Curio 8: The Ultimate Project Workshop Gets Better

Two years ago, when I reviewed Curio 6.4, I described the application as a “workshop for your creative projects.” Today I’m going to take a long look at the just released Curio 8. According to Curio’s developer, George Browning of Zengobi, the new version is “the most ambitious Curio release since its inception ten years ago.” Does Curio 8 live up to this billing? Is it a major improvement? Should you upgrade? I hope to provide those answers for you, as well as giving you an orientation to the new version that will help you better evaluate it for yourself.

Those not familiar with Curio should begin by reading my earlier review, because I’m not going to repeat the basic introduction to Curio that is provided in that article. With over 40 improvements, there is plenty to say just about the changes in version 8.

Curio - in a nutshell

Curio version 8 boasts 40 improvements, starting with the redesigned user interface.

Three Into One

Previously, you could choose from one of three Curio editions: Pro, Standard and Core, ranging in price from $170 to about $40 (I believe). With version 8, there will now be just one edition, which will have an introductory price of $99. The fee to upgrade is $49.95.

Before you upgrade you should be aware that version 8 requires the Lion operating system, or newer. Curio now utilizes a new file format (more below) and will automatically update existing Curio projects from earlier editions. There is no backward compatibility, but your older files are zipped and sent to the trash, so you should be able to restore them if need be.

If you rely on the Evernote function, you will need to update to Curio 8, because it incorporates the new Oauth login API that Evernote now requires.

The key controls for building projects in Curio 8.

More than just a face lift

Version 8 of Curio is packed with new features or significant improvements to existing functions. The most obvious is the redesigned user interface, so I’m going to spend a lot of space here reviewing those changes.

By Zengobi’s own admission, the previous edition of Curio presented the user with over 100 buttons and controls. The new version looks almost Spartan by comparison. But don’t worry, all of the same functions are still at your virtual fingertips — it’s just that it might take a little time and familiarity until you figure out how to access them. Though not initially intuitive, the new interface is quite functional once you get the hang of it.

Before we take a quick tour of Curio’s new interface, recall from my previous review that Curio has five major screen areas:

  • The idea space is the main work area.
  • The organizer is where you can organize and access the idea spaces in your current project.
  • The project center is where you organize and access your various projects.
  • The shelf is where you access the tools that would manipulate the idea space or the items in it.
  • And the library is the place where you accessed the externally created assets you’d used in your project.

Of these sections only the idea space and the organizer will be familiar to users of previous Curio editions.

The new toolbar resides at the bottom of Curio 8’s window.

Tooling around the toolbar

In Curio 8, the toolbar has been pushed to the bottom of the main window. There are 15 buttons or controls in the toolbar (although the last three are not technically part of the toolbar). From left to right:

  • The first three allow you to access all your projects, show or hide the organizer for the current project or add items to the current project respectively.
  • The next cluster of six buttons is the tools palette. It gives you access to the tools you need to add content such as text, lines, geometrical figures, and freehand drawings to your currently open idea space.
  • The single button to the right of the tools cluster is the insert button, one you’ll be using a lot in the new Curio. It opens a popover menu from which you can select various figure types to insert into the idea space. These figures include familiar ones, such as index cards, mind maps, shapes and others, to some new options, which I’ll cover in more detail below. (More on the insert popover below).
  • To the right of the insert button is the share button (more on this below), followed by the zoom slider.
  • The final three buttons along the toolbar give you access to the cleaned up shelf in the following order: Status (for task management), Search and the re-engineered Library.

This is a sensible arrangement, but it may take a little getting used to. At least, it did for me. In the previous versions of Curio, you could add a figure (say a table) with one click. Now it takes an extra small step. At first I was a little frustrated by this, but it soon became second nature.

Inspecting the inspector

The previous inspector/shelf system has been replaced with the inspector bar, which reside immediately above the idea space. You use the buttons of the inspector bar to manipulate the various figures in your idea space, facilitated by the fact that the inspector bar is smart, changing depending upon what type of figure is selected.

