Yojimbo: Your Low-Friction Information Organizer

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.

The Yojimbo Interface

The Yojimbo Interface

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.

Adding a New Item

Adding a New Item

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 Inspector

The Inspector

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.

Handling Tags

Handling Tags

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:

Importing Documents

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:

The Cogs Are In Motion

The Cogs Are In Motion

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:

The  Drop Dock

The Drop Dock

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.

Importing From the Clipboard

Importing From the 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.

Conclusions

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.


Summary

Yojimbo makes keeping all the small (or even large) bits of information that pour in every day organized and accessible. It’s so simple, there is no learning curve.

8
  • Ken Thompson

    I think I have personally tried every popular information managing tool on Mac. I started with Yojimbo but I found it limiting, especially when I learned of the features many other applications had. I bought several others including Together, SOHONotes, and DevonThink but ended up coming back to Yojimbo. It had all the features I would actually use and it fits my workflow much better.

  • phormality

    I bought Yojimbo when it first came out, it was actually the first piece of software I bought for OS X. I used it for many years without a single update. Finally they released an update, I made the silly assumption that since there hadn’t been so much as a bug fix release in over a year and the release of the first version was several years ago that this would be big, so I bought it without a second thought. They did nothing but add some tagging and some drag and drop workflows that should have been in v1, or a v1.1 update, it certainly didn’t deserve the v2 name or a hefty update fee. I stopped using Yojimbo that day. I made a reference folder in Finder with A-Z folders and put everything in there… I can find everything in seconds, search with Spotlight, get it it all from a Dock Stack, QuickLook files, and use file labels in Finder… basically everything Yojimbo did (maybe a little more), but for free, without dealing with a database structure, lock in, and I can access it from anywhere with some simple file sharing or by moving it to Dropbox.

    Sure Yojimbo is stable, but unlike SOHO or others I don’t see it doing much more than Finder. The fact that they had the gall to charge $20 from some tagging and drag and drop after years and years of nothing (I thought it was abandonware)… that isn’t a product or company I want to continue to support.

  • Alex G

    I bought Yojimbo back in September and used it for 1 month after using the 30-day trial through August. I initially liked it and ended up with a library full of books, magazines, receipts, pictures etc. all piled in, but my main problem was the limitation of not having sub-folders. I was dying to put a folder like Pictures then subfolders of what trip etc. So i ventured into the unknown and went looking elsewhere.
    After trying apps like Shovebox (too light), SOHONotes (Way to bogged down by crap) i decided to give up then i stumbled across Together on some blog and tried it out
    Ive been using Together for 7 months now and its amazing. It handles everything quickly and efficiently, i can have subfolders!!!, and organise video clips I dont want to file away in a folder or put in iTunes. Just a great app, i even got my money back from Yojimbo so i didnt have to fork out anymore cash.
    Yojimbo= 7/10 …….. Together= 9/10 …… ShoveBox= 6/10

  • BizarreRod

    It looks good, I’ll have to give it a try!

    By the way, can you tell me where to get the wallpaper on the first screenshot? It’s awesome!

  • Annie

    /Library/Desktop Pictures/Nature/Dew Drop.jpg

    • BizarreRod

      heh… it look like i’m a bit dumb XD. thanks ^^

  • http://www.franciszkanie.tv Matto

    I’ve been using Yojimbo for 6 months now and I say the lack of subfolders makes it just GOOD app.

  • CM

    First of all, many thanks for the effort! However, I have to say this is not a very good review. It has too many strong personal opinions without proper justification. For example, the author spent quite amount of words just blaming the app for having the 3-panel UI, and how hard it was to hack it. It is okay to blame bad UI design, but not okay without justification – Why is it bad??

    The second thing that could be better is that, for any productivity app, it’s not enough just to touch the surface (i.e. going through a number of features). It is more important to know how well (or bad) these features work in real life, which is the thing that really matters, since most of the organizer apps will have similar feature sets (search, import, categorize, etc).

    So, this review feels more like just a Quick Look and is far from being extensive and informative.

    I know my comment doesn’t sound as good as others, but please understand by all means I just wanted to appstorm to keep up the great work.

    Thanks!

  • http://13strokes.com Christopher Chance

    I love this site. I was wondering apart from the actual product logos, who designs those awesome cute little graphics for each post title. It would be nice if envato can give some of these icons for free.

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  • http://www.foxnews.com/us/2010/12/04/responders-head-disabled-ship-bering-sea/?test=latestnews responders head

    It was very interesting for me to read this cool and informative review and I didn’t know that the Inspector button brings up a panel that summarises all aspects of the selected item – so it does encourage me.

  • lenni

    It doesn’t work with mp3 or other audio files… too bad.

  • Seetrorma
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