iPad Gems: OmniFocus, OmniGraffle, OmniGraphSketcher + OmniOutliner
This week in iPad Gems we take a look at four iPad apps from The Omni Group. Highlighted in the iDesign section of our recent iPad 2 Buyers’ Guide, Omni is well known for its range of professional Mac apps and has distinguished itself in the iOS space by completely transforming four of its most popular desktop apps into versions designed to take full advantage of the capabilities and new user interface concepts offered by the iPad.
Of The Omni Group’s four iPad apps, OmniFocus is the only one that began its iOS life as an iPhone and iPod touch app. Debuted early on the App Store in the summer of 2008, OmniFocus for the iPhone (iLounge rating: B+) was capable of being used as a standalone app but seemed more of a companion to its larger Mac desktop counterpart, synchronizing data via iDisk or a WebDAV server. OmniFocus was one of the very first sophisticated task management apps to arrive for the iPhone that also provided seamless over-the-air synchronization with a desktop app. The Omni Group began working on a native version of OmniFocus for the iPad as soon as the device debuted, however instead of taking the common shortcut of simply rescaling its iPhone app for the larger screen, the company considered the new features and different use cases of the iPad and redesigned the app appropriately. The iPhone version had been designed primarily for viewing and actioning tasks; the iPad version of OmniFocus became a more complete planning and task management solution.
OmniFocus for iPad ($40) is a separate app from its iPhone counterpart and provides a dramatically different UI and expanded feature set. Using a similar UI concept to the built-in Mail app, OmniFocus on the iPad displays a standard list view in portrait mode with a pulldown sidebar for navigation; turning the device into landscape mode provides the standard split-screen view with the navigation sidebar on the left and the detail view on the right. The app provides a nice, intuitive UI with discrete groupings of tasks for each project and controls that allow users to easily expand or collapse folders and projects. Tapping on an item brings up a side-tabbed dialog box that allows all of the item’s properties such as context, project, due dates, notes and attachments; photos and audio recordings are supported as attachments and iPad 2 users can take a photo directly from the device’s camera in addition to selecting an item from the photo library.
OmniFocus for iPad includes all of the task management features found in the iPhone version, including support for viewing location-based tasks on a list of integrated map view, a quick entry dialog, and support for viewing tasks using custom perspectives created on the Mac. The iPad version also adds two unique features that emphasize the planning aspects of the app: Forecast and Review. The Forecast screen provides a week-at-a-glance overview of tasks that are either due or starting in the next seven days. The view also integrates with the iPad calendar, displaying a time bar at the bottom of each forecast screen indicating appointments scheduled for that day. Tasks can be created, edited or completed from this view and users can tap in the calendar bar to see events scheduled for that particular block of time.
The Review mode allows users to see a list of projects that have been scheduled for periodic review. Based on the GTD methodology for task management, this feature provides users with the ability to easily go through the project list on a regular basis, identifying things like stalled tasks and areas where new items need to be added. Review mode presents each project that is scheduled for review and allows the user to quickly change the status of the project and add, edit or reorder items in the project. A “Mark Reviewed” button flags the project as “reviewed,” removing it from the list until the next review cycle and presenting the next project for review. Both the Forecast and Review modes are exclusive to the iPad version of the app and are nice additions that increase the usefulness of the iPad for planning purposes even beyond the design of the Mac version; in short, reviewing projects and task schedules feels smoother and more natural on the iPad than it does even in the more powerful desktop app.
Users can synchronize their OmniFocus database with other copies of OmniFocus, including the iPhone and Mac version using iDisk or WebDAV to sync wirelessly anywhere that Internet access is available. The Omni Group also provides its own, free WebDAV-based Omni Sync Server for users without iDisk or access to their own WebDAV service. Bonjour-based Wi-Fi syncing is also available to users of the Mac version, but requires that both devices be on the same Wi-Fi network. Notably, the Mac version is not required for cloud-based sync, allowing the app to be used exclusively on the iPhone and iPad.
