Time tracking and task management for academics

I have been tracking my time for almost 9 years now and I have changed systems several times. I have also used various task management (or project management) tools in the past years and since about a year or so I have managed to integrate the two.  In this post, I wan to share my experience and perhaps make your choice of tools a bit easier.

I will mention the tools I have used in the past only briefly and the suggest three scenarios which I think are the best solutions you can find these days, depending on your needs. If you can’t be bothered reading the whole story, here is the gist of it (or tl;dr):

Scenario 1: If comprehensive time tracking is not so important for you and you are mainly looking for an easy way to keep track of your task, KanbanFlow is for you. The free version is perfectly sufficient for scholars but when I used it I actually signed up for the paid plan (5 USD per month) because I liked the swimlane feature.

Scenario 2: If you want to track your time throughout your workday, get a visual idea of how you spent your day (or week) and integrate that with your task management tool, then your best solution is using Asana for your task management in combination with TimeCamp for time tracking. Asana is free for up to 15 people, so you can even use it to coordinate work in a team but you’ll need to pay 6 USD per month for TimeCamp if you want to integrate it with Asana.

Scenario 3: If you are just looking for a time tracking tool and keep your task management entirely independent from that, I suggest you go for Yast. As an academic (student/teacher) the developer will – upon request – give you a free premium account (which normally costs 6 9 USD per month) but you may not even need that if the free account works fine for you.

So much for the quick summary and recommendations. Now comes the whole story.

Timepanic

tipenscreenshot01
Sample Screenshot from the developer’s website

I started using TimePanic back in 2007 simply as a means of finding out where all my time was disappearing to. At the end of the workday I often found that although I was certainly busy the whole day, it felt like I hadn’t really achieved as much as I wanted and wondered what I had used my time for. TimePanic is an offline Windows program that allows you to define certain keyboard shortcuts for switching to a specific task,

(For example, I had one of the F-keys set to “Chat with colleague” because when a colleague walks into your office to ask you something, you don’t want to start clicking all over the place to set your time-tracker to “Chat with colleague” before you actually react to him or her. So a simple key press would achieve that. And if you want to track who you actually spoke to or about what, you can fill that in afterwards)

and which shows allows you to produce detailed reports about how much time you spent on which task or project or how you spent your day or week or whatever. You can also define a day as a holiday or sich-leave or vacation etc so that you don’t end up wondering why you worked so little in August 2009 or so. (This feature is actually something I miss on all other time tracking tools I have used and tried so far!) Timepanic’s price is not cheap at 39 EUR but I have never regretted spending that money, even on my tight PhD student budget at the time. The developer was very responsive when I had questions or suggestions and the software was very user-friendly.

The most interesting (and somewhat ironic) effect of starting to track my using TimePanic was that I became much more aware of what I was doing already while I was doing it, simply because I had to log it. And perhaps more importantly, I became very aware of distractions (self-distractions and distractions by others) as well as any change of task, again: because I had to log it. It’s a nice example of how the measurement changes what it measures. (They observed the so called Hawthorne effect already decades ago with industrial workers, but it’s something else to actually experience it in yourself!)

So for anyone wondering whether time tracking is really worth the effort when you can’t use it to bill anyone, consider this self-disciplining and consciousness raising effect. Indeed, I rarely actually run any big analysis on my time-tracking data (although I do intend to do a little longitudinal study over the years one day. When I have time 😉  I just look at the day and the week and 80 percent of the time I’m only interested in the total time worked. Not even the project, let alone the task break down. But I do look, for example, at how much time I spend to peer review a paper – 8 hours! And I can’t seem to be able to do it much faster 😦   – or on publishing a paper (170 hours), but checking these things remains the exception. It’s just too frustrating to see how much time stuff actually takes!

Another reason to track your time as a scholar is to get rid of that bad conscience of not working enough. Or you might even be able to use your figures in negotiations with colleagues about how much time should be allowed for what kind of task. This may not be relevant in many parts of the world, but at Swedish Universities, your employer actually keeps track of your workload (and hence how many more tasks you should take on in a certain time period) and they use certain standard rates to estimate your workload. For example, at my department, correcting an exam gives you 20 minutes (sic!) and for giving a 1 hour lecture, you get paid 4 hours etc. When such rates are negotiated, being able to say “I have been tracking my time over the past X years and based on that this kind of committee usually takes X hours or work” might actually have a certain weight.

I left TimePanic because I wanted a graphical representation of my daily timeline. I wanted something like this:

yast-timeline
Yast’s visualization  displays of how you spent your day is quite unique in the diverse world of time-trackers

I asked the developer and since it wasn’t on his roadmap at all, I decided to go online, even though I would have preferred to be independent of the internet when it comes to time tracking (yeah, I know. But, hey, this was in 2011/12 when people still had a life outside the internet!).

