Tagspaces: The Welcome Screen is a Welcome Sight


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@attilaoroszAttila Orosz

Hungarian-born developer, entrepreneur and author of two books and over 100 articles across the web

Here’s why I’m still using TagSpaces and so should you.

It has been a little over two years since TagSpaces has become my de-facto solution for document and note management on all my personal computing equipment. The privacy-focused open core file organiser has had quite a few upgrades and usability improvements since I started using it, warranting a new article, and some more advocacy for cloudless computing.

I’ve been using TagSpaces for quite a while and had been using the PRO version for these last two years, during which it had proven to be some of the most stable and reliable experiences I’ve had in the world of software. When trends and fads come and go, and everyone seems to be keen to jump on the newest bandwagon, just to jump right off it when everyone else has found and even newer and shinier trend to follow and discard, TagSpaces delivers a much welcome sense of continuity and reliability.

(Quick disclaimer: I am a contributor to the open source version of TagSpaces myself, having played a part in writing and editing the official documentation in the past.)

If you read my article “Everything wrong with Cloud based note-taking apps”, you might know I’m not the biggest fan of cloud-basing everything just for the heck of it. (If you have not read it, you should.) Cloud applications and cloud-based data storage is forced on us like there was no other way, becoming ubiquitous, giving an illusion of data security while, in actual fact, this cloud-craze only serves the interests of a few select corporations that make a killing from harvesting your data. Yes, the much-hyped AI also needs your cloud-stored data, it literally feeds off it. But that’s a very different topic, and since the problem is known, let us focus on the solution.

TagSpaces is a no-backend, offline-first, cloudless, privacy-respecting file organiser with a twist. Well, a lot of twists. TagSpaces is far more than a file-manager, offering functionality that allows it to become its own ecosystem, without the usual vendor lock-in, offering a unique way of managing file tags, while remaining more traditional when it comes to spaces.

Its use-cases are numerous. It can be a file manager, a note-taking app, a photo organiser, media organiser, or your gateway to your own cloud storage. (Because the cloud does have its uses, after all.) This might sound like a kitchen-sink approach, and in a way it is. The good thing about this approach is that — although it’s easy to do it wrong, overwhelming the user with unwanted features — if done right, it will make an application appealing for a lot more people than an often overly simplistic MVP product would. TagSpaces has functionality that you might never use, and others that seem like you could not live without it but, of course, each of us will find different aspects of it useful. I personally started using it as an Evernote replacement, which remains its main feature for me, even though I’ve taken to using it for a lot more over the years; but never did I feel any other functionality that I don’t normally use get in my way. TagSpaces is not your typical venture-funded make-money-as-fast-as-possible minimal product, and it truly shows. In this case, the kitchen sink is the right way to go, as the various features are unobtrusive and are not forced on the user.

There are a few major changes and lots of minor improvements, while the user interface remains mostly the same with a few tweaks, delivering much of the aforementioned consistency, at least since version 3.0 which offered lots of UI and UX improvements.

Everything is right where you left it. The multi-panel view offers the same easy-to-navigate wide-screen optimised experience, with subtle improvements: the location manager now offers expandable folders, the item properties and search views have had some UI refinements for better visual consistency, but all that only makes TagSpaces look even more familiar. It is interesting to observe, how subtle changes towards more visual consistency make you feel things have not really changed much, only got better.

One notable addition on UI front is the addition of a Welcome Screen menu when you first run TagSpaces and have not yet set a default start-up folder. It offers real help in getting started, even after the usual on-boarding screens, many of us tend to close without reading through. Interestingly, over half of this menu is concerned with user feedback and communications. It shows just how much care the developers take to hear the user’s voice, which is also reflected in many of the new features that have appeared in TagSpaces over the years. A great portion of them was a response to actual user feedback, recommendations or requests (or even complaints) which makes TagSpaces quite a rare bird in the software space: Instead of innovating for innovation’s sake (or just to be able to brag about being disruptive), this is a product that is made with, by, and for its users. Yes, “by” as well, since the community version is fully open source, and everyone can contribute to its development.

The welcome screen is a welcome sight

But, under the hood, there had been plenty of improvements and there are some big changes in beta status, meaning they are in active development still.

My personal favourite improvement is Markdown-related. TagSpaces has a very capable markdown editor, yet with older versions, the preview mode had to be accessed from the floating action menu and opened in a new window, which was clumsy and quite useless in all honesty. Since the editor displays formatting, I never even really needed the preview (I use markdown for note-taking, even though TagSpaces has its own idea about notes, making HTML files the preferred solution). When first opening these files, the app used to display a preview right in the main window. It was then impossible to access this preview again, once you switched to editing mode, and only the popup preview was accessible, which made for inconsistent UX. This had been improved quite soon after I complained about it in the TagSpaces issue tracker which, again, shows how responsive the developers are.

A subtle, but very useful usability improvement is the better use of the keyboard in navigating the app. You can now simply press the Esc key to dismiss a dialogue or Enter to confirm it. Sounds, like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? And yet it’s worth mentioning, since this is the type of improvement that people will often not notice, but which will make using the software so much easier. No more groping for the mouse in desperation, when you no longer need a dialogue, or just want to say “OK”. Oh no. The Esc/Enter keys are your friends, and they’ve just made acquaintance with TagSpaces too, for everyone’s joy and happiness.

