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Mandala: More Than a Word Outliner Print E-mail
Written by SymbianOne   
Thursday, 19 January 2006
While Mandala advertises itself as a Word outliner there is much more to this application than document outlining. Richard Bloor looks at this sophisticated twist on mobile list-management software.

Mandala takes a fundamentally similar approach to information management to other hierarchical list managers available for Symbian devices. However, its implementation is quite different. Mandala has the feel of a PC application and an out-of-the-box ability to share information with that most common of desktop applications, the word processor.

Getting Started

Mandala is delivered in a zip file which includes the installation SIS file and two copies of the manual, one in PDF format and one in RTF (which can be imported into Mandala). The SIS file is loaded onto a Sony Ericsson P series device in the usual way. As yet, the developer, Mandala IT, has not been confirmed that Mandala works on any other UIQ devices although users of Motorola A920 and A925 have apparently reported no issues. Mandala IT is also seeking testers for other UIQ devices.

When Mandala is run for the first time it asks where its database should be stored, on the phones memory or memory card. The recommendation is that the phone memory is used, as running from the memory card is slower. Practical experience suggests that it is worth heeding the recommendation, although the reduction in performance is not huge on a 128Mb Memory Stick. It is possible to change the location after installation using the options feature.

Once the database location has been chosen the root list is displayed. This comes populated with a basic introduction to Mandala, and lists for Business, Personal and Unfiled items.

Screen, Layout and Icons

The Mandala screen is divided into four sections, a standard menu bar, list title, the lists contents and a combined navigation and toolbar.

The menu bar follows the UIQ standard, with two header items, Mandala and Edit. The Mandala menu provides access to functions to add and rename items, select whether priorities or properties are displayed, display a history list, and import and export lists. The edit menu provides an undo, copy, cut, paste, paste link, delete, select all and options feature. In place of the usual UIQ category selector is an icon for selecting help.

Every Mandala screen has a title bar below the menu. This displays the name of the open branch of the tree. Icons on every list (except the top level "Notebook") provide access to the title's notes and properties, but unlike the list items themselves the title can not be edited.

Below the title is the list of items in the selected branch of the list tree, which may spread over several pages. Page scroll icons are permanently displayed in the bottom right of the list screen. These are highlighted when the list extends over one page, with the position in a multi-page list indicated by the relative color of the icons.

Each list item has an icon to its left that indicates its contents, being nothing, a sketch or a text note. The fact that an item is linked from another branch is also shown here. Optionally the item's priority can be displayed here too. Next is the item's title, which is displayed in bold if the item has sub-items. Then, to the right, is a properties icon, whose display is also optional, which shows if the item is linked to a calendar entry or todo.

The bottom of the screen is occupied by a toolbar. On the left is set of navigation tabs that displays the hierarchy of the current branch, while to the right are icons for delete, new, find and "go back" functions.

Creating Items

New items are created from the menu or toolbar, with options to add the new item to the current list, below the selected item (as a child or sub-item) or add the item and immediately open the text note or sketch pad. By default each new item is named with the current date and time.

Text notes are added in plain text and have no obvious size limit. The sketch options allows simple line drawings to be created. There are 6 pen colors, 7 pen width and an eraser option. The drawing space is limited to the visible portion of the screen, which means drawings are quite small.

Editing and Data Manipulation

Interaction with Mandala's features is undertaken through the main menus, pop-up menus, the jogdial, stylus and, optionally, an external keyboard.

The key to efficient use of Mandala is understanding the way in which items can be selected and moved, and features activated.

Mandala employs two tricks, the first is a slide gesture, the second a tap and hold action. A single tap on any list item or icon activates the basic function. So tapping on a list item's title opens the content, the note or sketch, or sublist, if one exists. Tapping the content icon open the content, note or drawing; if there is no content the note editor is opened. Tapping the priority icon displays a pop up menu to select the priority. While tapping the properties icon opens the properties page, unless the item is attached to a todo, in which case a tap toggle the complete status.

