Review: A Tinderbox Full of Notes

Tinderbox Sample NoteOur review today is a little different, but the application seems to warrant it. Tinderbox (disclaimer: its maker, Eastgate, is a sponsor) is in many ways an unusual program. Refusing to be pinned into any one category, it's almost the tinker, tailor, soldier and spy of personal content management systems. Infinitely tweakable, and extraordinarily powerful, its capabilities can take a long time to explore. So it was only fair to bring both Jaymi (a beginner) and Doug (an intermediate user) into this review. Thus, a little discussion, which went as follows....

JE: Tinderbox bills itself as "a tool for making and analyzing notes." And we agree. However, it's very intimidating to a new user at first and it takes a long while to get over the "wow... omg.... what am I gonna do with this" feeling. When Doug asked me to help him review this package I was hesitant at first. I had no idea how to use this system, or what benefits I could gain from using such a robust note-taking system. Even after a few days of using it, I'm still not sure I've tapped into the full power of the application, for which I'm grateful that Doug is here to help explain, since he's a long-time user.

DJ: Part of the challenge of Tinderbox is trying to figure out what exactly it's useful for. It's almost like a caveman coming across a computer, or me finding something that came out of a car engine. ;-) One's sure that it has to have a purpose, but without the proper background and context, that purpose can be a little hard to discern.

Eastgate has been hesitant to suggest too much by way of Tinderbox's uses, since they prefer that we as users figure out those uses for ourselves. That's a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it can cause many prospective users to take an idle glance at it before throwing up one's hands in frustration, or perhaps exclaiming how "primitive" it is; on the other, it gives Mac (and soon Windows, we hear) information management geeks a very versatile tool that, while deceptive in its apparent simplicity, is able to grow to fit whatever powerful use they imagine, rather than be confined by a "this app does this" mentality.

So the initial challenge for users is to figure out what their needs are, and then figure out how Tinderbox can fill those needs. The second challenge concerns the patience to stick with it, which is (in my experience, at least) greatly rewarded in the end.

The PDF manual does have a few ideas, but serves mainly as a reference guide. However, Eastgate also sells a book entitled The Tinderbox Way for more intermediate users who want to start really exploring the application's capabilities. It was a fascinating read, and made me wish I could attend a "Tinderbox Weekend" or two, to see some of the cool things that others are doing.

JE: So where does one begin? Well, if you are like me (innowen) you could run through the tutorial that gives you a small introduction to using the basic features like creating notes, connecting them together and building containers. Or you can also head to Eastgate's website and watch a few small videos that show you some more basic features as well as some more advanced ones (like making your files look pretty with adornments). Both give you a general idea of what Tinderbox can do and offer a casual note taker. But both methods left me feeling like there was more beneath the surface to this application.

DJ: In a way, it's like setting up a planner. On steroids. You have a big blank thing that just begs to be filled up, but first you have to figure out what you want to do with it. Once you figure that out, you can customise it to your heart's content, shaping both the form and the data as you go.

My best advice for people jumping into this: start with one of two basic uses.

First, Tinderbox is an excellent hierarchical note-taker. Make sure you're in explorer view, and you'll see a series of nestable notes at left, with the actual text of the note to go at right. It's actually bare-bones (or at least it looks that way) on purpose, leaving you to concentrate on writing text instead of fiddling endlessly with your formatting. Think of Write Room, Ulysses or another basic editor that forces you to stick with words, not font size or spacing.

Tinderbox Sample Map ViewSecond, explore map view. This is neat. You're basically creating a series of boxed notes that you can move about the screen. Create a few "adornments" (basically, labelled blocks that stick to the background) to visually hold your ideas, and then move your notes as needed. Change their colours, add contents to them, develop links, and so on. Then you can "drop" them inside one another, since each one is also a container. Switch to explorer view when you're done, and voilà! A hierarchical system of notes that you've developed visually.

From there, prototypes, additional note fields, agents, scripting and other more slightly advanced topics can be explored to make sense of your notes, sort them in different ways, export them in various forms, publish a blog, or even create a full-fledged information management system based on your free-form note database. I liken it to my Leatherman Wave, a high-quality multi-tool that --while it doesn't appear to be dedicated to any one use-- comes in handy for a dozen things in the course of a day. I feel rather naked without both my Leatherman and my Tinderbox.