Criteria for an online time tracking tool (choosing Yast)

I tried out a whole pile of online time tracking tools (and the number has multiplied since!) and thanks to Evernote, I still have my list of features that I used when comparing various options. Here it is (with some quick comments added):

  1. many projects, tasks and sub-tasks (and sub-sub-tasks…)
    • All tools offer that, but the question is whether and how much you have to pay for it. Sometimes the free plan is limited to one or two projects (like Harvest or Freckle) or don’t allow sub-projects/ tasks (like Toggle).
  2. logging of time of day (not just duration)
    • Many online tools (including KanbanFlow or Freckle) allow you to aggregate the time you have spent on a specific task, but they will not remember when you spent that time. Which implies: there is no time-line like the one shown above. At best, you get pie charts of how much of your time went to which project etc.
  3. easy switching between tasks/activities
    • after all, I’m gonna do that multiple times a day and ideally it should take zero seconds to so it. With it’s shortcuts-feature, TimePanic is probably still best at that. Because it is running on your computer, you can use global shortcuts to control it even when it is running in the background. With web-based applications, you have to at least bring your browser to the foreground and click some button. But the point with this criterion is basically that there should be a list of recently used or favourite tasks that I can start by clicking on them and starting one will automatically end the previous one.
  4. graphic display of projects over time (stacked)
    • I think what I meant by that was that I would like to be able to see, say, over the course of a year, which projects I was mainly working on each week or so. I don’t think I found this in any tool I looked at.
  5. android app or at least good mobile browser interface
    • If I’m going online, I at least want the benefit of being able to log my time also when I’m not at my desk but, for example, doing field work. Also good when you leave the office in the evening and notice you didn’t turn off the timer…
  6. note or comment field for each logged activity
    • This helps you to better understand afterwards what you were actually doing. I use it especially for big chunks of work (several hours), also to indicate that this record is correct on not a mistake of a forgotten timer. Having a comments field also prevents you from breaking down your tasks into too many small tasks. For example, if you have a task “write review for article XYZ” you might be inclined to have sub-tasks like “read the manuscript” and “write comments to authors” and “write comments to editor and submit”, but with comments, you can just write that into your comments field (unless you really want a formally exact break down of how much time you spent in each)
  7. defining the activity before it ends
    • This may sound strange, but I have seen tools where you just start a timer and only when you stop it will you be asked to say what you actually did during the tracked time. I don’t like that, not only because it defeats the disciplining effect mentioned earlier, but also because when I move on to the next task, I don’t want to thinking and writing about what I did but about what I’m about to do.
  8. offline use possible (cache or whatever)
    • I you’re tracking online, an internet or server outage just 30 minutes will interrupt your workflow and create extra work to fill on the gaps when the connection is back. Unfortunately, Yast had quite a few server outages and does not have an option for offline use.
  9. Not too business oriented
    • The thing is, most time trackers are designed either for freelancers working for clients or companies tracking the time of their employees (or a combination thereof). Since this is not what we do as scholars, we need to adapt these systems for our purposes and I’m fine with that, especially as long as I’m on a free plan. But there are limits to what I’m willing to use. For example, it’s fine to have an option to track time not only against projects but also against clients, but if the user-interface is designed in such a way that I am constantly asked to enter the client details or I even have to make up mock clients so that it works, then that tool is not for me. And then there are many tools that are more focussed on facilitating billing rather than tracking and analyzing time use (e.g.  MakeSomeTime)
  10. Low cost
    • Since I won’t make more money because I track my time, I don’t really want to pay a lot for this, perhaps I can even get it for free?

I will spare you all the details of my notes (which are four years old now). Suffice it to say that I eventually chose Yast because it fulfilled criteria 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9 and 10. I can still recommend it if you don’t want to integrate your time tracking  with your task management too (scenario #3 above). So here it is. This is what it looks like:

yast
The Yast user interface (At the top, I chose the weekly timeline view for this screenshot, as opposed to the single day view shown above)

 

KanbanFlow

Now, lets leave time-tracking aside for a moment and look at task-management. Until a couple of years ago, I was not using a particular task management system or tool but some combination of Outlook tasks, Outlook Calendar and some kind of lists (even on paper, yes!) But then I learned about the kanban method which apparently originated from lean manufacturing in the automobile industry, was then adopted in software development less than a decade ago. Although the original idea was to coordinate tasks and workflows in teams by visualizing them on a whiteboard, the Kanban was soon adopted to the personal level: the personal kanban. And while you can do this with paper notes on a pinboard, the digital version obviously bears a lot more potential.

So I looked around and tested quite a number of online kanban tools (such as: Kanbanery, Pivotal Tracker, Agile Zen, LeanKit Kanban, Kanban tool, kanbana, targetprocess, and, well, Kanbanflow). I will not go into any comparison here because I think for scholars the best choice is by far KanbanFlow and if you do a bit of comparing yourself, I am quite confident, that in the end, you will agree with me (please leave a comment below if you don’t – or if you do!)