The fact that a tap on a item's title opens its contents clearly this is not helpful if the goal was to select it to add a sub item, drag it to a different position in the list or to the waste basket. This is where the slide gesture is used. Rather than tapping the item's title, sliding the stylus over it selects the item. Simply continuing the glide gesture picks up the item. Once collected the item can be moved in the list, dropped into another item, moved to the a position higher up the tree by dragging to the hierarchy tab or deleting by dragging to the waste basket.

Clearly this is still not quite enough, how do you use the stylus to actually select an item's title to change it (assuming you don not want to use the "rename" menu option)? Enter the third stylus action, the tap and hold. On an item's title tapping and holding opens the title so it can be edited. Tap and hold works on almost every screen icon and at the end of drag-and-drop actions, to access pop-up menus with extended options. For example a tap on the toolbar "new" icon creates a new item; tap and hold opens a submenu with the new, new below, new note and new sketch options. Holding on the end of a drag option opens a sub-menu to select move or link actions.

While undoubtedly a clever feature, tap and hold is not intuitive, nor is it similar to the stylus gestures used in other UIQ applications. As a result, it is almost essential to read the manual before use.

One feature of Mandala that differentiates it from many other UIQ applications is that it includes specific support for external keyboards. Using a product such as Think Outside Stowaway keyboard, provides access to a number of shortcut actions for navigating list and activating functions. As the virtual keyboard and hardware keyboard on the Sony Ericsson P910 are deactivated in list views this feature is not accessible on the device. There was one exception we found, Symbitz Popontop keyboard can be opened at any time, so can access the list shortcuts. This option is not hugely useful as the letters still need to be tapped out with the stylus, so the standard navigation is just as fast. It is a little disappointing that the P910's flip keyboard can not activate this feature, as it would be a useful navigation supplement. That said, Mandala must be commended for enabling options for an external keyboard as it significantly increases the usability of the application, particularly where any significant amount of text entry is to be done.

Mandala can be used to store and order almost any kind of information. As such it will almost certainly become an indispensable tool to any user. One of the potential drawback of indispensability is that mistakes become costly. Accidentally changing the wrong item or deleting the wrong item could suddenly wipe out valuable information. Mandala has two features which help guard against such mistakes, an undo function and recycle bin.

Undo works to reverse the last action associated with adding, moving or deleting items. Changes to text notes, drawings, calendar or todo entries can not be undone, although a "discard changes" option is available on text notes and drawings). It is never the less useful for reversing mistakes.

The recycle bin does exactly what would be expected, stores deleted items so they can be recovered. The bin's content is only limited by memory on your device, so manual emptying is advisable.

One of the real drawbacks of trying to navigate a structured list maintained on a device like the Sony Ericsson P910i, is the limited amount of screen space. This limits both the amount of information that can be displayed and the navigation options. To aid navigation, in addition to the hierarchy tabs, Mandala has a history list. This list allows you to backtrack through visited records. This makes working in remote branches of the list practical and comes in particularly handy when dealing with linked items.

One of the drawback of hierarchical lists is that information rarely fits into a neat order of classification. Mandala overcome this by providing a linking feature, so that items can exist as a link in multiple branches of the hierarchy. Linking can be done by copying an item and pasting it as a link. Alternatively by dragging an item and holding it over item or hierarchy tab a popup menu appears with move and link options. Linking by dragging is however limited to location visible on the screen.

When a linked item is opened the hierarchy navigation is show for the item's original location, which allows you to easily jump to the items "home" list. The only missing feature seems to be the ability to see where an item is linked to, or even know whether a specific item has links elsewhere in the notebook (although deletion does warn if an item has links elsewhere).

One feature that might have allowed the location of linked to be found is Find, but it only locates the original items. Curiously find is case sensitive. This seems to be something of a drawback if you capitalize the first letter of any list titles. However, Find searches through the text notes in items too, making it more useful than a simple title search.