You will need to become familiar with what these buttons can do for you, but understand first that a couple of them change what they are called depending on if a figure is selected or not.

Curio inspector bar

The new inspector bar when no figure is selected in the idea space.

Curio inspector bar2

Curio’s inspector bar when a list figure is selected. The inspector bar changes with the type of figure selected.

The first button reveals the style inspector. Click this to change the current figure to a pre-set style.

The second button is the shape inspector (when a figure is selected), and the background inspector (for the idea space as a whole) when no figure is selected.

The third button opens the meta inspector, in which you can enter tags, due dates and other meta data. If no figure is selected, you have fewer options.

The fourth of these buttons reveals the notes inspector, which in fact is simply a mini word processor window for making notes about the current idea space or selected figures. This is a nice new feature, which I’ll cover in a little more depth below.

The fifth button opens the actions inspector when a figure is selected and the transitions selector when focus is on the idea space.

The sixth button is the for the info inspector, in which you can add a title for a figure, creation and modification dates, and restrict or allow the figure to be printed, among other things.

The seventh button is the meta inspector, allowing you to make adjustments to the size and placement of figures or of the idea space itself.

Curio note window

Curio 8 now has a note feature that allows you to associate a rich-text note with any figure in your idea space.

Buttons and controls to the right of the meta inspector change significantly depending upon what has the selection focus. When no figure is selected, a little Curio icon (the little planning notebook) appears. This is the project inspector, where you can make several adjustments to the overall project. When a figure is selected, several figure-specific options appear.

With several of the figure types, you can also change the inspector buttons to perform slightly different operations with a combination of the option, shift or shift-option keys while clicking. It will take some use before knowing which of these key combinations to use becomes second nature.

When you click on one of the inspector buttons, you will disclose a small dialog box, called by Zengobi a “popover,” which will allow you to manage various aspects of the figure. I don’t have the space to cover all of the options, but lets look at one to give you an idea of how it works.

Say I want to add a shadow to a photograph. I select the photo, click on the shape inspector button to open the shape inspector.

Curio’s new shape inspector.

Curio shape inspector detail

Curio’s new shape inspector allows you to control various aspects of the figures in your idea space.

The shape inspector popover appears with four tabs along the top that allow me to access a variety of controls. To add a shadow, I need to select the Effects tab. From the screenshot above, you can see one of my minor peeves with Curio 8, which is that it doesn’t provide enough of a visual clue about which tab you’ve got selected. I’d like to see the open tab turn gray or something more obvious.

The other issue comes back to the same refrain I’ll sound over and over in this review and that is that as you’re becoming familiar with Curio 8, you’ll need to do a lot of hunting around to find the control you’re looking for, since it is not intuitive. The more I’ve used version 8, the more comfortable I’ve gotten.

My three favorite improvements

So we’ve looked at the most obvious change in Curio 8, the interface overhaul. Now I’ll review some of the other changes in the application. I can’t cover them all, but I’ll look at some of the ones I find most significant, beginning with my three favorites.

Split view

The new split view is a terrific feature, which allows you to reference one idea space while working on another. You can easily activate split view simply by Option-Clicking on the second idea space you want to view.

The new split screen view allows you to view two idea spaces at one time.

You can choose to view the secondary window vertically as in the screenshot above, or below the primary window. Split view helps make the next new feature more useful.

Organizer documents

You can now add a number of different types of files to the organizer and Curio will embed these files so that you can reference them while working. This is one of the benefits of the new file format, which writes assets like images, RTF documents and PDFs as individual files to disk, then scans and opens them when you open the project. These files remain in their native format — they are not converted to idea spaces. These non-idea space documents cannot be printed, exported or presented from within Curio. Since you can include these types of documents within an idea space, it seems to me the main advantage of including them in the organizer window is that you can reference them while in split screen.

Robust notes

One of my favorite new features is the new notes inspector which allows you to attach a rich text note to virtually any item within an idea space. Click the notes inspector button and a mini word processing window appears where you can add unlimited notes. Back in the idea space, hover the cursor over the notes icon for a popup of the note. So, for example, you can annotate the nodes of a mind map, or items in a list. The notes are included when you perform a copy as… command.