The fact that KanbanFlow is the only Kanban tool with an integrated Pomodoro timer is already a fantastic advantage over other tools (find out more about the pomodoro method here). In addition, it allows you to track how much time you spent on each task, simply by clicking a button on the task-card (which you obviously are looking at anyway, when you are working on that task). I already mentioned the (paid) feature of Swimlanes which I used to separate teaching, administration, and various research projects from each other.

So I used KanbanFlow as a task-management tool for quite a while in combination with Yast as a time-tracker and it works fine. But at some point I noticed that I am not really using KanbanFlow for all my tasks. Sometimes I wouldn’t open it for days because I knew exactly what I had to do during those days anyway. But that also meant that I wouldn’t rely on it as my main task list, as the place to write that important thing that must not be forgotten, because I could not be sure that I would look at it when that thing needed looking at.

At first, I considered using the then new time-tracking feature in KanbanFlow instead of Yast so that I would open KanbanFlow first thing in the morning in order to start tracking my time. In order to do that, I would need to put all my tasks into KanbanFlow, and that’s where the problem started. The hierarchy of projects, sub-projects, tasks and sub-tasks that I had built in TimePanic and Yast over the years was quite complex and KanbanFlow wasn’t built to accommodate that kind of complexity in one Kanban board. The idea in KanbanFlow is to have one board per project. Technically, this is not a problem because you can easily create as many boards as you want. But I did not want to switch between boards, for example, when I finished preparing a lecture (in the “teaching” project) and start to prepare the interviews for a research project. And imagine the hassle when I student (teaching project!) comes in while I’m working on those interviews).

Besides, Kanbanflow’s time tracking is still rudimentary and since the developer said that this isn’t going to change in the near future, I decided to look for another solution. I still like Kanbanflow very much and may well change back to it once it’s time-tracking is a bit more sophisticated. So if time tracking is not a priority for you – perhaps you only want to know the time you spent on certain tasks but not on others? – then I suggest you should give KanbanFlow a try.

For me, abandoning KanbanFlow unfortunately meant that I would also leave Yast due to its lack of integration with any other online tools which made it impossible to find a task manager that would link to it.

The solution I came up with after some comprehensive testing and which I am still using today is Asana in combination with TimeCamp. I hope to write about this setup in more detail in a separate post (please comment below if you’re interested in reading it), so I will keep it short here.

Asana and TimeCamp

The beauty with this combination is that TimeCamp offers a browser plugin (Chrome only!) that puts a time tracking button on each and every Asana task and when you click it, it starts/stops tracking time against that task in TimeCamp. Like this:

asana
The (very customizable) Asana user-interface with the TimeCamp tracking button. On the left is the task list and on the right are the details of whichever task you select from the list.

This means that I don’t even need to open TimeCamp any more except for reporting purposes, i.e. if I want to know how much I worked on that day or whatever. Most of the time, I am only looking at Asana and tasks or projects I create there are automatically transferred to Timecamp and when I move them around in Asana they are also moved around in Timecamp so that my Time-Tracking and my task hierarchy are always in sync.

If you want to give it a try, please use this referral link to sign up. And let me know if you want to know more about this setup. It might encourage me to actually sit down and write it.

I just realize that with this referral link at the end, this looks like I wrote this whole thing only to get you to sign up for TimeCamp. But believe me, I have long planned to write about this and I only recently discovered that Timecamp have a referral program, so rest assured that my review here has not been biased in any way by the prospect of getting a reward for referrals. In fact, I still have some critical remarks to make about TimeCamp, but they won’t deter me from recommending them and I need to catch some sleep now. In the mean time, feel free to ask questions below, which can guide me when writing my next post.

 

The Xcanex document scanner: a first review

Xcanex-scannerFirst off: this is a product with some potential, in fact it is a great product, once you have worked yourself through some of its glitches and annoyances. I have had the “Xcanex Professional Book & Document Scanner” for just a couple of weeks now, but I think it’s time to share my first impressions and experiences with this innovative little gadget, which is basically an 8MP digital camera with an LED flashlight built in and which “scans” your documents by taking pictures of them. It also includes a software that does quite a good job in cropping the image so that you end up with a jpg/pdf of just the document that you wanted to scan. It is in many ways similar to booksorber, but booksorber comes without the hardware because most of us already have all the hardware at home, i.e. a DSLR camera).

But let me start from the beginning: a couple of months ago, I wrote this review about the “IRIScan Book 3” mobile scanner and basically scrapped it and sent it back. I then received a message from a hitherto unknown little company from Singapore suggesting that I should have a look at their newly launched document scanner. And so I did. First on the many videos on their website, and later by trying out the free unit that they sent me. Given that all the basic information about how the thing works is actually in these videos and on their website, I will skip over those basics and provide you with what you wont find anywhere else on the net: my experience and evaluation.

