24/02/2006

fully organised

you may notice on my list of interesting links i have a pointer to a to-do list service. this is the rather splendid remember the milk site.

the site is one of the best to-do list managers on the web that i have come across. i have also looked at several others before making my mind up, and they each had their benefits. i mentioned tadalists from 37signals, and there is also voo2do. although these last two services provide task listings and management, both in a convenient AJAX-ified interface, where they fall down is integration.

anyway, i will go over the features and problems with all three services and explain my reasoning behind the choice of RTM as my to-do list manager in the following set of reviews:

reviews of free web-based to-do list managers



i will start with Ta-da Lists, which is the first service i tried. it gives you a password protected custom URL to access your lists, as a sub-domain off their site. for instance, mine would be http://grkvlt.tadalist.com/ which is easy to remember. the list functionality is fairly rudimentary, only allowing you to add tasks and attach notes. there is no concept of a repeating task or a due date. this functionality is available in thir commercial offering, backpack however. the user interface is simplicity itself, since there are very few functions, and the use of AJAX in-place editing makes adding and removing list items and lists incredibly easy. overall, the site design is very polished and attractive, and renders properly in all browsers that i tested it with.

the front page of your account shows you all the lists you have created, and these are marked with a bullet whose size indicates how many incomplete tasks are remaining in that list. from here you can add a new list or edit or delete existing lists. clicking on a list name takes you to the list of tasks. each task has an html form checkbox next to it, which will when checked, mark that item as completed immediately. an optional description can be added to a list to explain its purpose, and it is also possible to alter the order items are displayed, however that is as far as prioritising of individual items gets.

it is possible to share lists with other people, both publicly (read-only) and privately (full access). the person you are sharing with does not need a tadalists account, a special url is mailed to them for access. the other publishing options available are to email the list contents to your registered email address (only) and to export your list as an RSS feed.

to be fair, there are commercial offerings from 37signals, such as backapckit and bascamp hq, and they even have free trial versions available. these are more project management tools, and even the simplest, backpackit, just adds the ability to create notes and upload images, and doesn't improve on the todo list functions. basecamp is a much more complex product, and this actually gets in the way of managing simple lists, due to its concepts of milestones that must be assigned before being used.

although short, the FAQ list is a good resource, and there is also a page listing comments made about the application bu ysers, which should give you ideas on how to use it.

Ta-da Lists

provides a very simple task list manager, which is suitable for static checklists, very easy to use, static lists only, limited export capability, no reminders

three out of five cats preferred tadalists


Remember The Milk (tm) beta


Remember The Milk is a much more polished application in terms of features, however it should be noted that it is apparently still a 'BETA' product. this, in and of itself, doesn't seem to mean much these days. google are forever producing applications like GMail and Groups that never seem to leave beta status but are perfectly usable. what it does suggest is that the creators are activley fixing bugs and seeking to improve and add new features, which can only be a good thing. the site was started in august v2004, and is run by a team of just three people.

your lists are accessed via a subdirectory from the main site, after you have logged in, and if you choose the 'remember me' cookie, you will always be redirected to your tasks overview page when you access the site. for those that find typing the whole url a pain, it can also be accessed as http://rtmilk.com/. once at the overview page, it is possible to see all your tasks, or view them in groups. the groups can simply be labels for a list of tasks or a 'smart' list, based on a saved search you specify. these are all shown in a familiar tabbed interface. once a tab is selected, tasks can then be added to that list. initially, no options are set for the new tasks, but it is possible to set these up later. one small issue is that selecting individual tasks by clicking on them is confusing - the checkboxes for other tasks are not deselected, and it is sometimes unclear which selected task will be edited when you only want to alter details on one. the rest of the user interface is fairly easy to understand, and accessibility features like keyboard shortcuts (c.f. GMail) have been added.)

rememberthemilk screenshot
sample rememberthemilk screenshot


a task can have as many tags as required added to it, to act as category filters or keywords when searching or grouping. it can also have a due date (which can be entered in english ('next tuesday', 'tomorrow') or as a standard date and time. tasks can also be set to repeat, using similar text options, and an estimate of the time required can be added. selected tasks may be prioritised from nothing through three different levels, and these are shown as coloured highlights. in addition tasks with date information will be formatted differently if they are due or overdue. you may also add text notes to a task with additional information, apparently without limit!

the smart list feature works the same as smart playlists in iTunes, and allows you to create a virtual task list of entries that fulfil some set of criteria, specified as a boolean expression. this is where tags are useful for assigning tasks to groups. usefully, on the overview page there is a 'tag soup' box, showing all tags attached to your tasks, sized according to number of tasks, priority and due data, giving you a quick visual reminder of what is most important.

the lists can also be shared, both publicly and with chosen subscribers, similar to tadalists, and also exported as an Atom feed. the feed can contain just a particular list, or all your tasks, and all feeds are auto-discoverable by most modern browsers. the most useful (for me) publishing feature is the iCal integration. this exports either all tasks, or just a particular list, as a webcal subscription for use by iCal on OS X. this means that your remember the milk tasks are then available on iSync and to any other application on your local computer that can access iCal. the shared feeds, webcals and your task pages are all protected by secure password authentication, unless you choose to make some of them fully publicly available.

