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Pocket Informant 2005 for Windows Mobile Pocket PC

Review posted August 2005 by Tanker Bob

The core function of a Personal Digital Assistant revolves around its Personal Information Management (PIM) and associated software. Pocket Outlook on the Pocket PC platform provides some nice capabilities, but built-in applications rarely satisfy those with demanding or complex requirements. We took one of the most popular and powerful alternatives for a test drive.

Pocket Informant 2005 does literally everything a PIM can do and more. It replaces the built-in Calendar, Contacts, Tasks, Notes, Journal, and adds a Timeline view. It can have more custom screens than Enron has lawyers, seemingly only limited by your imagination. This review can’t possibly cover the depth of Pocket Informant, but we’ll try to provide a look at its breadth.

I tested Pocket Informant on a Dell Axim X50v running Windows Mobile 2003SE with a 624MHz CPU and VGA screen. PI was installed into Built-in Storage.

Keeping up to date

When I started this review, Pocket Informant 2005 had recently been re leased. As I completed the review, re lease 2.1--two updates later--stands as current. In addition to minor fixes and modifications, these updates bring Windows Mobile 2005 compatibility to the table. Clearly WebIS stands behind its flagship product.

Have it your way

Before looking at individual displays, let’s look at the similar customization settings that they share. Font types and sizes may be set, multi- or single line entry displays, font and category colors to quickly find particular items, workday hours for individual days of the week to bracket the visual picture, icons for individual items and/or categories to further aid visual acquisition of a sought item, and category filtering to limit the playing field. There’s almost nothing that can’t be individualized to suit a user’s needs or desires. The font sizing can be particularly important for operating in true VGA mode, as larger custom text will be more readable than the SE VGA defaults that become miniscule at true 640x480 pixel resolution. And all this may be saved in custom views, which we’ll discuss later.

Calendar

I found the Agenda screen to be the handiest on a daily basis. It lays out a user-selectable number of days of appointments at a glance in list format. You can filter out days without appointments to condense the display a bit. The use of category colors makes it easy to spot trends. For example, green in the illustration denotes vacation time, making easy to spot the beginning and the all-too-soon end of that idyllic period. In addition, categories may be filtered out to further tailor the display. Events whose time has passed in a given day change to italic font, making it easy to see where one stands in the current day and what events remain.

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As is true with all calendar modes, a new appointment may be added by tapping and holding on a day’s title bar. The appointment will be opened in edit mode with the day tapped and at the current time set in it--very convenient. Double-tapping an entry opens its detail screen for viewing and editing. Additionally, tapping on a note or link icon for an appointment brings up that note or link data. There’s even the option for adding tasks to the calendar display. For normal daily calendar use, you could live off of this display alone.

Note the bar just under the calendar itself. Taking the icons from left to right, it provides one-tap access to the Agenda, Daily, Week, Month, and Timeline views on the left side. The right side provides one-tap access to Notes, Tasks, Contacts, and PI Search. This is typical of all PI screens, giving the user access to all their data with just one tap.

Returning to the calendar presentation itself, notice the bars above each day. These provide a snapshot of the day’s schedule at a glance. The bold vertical bars on either end of the yellow-shaded area denote the beginning and end of the user-specified business day. The bold bar in between them indicates noon. Event bars may take on the category colors for easy identification. This clever scheme repeats on all calendar displays in one or another form.

The color bars to the left of each appointment denote whether the time is free, tentative, busy, or out-of-office--the same scheme as desktop Outlook. The bar colors parallel Outlook by default, including red for conflicts. The option exists to change the color bars to match the category colors of the appointments.

 

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If you prefer to check out your schedule a week at a time, 7-day mode may tickle your fancy. The same general features apply to this view. In addition, you can change the relative sizes of the first day’s box and even change which day appears at the top. Tapping on an event opens it for viewing or editing.

 

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The month view provides a quick overview from which to make or change appointments. Tapping and holding on a day brings up a context menu from which new appointments may be added. Simply tapping on a day brings up a preview window at the bottom showing the events scheduled for that day. Tap on one of the appointments to view its details or to edit it. Tapping on the preview window’s day/date bar closes it.

 

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The edit screen itself presents all the required information in a logical format. Tapping the date brings up a calendar, while tapping on the time brings up a very easy to use time display with the user-specified work hours in white and off-hours in yellow to speed your time selection. Common recurrence settings appear in a pull-down listbox, but custom settings may also be easily specified. PI keeps scheduling flexibility at a maximum, yet through simply and logically organized displays.

The icons under the main schedule display permit the user to add notes, contacts, categories, links, or journal entries to the appointment, which may be filtered by category on their respective screens. Like Microsoft Outlook on the desktop, PI supports multiple category assignments for appointments, contacts, tasks, and notes. Once again, all tasks may be accessed from the one central screen. Sounds like a recurring theme, eh?

Unlike paper organizers, PDAs can provide aural, visual, and/or tactile reminders of appointments. PI provides robust alarm options. They may be set days or months in advance, or can be set to trigger exactly on time.