So, here we go:

For ordinary users with little knowledge about the existence of admin-rights on windows, the journey with this scanner may well end before it has even started: When I tried to install the driver (version 1.0 from a burned DVD!), it repeatedly failed until I noticed that it never asked me for admin rights so I figured that it may require these rights but fails to ask for them, perhaps because the developers use admin accounts and therefore never noticed this as a problem (I use an account with limited user rights as generally recomended). So I started the installation with administrator rights and finally the software was installed properly. It requires quite a bit of space on your hard-drive:

The scanner software requires quite a bit of space
The scanner software requires quite a bit of space
After install, what happened? – Nothing. I mean, I like it, when software doesn’t try to take over my computer after I installed it, but this was kind of the opposite extreme. I wanted to try the scanner out, but there was no desktop icon, no popup question that would ask me: “Hey, would you like to try me out right away?” I checked “all programs” in the start menu and searched for “piqx”, “xcan” as well as “perfecapture”: nothing. I was wondering whether I actually installed the thing.

So I went to the program files folder and found a folder called “piQx Imaging”. Aha! And in that folder I found a file called “PiqxImaging.exe” and I (double)clicked on it. What happened: nothing.

Finally, I found a new icon in my taskbar (the ones on the right, not the ordinary program icons) which said “Xcanex Launcher”. Ha!  Gotcha!

Looking for the Xcanex Launcher
Looking for the Xcanex Launcher

So let’s (double)click on it! What happens: nothing! – How about a right click? Aaah! It gives me some options to choose from:

Right clicking the Xcanex launcher helps
Right clicking the Xcanex launcher icon helps

I’m not sure what BCO is, so I choose “Launch PerfeCapture”. And? Something happens! Finally! But hey, did I say it works?

Selecting "Launch PerfeCapture" leads to an error message
Selecting “Launch PerfeCapture” leads to an error message

Scanner not found? But it’s here on my desk!

The Xcanex scanner with the scanning pad (included)
The Xcanex scanner with the scanning pad (included)

Oh! maybe I should plug it in? Maybe that is what the error message is trying to tell me. Okay, this is a minor glitch, but after all those other issues, I’ve gotten into a “complaining mood”. It will be difficult to please me now…

And indeed, after plugging it in, the steps above no longer produce an error message but the piece of paper lying under the scanner actually shows up on my screen! Wow! But my euphoria comes to an abrupt end when I try to position my piece of paper so that it is fully visible under the scanner: before I can even press the “scan” button the PerfeCapture crashes:

Sometimes, PerfeCapture crashed without any evident cause
Sometimes, PerfeCapture crashed without any evident cause
But the good thing is (and I have actually not seen anything like it on any other program): the problem did actually solve itself and without me doing anything so that if I had left the room for two minutes while this happened, I would never have known. Or actually, I would, because this happened several times: crash without me even touching the computer, crash disappeared again. Strange.
Sadly, however, I was still not able to scan. At least, when I clicked on the “scan” icon nothing happened. This was not a bug though, but due to me ignoring the read notice on my screen saying “too low”. I ignored it, because I didn’t know what it meant. What is “too low”??
Once again I had to figure it out myself (or I could have read the manual, but honestly, who reads manuals?) Hmm, maybe the scanner is too low, i.e. to close to the paper? I twist it upwards and click on “scan”. And now the magic happened: The thing focused, then flashed, and then the software identified exactly what I wanted to scan, i.e. this little instruction manual and cropped it from the overall image:
My first test scan with the Xcanex
My first test scan with the Xcanex

So there you go! After quite a bit of trouble with the setup, I finally got not a very acceptable scan (you can click on the image to see it in full resolution).

I have done some more testing but I will write about that in a second post (which will be linked here once it’s done).

Just one last thing: the second time I tried to use the scanner, I couldn’t even find this little launcher icon that I used above to start the scanning software… I thought that this maybe because the scanner is not yet connected to the computer? So I plugged it in and what happened was that drivers were automatically installed (Why again?), but the icon did not come back. So I’m clicked on “PiqxImaging.exe” again. Nothing.

I finally go deeper into the “piQx Imaging” branch of the program files directory and I find “perfecapture.exe” which finally starts the scanner. I created a shortcut to this file manually so that I would remember how to start the scanner the next time. And it has worked fine for me since then. I have never seen that Launcher icon again…

So let me give you a preliminary verdict (as I said, there is more to come): The setup has been more than cumbersome and I’d say it is impossible to master for the average user. But what I have is version 1.0 of the software on a burned DVD and I assume that the developers will soon have fixed these problems (although there is quite a but to go to make the software really easy to use – more about that in the second part of the review). Otherwise, this scanner is solid hardware (I could quibble a bit about cheapish plastic, but I’ve seen worse) and it is obviously well though through. When you assemble the product (you actually do need to look at the IKEA type instruction to but it together correctly), you can’t help notice that the developers really worked hard to design this innovative pocket scanner which is a bit bigger than the IRIScan Book 3 but it still suitable for taking it with you on a trip.