Calendar and Todo Integration

It has already been mentioned briefly that Mandala allows items in the notebook to be linked to calendar and todo items. By selecting an item's properties the options to create a calendar or todo item are revealed.

Once a remote item is created it maintains a link. As a result changes made in either Mandala or the todo or calendar application are reflected in the other. There is an exception, while text notes in Mandala are copied to Calendar and todo entries they are created but not subsequently synchronized. Care does need to be taken in naming items, as only the title is used in creating the remote item, so a simple title like "meeting" under "conference", "planning" may be clear in Mandala but not in the calendar.

There is no way of linking items that already exist in the todo or calendar application to items in Mandala. In addition to being a drawback when creating Mandala content after starting to use the application, it also means that if new todo or Calendar items created by synchronization with a PC or remote PIM application can not be brought into Mandala.

Exchanging Data

While the information in Mandala can be an end in itself there are times when it is useful to exchange it with other devices. Mandala provides three formats for importing and exporting data, RTF, CSV and plain text. By far the most useful is the RTF option, which allows Mandala data to be opened in a standard word processor. The root branch of the export is taken as the exports title and sub-items given a header format to reflect their level in the hierarchy, with any note text exported as body text. Drawings are not exported. It is also possible to add outline numbering.

RTF files can also be imported. This process is straightforward, although care needs to be taken to tick the select box on the importable file list. Failing to tick select results in the apparent importing of the highlighted item (because the import progress screen shows) but nothing is actually imported.

One shortcoming of the RTF export is that this is not a format dealt with by any of the word processors available for UIQ devices, so a PC is required for any editing. (Or is this is a shortcoming of those word processing packages which concentrate on the Microsoft Word format?)

The RTF format also opens up the possibility of transferring Mandala outlines into outlining or mind mapping applications. We found it possible to exchange outlines with MindGenius and MindJet.

CSV file can also be used to import and export items and their notes. The disadvantage of CSV files is that they do not inherently include any information on the hierarchy, but outline numbering can be included in exports. Imports however are always flat, with the first time taken as the list root and all the remaining items added as its children.

Text is the most limited data exchange option. Exports include all the item and their notes in the selected branch, but, like CSV files, have no indication of structure (unless outline numbering is used). Text imports only create a single item, with the first line of the text file used as the item title and the remaining lines as elements of the item's text note.

Usability

We used Mandala to start preparing this article and it proved to be a useful and flexible tool for that job. The ability to use an external keyboard certainly extended its usability. It works well as a repository for almost any information we wanted to store. Import and export features also make it possible to update Mandala data on a PC, which can be very useful. Once learned it is powerful and easy to use, however it would not be surprised if some users pass it over for other applications which use more conventional interaction. Very much a case of hard to learn (or at least requires the user to read the manual) but easy to use.

A lesser concern it the absence of a hierarchy view. Given the limited screen space on a UIQ device the exclusion of this feature is partially understandable. However, at times it would be useful to be able to view the hierarchy as a tree to get a visual sense of the structure.

Conclusion

Mandala is a powerful and functional application. Its uses extend well beyond a word outliner and it is capable of providing a repository for almost any type of information. While its interface is sophisticated, its complexity and unusual stylus gestures means it is not a simple "load and go" application. A little time needs to be invested in understanding the interface to get the most out of it. The ability to import and export RTF file is a neat solution to the problem of making data stored in Mandala accessible from a PC. Overall, while hard to learn, but easy to use, Mandala is likely to become any user's indispensable tool.

Footnote

Version 1.1 of Mandala is due out in the next couple of months. After talking with Mandala IT it appear that this version should fix a number of the minor issues noted with the current version, such as some of the slightly odd stylus interactions, synchronization of Calendar and todo text notes and the no-select no-import issue.


Mandala costs $29.95 and can be purchased from the SymbianOne Application shop. The software is available for perpetual evaluation, with the ability to add up to 100 items then maintain 20-30 items in the long term. More information can also be found at Mandala IT's Web site: www.mandalait.com

Last Updated ( Monday, 15 May 2006 )
 


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