VoodooPad 5: Is There Magic in This Personal Wiki?

Anyone who has used Wikipedia understands the concept of a wiki — and who hasn’t used Wikipedia? It’s a network of pages or articles linked through keywords. A desktop wiki just takes that idea and makes it personal.

VoodooPad is one of the original desktop wikis for Mac OSx. Today, we’re going to take a look at the recently released version 5.0 to see if it lives up to the longheld VoodooPad legacy.

Main VoodooPad Screen

What’s New in VoodooPad 5

Mac.Appstorm published an excellent review of VoodooPad 4.0 a few years ago, so I won’t go into too much detail about the basics of the program, but some essential things have changed. The application is now available through the App Store or you can still purchase through the developer, Flying Meat. The upgrade price is $24.99. For what is called a “limited time offer,” everyone can purchase a new license for the same price.

Flying Meat is no longer developing the free “lite” version of VoodooPad, but the older lite version is still available at the web site.

You can run a trial of VoodooPad if you download from the developer’s site. You get a zipped folder that automatically unzips and the application is ready to run. Just drag it to your Applications folder. If you’re testing the upgrade, you should be aware that VoodooPad now uses a new file format, which does not provide backward compatibility, so be sure to back up your VoodooPad 4.0 (or earlier) files before letting version 5.0 have at ‘em.

Many significant new features and functions have been added to VoodooPad with this version, starting with the fact that it is now a 64-bit application. Other major additions and improvements include the following:

  • New ability to publish straight to ePub and PDF.
  • New Collections palette for an additional layer of organization.
  • A new type of page that recognizes native Markdown editing.
  • Find to-do items embedded within various pages and list them in the palette.
  • New synchronization capability with Dropbox.
  • Java scriptlet support, and revamped event script system.

I’ll look more closely at most of these below, then I’ll provide my overall impressions of VoodooPad 5.0. But first a few VoodooPad basics.

Some VoodooPad basics

Before delving into the new features, a few words about how VoodooPad works. To start, the basic interface will remind you pretty much of a standard word processor.

VoodooPad Interface

VoodooPad looks like your friendly neighborhood word processor.

Write or paste your information in the editor window. When you decide to create a new page, you have a few options for how to do so. If you’re referencing something for which you have text, say a name, just highlight the word or phrase, press command-L (or use the link button in the toolbar) and a new page is created with that word or phrase as a title, and a link to this new page is embedded in the text of the original page. That’s simple and pretty basic wikiness. You can also create a new page without creating a link in the current document. Just press the new page button.

To get to the real meaty power of VoodooPad, you will need to develop a familiarity with the Palette window and the various palettes it gives you access to.

VoodooPad Palette

The Palette window with the Info palette selected. The palettes give you access to a number of useful functions.

The screen shot above shows the palette pane with the Info Palette selected. You can choose which palette to display from the list on the left. These palettes will factor into our upcoming discussions.

And finally, a couple of definitions. In VoodooPad your open file is called a document, and your various notes are called pages.

Publish or perish?

It seems that everyone wants to get into the act of turning written material into an eBook these days, and VoodooPad is no exception. Version 5 has the added ability to publish your documents in ePub and PDF formats so you can “publish your document as an electronic book on Apple’s iBookstore, Amazon.com, or even your own website.”

Export to ePub Dialog

VoodooPad 5 allows you to export your document to ePub format, in whole or in part.

I’m not an expert on ePub formats, but this function certainly appears to work fine. As you’ll learn below, I do have some reservations about how powerful this feature is. Nevertheless, it works and should prove useful in many situations.

New Collections palette and export functions

One of the advantages of a wiki database like VoodooPad is how you can grow your treasure trove of information organically, without having to consider how you want to structure it ahead of time. Sometimes, however, you may find that structure is important. The new Collections feature in VoodooPad 5 attempts to solve this issue, allowing you to build an organizational hierarchy to supplement your wiki network.

Let’s look at a possible real-life example. Say you created a VoodooPad document to manage a new project. You’ll probably end up with a lot of pages, only some of which you may want to export into a report for your supervisor. You might create a collection called Executive Report, which would allow you to assemble the report from the appropriate pages of your overall project document.

As with many of the functions of VoodooPad, you do this work in the Palette window.

VoodooPad Collections Palette

Organize your VoodooPad pages hierarchically in the new Collections palette.

There are at least a couple of ways to build a collection. In the first, you select the pages to include in a collection via a drop down menu, as illustrated below:

Collections Palette Drop Down

You can use the drop down box to select pages to add to your collections.

This is a little time-consuming, so I recommend opening an additional Palette window, clicking to the Pages palette, then dragging the pages you want into the open Collections palette. Confused? This screen shot should clear it up:

Drag and Drop from Palette to Palette

A quicker way to build a collection is to open a second palette, switch to the Pages palette and drag pages from here to the Collections palette.