But would I pay 299 US-dollars for it (it’s price as of October 2013)? Definitely not. The product is definitely overpriced, I’d say 150 USD would be reasonable. I think I might pay that much for it. Perhaps some people who don’t have access to a scanner at work would pay more? But I think then I’d by a proper scanner with automatic feed for a bit more. When it comes to mobile use and portability, I’m wondering what actually can be done with a smartphone camera in combination with booksorber. I have not tried booksorber yet and I know that an on-camera flash easily ruins your “scans”, but what if there is sufficient ambient light? Or what if you hold it at an angle to the page you’re scanning, just like Xcanex does? It might be worth a try.

Speaking of money: I need to mention that I received my scanner unit for free from piqximaging. But I can clearly state that piqximaging did not require me to agree to any conditions whatsoever. They merely asked me to review the device. And while even that is not a legal obligation, I do feel morally obliged to do deliver this review now, and I’m sorry if they had hoped for an earlier post on the device, but I’ve been just too busy…

UPDATE: have a look at my updated review here

Forget Atlas.ti and MaxQDA: NVivo is your friend!

NVivo

[UPDATE: Please note the updates at the end of this post, which basically revoke my enthusiastic statement in the main post]

Okay, I admit that the headline is perhaps a bit premature since I have not yet extensively worked with NVivo, but I just have to note that I am absolutely thrilled with what I’ve seen so far (NVivo 9.2)! I’m just wondering how it could happen to me that I did not see this earlier. I know I looked at it about 5 years ago so maybe it just wasn’t so good then or maybe it was too expensive for an underpaid PhD student? Maybe I was turned off by its rather commercial rather than academic appearance and self-presentation?

I can’t remember the reasons why I ended up choosing between Atlas.ti and MaxQDA, but I’m pretty sure I’ll work with NVivo from now on. I will write more about my NVivo experiences in a couple of months. At this point I can just mention some of the features that completely won me over:

Firstly, Since NVivo 9, several people can work simmultaneously on the same project (coding data etc). This is only possible in connection with NVivo Server, an extra software with an extra license (and hence extra costs), but I am not aware that any other QDA software offers such excellent team work features. In Atlas.ti, for example, you have to bundle your project and send it to your colleague who then can work on it, bundle it again and send it back to you. You can also merge projects in Atlas.ti, but once they are merged, its again only one user who can work on them at a time. (A note of caution: I have not yet had the chance to try out NVivo server but a colleague told me that there still seem to be some instability and connectivity problems that need to be resolved. So I’m not yet praising NVivo server! I’m just saying that there is huge potential!)

A second feature which is a must for me is the possibility to code scanned pdfs (handwritten fieldnotes!) Atlas.ti can do this but not MaxQDA. And NVivo can do it. I’ve tested it! Excellent!

Thirdly, I like to have my audiofiles linked and synchronized with my transcripts, which allows me to do rough transcripts at first and then go into detail where necessary by jumping to the respective audiosegment by clicking into the text. Again, Atlas.ti can do that. I think MaxQDA also introduced it recently (not sure though). Well, and NVivo can too, but my first impression here was actually a bit disappoiting since it does not seem to support “karaoke mode” when playing the audio and it puts the transcript into a table in which every row corresponds to a segment in the audio file. Its a bit clumsy to handle compared to the pure text version in Atlas.ti, but the problem with Atlas.ti transcripts for me has always been that they easily get messed up and the deitor is behaving strangely, for example by inserting a timestamp in front of the cursor instead of behaind it and and sometimes not allowing you to move the cursor past it. Well, anyway, the table layout of transcripts in NVivo seems to make the whole thing more stable. Hopefully anyway.

Another thing I like about NVivo is the way it displays code stripes not only down alongside your transcript (or other texts) but also across, along the envelope of your audio. It is also very flexible regarding which codes you want to have displayed.

Finally, I will just mention the incredible variety of analysis features, including the possibility to cluster your texts according to similarities in word use, the possibility to show the contexts in which a word is frequently used, and the possibility to automatically include synonyms and similar words in a word search. So for example, if you search for “tourist”, it can also look for “traveller” etc.

Let me know what your experiences witj NVivo or, if you prefer another QDA program, why you think it is better. Just post your comments below!

