A Personal Information Manager on an Installment Plan

Wednesday Mar 24th 2004 by Eric Grevstad

Micro Logic outdoes Microsoft Outlook with new features for its fast, flexible note-taker, information organizer, calendar, e-mail, browser, and have-it-your-way workstyle software — but there's a kicker in the fine print.

If you could have only one program on your PC — not one office suite, just one program — what would it be? A word processor? A Web browser or e-mail client? A spreadsheet, scheduler, database, outliner, newsgroup reader? Micro Logic bills its Info Select as all of the above — but, first and foremost, a fast, friendly personal information manager (define) that was a cult favorite more than a decade before Microsoft got into the free-form note-jotting and -searching game with OneNote.

Once you take the plunge and try this underdog alternative to Microsoft's ultra-dominant Outlook, you'll find yourself spending more and more of your workday in its versatile workspace, stashing and almost instantly finding reminders, contacts, e-mails, appointments, text captured from Web pages, or other scraps of information and organizing them into topics as you like. We've given Info Select thumbs-up reviews in the past, and after seeing version 8's nice if not colossal refinements, our opinion hasn't changed.

The program's pricing, however, has changed in a way that gives us chills: Micro Logic has made it easier to try Info Select, but has also started discouraging customers from sticking with one version rather than ponying up for regular upgrades. You can now get a one-year subscription to Info Select — the 6.4MB initial download and all subsequent upgrades — for a thrifty $50, but if you don't renew your product-activation password each year, the software stops working (according to Micro Logic, it goes into read-only mode, letting you access but not add to the data you've stored).

If you want a conventionally purchased copy of Info Select 8 — i.e., one that'll never expire, but that entitles you only to minor upgrades instead of to version 9 when the latter arrives — the price has spiked from the still-available version 7's $150 to $250. To be fair, there's also a conventional upgrade for owners of previous versions for $100.

As you can tell, we have mixed feelings: Getting five years' worth of future versions for the cost of this year's package is a great deal, but while the annual-subscription model works for updates from your anti-virus supplier, we're uneasy about it for your own data — your contact list, correspondence, and project outlines. And after all the times we've bashed Microsoft for trying to turn customers who are content with two- or three-year-old products into a steady revenue stream for upgrades, it'd be unfair of us not to bash Micro Logic for doing the same thing, albeit with a friendlier fee structure.

That said, there are good reasons to take a $50 flier on Info Select 8. How many reasons? Well, how many memos, message slips, and Post-It notes are on your desk right now?

Finding a Needle in a Haystack — of Needles, That Is
At heart, Info Select is a two-pane window on your life: The left-hand "selector" pane is an endlessly rearrangeable, drag-and-drop, nested outline of topics and items, whose contents appear in the right-hand viewing or editing pane. Pressing a function key or just N lets you start a new note, typing a three-word reminder, a transcript of a client phone call, or a complete word processing document with formatting, fonts, bulleted lists, and embedded graphics (below).

Example of Info Select 8 Personal Information Management Capabilities

If you don't feel like typing, you can simply select or highlight some text in most other applications or on a Web page, then click a lightning-bolt "transporter" icon in the system tray to capture or import the data. (Web-page graphics and spreadsheet ranges, alas, don't transport intact.) You can leave your notes as a virtually infinite, random stack, but you'll probably want to organize them into topics, collapsible and expandable containers in the selector.

Besides notes, you can store images, Web pages using Info Select's slightly stripped-down browser, attachments (pointers to disk files or whole Windows Explorer folders), or one or more appointment calendars with provision for alarms and recurring events. Customizing an item's background color or font or changing a note to a topic or vice versa takes just a few clicks, as does spotlighting it in the selector as an exclamation-pointed to-do item, check-off box, "hot spot" that stays visible even in a collapsed outline, or Post-It-style "pin-up."

Where Info Select shines — where it's shone since its long-ago debut as a DOS program dubbed Tornado — is in its fast-as-thought searching and retrieval of random items. Press another function key (or G for Get), and Info Select applies on-the-fly filtering as you type — pulling up all items containing the letters ro, then your crescent roll recipe, then finally your order history, e-mail correspondence, her kids' names, and next week's lunch date with Mary Rollins, all by the time she's finished saying hello on the phone.

Go to Page 2: Ticklers, E-Mails, and More >

Ticklers, E-Mails, and More
Version 8 tweaks the program's already impressive search capabilities, letting you specify whether to include all or only certain types of items as well as getting fancy with Boolean-expression, date-range, and other searches.

It also lets you tidy up the selector with dividing lines, launch and edit file attachments, and keep your Info Select data files to a manageable size by saving attachments separately.

It also continues the last couple of versions' progress toward handling more types of data and/or pretensions toward replacing more everyday applications. For instance, Info Select's word processor has gained more formatting options such as superscripts and subscripts and a first-line paragraph indent, in addition to its pretty good spelling checker and minimal thesaurus.

But it still lacks frills such as "curly" quotation marks and apostrophes and automatic correction (as opposed to mere flagging) of possible misspellings. And while it's nice to see a context-sensitive word-processing toolbar appear when you begin editing text, it's so inelegantly laid out that we got a font-size menu spanning the entire width of the editing window on our default XGA display.

If you're painstaking, you can create capable database forms with field types ranging from text, numeric, and date to combo-box menus of permissible values. Ditto for spreadsheet-style grids with limited formula-calculation functionality, though we wish version 8 had focused on providing more intuitive means of adding rows or columns instead of the option of creating an ugly, bare-bones bar chart of numeric values — even the simplest Microsoft Works spreadsheet kicks Info Select's butt.

Similarly, you can crop, resize, rotate, and adjust the contrast and brightness of images — and now use the mouse to annotate them with arrows or circles or draw ultra-rough sketches, as well as a text tool — but you won't mistake the PIM for an image editor, although the ability to apply different levels of quality-versus-file-size compression to an image is handy.

Example of Info Select 8 Reminder FunctionsInfo Select 8's calendar is more impressive, with Outlook import, support for events that span multiple days, and a positively encyclopedic range of alternatives to the usual pop-up alarms, such as launching an application, sending yourself an e-mail, or moving an item to the selector at a desired time. Don't want to forget your anniversary in June, but don't want to see it on screen until May? A new point-and-click toolbar makes it a snap to assign a tickler (right), or reminder X days hence — how many days depends on where you click the toolbar — to an item, hiding it in a special topic or folder till then if you like.

The program's e-mail client is also noticeably improved, with HTML mail support, limited but helpful manual spam filtering, and ample options for customizing the reception of and replies to particular deliveries (Info Select's term for topics containing messages from a specific person).

For example, you can flag mail from the boss with a to-do icon as soon as it arrives; do the same for messages from Mary Rollins only after four hours have passed; or specify a different salutation or signature for different correspondents. Version 8 also gives you the choice of seeing everyone's or just some folks' e-mail in a familiar column view — a sortable, customizable grid, rather than just as a stack of messages, in the selector.

Info Select 8 isn't perfect, isn't a must-have upgrade for owners of version 7 (though Info Select 5 or 6 diehards should strongly consider catching up), and its push for subscription pricing isn't our favorite software strategy. But it's the strongest evidence yet that there's more to life than Outlook.

< Back to Page 1: A PIM on an Installment Plan

Adapted from WinPlanet.com.

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