and shelves for storing Stencils and Templates.

The Curio Tool Box

Within any single Idea Space you can gather a multitude of information in a wide array of formats. Curio comes with built-in tools to create the following figures in your Idea Space:

  1. Lists and outlines
  2. Mind maps
  3. Tables
  4. Arrays of index cards
  5. Formatted text blocks and free-form diagrams

I won’t go into detail about each of these tools, but suffice it to say that these are not as powerful as dedicated applications. If you work a lot with mind maps, for example, you’ll probably want to have a mind mapping application like MindNode or NovaMind. But all Curio’s tools are more than serviceable, as you can see from this screenshot:

Curio Tools

Curio Tools

But you are not limited to Curio’s own set of tools. You can drop in photographs, URLs, recordings, and PDFs. You can embed almost any file. Need a Numbers spreadsheet? Use the “Instant Document” command. You can’t view the document itself in Curio, but it is available almost instantly with quick click.

Dropping Elements Into Curio

Dropping Elements Into Curio

Special Features

The list of things Curio does is long. Longer than I can adequately cover in this review. But there are a few special features that demand a closer look and give you some idea of the thought that has gone into Curio’s development.

Spread PDF

Do you need to annotate or take notes about a PDF document? If so, drop a copy into an Idea Space, create a text box or list beside it. Then choose “Spread PDF” from the menu that pops up when right clicking over the Idea Space name in the Organizer. Curio automatically makes a duplicate copy of the Idea Space for each page of the PDF, giving you all the room you need to jot notes about any specific page.

Export of Text

I suspect one of the biggest challenges for the developer of Curio was how to get the text from so many different figure types to export in a useful fashion. While not perfect, the text copy is pretty clever. Let me demonstrate.

Different Types of Text

Different Types of Text

In the screen shot above, I’ve got text in three different types of figure: An index card, a list and a mind map. If I select all three of the figures in the screenshot above and use the copy-as-text menu command, I get the following text when I paste it elsewhere:

Exporting Text

Exporting Text

This same functionality allows Curio to quickly shift text in one form to another. Transform a collection of index cards into a list, or a list into a mind map, and back again. The philosophy behind Curio is to give you the ability to present and organize your information and ideas in the way that works best for you.

The Dossier

The Pro edition includes a tool called The Dossier, a collection of questions for kick-starting a project. Several types of Dossiers are included with pre-defined questions, but you can edit these and create your own Dossiers. For example, there is a Dossier for a creative brief with questions about target audiences and key messages, among many others.

Weaknesses

Curio is an amazing tool, but it is not perfect. Curio is not currently good at creating links from one Idea Space to another. The method is cumbersome and slow. A much needed function is the ability to automatically create a series of Idea Spaces each linked to a node in a mind map or list. That way you could brainstorm a project and then quickly populate a Curio project with an Idea Space for each topic in the mind map, with your original mind map being a handy index and navigator.

Figures in the Idea Space can be a little finicky and some behaviors take getting used to. For example, an index card is really two pieces of information, the title and the body text. Drag a card into a table and it splits in two, with the title in one cell and the body text in the adjacent cell to the right (or the first cell of the next row, if dropping it onto the last cell of a row). That’s not a big issue, but you need to be aware of these kinds of small quirks.

Of the tools provided, I find the mind map the weakest. It works well for pretty diagrams, but is limited in the types of diagrams you can automatically create. For example, you can’t select “flow chart” from a style Inspector and get that type of diagram. You can drag the nodes of the mind map around, but that is cumbersome and gives you some unexpected behavior, such as nodes becoming unlodged from the map altogether. I believe the mind map feature is one of the areas that will be improved in the upcoming release of version 7.0.

Competition

The competition for Curio is really all the dedicated applications that each focus on a specific task that is just one tool in Curio. OmniGraffle would be a better choice if you’re primarily looking for a diagramming program. Circus Ponies Notebook will probably be more appropriate if you are mostly working with lists and outlines. SuperNoteCard could be more useful for those intrigued by managing a stack of index cards. And any spreadsheet will provide far more power when working with tabular information.

Curio Competitors

Curio Competitors

The competition narrows a great deal, however, when you consider the applications that do everything Curio does within the context of an unlimited white board. In fact, I believe it narrows to almost zero. Circus Ponies Notebook can do many of the same things Curio does — outlining, task management, diagrams — and at a lower price. But it’s work area is not nearly as flexible as Curio’s Idea Space. Curio is more visually appealing, and I’m not fond of the notebook metaphor, finding it somewhat constricting. You should definitely compare Curio and Notebook side by side to decide which approach works better for you.

The other competitor for Curio that comes to my mind is Tinderbox. Tinderbox is really a database that provides innumerable options for viewing that data. It’s an application I use and admire. But it takes a lot of study to become proficient with Tinderbox, while you should be able to tap into Curio’s powers relatively quickly.

This gets me to a final competitor for Curio. Microsoft’s OneNote. Let’s take a quick look at the two.

OneNote for Mac?

For many, leaving Microsoft’s Windows OneNote behind is one of the impediments to making the switch from a PC to a Mac, and the question comes up, which application for Mac is most like OneNote?

The logical response is to recommend Notetaker or Circus Ponies Notebook, because all three applications use a notebook metaphor. However, I would like to make the case for Curio as the better “OneNote for Mac” option.

I admire and use OneNote a lot – I have it on my MacBook available through VMWare Fusion, and at my office where we are tethered to Windows PCs. OneNote’s greatest strength is not its “notebook” interface, but rather the ability to bring together information in a variety of forms. As we’ve already seen, this is also Curio’s strength.