[UPDATE 04/11/2011: Here is a blogpost that came to a different conclusion than me, and I think Abdulrahman is making some valid points, especially about the speed…]

[UPDATE 13/10/2012: I don’t have time to write much today, but since this post is still one of the most popular ones on this blog, I need to say that I basically revoke my judgement: I cannot recommend NVivo 10 any more than Atlas.ti 7! The main reason why I am annoyed with NVivo is not so much about certain functionalities (if you want to import web-pages or study posts on social networks, NVivio 10 probably is still your choice) but about those little annoyances that keep bugging you while you work. I have a whole list of these, but the most annoying thing has been the way that NVivo links a transcript with the respective audio file: the transcript is in a table and one paragraph is a table cell. In addition, scrolling through the transcript table doesn’t go smoothly but takes quite big jumps so that you don’t know where actually you are in the transcript whenever you move the mouse wheel. It is also cumbersome to play a specific passage that you are looking at. Firstly because the way to get the audio playing is not intuitive and once you get it to play, it always starts at the beginning of that particular table cell. So if you got a long text within one cell, you cant’ really count that as text-audio synchronization in a meaningful way. The second huge drawback that I want to mention is that although NVivo 10 has become somewhat faster, it is still very slow (at least when you use it with NVivo server) which gets the more  annoying the more you are accustomed to the program and want to move around quickly. Finally, it seems that Atlas.ti has greatly improved with version 7.0 and I will check it out in the coming days to see if it still annoys me as much as when I decided to move to Atlas.ti with my new project.]

SugarSync has serious crashing problems

It looks like the competition between dropbox and SugarSync is pretty much decided. At least from my perspective. As I have commented elsewhere, there are serious problems with synching in sugarsync. I was hoping that this would be resolved soon, but it looks like SugarSync does not even intend to solve the problem (at least not generally), as these instructions from the sugarsync FAQ indicate:

Files can get stuck in the upload or download queue if there is any sort of confusion between data in your account and data on the SugarSync servers.

The easiest possible solution is to exit from SugarSync Manager (choose File > Exit) and then restart it.

Hello? That might be a pragmatic thing to do, but why does it happen in the first place?

If that doesn’t work, open a “stuck” file, make a trivial edit, and then save it to trigger a new upload.

Oh, so what kind of “trivial edit” would you suggest I make to my favourite mp3 song or journal-article in pdf format??

If that doesn’t work, you can reset the local database:

  1. Open SugarSync Manager.
  2. For Windows computers, press and hold Ctrl + Shift + R. For Mac computers, press and hold Cmd + Shift + R.
  3. Select Yes when asked “You are about to reset SugarSync Manager on this computer. Your local configuration information will be erased and the client will restart as a fresh install. Your files will not be affected. Are you sure you want to continue?”
  4. Launch SugarSync Manager.
  5. Enter your SugarSync email and password when prompted to login. Important: When asked if you want to restore your sync folders that were selected in the previous installation, select Yes. (This option is checked by default.)

So, in a nutshell: we have no clue what is causing this serious failure of the central function of our service, so we recommend you just spend some of your time fiddling around a bit, maybe you can get it to work on your computer, but we can’t fix it for everyone. Oh, and of course we can assist you if you send us your logfiles which conatains the file names of all the files you are trying to sync:

If none of these steps resolved the problem, please send us log files from the affected computers(s).

Yes, thank you. I did that and I am very curious about what kind of resply I will be getting…

To conclude: I am starting to understand why people are willing to pay so much more for a dropbox account. It’s because it works…
Edit: To be fair, I should mention that dropbox has a serious security issue: although your files are encrypted, dropbox employees have – in principle – access to them, even without your password (and contrary to what dropbox stated on their website until 13 April 2011). In brief: dropbox was lying to its customers. – Well, so where do we go now? Maybe Spideroak?

Is Live Inbox an alternative to Xobni?

[Note: This post has been updated multiple times since it was first published (see below)]
I was thrilled this morning when I discovered live inbox. It’s brand new – launched this month (June 2011) and claims to be an alternative to “evil xobni” (live inbox with each word spelled backwards). I had just started trying out Xobni but – as the live inbox people rightly point out – it came with lots of problems, including nearly no customization options and initial problems with drag-and-drop in Outlook. So I was searching the web for an alternative and I thought I had found it in live inbox.

But after half a day of trying it out – or rather: trying to try it out – I must say that I wish that these guys hadn’t gone public with this product yet. Apart from that it would have saved me from wasting my time, I think that going public at this point of development is going to give them a lot of bad press and that might in the end kill the whole enterprise of developing a good alternative to Xobni. Does

I briefly describe my odyssey with Live Inbox:

– Installation: the automatic download of Microsoft Virtual Studio runtime x86 failed (tried several times) so I located it manually on the web, downloaded and installed it.

– After that, Live Inbox still wouldn’t install, even though my win7 user account has admin privileges (error message complaining that I did not have permission to write in some directory). Only when I started the setup by right-clicking and selecting “run as administrator” did the installation go all the way through.

– But the annoyances were not over at that point: starting outlook took ages even before the live-inbox pane even appeared on the screen and when it did it said “live inbox loading” for I-don’t-know-how-many minutes. Obviously, the add-on was indexing my inbox with several thousand emails. But it was not telling me so and it was not letting me use outlook while it was doing it. In contrast to Xobni, which was almost exaggerating its efforts to keep me entertained during the process.

– Once it had loaded in my Outlook calendar (which is my default view when starting outlook) I found no way to get it to show in a second outlook window which I opened with my emails (right click the mail-icon in the navigation bar). So I am forced to use the *first* outlook window to read my mail.

