TagSpaces, the offline file and note organiser, previously reviewed on Make Tech Easier, has seen some heavy development since our last review. The cross-platform Evernote alternative works as an offline file organiser for notes, documents, images, videos, and e-books, delivering the same experience on every major operating system. It has received many major improvements and new features in the past year, worthy of having a closer look once again.
Getting TagSpaces 2.5
TagSpaces is available for all major desktop and mobile platforms, offering a uniform user experience everywhere and making it probably less native-looking (yet not out of place), but truly cross-platform in user experience as well as installability. To download the latest version for your system (be it Linux, Mac, Windows, Chrome and Firefox plugins, Android, iOS apps), go here
TagSpaces was already an excellent choice for personal file management even in its early release versions. The ability to sort, organise, preview or even edit many file formats and save portable tags as part of the filename – all without the need for a database, an internet connection, or any subscription/proprietary software – were among the best features TagSpaces offered. (You can find out more about the basic functionality in our previous review article.
Since then there have been at least nine new versions bringing significant new functionality and many more bugfix releases, so TagSpaces is as exciting now as ever.
A better looking use interface
Of course the most noticeable changes are those of the UI. When you load up the new version, a very similar, albeit much improved interface will greet you.
The new UI is based on Google’s material paradigm. This means colours, button animations, layouts, shadows, and many small changes together create a much more streamlined user experience, making old versions of TagSpaces look quite “rough” in comparison. The colours themselves have become a lot more subtle yet more elegant. This is not only a simple aesthetic improvement – Google’s colour recommendations are meant to improve readability and ease navigation. This will be immediately obvious when you start using the new interface; even if you are a long time user, the small, yet important changes will be felt immediately.
A good example is the “card-like” layout of the folder navigation, which, unlike earlier versions, now takes up all available space, tiling gracefully. It creates a much clearer navigation interface that is definitely easier to use.
Another striking difference is the Floating Action Button (FAB for short), one of Google’s most important inventions in material design. All actionable items are now located in the FAB, sitting on the lower-left corner of the window.
This might feel quite unusual at first, especially on desktop platforms. After some time spent using it, however, it quickly becomes easy and most intuitive to use. For those who miss the old menu system, there is of course a more traditional top-menu available, although it does not offer all of the actions found under the FAB.
Another new function is the showing of in-app notifications. It’s up to debate if this is better than operating with native system-wide notifications, but surely it is easier to identify that TagSpaces is sending the message, which usually concerns errors, thus worth paying attention to.
Under the hood
Naturally the biggest changes are not immediately (or at all) visible to the naked eye. Most improvements in TagSpaces happened in the codebase or the various plugins making up this extensible application. The most prominent change was the porting of the codebase from “NW.js” (formerly Node Webkit), to the newer, and rapidly evolving “Electron” framework (formerly Atom Shell). The new framework, developed by Github, is probably a more suitable candidate for writing desktop applications. For the developers it offers faster issue resolutions and faster development of new functionality, while the end user of apps developed in Electron will benefit from the support of a large company and a stable future-proof basis their applications can run on. A definite win-win for both users and developers.
Besides the non-obvious migration to Electron, TagSpaces now also offers:
- A native ePub viewer to organise and preview e-books
- Full-screen mode for previewing files (a distraction-free environment)
- New and improved advanced search functionality which will enable you to search your files more efficiently based on tags, filename or both
- Interactive checkboxes in HTML (Rich Text) documents with which you can easily create and manage To-Do lists (or any other form of interactive lists) in your documents
- Tag groups, which will in a later version include custom colours for tags in the same group. So far tag groups only makes tagging easier, but once you can choose a colour, tagging will instantly become a lot more productive. Fortunately, this is one of the planned improvements coming in a future version of TagSpaces, hopefully quite soon.
The other planned improvements are even more exciting. Besides the short development roadmap, the User’s Voice forums are worth reading through, as these show that the developers are serious about improving their product and that they also take user feedback and suggestions most seriously. Some planned features include (but are not limited to):
- Geo tagging, with OpenStreetmap integration
- Descriptions and comments on files and folders
- Custom background colours
- Reminder tags with notifications
As noted earlier, TagSpaces offers some advanced functionality via browser extensions, not unlike Evernote. Extensions are available for both Firefox and Chrome, and while the Firefox extension receives no more improvements, functioning only as a (rather useful) webscraper, the Chrome extension evolved into a handy file browser, suitable for projecting local content (images, videos or music) to a Chromecast device. You can easily grab web content as html or png (screenshot) and open an interactive TagSpaces session right in your browser.
A new pro version
For those who need even more control and improved functionality, not to mention a chance to support the developers of the project, a paid-for “Pro” version is also available now.
TagSpaces Pro offers improvements in situations, where the usual functionality could not be used. For example, you can save the tags in external, so-called “sidecar” files. This can be rather handy when you cannot or do not want to change the filename just to store tags (which are normally saved as a part of the filename for easy portability).
These sidecar files can be saved in a hidden “.ts” folder for every subfolder of our project. This hidden folder might also contain the generated persistent thumbnails (another pro function) and other metadata.
TagSpaces Pro also improves the search functionality by a great deal. You can search by file extension, have a search history, and search *inside* the contents of text-based (including HTML) files.
In Pro you can also assign tags and description to directories, although not yet as easily as you would manage file tags. You can find out more about the improvements and pro functionality here.
Nothing is without issues, of course. TagSpaces, being an Open Source project, is quite transparent about the problems found by the community. Their Github page is accessible by anyone, so all the major issues can be seen and tracked as they are identified and or fixed by the developers or the community.
Only a few very obvious issues will strike the casual user, however, at least without digging very deep into advanced usage.
- Epub files (tested mostly with those mostly generated with Calibre on Linux that pass a plethora of quality checks) were unable to show a preview, for some reason, on Ubuntu 16.04. This is probably a minor glitch.
- UI elements are non-resizable, contrary to what you would expect in a desktop app. You cannot resize the sidebar or any of the UI elements. It definitely leaves everything in a most “orderly” state, but if you prefer your own way, you are out of luck.
- Some error notifications about missing or inaccessible folders randomly show up, even as the contents of the folder in question are being shown. This is only slightly annoying and rather just weird behaviour than a problem.
- There is no obvious way to switch back to “preview” mode once you click the “edit” button for a markdown file. (This annoying UX problem has apparently been fixed in the next version of TagSpaces.)
It is easy to see that TagSpaces is rapidly evolving into the productivity app of the future: Easy to use, cloudless, open source and transparent. It lets you have complete control over your data, not only by means of organising and storing it, but in terms of access as well. Unlike most commercial products, TagSpaces uses no proprietary file formats or databases. Your files are plain and accessible, even outside of the software. It is definitely an excellent alternative to Evernote and other big commercial competitors most recommended for everyday usage.