Outliners are handy for a lot of different things: task lists, outlining longer manuscripts, or note taking to name a few. For some users, bullet list functions available in your standard work processor or note taking app are all you need, while other users prefer the functions provided by dedicated outlining apps.
If you are—or think you might be—in the latter category, read on to for a review of three of the top outlining apps. We’ve taken Scribe, Tree, and OmniOutliner Standard for a run and compared their features in-depth, so you can find the best Mac outlining app for your needs.
The three apps considered in this review—Scribe, Tree, and OmniOutliner (Standard)—all have the essentials you expect in an outlining app. All three allow for collapsable levels, which makes it easier to focus on certain sections of the outline at a time. Importantly, all three work with the OPML file format, which ensures cross platform compatibility. For me, the most important aspect of an outlining program is ease of use. An outliner should make outlining easier, not more complicated. Simple keyboard navigation is a must. At the least there should be easy keyboard navigation for:
- Creating new items
- Indenting items
- Rearranging items up or down in a list
- Expanding and collapsing levels
Scribe, Tree, and OmniOutliner all meet these criteria. They also take advantage of OS X goodies available since the advent of Lion including full screen viewing mode and document versions.
Scribe ($13) is on the simple end of apps included in this review. It is also the prettiest to look at. Let’s take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of Scribe.
Scribe’s simplicity and elegant design are its greatest strengths. Anyone could open up the app and start using it without any trouble. Simplicity also helps with focus. The lack of options can actually be a good thing for getting down to actually completing an outline.
Despite its simplicity, Scribe offers one option that is not available in the other two apps. Using a keyboard shortcut or a button in the toolbar, the user can start recording audio that can then be controlled from within the app.
As of right now, Scribe does not support checkboxes. However, the Scribe developers have informed me that this feature is currently in the works. Most outliners allow for notes to be added to any item, but this feature is conspicuously missing from Scribe. For some users, this may well be a deal-breaker. Scribe also does not have a dedicated iOS client.
Although Scribe and Tree do not have dedicated iOS clients, you can still construct outlines in these apps and then export them in OPML format to a Dropbox folder. There are a couple of iOS outlining apps that integrate with Dropbox and allow for editing OPML files. Try Outliner or Thinkbook.
If Scribe is the trim distance runner of this group and OmniOutliner is the bodybuilder, then Tree ($15) is the 800 meter runner—not as bulked up with features as OmniOutliner, and not as streamlined as Scribe, but a good combination of both.
With Tree you can have multiple outlines open within the same window using document tabs, this has come in handy for me a couple of times as I have needed to switch back and forth between two or more outlines. Another handy feature is item labels. Labels can be easily applied to any item and the names of labels can be changed in the app’s preferences.
Perhaps the most unique feature of Tree, and the app’s namesake, is the horizontal tree view. As you can tell from the screenshot above, tree view allows users to view their outlines horizontally, or in a combination of both horizontal and vertical mode. I find this useful for outlines where it makes sense to think in terms of “process” rather than a list.
Tree also has just the right amount of customization options. The default font, background color, inclusion of check boxes and outline style (Harvard, bullet list etc.) are all customizable.
I had to think hard to come up with a weakness for this app. One thing that I would like to see is the ability to assign different font characteristics by level. For example, I sometimes make the first level of my outlines bold and increase the font size so that they stand out a little more. This is one feature included in OmniOutliner that would be very useful in both Scribe and Tree.
Although Scribe and Tree do not have dedicated iOS clients, you can still construct outlines in these apps and then export them in OPML format to a Dropbox folder. There are a couple of iOS outlining apps that integrate with Dropbox and allow for editing OPML files. Try Outliner or ThinkBook.
OmniOutliner ($40) is an outliner on steroids, keeping with the athlete analogy above. The higher price tag adds up to a more extensive feature list.
OmniOutliner is much more powerful than both Scribe and Tree. As far as customization goes, the options are seemingly endless. There is even the option to include a background image for your outlines. The customization options are topped off by ability to make outline templates.
Columns in an outliner? Yep. With OmniOutliner you can create columns. This means that any outline can actually function as an outline / spreadsheet hybrid. Still not impressed? OmniOutliner also allows for attaching files and images directly in the outline.
Finally, OmniOutliner is the only app in this review with a dedicated iOS app ($20 iPad only). Many of the features, such as columns, are also available in the iPad app.
Because of the sheer power of this app, it can be a little intimidating and clunky. For most outliner users, I suspect many of the features that add up to the higher price tag are not going find much use.
After using all of these apps, it is clear to me that Tree is the best of the bunch. I find myself coming back to this app after trying many different outliners. While impressed with the overall feature set of OmniOutliner, after the initial awe, it became clear that many of the features would remain unused for my purposes. Scribe is a joy to use, but for me the lack of a note function made it less useful for my purposes. If future development adds a couple of key features, Scribe could become the outliner to beat.
How do you use outliners? Do you use an outliner not mentioned here? Let us know in the comments.