– I also found no way to close the Live Inbox pane completely. Xobni, in contrast, placed a useful button in the Home-ribbon for that.

– But at least it was operating now. – Or was it? – Well, I would say it wasn’t because it was so slow to react to any click on a mail or wherever, that it was just unbearable. I thought, hmm, maybe I should just restart outlook. After all, Xobni also messed up some part of outlook (I was no longer able to drag and drop a file into an email I was composing), so maybe they mistakenly copied that behaviour too…

– Unfortunately, that made it only worse. The starting procedure seemed even slower now, and, in fact, the Live Inbox pane did not materialize at all (well, it came up as an empty pane and stayed that way for at least 10 minutes). (See the following screenshot.)

Even a system restart did get Live Inbox going.

– Meanwhile, Outlook was using 45% of my CPU and constantly complaining that it was “trying to retrieve data from the Microsoft Exchange server…” which did not seem to work (see screenshot below).

Live Inbox is causing problems with MS Outlook 2010

– I tried rebooting windows, as a last chance but nothing changed (see screenshot below). So off you go: “uninstall live box” was the end of that adventure. Unfortunately. I would have liked to see if these guys can keep the promises the are making on the webpage, but well – I’ll probably come back in half a year or so, hoping that you still exist. But at this point, I can only recommend to anyone: don’t even try to install live inbox. It’s really not worth it. Yet (I hope).

P.S. I should also like to mention that I do not recommend using Outlook as an email client in the first place. I am only using it because my employer (or Microsoft – I don’t know whose fault it is that our Exchange server just won’t cooperate with Thunderbird through IMAP) is basically forcing me to use it. So I’m trying to make the best of it (and would be grateful for any hints or comments of how to make life with outlook more userfriendly, transparent, and customizable).

Note:
The above review is based on Version 1.1.7 (compliled 6 June 2011) of Live Inbox on a Win7 Pro machine (32-bit) with Office 2010. Please do leave a comment below if you have experience with a newer version that works!

Update:
In case you’re wondering: After having agreed to serve as a beta-tester (see Sumanth’s comment below) I did not hear anything for three months but then I received an updated version of live inbox in which all the above mentioned problems were supposed to be cleared out. However, I had huge problems getting the program running. First, it took 27 minutes to index my inbox and then it kept crashing due to some license issues. Sumanth told me that this was only due to the fact that I had previously installed a version of live inbox and that the issue will be resolved in the next release. So in brief: I am not giving up hope for this to become a true alternative to xobni, but at the moment it still looks like a long way to go.

Update 2 (10 Dec 2011): I thought I should mention that I have received a new version of Live Inbox already in October but I have been so busy those last months that I did not have time to install and test it. I am looking forward to do this sometime soon, hopefully and I’ll let you now the results in a new post. Thanks for your patience.

Update 3 (6 Jan 2012): Just before christmas I finally took the time to check out the latest version (compiled 22 Nov 2011). And I was once again harshly disappointed. It was just a waste of time. Any normal user would have been left with a non-functional outlook after trying to install that version.

First outlook crashed completely while live inbox was supposedly trying to scan my inbox. And when I say “completely” I mean that I had to kill the oulook.exe process on the Windows Task Manager; nothing else worked. After a forced restart, I was asked for a license but clicking on “retrieve license” (as I was told to do in an email from the developers) just led to the license being sent to my inbox again and again (where it had been lying all the time anyway). The software refused to do anything except for telling me that I need a license. As you can see in the screenshot below, there was not even a possibility for me to somehow enter the license manually and it was not possible to activate any part of the plugin without getting this error message.

Live-inbox kept asking for a license inspite of several mails containing the license being in my inbox

The only way to get around this was by saving the license file from the email to my desktop, reinstalling liveinbox and directing it to that file as soon as it asked for the license (rather than clicking on “retrive license”). For a moment it then seemed to work but when I restarted Outlook, the whole Live-Inbox plugin had disappeared again.

The only result of all this was that now Outlooks social networking pane below the reading pane which I had deactivated in the Plug-In options has magically been reactivated. I don’t like it if another program deems it appropriate to reactivate another plugin without even asking me. One of the developers responded to this issue as follows:

LiveInbox really does not care about it [the networking pane]. We do not modify The Addins section in the registry… NO we just don’t play around with other plugins. There is no code in LiveInbox that does that. What social networking pane was this ?

It’s funny that they don’t even know about this! It’s part of Outlook and the official name is “Microsoft Outlook Connector for social networks” (socialconnector.dll).