Curio hover notes

Figures with attached notes display a note icon, which displays a hover note when you hover the cursor over top.

In the screenshot above, each of the nodes in the mind map has a note attached. If I select the entire mind map figure, use the copy as RTF command (from the Edit Menu) and paste the captured text into a word processor, I get the following results:

Curio pasted text

Text copied from a collection of figures with note attachments, include the notes when pasted into a word processor.

I would prefer it if the note text maintained its layout, but this result is easily editable into a useable document.

Curio can be a bit finicky at times when you try to select items. As an example, selecting an individual node within a mind map. If you use the option key when clicking on the node, it will select the node you want. In fact, Curio makes great use of the option key, so it is important to learn what it does.

The note window stays open and on top when you switch to another application. This makes it easier to type notes or cut and paste when, say, looking over a web page or other external document. Back in Curio, however, if you remove the focus from the figure that the note is attached to, the note window empties (don’t worry, you haven’t lost your notes, you just have to reselect the original figure to see the notes again). It would be helpful if you could open multiple instances of the note window, so you could be writing in one while referring to another. A small quibble.

Three other significant changes

Many of the remarkable number of changes to Curio in version 8 are incremental improvements. But others remain more significant, more quantum changes. Ones, I guess you could say, that you’ll notice. Following are three that seem most significant to me.

Inserting figures

As mentioned earlier, Curio 8 has a new method for inserting figures, something you will do frequently, so it is worth looking more closely at how the new interface has changed the way you will handle this task.

The list of the types of figures that can be inserted into a Curio idea space is long. In previous versions the options were splayed out along a tool bar at the top of the idea space. This was handy, but took up a lot of space. Version 8 has rolled up these choices into a popover menu accessible with a single button in the toolbar at the bottom of the screen.

The new insert figure popover menu in action. It allows you to choose from the many types of figures available to include in your idea spaces.

The second step with the insert figure operation is selecting a style for your new figure.

As illustrated in the above two screenshots, clicking the figure button opens the insert figure popover. Selecting one of the figure types usually results in opening a gallery of styles to select from (although, depending on the type of figure, you might get other options). In the above screenshot, I’m inserting a table figure.

You can use a simple keyboard shortcut for inserting a figure: the “i” key combined with the first letter of the figure type, like this: “iL” for inserting a list.

I’m usually not thrilled when developers insert an extra step — even if it is just an additional click — but as this extra click is due to what feels like an overall major improvement to the interface, I can live with it.

Navigator bar

The navigator bar is a small, new feature, but seems to me to be quite handy. It resides to the far right of the inspector bar and includes access to controls for split view, book marks, tree view and arrow buttons that move you forward and backward in the organizer.

I’m especially interested in the tree view. Click on this button and you can see the entire hierarchy of your project. This allows you to jump to a different idea space (or document) without needing to have the organizer pane open. The organizer pane is very useful, of course, but on small screens like my MacBook it takes up a lot of real estate. It is nice not having to keep the organizer open to move around my projects.

Curio project tree view

The new navigator bar resides in the top right of the window and provides access to handy ways to get around your Curio project, including the new project tree view.

File sharing in one place

This improvement may simply be packaging, but I really like the share button (next door to the insert figure button). It bundles quick access to all the ways of sharing your work with others. In the screenshot below, you can see that the options for sharing are split into three: project wide, open idea space and selected figure (which does not appear if no figure is selected).

Curio sharing menu

Curio 8 now packages all the ways to share your creativity into one convenient popup menu.

Curio is smart enough to change the options depending upon the type of figure selected. For example, you can export a table to a CSV file.

Other changes

Figure enhancements

Several of the major figure types in Curio have been enhanced. Of course, the way you interact with the options that affect your figures has changed, but in addition there have been other incremental improvements, such as custom labeling for lists, better exporting of lists, and the ability to flip through stacks of index cards.