At the very bottom of the screen, one may accept or cancel the appointment with the first two icons. The third icon provides text editing options in all screens where it appears. In this case, it includes the ability to create alarm notes, tasks, contacts, or another appointment from text the user has selected. What a great time saver! The two icons on the very right access contacts and a larger format in which to edit long text entries.

Templates furnish a huge time saver for creating new appointments. Any appointment may be turned into a template. Tapping on the icon under Subject at the top of the screen brings up a list of templates currently available. After a template has been selected, the user may then change any details necessary. Templates work similarly in the other PIM modules. PI also supports Smart Macro templates, which perform actions on applying the template.

Contacts

The two most common uses for a PDA involve schedule management and as an address book. PI shines in this department as well.

The Contacts screen presents key information in an easily recognizable format. Names on the left and numbers or email addresses on the right. The blue letter on the extreme right of all entries denotes what the type of number: h = home, o = office, e = email, etc. The same icon bar lies directly below the contact list, giving instant access to Calendar, Tasks, Notes, etc.

The best part of PI’s implementation of Contacts has to be their search engine. Shown at the top left of the screen in the illustration, two sticky icons provide key features of a search. If the user highlights the first, then PI looks for entries that start with the search text. If the user highlights the second, PI looks for entries containing the search criteria anywhere in the contact data. This distinction furnishes considerable power to forgetful users like me.

The third icon simply erases the search text. The last icon on the search bar brings up or dismisses a double vertical row of the alphabet for jumping quickly in the contact list. After tapping a letter, the vertical bar disappears and the display springs to entries starting with the chosen letter.

The third icon from the left on the very bottom icon bar brings up menu entries for displaying, sorting, and grouping the contact list. Choices include First/Last name, Last/First name, providing a picture list, and grouping by company, department, city, state, country, and category.

 

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New contact entry couldn’t be simpler. PI keeps an input history, so that frequently-entered text will be auto-filled. The icon bar just under the text entry groups information by person, office, home, general information, then permits the entry of notes, categorization of the contact, links, and journal entries (hidden under right/left scroll icons). At the very bottom, just as with appointment input, selected text may be used in other PIM areas and templates may be used. Of course, pictures may be associated with contacts, and contacts may be assigned to multiple categories.

So much to do, so little time…

 

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As Calendar can keep you from being late, Tasks can keep you from forgetting important stuff. PI’s Tasks implementation shares great similarity with the Contacts display. This includes filtering and grouping options. In the case of tasks, these may be sorted/grouped by category, importance, priority, progress, completion, or date. Of course, tasks may be prioritized. However, the simplicity of appearance can be deceiving.

PI supports hierarchical tasks that may be nested. Users enable hierarchies by selecting “Hierarchical Tasks” from the sort/group menu. Tasks may be dropped on others to establish relationships. Tapping and holding on a task with hierarchies enabled will offer the option of creating a child task. This furnishes a powerful list management system. These hierarchies may be expanded or collapsed in the display.

 

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Creating new tasks uses a familiar motif. All the icons have already been explained above. Importance and priority are separate characteristics of a task. Both may be set during creation and changed later using the importance and priority icons, if displayed. Tasks may also be created in a hierarchy as described above.

Tasks can repeat. A task must be checked off as complete, however, before it will repeat. Reminders may be set to alert the user when it’s time to perform a task. Start and completion dates may be entered, which together with hierarchies provided some project tracking capability.

Taking Note…

I consider the Notes setup under the Windows platform to be less useful than Memos in the Palm world. The difference lies in the way Outlook treats notes as an afterthought, whereas Palm has treated them as an equal PIM partner. While PI takes some steps towards rectifying this, its compatibility with Outlook still results in serious limitations.

 

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Pocket Informant 2005 shows all notes everywhere on your device and supports PhatNotes. WebIS includes PhatNotes Lite, which doesn’t sync with your desktop, with the PI archive. Standard notes display in the directories in which they reside. Individual PhatNotes list from within their databases. Of course, the list may be filtered and searched, just as the other PIM modules.

The file list may be sorted by any parameter, but there’s a catch. For example, you can sort by category, but the items in each category will be unsorted. This makes it virtually useless to sort by anything other than name or date if you have a large number of notes, and is the only serious shortcoming that I found in PI.

 

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The note editing screen presents a surprise. The toolbar under the text presents formatting options! With an attendant increase in file size, notes may be endowed with paragraph alignments, indenting, and bold, italic, and underlined fonts. While these enhancements may dress up notes, the file size can be triple that of a plain text note. Still, it offers a nice feature.

The very bottom toolbar can set an alarm time, change to screen writing, add a date/time stamp, change text color, and add a contact. PI generally considers notes as something to combine with alarms, so generally refers to notes as alarm notes.

By default, notes appear in the My Documents folder in RAM. While PI can save and find notes anywhere on your device, ActiveSync will only find those in the default location to sync with desktop Outlook.

Timeline View

A step beyond PIM functions, PI’s Timeline view serves two primary purposes. One, it compares schedules. A manager could keep the work schedules of individual team members, or parents can keep a schedule for each family member. Second, this view may be used to manage a project, tracking resources and schedules.