Of course, Curio and OneNote are not identical. OneNote has powerful collaboration features, which Curio lacks. If collaboration is important to you, I suggest you explore Notetaker’s sister application, Noteshare.

Beyond collaboration, though, Curio Professional has several advantages over OneNote:

  1. Curio handles tables with much greater dexterity.
  2. Curio has a mind mapping feature.
  3. Curio has more robust task and project management features.
  4. Curio is more visually appealing.
  5. Curio integrates well with Evernote.
  6. Curio has the dossier feature.
  7. Curio’s sleuth function makes it easier to capture information from the Web.

So, if OneNote is what is holding you back from making the switch to a Mac, give Curio a try and you may find you can do without Microsoft altogether.

Conclusion

Curio is a terrific application that improves with each new release. How useful it will be for you will depend upon how much you like to combine information in various forms. Don’t buy it because of any one of its built-in tools. These are good, but you’ll be happier with a dedicated application like OmniGraffle if, for example, you want powerful diagramming software.

But, if the thought appeals to you of having an application where you have almost unlimited room for gathering and developing information from almost any source, you owe it to yourself to check out Curio.

I give Curio a rating of 8 on a scale to 10. It the ultimate project workshop.

Not a fan of the Curio icon? Unfortunately it does look a little out of date… If you’d like a replacement, check out this fantastic alternative (it’s the icon we’ve used for this post!)

Review Update: Version 7

One of the aspects I appreciate about Curio is that Zengobi is continually working to improve it. This review focused on version 6.4 of Curio. Since its writing, Curio 7 has been been released with a substantial number of new features and improved functionality. Here is a brief summary of the key additions and changes:

  • You can now create sections (similar to folders) in the Organizer, and folders in the Project Center.
  • The Mind Map function now allows you to specify automatic right or left maps, or organizational chart arrangements. This addresses one my criticisms of Curio, making the mapping function useful for a wider range of needs.
  • Galleries now provide quick access to bundled Project and Idea Space templates, and figure styles.
  • You can also access your own custom templates and figures through the Galleries.
  • Index Card figures can now collapse to show just the title in the Idea Space.
  • Improvements and enhancements to some of the graphics, such as advanced shadow effects, text shadows and more advanced figure fills, bring added dimension and visual attractiveness to your Idea Spaces.
  • You can now embed images in text figures.
  • The Shelf and Inspector Bar are now customizable.

This is only a partial list of the changes you’ll find in Curio 7. None of these in themselves is earth-shaking, but the cumulative weight of all the changes make this a significant upgrade. One of the changes, however, is a price bump. Curio 7 Professional now lists for $169, while the Standard edition is $129. The Pro version is available for $89 for students and academics. I hope to have a more thorough look at Curio 7 in a future post.


Summary

Curio is an unlimited white board on which you can jot, doodle, collect, think and develop ideas. Build on them. Communicate them. Make them grow. Curio can be almost anything you need it to be as you manage projects.

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  • http://www.kaishinlab.com kaishin

    Oh, and their icon sucks. Here is a replacement I made http://kaishinlab.com/curio-revisited/

    • http://mac.appstorm.net David Appleyard

      That’s fantastic! Might just update the post preview with it, in fact…

    • http://www.yummygum.nl Leon

      Awesome new icon! Think i’ll use it as a replacement icon for another app since I don’t have (or will have) Curio :). Perhaps you could contact Curio guys and redesign their entire UI ;)

  • Amdomi

    Finally a review about Curio. The most important piece of software that I use on a daily basis on a Mac.
    I was a OneNote user on Windows and was very dissapointed with alternatives on the Mac. Until I found Curio :-) Now I like it even more then OneNote.

    All we need now is an iPad version because on the iPad there is still no good notetaking app I think, and I tried just about all of them.

  • Julia

    I also am a Curio user and love it. I was an avid OneNote user on my old Windows machine and really, really missed it until I found Curio. Now, while I still would welcome OneNote coming to Mac, I don’t lament the fact that it seems it never will.

    Curio is an amazing program, and in many ways only limited by one’s imagination of ways to use it.

  • http://www.zengobi.com George Browning

    Thanks for the awesome review, Steve!

    Kaishin: I actually introduced your icon in our forums last April to get some feedback. It’s very well done! Feel free to post your thoughts (in our forums, that is) on the color changing idea. http://www.zengobi.com/forums/viewtopic.php?p=2190

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  • Paolo Tramannoni

    Actually, NoteBook’s workspace is not limited to the notebook page. You can customize it to become a whiteboard, and the work area widht is only limited by the screen size (length is unlimited).

    Despite the different way of doing things, Curio and NoteBooks are really overlapping apps.

  • rhubarb

    Way, way, waaaaayyy too expensive.
    Kudos to those of you who use it and love it and are prepared to put your money where your mouth is, but really, in this day and age, 169 for a personal-use tool like this? Crazy talk.

    Worse than the simple sticker shock is that when you come to that always-tough decision about which version to buy. ‘Do I really need the Pro edition features?’. In this case, I don’t need any of them but the idea of paying over $100 for this kind of software, and _only getting the crippleware version_, just makes me feel ripped off.

    So, I think I’ll wait a bit longer for the Mac AppStore to gain traction. Eventually the developer will learn app-store economics that developers learnt with the iPhone: that you might sell 100 copies a year at $100 a piece, and do okay, but at $10 each, you’ll sell 100 a week and at $1.99 you’ll sell 100 copies a day, and you’ll be richer faster. Hanging out for that AppStore version…

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