Like its Mac and iPhone counterparts, OmniFocus for the iPad is clearly an application designed for the serious user who has a lot of tasks to manage; users looking for a simple app to remind them to pick up milk or buy an anniversary gift will be much better off looking to the wide range of simpler to-do list apps available on the App Store. The pricing of OmniFocus for the iPad reflects this; while most iPad users are likely to balk at the app’s $40 price tag, considered as a business grade application for the serious user, the price is not at all unreasonable. The iPad version also has the advantage of being usable as a primary OmniFocus app, providing an option for non-Mac users and those who don’t necessarily want to purchase the $80 Mac desktop version. OmniFocus remains one of the very few elegantly designed and sophisticated iPad task management apps providing seamless synchronization across multiple devices. iLounge rating: A
OmniGraffle was one of The Omni Group’s first apps developed for the iPad platform, debuting on the App Store when the device launched in April 2010. As with the company’s other apps, OmniGraffle for the iPad ($50) was a redesign of the popular Mac desktop app of the same name, a sophisticated diagramming app for creating everything from process charts to website wireframes.
Akin to Microsoft’s Visio for Windows users, OmniGraffle is the sort of app that feels more at home on a touchscreen device such as the iPad than on a traditional desktop computer, and The Omni Group put a lot of effort into ensuring that the user experience translated well onto the iPad, taking full advantage of the sophisticated and natural gestures available on the iPad multitouch interface.
Not content to simply allow users to draw on the screen, OmniGraffle provides support for advanced gesture controls such as selecting multiple objects by tapping and holding and rotating objects using two-fingers. A built-in stencil library provides a comprehensive set of standard, pre-drawn shapes and connectors that can be added to any diagram; additional stencils can be imported from the Mac desktop version or directly from the online Graffletopia stencil repository. Images can also be imported from the device’s photo library and positioned, rotated, resized and cropped.
In addition to using predefined shapes and lines, a freehand drawing mode is also available with automatic closing of shapes. Diagram layout controls allow shapes in organization and process charts to easily be connected and reorganized. An adjustable shapes feature also provides the ability to easily reconfigure basic shapes such as creating multi pointed stars and variable sized circles and ellipses. In all cases the controls are well thought-out and the gestures very natural and intuitive—a good example of how sophisticated functionality can be incorporated into a multi-touch gesture system. The app also provides great attention to detail for adjusting and positioning shapes such as dynamic guidelines and spacing indicators that popup when moving objects, and handling of relative object positions during copy and paste operations.
OmniGraffle for iPad uses a Cover Flow style file navigation interface clearly inspired by Apple’s iWork apps for the iPad. Users swipe left and right to browse through available documents with additional controls for creating, improving and exporting documents. Documents can be imported via iTunes File Sharing, WebDAV or iDisk in OmniGraffle format, compatible with the Mac version, or exported to the same services or via e-mail in OmniGraffle, PDF or PNG formats. AirPrint support allows users to print their diagrams directly to compatible printers and dioramas can also be copied to the clipboard as an image for pasting into other apps or saved directly to the device’s Camera Roll. Support for accessing files from other popular online storage services such as Dropbox and Box.net would be a definite advantage here for many users, however. Further, unlike its Mac counterpart, OmniGraffle for iPad does not yet support import and export of Microsoft Visio XML files, limiting the usefulness of OmniGraffle for those who need to exchange working files with Windows PCs unless they also have the Mac version available to handle the necessary conversions.
OmniGraffle for iPad is a sophisticated, professional diagramming app designed for the more advanced or serious user, and the $50 asking price clearly reflects that this is not an app for casual use. OmniGraffle is designed to be fully capable of creating finished diagrams with nothing more than the iPad itself, including most of the core features of its Standard Edition Mac counterpart at half the price. For more advanced workflows, the ability to exchange documents with OmniGraffle on the Mac makes the iPad version a useful companion app, providing a portable solution that takes advantage of the touchscreen and multitouch gestures to provide a more natural and intuitive interface. Unfortunately, the lack of Visio support will limit the app’s appeal to Windows users who need to share their work or do further processing at the desktop. iLounge rating: B+
An iPad version of one of The Omni Group’s smaller apps, OmniGraphSketcher ($15) is designed for easily creating quick and impressive graphs and charts visually rather than by number crunching. Creating a new chart in OmniGraphSketcher presents the user with an empty, visual chart rather than a spreadsheet style grid of numbers that must be punched in; the touchscreen interface is used to draw freehand lines or tap to position data points with lines and curves automatically drawn.
Drawing a shape or filled section works in a similar manner, selecting the appropriate tool and then drawing the filled area in a single stroke, pausing at each corner to indicate direction changes. Like OmniGraffle, the gestures and touchscreen interactions are very natural and intuitive. An inspector dialog box provides access to a variety of controls for the selected object, including styles for the overall chart and selected lines and fills. Users can choose to connect data points with either curved or straight lines, choose line styles, thickness, and colour, plot horizontal or vertical bars for the data points and more.