JE: Diving right in... I started messing around with things mostly. I created three boxes: two characters and one character container. Creating new notes and adding information into their rectangular boxes is simple and natural and easy. I also found it very effortless to move things around in the application. So far, my favorite view in Tinderbox is the map view. It reminds me of MindJet's Mind Manager and this gave me a visual starting place to start creating and organizing my notes. I do wish Eastgate had included better tool tips for what the icons on the tool bar did. As it stands, I have not really used any.

There's a lot of things in this application that can distract you from the main purpose of writing and note-taking. I'm talking about the adornments and borders tutorial where it covers how to make things beveled or flat or remove borders, etc. I can see myself spending hours playing with how I want my note boxes to look like rather than actually WRITING things down.

Overall day one (2 hours of playing with it) thoughts: Tinderbox is great for taking notes and making pretty organized boxes. But I'm still left with the sneaking suspicion that there's more to this application, I'm just not sure how to tap into it all yet. However, I can see this application being useful for the following:

  • fleshing out my imaginary world
  • novel/book/story outlining
  • genealogy studies
  • Tarot spreads
  • visual diagramming of software applications (for some reason, Tinderbox totally reminds me of UML applications)
  • yearly to-do lists or life goal setting excursions

As I write all these down, my mind wants to know, how does Tinderbox differ from my beloved DEVONthink? I can see both tools being used for the same things and as it stands, I'm still very happy, comfortable and used to with my version of DEVONthink.

DJ: Well, DEVONthink (another of my favourite applications) is much like a big ole' shoebox, where you just stuff whatever materials you have, whether they're graphics, text files, HTML or websites, audio files, videos, PDFs, or almost anything else. It indexes and tracks them, and lets you easily categorise things.

Tinderbox's multimedia capabilities are nowhere near as powerful, but that's okay, because it has its own strengths. It's not really a shoebox app at all, but rather a way of organising and structuring notes and ideas. Then again, it isn't a mind-mapping application either, with cute little lines and call-out balloons. In its most basic form --which is deceptive-- it is simply a way of shuffling little bits of text with titles. But, if you stopped there, you'd do yourself (and the program) an injustice.

My last three uses were as follows.

1. The textual basis for my new site (in development) There are hundreds of pages, all carefully organised by hierarchy, category, and chronology. Frankly, I don't know of a single application that could let me organise and re-organise my information in map view (visual), explorer view (hierarchy), and by category/tags (using Tinderbox's attributes, agents and prototypes) with such ease. Plus, it lets me concentrate on my writing, rather than formats, pretty pictures, dozens of icons, and other distracting things.

(By the way, the adornments and the box attributes are quite functional in map view, as opposed to cosmetic. See prototypes for setting "stock" ways in which to set different types of notes with colour, attributes, and function.)

2. An electronic course. I wrote, shuffled, wrote some more, re-organised, and then pumped out a nice little website (using agents and Tinderbox's export faculties) that formed the basis of the whole thing. Using the program's map view was much like the old days, with hundreds of index cards spread out on the table, ready to be moved and massaged to flesh out my work. Except far neater, and you can save a snapshot of it all.

3. A project management system, based on docket. As I drop the notes (which are tasks, with status information or emails in them) from note container to note container, Tinderbox marks them as in progress, done, cancelled, and so forth. It keeps track of delegated items, and the agents allow me to see what's remaining, what's been too long in the hopper, and what's coming due. This is a little complex, but it's based on some GTD templates I found in the Tinderbox exchange.

All of these use basic "notes" as the lowest common denominator, but through clever use of set-up, prototypes, agents and scripts (even ones that run UNIX scripts, which I find handy), you can make Tinderbox do almost anything. The learning curve can be a bit onerous, but many people find the results worth tackling it.

