When I reviewed Together a couple of months ago, several commenters noted its similarity to Yojimbo, and suggested that we take a look. Of course I’d heard of Yojimbo before: it’s one of those near-legendary apps that the Great and the Good of the Mac world seem to swear by. It turns up fairly often on one of my favourite blogs, The Setup.
But for some reason, I’ve never given Yojimbo much more than a cursory glance. I’ve downloaded it once or twice and run it for a while each time, but it’s never stuck for me. I was aware of some complaints about the speed of development of Yojimbo – it seemed to have been standing still for quite some time.
But then version 2.0 arrived (quite suddenly, and without much fanfare). The changes implemented in the new version seem to have done the trick for many people – some who had started wondering about other, similar products (Together, DevonThink, VoodooPad, etc.) returned to the fold. And I decided it was time for me to have a proper look too…
Appearance and Function
Yojimbo follows the three-pane layout familiar from many Mac apps, including Mail. Down the left hand side you have your Library, including any Collections you might have added, and useful built-in smart folders for your Flagged and Recent items, for Archives (which includes PDF documents), for bookmarks, images, and notes. The rest of the screen is divided in two, with a list of items at the top, and a preview of the selected item below.
This layout doesn’t work for me in Mail – I far prefer a ‘widescreen’ view with a list of items on the left and preview on the right, and always load one of the several widescreen hacks available for Mail. Together has this as an option, so I was disappointed not to find it in Yojimbo. Others have also been bothered by this, and designer Jon Hicks offered a fix back in 2007.
This is designed for version 1.5, and I’ve not tested it in Yojimbo 2, so can’t guarantee it’ll work – and I don’t want to do it and find it fails and I have to spend time fixing my copy of Yojimbo when I should be writing this article! – if you care enough and want to try it, please let us know in the comments below how it works for you. But please backup your Yojimbo Library before you do so!
The toolbar icons are largely self-explanatory. The ‘New’ button lets you create any of the various types of documents Yojimbo works with, though I like that the keyboard shortcut [cmd]+[n] is set to make a new note, so it’s easy to add new text notes on-the-fly.
The Inspector button brings up a panel that summarises all aspects of the selected item, including any Tags or Labels you’ve applied to it, Collections it’s placed in, and any Comments you might want to append. That’s handy for allowing a second level of annotation and finer granular control of your data.
The last button on the toolbar is an important one, and one that relates to what appears to be among the most important improvements in the new version of Yojimbo: better support for tagging. Hit the button, and the right side of the window shifts over to display a list of all your tags. As you can see from the screenshot, hovering over a tag highlights it, and clicking then filters your list to show only items with that tag.
People were excited when Yojimbo introduced this feature, and it’s easy to see why – it’s a very straightforward implementation of tag browsing, and it works very well indeed.
It’s also worth mentioning another nice thing about Yojimbo’s layout: the encrypt button that appears when an item is selected (see first screenshot above). It enables you to secure items very quickly and simply, and on a per-item basis, rather than needing to encrypt the entire Library.
Getting Information In
If you attempt to import a folder full of files into Yojimbo, you will notice that certain types of file will be greyed-out in the import dialogue, demonstrating some of Yojimbo’s limitations:
I was surprised and disappointed to find that it can’t work with MP3 files, since most similar apps can, and I have a large archive of sound recordings that I like to keep in a single archive.
It’s also pretty disappointing, for me, that it doesn’t recognise OmniOutliner documents, since that excludes a whole period of note-taking from a few years back. Sure, I can convert those notes to another format, but I appreciated that Together imported them without hassle or requiring any conversion.
Once you’ve selected your files for import, the app whirrs away for a few moments importing them:
And then you’re done: the Library is open!
There are a few other ways of getting information into Yojimbo. First, as you may have noticed in the first screenshot above, is that little tab for the Drop Dock at the left screen edge. Click the tab, and the Dock slides out, allowing you both to enter new information, by dragging-and-dropping items into the Library or particular Collections, or to quickly navigate through your information:
And then there’s the Quick Input Panel: hit a keyboard shortcut, and a panel appears into which you can enter any of the various forms of information Yojimbo works with. This is clever, too, offering to autofill the new item with the contents of your clipboard.
You can also print directly to Yojimbo from any app – just click on the PDF button at bottom-left of the print dialogue, and select ‘Save PDF to Yojimbo…’
And, finally, there are bookmarklets available from the Help menu that allow you to bookmark or archive webpages you visit directly into Yojimbo, either with or without an intermediate step of adding tags.
Getting Information Out
Yojimbo stores your files and information in a SQL database at ~User/Library/Application Support/Yojimbo. Different people will have different opinions and feelings about this arrangement.
It’s secure, it’s easy to get your information out again using the Export feature, and it’s saved constantly as you work, but many prefer to have their documents available in their original form in a folder that they can access easily via Finder.
In his recent interview on The Setup, journalist Bobbie Johnson addressed the endless search for the perfect tools, saying: “it seems terribly cargo cultish to believe that you will be A Proper Writer if you manage to perfect the process.”
As I said in my piece on Together, I’ve been involved in exactly that search, but now I think Bobby’s right: it’s too easy to be sidetracked by searching for the perfect app. Just this week, I was trying to manhandle Yojimbo into a system for managing my writing projects – there’s some point to that effort, but now I realise I’m probably better off using OmniFocus for that job, though I think it’s likely that I will continue to use Yojimbo for collecting and storing information related to particular writing jobs I’m working on.
So I’m learning something about using the right tool for the job. What I really like about Yojimbo is how easy it is to work with. Its implementation of tagging works brilliantly for me – better than Together’s, though I’m not sure I could say exactly why.
On their website, Yojimbo’s developers use the phrase ‘low friction’ to describe collecting data in the app. That’s just right for describing what I like about Yojimbo: it’s elegant, it gets out of the way, and it’s so easy to work with. There are things I would like to see added: importing sound and video files would be good, native support for ‘widescreen’ layout, a good full-screen display so that I can sit back and read the information I store easily and clearly. But just as it is, Yojimbo is great and well worth a try – you can download a demo of the app from the Bare Bones site.
I mentioned The Setup earlier, a site that describes itself as ‘a bunch of nerdy interviews’ – it feeds that basic human need to understand how other people work and get things done, and it also supports the habit that many of us have of constantly hunting around for The Right Tool. There’s always a something of interest in every piece on The Setup, and I recommend spending time checking out the apps suggested there.