File navigation and storage options are similar to those found in OmniGraffle, likewise borrowing from Apple’s original iWork Cover Flow navigation design. Documents can be imported or exported from iTunes, iDisk or WebDAV or sent out via e-mail; documents can be exchanged with OmniGraffle for Mac or exported in PDF or PNG formats. AirPrint is available and a Copy as Image option also allows graphs to easily be pasted into other applications such as Pages or Keynote or saved to the device’s Camera Roll. Support for video output capabilities is also included for displaying graphs in presentations directly from within the app.
The key to OmniGraphSketcher is the ease with which users can rapidly create both precise and visually appealing graphs and charts in a few minutes simply by drawing them on the screen rather than wrestling with plotting data points in a spreadsheet. Like its larger sibling, OmniGraphSketcher provides a remarkably intuitive and easy-to-use interface for accomplishing this. Although its $15 asking price makes it the least expensive of the company’s iPad apps, OmniGraphSketcher remains positioned as a more serious app, designed as a reasonable investment for those who regularly need to create graphs and charts but still more expensive than most casual users have become accustomed to paying for iOS apps. Regardless, the polish and ease of use make it worth considering for anybody who creates graphs and charts for school or work and doesn’t want to be bothered fiddling with spreadsheet style data plotting. iLounge rating: B+
Although the most recent of The Omni Group’s desktop apps to come to the iOS platform, OmniOutliner for iPad ($20) is perhaps the most long-awaited by many Mac users. On the Mac, OmniOutliner has become the gold standard for flexible outlining software and has gathered a strong user base. OmniOutliner for iPad extends this onto the iOS side with the same transformative approach and attention to detail that The Omni Group has shown with its other iOS apps.
Outlining apps are by their very nature somewhat basic and open-ended in design. Users are essentially starting with a blank slate and a basic hierarchical structure in which to organize their ideas or thoughts. While the App Store has no shortage of such apps, OmniOutliner on the iPad distinguishes itself by providing a thoughtful and intuitive user interface, advanced custom style and formatting features and configurable multiple column support.
Users can easily create and reorganize structured outlines through the use of natural touch gestures such as tapping-and-dragging to move items up or down or indent and outdent items within a hierarchical list. An advanced edit mode allows users to select multiple lines at a time which can then be deleted, moved or grouped. By default new items are created at the same level, however tapping and holding on the new item button provides a set of option buttons that allow users to users to easily create new items at the parent or child level. Each line also includes a notes field that can be used for longer free-form text; images and URLs can also be pasted into and viewed from within the notes field.
OmniOutliner provides support for multiple columns in an outline as well, with distinct data types such as checkboxes, formatted numbers, pop-up lists and dates. Columns can be hidden from view or easily rearranged using touch gestures and users can also temporarily sort an outline by any column and later return to the original order. A custom style editor provides access to advanced formatting options such as font, text colour, background colour and numbering style that can be applied either to all rows at a given level or assigned specifically to any individual row; multiple styles can also be combined and applied to an individual row or group of rows. The custom style system is extremely sophisticated but suffers a bit by being handled on a per-document basis with no easy means to create a set of global style templates that can be shared across multiple documents.
OmniOutliner uses the same basic Cover Flow style document navigator as The Omni Group’s other two document-based apps. Documents can be imported and exported via iTunes File Sharing, iDisk or another WebDAV service or sent out via e-mail. OmniOutliner for Mac and general OPML can be imported and opened in OmniOutliner for iPad; export formats include OPML, plain text and both simple and dynamic HTML, the latter providing expandable and collapsible group views via HTML for viewing complex outlines. As with all of The Omni Group’s iPad apps, support for other online services such as Dropbox is conspicuously absent here, requiring that users have a MobileMe iDisk or other WebDAV provider in order to use the online document storage features.
OmniOutliner for iPad is by far the most sophisticated and elegant of the iPad outlining apps currently available with the added advantage of an available companion desktop application for Mac users. Many less expensive apps are available for those who are looking to create simple, basic text outlines without many of the frills that OmniOutliner offers, and as with Omni’s other iPad applications, the than average $20 asking price for OmniOutliner positions it as an app for the more serious user with more complex requirements for their outlines. Features like an intuitive UI, rich styling features and attachment support should easily justify the higher price for those users. iLounge rating: A-
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