Despite my frustration with Live-Inbox, I have installed it on my home PC today where I have not been using Outlook before so that it is in its original condition (at work I have several other plugins installed). My home system is Win7 Pro 64 bit with Office 2010 connected to the Exchange Server at work. Here the installation process went a bit better but far from smooth:

  1. During the installation I was told that the .NET Framework version 4 needs to be installed and a browser window was opened with the download page. So I downloaded and installed it but even after that, the Live-Inbox installation was still stuck at the same point and did not pick up the changes I had made. I had to click “Cancel” and restart the installation. This is not how an installation procedure should run. It should at least tell you to restart the process after installing .NET rather than pretending to be still up and running.
  2. After installation, I agreed to “start Live inbox for outlook 2.0” but what was launched was the setup procedure for Outlook, not Outlook with my existing account. Hello?
  3. When I started Outlook the normal way, it suddenly opens two instances of Outlook. Dont ask me why.
  4. After indexing my Inbox, I am again asked for the license key (although there are still several copies in my inbox). Again, I had to save the license file on my desktop and direct live-inbox to it.

Now it is up and running. However, it is not working. I don’t know what these guys are doing, but I thought the point of live inbox was to make it really easy to quickly find any email. So as I was writing this update, I searched for the emails I had exchanged with the live-inbox team. I searched for “live-inbox” which is contained in all of their email adresses but only a single email was found (see screenshot).

Live Inbox only found one out of many emails from it's makers

I did get all live-inbox email adresses that I corresponded with, but not the emails themselves.

So I went back to the native outlook search and here is what I got:

The native Outlook search does find the mails

So without even extending the search to other folders of my inbox, Outlook already found more mails than Live-Inbox. — Hello?

I really don’t understand what’s going on here. As I said earlier: It’s a real pity that the live-inbox people are not getting this to work at all. The only thing that changes is the version number: The current version is already called “Live-Inbox for Outlook 2.0” Ha ha. Unfortunately, I cannot tell you the exact version number of the build that I have been testing in this update because the “About” button in the Live-Inbox ribbon is not working. But, as mentioned above, its the build of 22 Nov 2011.


Which cloud? Dropbox vs. SugarSync

I think I should add dropbox to my list of good applications. Obviously, the qualities of dropbox are not a secret, but I have been using it now for a couple of months and I have no reason to complain about it (and I like to complain!). If you’d like to try dropbox for free and get an extra 250 MB on top of the 2GB free storage space, use this link (it will also give me 250 MB extra).

But now to the main point of this post: I just spent some time reading about other cloud storage services, and found that SugarSync is actually a serious alternative to dropbox. Check out this really excellent review by Jack Busch (see also the recent comparison by Matt Smollinger)! And note that the SugarSync bonus program has been extended until the end of March 2011 31 May 2011, so if you use this link to try it out, we’ll both get 500 MB extra free.

Personally, I have yet to try out SugarSync in practice, but it looks like I will be using both: Dropbox to sync my daily work and frequently used files (because of dropbox’s speed and 30 days undo history) and SugarSync for my large pdf library (because of the larger free space and cheaper upgrade option) and other files that are rarely changed but that I still want to be accessible anywhere (Sugarsync’s fee plan only gives you access to the last two versions of a file).

P.S. If you are  also annoyed by dropbox only syncing what’s in the dropbox folder, check out the option to sync any folder – as it were – by using symlinks. One big advantage of Sugarsync is that you can choose any folder to be synced (no need to put them into the dropbox folder).

MaxQDA or Atlas.ti?

I just received an email from a colleague asking me a simple question that is probably relevant vor many people: “A student of mine is looking for a good qualitative software program to analyze interviews. Perhaps you have some recomendations?” So here’s my answer:

There are basically two alternatives: MaxQDA and Atlas.ti. [Update Nov. 2011: I now also consider NVivo worth considering] I myself still work with Atlas.ti simply because it allows me to scan my handwritten field into pdf-files and code them like images. Although MAXqda does now support pdf files, it only supports coding of text in these pdf-files, which renders it useless for coding scanned fieldnotes. Apart from this difference, which is essential for me, (and putting asside the rather restrictive license terms which allow you to install the student license on one single computer only) my personal impression is that MAXqda is the better software package at this point. But my judgement is based only on a quick look at the trial version of MAXqda. I have not actually worked with it (while I’ve used Atlas.ti for years). What makes me think that MaxQDA is better is its more intuitive (and prettier) user interface and such things as its visualization tools.

Apart from the better pdf-support, another advantage of Atlas.ti might be the better integration of audio transcription (and what they call “Text-to-Media Synchronization”). But there are probably other important differences depending on the type of analysis one wants to make. If you work in a team, check especially for team-functionality (i.e. sharing of data, collaborative coding etc). If you are wondering which dimensions of comparison might be relevant for you, check out the following book: Lewins, Ann & Silver, Christina (2007): Using software in qualitative research: A step-by-step guide. Los Angeles: Sage. Note, however, that this book reviews older versions of both programs, so that you should make an up-to-date comparison yourself. But the book might guide your comparison. Feel free to post the results of your comparison as a comment below.

P.S. If you’ve been wondering what the “Max” in MaxQDA stands for: In an introductory workshop held by one of the MaxQDA developers, I was told that “Max” is a reference in honour of Max Weber.