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Timeline view relies on the effective use of categories. If a user already uses categories for all appointments, this view can be used effectively right out of the box. If not, then a little effort in properly categorizing data will be needed to get the most from the timelines. To track schedules, simply assign each person their own category. For projects, assign categories either to individual projects or to a project’s parts, depending on the level of detail that you want to track. Once a user grasps the relationship between categories and the timelines, the concept becomes pretty simple to implement.

 

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Like the month view, selecting a schedule block brings up its details in the preview window. Tapping and holding on a date brings up a context menu for adding an appointment or task, switching views, etc. Tapping on a category name brings up a summary screen that displays the number of appointments, tasks, contacts, journals, and notes, the amount of total time taken by them. The time period for that data may be set on the detail screen, and descriptive text may be added. Be patient, as it may take a few seconds to query all the databases.

The timeline view has some good capability at this point, and WebIS indicates that they will be expanding this functionality in upcoming releases.

Buttoning up the interface

The D-Pad moves around PI pretty nicely. It performs different but logical functions depending on the screen display. In Agenda, it pages up and down the dates as well as moving forward and backward in the user-set time blocks. In Week view, it jumps forward/back by week, and similarly for months. In Month view, pressing the action button selects a day and displays its events in the preview. At this point, the direction buttons move through the days, previewing each one as it goes.

In Tasks, the D-Pad directions moves between individual tasks and the action button marks the selected task complete. The D-Pad moves similarly through the contacts, where the action button opens the chosen contact. The direction buttons also move through the notes.

WebIS provides a number of utility shortcuts. These may be assigned to the device application buttons, bringing up PI in the selected mode when the user presses a button. These shortcuts may also be executed from the Programs and Home screens from their own folder, as well as third-party launchers. Shortcuts include starting each of the calendar views, tasks, and creating or opening alarm notes. Very handy.

More Nifty Features

Pocket PC devices have a poor history of alarm reliability. PI provides a nice function to recreate alarms in the operating system. Users may also delete the entire contents of any database, clear links, backup PI’s settings, and even take a screen shot. Screen shots only save as bitmaps, which come out to just under 1MB on a VGA device. The Cleanup PI Databases function applies only to those who use Intellisync.

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If a particular default screen or display doesn’t work for you, then simply create and save a custom view. Simply set the options that suit your purposes, tap Save Current View Setup from the custom view icon (folder with the star on the bottom icon bar), and name it. One example of its use would be a filtered and formatted list of medical appointments that you could pull up at will. Or you could create separate views to display business and personal calendars and swap between them with just a few taps. Custom views may be created for any of the PIM modules, for instance a filtered and formatted honey-do list in Tasks.

So many options…

…it boggles the mind. If there’s something that can’t be changed or configured in PI, I didn’t find it. Fonts, colors, behavior…the savvy user may setup PI to suit themselves. I set up PI for true VGA mode by varying the sizes of all applicable display components, and the result proved very pleasant and usable. The default settings please the eye in SE VGA mode.

PI supports powerful linking capabilities, placing all relevant information at your stylus tip. For example, you could link all attendees plus the agenda notes to a meeting appointment, or perhaps record key sales contact information in journal entries linked to the appropriate contacts. Only the user’s imagination limits the possibilities. Combined with Timeline, robust project resource management comes into its own through linking.

Where, Oh where?

Incredible power resides in Pocket Informant’s built-in search function. It is available on the standard icon bar under all PI displays and has its own dedicated screen. That screen looks a great deal like the Tasks and Contacts screen.

 

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The search bar itself works like all the others in the program. It can search for the criteria with which entries start or find it anywhere in the entries. Like the individual search criteria windows in the PIM sections, this one maintains a history that the user may recall. The icon bar below the search criteria bar allows users to select which PIM databases to search. You may select one or all of the Calendar, Tasks, Contacts, Notes, and Journal data sets.

The results screen displays entries with their pertinent data. Results may be sorted by subject, category, sensitivity, or date. It may also be filtered by category. The bar at the top of the result listing totals the number of matching entries of each type. The best part is that each result entry acts just as it would in its own module. Tapping on icons in individual result entries works exactly like in their native programs. For instance, tapping on a note icon in an appointment brings up the note. Closing the note returns you to the search result screen. Double-tapping an appointment opens it for review and editing. Closing it returns the user to the search result screen. PI not only presents its findings but gives you full use of them directly from the search screen. Very cool.

Conclusion

I find it hard to imagine a more powerful or comprehensive Personal Information Manager than Pocket Informant 2005. It does nearly everything extremely well, providing the user with a consistent interface across the spectrum. It seems infinitely customizable. This brief review hardly does Pocket Informant’s rich features justice. At $29.95, it comes as quite a bargain.

Pros:

Complete PIM support in one package
Consistent interface across modules
Outstanding search capability
Powerful linking feature
Hierarchical tasks
Almost infinite customizability
Color and icon support for individual items and categories
Easy custom view support
Solid desktop Outlook compatibility
Excellent VGA support
Comprehensive, easy to understand manual

Cons:

No secondary sort support in Notes and the default secondary sort isn’t alphabetical
A bit of a learning curve to tap its power

Price: $29.95

Web site: www.pocketinformant.com

$29.95

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