JE/DJ Conclusions: So, as you can see, given a little time, a bit of patience, and some dedicated exploration, Tinderbox can help you gather, sort and organize notes for all sorts of projects. The best way to learn and use the application is to dive in head-first and start experimenting. See how many ways you can incorporate it into your daily note-taking process, or how you can use it to manipulate a free-form database of your information. Be sure to check out its wiki, the manual, and perhaps Mark Bernstein's companion book to the program, called The Tinderbox Way ($39.95). The latter covers a lot of the cool geeky things you can do with Tinderbox, how to do them, and even some of the theory behind the program, which can give you an insight into how to better manage your information. True, the program may not be for everyone, but beneath its simplicity lies a powerful engine that can suit almost any sort of textual work.

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Intriguing review, but

prohibitive price. Maybe Eastgate could be persuaded to give us a bit more of a discount than the $25 July special? Maybe to coincide with the release of the Windows version?

< shameless request for freebie >
I'd happily trade an in-depth review for a license. :-D Long-time notetaker and Windows user here!
< /shameless request for freebie >

Pricey, but worth it


I often find myself griping about the price of Tinderbox. It's a hard pill to swallow for a program that takes a long time to fully embrace. However, once you start playing with it, you'll find it has an incredible number of uses. For instance, I
have used it to plan my wedding, take notes all through graduate school and to organize my personal financial plans. And now I use it every day in my work as a reporter, as both a note-taking system, a project tracker and a CRM system. Once its flexibility truly became apparent, I really committed to using it. I still grumble about the price, but I really believe it's worth it.

Lovely, but befuddling program

I still haven't figured this program out. My thanks for this review, though, because it makes me realize I'm not alone in opening up the program and not understanding it. I've taken the tutorial and while I can create a note, etc., I still have no idea why I would do so here and not in, say, Omni Outliner. What innowen said about being intimidating is true.

What I need is a Tinderbox for Dummies book. I usually can figure out a program fairly quickly, but this one... well, let's just say I've opened it up, stared at the interface for a long long minute, and then closed it down again. It just seems like a mountain of work just to figure out how to make it go.

I'm sure it has all sorts of potential, but I have no idea how to tap into it. Any ideas? "Just start using it" isn't enough, I'm afraid. I've tried making a few notes, but that's pretty much it. I do have one newbie question: How do you turn off those sticky lines that go from the prototypes box to all the boxes using it?

Maybe some more examples of it in use would help. There was a short video on Eastgate's website about writers using it for outlining/plotting their books, but other than a writer saying she uses Tinderbox and a picture of an overhead, there was no discussion about it or any examples, whether in-depth or not.

I'd really like some more in-depth discussion about Tinderbox. I don't want to give up on it, but right now it just seems unapproachable.

i hear ya


I completely understand. I have the app and come up with nifty ways to use it. Created a few rudimentary notes and then put them into "containers" and yet, I'm still sure that I'm not using it to the full potential. And other than that I haven't done anything else with it.

I wish I could tell you that The Tinderbox way is the one for you. But I have never read it. So I don't know if it's got everything you need to know to uncover the power. But I cannot. I DO know that Doug's read it and he seems to think it'll help us "newbies" to get to where he's at. So it may be your best bet.

Good luck,

Read the book?

Thanks for your comments, innowen.

I've looked on the Wiki but - and this is probably not the best thing to admit - I get confused trying to follow all the branches and end up not understanding very much. I guess I can only grasp one thing at a time, which means an intro to Tinderbox that is somewhat linear.

I realize the program is anything but linear, but an intro that's simple and straightforward would really be useful.

Do you (or anyone) know of such an approach?

(I'm going to order the book anyway. Since I already own the program, the book just might help.)

I agree - I have found

I agree - I have found NovaMind to be an excellent way of organizing my thoughts - I have just upgraded to version 4, and the new user interface is just wonderful, and I love the new themes and styles etc. Well worth checking out.

TinderBox required too much investment of time...

to get up and running in TinderBox - probably good for ├╝bergeeks, though. So glad I just tried the demo. I am NovaMind devotee and also just upgraded to version 4. On top of ease of use and all the bells & whistles, the screen writer mode is fabulous for scriptwriting.

hi, do you know a web based

hi, do you know a web based app that would do the same stuff?