as i mentioned earlier, due dates and times can be set for tasks, and RTM uses this information to send out reminders. it will send both a daily summary of your tasks, and also remind you just before the start time. this is all fully configurable in the settings page. additionally, reminders can be sent using IM (various clients and networks) and by text message (SMS) to mobile phones, including t-mobile in the UK. this raises the usefulness of the service by an order of magnitude. finally, if you don't like this technological nonsense, there is a weekly planner page, designed to be printed out with empty boxes to tick, and lots os space to scribble on with low-tech pencils! also, if you need to set up a new task while away from the web, you can email a message to a personalised address, and it will be added toy your tasks inbox for later editing.

really, the fact that there's a huge number of help pages rather than one short FAQ page (tadalists, i'm looking at you) should tell you all you need to know about the feature set, and if you look at the blog or forums you can find out what ever new features are planned and anything else you need to know. the current feature list is incredibly comprehensive, and should cover everything you want to do, however.

Remember The Milk

provides an excellent, full-featured reminders and tasks service, many useful notification options and methods, useful smart grouping and searching functionality, accessible using iCal, simple to use with extensive help, extras like sms/im notification and contact lists.

five out of five cats preferred rememberthemilk


voo2do is the newest (i think) of the services i am reviewing, and was created by the authour for his personal use before making it publicly available. i discovered it while trying to find a better list service than tadalist, and was attracted to it because of the ajax type interface and the fact that it is project based, much like basecamp, but free and apparently simpler to use. the feature list has more in common with rememberthemilk, and tasks can be assigned priorities, due dates and have time estimates attached. however, they can also be allocated to a project. the project tasks can be managed by updating them with hours elapsed and setting current versus original duration estimates. these are used to track total time elapsed and remaining in a whole project composed of sub-tasks.

the task views are mainly arranged aroun due dates, and consist of historical (what you've done) and deadlines (what needs done this week). views, showing the tasks that fall due today, tomorrow etc. for each individual project are also available. the initial screen aggregates all of this information into a dashboard, showing all the high-priority tasks their dates with overdue items highlighted.

similarly to rememberthemilk, it is possible to email the server with a new task and have it added to a list. however, the area where voo2do excels over the other applications here is its programmability. it is the only application featured that allows REST web service access to all of its functions. this means that there are now a number of third party applications available that can poll your account for upcoming due tasks, or provide a windows GUI to add new tasks. the REST method of accessing a web service is also simple enough that it is possible to write basic scripts in shell, perl or python to access your task list. this makes voo2do potentially the most powerful application reviewed, although this is dependant on the userbase writing these useful add-ons and scripts, and we will need to wait and see whether this happens?

something that appears to be missing is automatic notifications, using any out-of-band mechanism. the only way to check task and project status is to log in, which is not always possible. the status diusplays are also very cluttered, with too many form controls visible, and lacking the smooth design that we have grown used to with most modern web applications. this mkay be a nescessity brought on by the complexity of the project and time tracking features, but a cleaner printout would have been easy to achieve with alternate stylesheets, rather than printing out the unnecessary screen chrome.

voo2do also makes use of keyboard shortcuts, and is very much a web 2.0 application, with new features being added all the time. there is a blog published with information and notes written by the author, and documentation on the API for programmers. however, i found it quite hard to get started using, mainly because new accounts are not initially populated with projects and it is unclear what the best way of implementing personal tasks are, since i don't usually assign shopping or tidying to a project. i can see this being useful to contracters or freelance workers who need to manage their time, and are willing to invest in setting things up. it should also appeal to anyone who wants to expand the features or integrate it into an existying project setup using the API.

voo2doo

a project focussed task manager with excellent REST API based extensibility. initially cumbersome and aesthetically lacking, but has some very good time tracking and management features not found anywhere else, but no reminder facilities.

three out of five cats preferred voo2do


HassleMe



after all these complex systems, sometimes the simplicity of a one-page web form is refreshing. HassleMe was first written as a script by the creators of mysociety to encourage them to update their development blog. this then mutated into a public site offering the same features. essentially it is a scheduled email reminder service, although not too scheduled, in case it gets too easy to ignore.

simply fill in the self explanatory (although there is a FAQ) form, and you will be reminded 'approximately' after every specified interval by an email with whatever you wanted hassled to do. the software took two afternoons to write, but does its one job perfectly, so there's little elso to say. it doesn't even require registration!

HassleMe

reminders via email at semi-unpredictable intervals

two out of five cats preferred hassleme


summary



in my opinion, rememberthemilk is the best of these applications, particularly if you are a Macintosh user, due to the excellent iCal integration. the options for task settings and searching are well thought out, and the system is easy to use and understand, as well as being the most professional looking of the four (sorry, HassleMe!). since all of these systems are free, though, i would suggest you grab an account at each of them, have a play and see what suits you best.



and, if you think i'm wrong about rememberthemilk, or there are any other similar applications that i've missed, just add a comment and let me know...

2 comments:

samdenby said...

I agree with you about RememberTheMilk. You might be interested in the way I tie it to Gmail to implement Getting Things Done.

Anonymous said...

You forgot my favorite. Toodledo.