A Collection can be referenced when exporting to the new PDF and ePub formats. This is a nice feature, but it has some limits and functionality omissions that are important to note. For one, in the PDF export, each page from your Collection starts a new page in the exported file. There is no way to change this action at this time. This is a major issue to me, as it seems reasonable that you may want to combine some pages from VoodooPad into one section of your exported document, and not have each start a new page. There should be an option to toggle “make new page” on or off for export.

This would be less of an issue if you could use Collections when exporting to Word, because you could quickly and easily edit the document in Word after export. But as of this writing, you can’t reference a Collection when exporting to Word or any of the export formats other than PDF and ePub. (The developer has said that he’s added this to the features request list, so it may appear in a future update.) VoodooPad does include the ability to select which pages to export to Word, but that does not involve the Collections feature.

Markdown editing

VoodooPad now includes three page types: Plain Text, Rich Text and the new Markdown type. Markdown is a tool used to convert a specialized, plain text syntax to HTML. In other words, add the special character codes to your plain text document, then use the Markdown conversion tool to render your page for export to the web or, in the case of VoodooPad, to ePub format as well.

The new Markdown page type performs a quasi-preview for you. It will be easier to demonstrate this than describe it:

Markdown Format Page with HTML Preview

This is a Markdown formatted page with a small HTML preview window.

The screen shot above shows a Markdown type page. Bracketing “Abbey on Education” in double hash marks makes it a headline, and bracketing “Edward Abbey” in double asterisks makes it bold. the Markdown format page retains the syntax code, while providing a quasi preview in the main window. You can see a genuine HTML preview, as above, by selecting “HTML Preview” from the VIEW menu.

New features for task management

A very handy new feature of VoodooPad 5 is the To-dos palette, which shows all the instances in your document of the string “@todo:” followed by a line of text. This may be my favorite new feature. See the screenshots below to see this in action:

To-Do Palette in Action

The To-dos palette searches the open document to find strings you designate as indicating a to do.

To Do Palette Detail

A closer look at the To-dos palette.

@todo: is the default action token that VoodooPad searches for, but you can also set any string of text that follows the @ sign to be an action token, such as defining a reminder or a phone call to make.

To-Do Token Customization

You can define your own action "tokens" for VoodooPad to search and list in the To-dos palette.

Another small, but very useful new feature is the ability to make any line or paragraph of text a Check Box Item via the FORMAT menu. You can use the action tokens at the start of the line of a check box item to add an additional dimension to your task management.

Check Box Demo

Another new feature of VoodooPad 5 is that you can add check boxes to your lists.

Synchronize with Dropbox

The new full-featured synchronization function is probably going to be very popular with VoodooPad users. Save your VoodooPad document to a Dropbox folder and you can keep it fully synchronized between two or more computers, and with the VoodooPad iOS app. You can even collaborate with someone else on the same document. I have only one Mac, so I was unable to test this function. (I must note, however, that the comments on the App Store about the iOS version of VoodooPad include several that are not very complimentary, for whatever that may be worth.)

Java and Event Scripts

Two additional new features may appeal to the more technically minded user — which is not me, so I am not going to try to explain or test them. Here’s what Flying Meat has to say about them:

Java Scriptlet support with Web Export, ePub, and PDF export!

You can now write mini-scripts into your pages that are rendered when you export to HTML, ePub, or PDF. Dynamically change the content of your page with simple <%= %> tags. Generate static websites without giving up dynamic content. Read all about scriptlet support in the documentation.

New Event Scripts

The event scripts system has been rewritten to make it easer to extend VoodooPad’s functionality. No longer do you have to make multiple pages and hook up crazy palettes just to customize what happens when a document opens or closes. Just create an event specific page, and write your script using JavaScript. Easy.

The World’s Easiest Personal Wiki

VoodooPad has always been a very good information manager. I’m not sure I buy Flying Meat’s claim that it is the world’s best personal wiki (my vote would go to the Windows application ConnectedText). But it is certainly the easiest wiki I’ve ever used.

If you know how to use a word processor, you’ll have no trouble with VoodooPad. I do think the application loses some of its wiki-flavor by moving much of the information management out of the main window and into the Palettes window, but this is also what helps to make it easy to use. By contrast, a lot of what VoodooPad does in the Palettes window can be done directly in the main window of ConnectedText, but this requires embedding some coding in your text window. VoodooPad’s Palettes handle all of that for you.

I’m not here to tell you which way is better, and it doesn’t matter. VoodooPad is fun and easy to use. The learning curve is quite flat for most of its functions. It does the job effectively and is a stalwart OS X application that just got better than ever.

If you tried and rejected VoodooPad before, I don’t think there is anything in the new edition that will change your opinion (unless you were holding out for synchronization). But if you already use VoodooPad, you will find it well worth upgrading. And if you’ve never tried it, now is the time to give it a whirl.


Summary

An personal wiki that's easy to use has just gotten better, with e-publishing exporting, synchronization and new task management features.

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