Task-related enhancements

Using Curio as a task management application deserves an article of its own. Suffice it to say that there have been several incremental improvements to these various functions in version 8, beginning with the revamped status shelf. I shied away from making Curio my project/task management application in the past because the interface was so overwhelming. I find the cleaned up shelf easier to comprehend.

Curio 8 makes use of iCal and Reminders that come with Lion and Mountain Lion. You will have to set these up a bit differently, depending on which OS you are using, but in either case create the calendar in the calendar application, then designate it as the sync-to calendar within the specific Curio project. I had no trouble setting the system up so that tasks created in Curio appear on my iPod Touch calendar.

You can now include a window into Vimeo or YouTube videos in your Curio idea spaces.

Insert videos

It’s now quite easy to insert a streaming video from Vimeo or YouTube into a WebView (this is yet another figure type available in Curio). It just takes the URL and setting the size of the figure and that’s it. This solution is not without a few problems, however. Once you insert the video and it starts playing, you can’t move it around the idea space or even delete it until the video ends. After your video runs, clicking in the viewing window on anything but the video controls can result in the web page loading something new on the screen, messing up your setup.

Organizer filter bar

Click on the magnifying glass icon above the organizer to reveal options for filtering idea spaces in your project. This allows you to quickly find all idea spaces that have figures that may be labeled “needs followup,” for example, or which were modified within a certain time frame.

Under-the-hood improvements

There have been a number of under-the-hood improvements to Curio, beginning with the new file format that stores each project in a hierarchical package like so:

The new file format introduced with Curio 8 is a more standard hierarchy of folders.

According to Zengobi, this change will allow for future enhancements, including project collaboration. Much of the underlying code has been “refactored” and rewritten to make Curio run faster. Simply from my own subjective experience, Curio does seem a little zippier on my two-year old MacBook Pro.

And finally, Curio is now Retina ready right down to the pens and brushes. I don’t have a Retina display, so can’t comment on how well this works.

What has been removed

A few features from Curio 7.x have been removed in this new version. Some of these may be missed more than others. I was always fond of the dossiers feature, which was a method for kick-starting projects via a series of fill-in the blanks questions. This has been removed in favor of the more integrated idea space templates, which can serve the same function. Project sections have replaced hoisting in the organizer, which I’m not entirely pleased about, as I’m a fan of hoisting (where you can focus on one idea space and its sub-ordinate idea spaces). Flashlight, Curio’s super-duper search function, is gone. And if you used jagged shapes in your earlier versions of Curio, you will find these turned into cloud shapes, because the jagged shape was too difficult to render precisely.

And one feature I’m glad is gone is the auto-hide function of the organizer. In previous versions of Curio, you could make the organizer appear by sliding your cursor to the left edge of the screen. It would then auto-hide after a few moments. This well-intentioned operation proved to be quite annoying and has been replaced by the simple toggle button on the toolbar.

Not perfect, but getting there

George Browning of Zengobi first introduced Curio ten years ago, and he has been continually improving it ever since.

Curio version 8 is not perfect. For instance, I’m still hoping for two-way Evernote interactions (currently, you can only read your Evernote notes in Curio; changes you make are not sync’d back to Evernote). Figures remain somewhat finicky, making it difficult at times to move pieces around as easily as I’d like (trying to select a cell in a table, for instance, can be a little frustrating). Nevertheless, version 8 represents a significant improvement to an already excellent program.

If you’re a current Curio user, the only reason not to upgrade is if you’re using a pre-Lion OS. You’ll have a period of adjustment once you do upgrade, kind of like that feeling you might have had if you’ve ever reorganized your workshop or your kitchen to make it more efficient. Recall how you perhaps kept pulling open the wrong drawer for a few days until the new layout finally sank in. That’s similar to the feeling you’ll have adjusting to the new Curio interface. It may be a little frustrating at first, but you’ll get the hang of it, and then you’re likely to start appreciating how much better it works.

If you haven’t tried Curio before, now is the time. The price is lower (at least at the time of this writing), and it works better than ever. You can download a 25-day free trial to give it a whirl before purchasing.


The latest version of this already powerful project notebook improves and adds an impressive number of features, starting with the redesigned user interface.