As another navigation-related change, you’ll find that the grid perspective now has pagination, and you can limit how many entries to display on each page (choose between 20, 50,100, 500 or unlimited). This will make it possible to fit the grid to either your screen size or the number of entries you find manageable. If you can’t see why finding 500 entries manageable you would not find e.g. 600, or 534 equally good, you should know 500 entry limit is there for performance reasons. Apparently, 500 is the number over which things begin to slow down.

There are a couple of media-related improvements worth mentioning too. JPG images will now use the EXIF data to set the rotation of the image, and the media player offers a picture-in-picture mode, which many of us would come to expect after using modern browsers. An interesting new option is to play videos in audio-only mode, which can be useful when putting on music videos, but wanting to e.g. save battery life on the laptop or android device, or when we play them in the background while doing something else, so that no unnecessary CPU/GPU power will be utilised (again, useful for low-powered laptops, mostly). Another possible use case is when you really just want the music in the background, and not let the images distract you, but still enjoy watching those videos now and then. It’s just nice to have a choice.

When you have folders of images you might prefer to see them in a gallery view. The new Gallery perspective offers a convenient way to display photographs or images, especially useful for image-only locations.

The Gallery perspective puts the gallery into perspective

As another under-the-hood change, PDF thumbnails are now generated in the main window, which means, you will no longer see a window popping into existence when TagSpaces creates its thumbnails for PDF files. The reason for this used to be that Electron, the framework TagSpaces uses to run as a desktop app, has limited background processing capability, and so-called “worker windows” had to be used to run background jobs. This might sound like a minor change, but has a very good impact on UX, even though in the negative space. Not having to see something that might have been annoying, even if only temporarily, is always welcome.

Capable search functionality can be the very heart of a good file organiser. To be able to find things with ease is decisive when it comes to productivity. The search in TagSpaces has come a long way, and it has been further improved in the last few releases.

There has been a very detailed search form in TagSpaces in previous versions as well, allowing you to search in a connected location or the specific folder, refine the search in various ways, from tags to last modified dates to file size or type, and even geolocation.

The search panel now got itself a new keyboard shortcut, pressing Ctrl+Shift+f opens it by default, making it a lot easier to access the panel without having to use the mouse.

Two new additions are the “Global Search”, a Pro feature, still in beta (more on this later), and an enhanced indexing algorithm. Under the hood, the search indexes play an important role in how quickly our file organiser would find things. TagSpaces used to index all locations on start-up, every time you opened that location so that search would be fast when you use it. Even though it might have made searching faster, the indexing could slow down the app itself, especially for locations with lots of files in them. This is now disabled by default, and indexing will occur the first time you perform a search. The indexes will then remain live for 10 minutes, after which new indexes will be created on a subsequent search, which would stay valid for another 10 minutes. The number of indexed files is also displayed when an index is built or rebuilt.

Indexes live in a separate file in a hidden .ts folder (similar to how the so-called “sidecar” files handle tags and meta if you so choose) in the given location, and this new logic reduced the size of the index files quite significantly.

Re-indexing a location between two searches is also possible manually now. If you don’t want the app to re-index a location, you can just throw a switch (saying “Manual index creation”) which will make TagSpaces use the last created index, instead of creating a new one.

In search of water

Geotagging has been a prominent feature of TagSpaces for a long time now. It is useful in so many ways, a separate article could (and probably would) be written about it. Geolocation can be automatically extracted from pictures’ EXIF data, or manually added in the tag manager, shown on an OpenStreetMap overlay, with the ability to extract the user’s current location to tag things, while on the go.

One of the notable improvements here is the location being displayed in the file’s property panel when opened. If a geo-tag is present, the properties will show the map automatically, making geo-tagging a lot more useful in using/seeing these tags with individual files, besides searching for files with similar locations.

But the really interesting part is the new Mapique perspective, which would display a map with pins for the geo-tags of each file (or folder, because folders can also be tagged!), a unique way to see your files and folders, organised by location in the most visual manner possible. Never-before-seen features like that are what make TagSpaces really stand out from your usual file-manager crowd.

Uniquely mapique geotags

This perspective could be of ultimate use for e.g. professional photographers who want to better be able to organise/find pictures by location, which is why it’s included as a “Pro” feature. More on that below.

Pro means professional. Did you know that? Of course, you did. Did it ever make you wonder why software developers often seem to ignore this straightforward fact? What I mean is, when a product gets a “Pro” tag, it often means just “paid”. As in “we withheld some important features to make you pay us for our efforts” kind of paid. It makes sense, nobody wants to work for free (unless you volunteer), and companies and people alike have bills to pay, the former’s even got wages to worry about. Having people pay for a product that took hundreds, probably thousands of hours of development, should not raise any eyebrows. There’s no free lunch.

My gripe is with the wording. Calling a paid product “Pro” is usually misleading. there’s nothing traditionally “professional” about having enhanced features or a full feature set.

TagSpaces takes a different route, and it’s, again, a welcome difference that sets it aside in a freemium-riddled software landscape. The community version is fully featured, and not in any way unusable, or restricted. There are no limitations on usage, access, licensing, etc. It’s simply a community version that serves the needs of, you guessed it, the community.

And then there is the “Pro” version, and I’m sure you know what I’m getting at. After all, this is not the first time I write about this. TagSpaces Pro is meant for professionals, in the traditional sense of the word. You will find features that mostly serve professional users, who use the software for work, or in a work-like environment. This makes the business model TagSpaces uses stand out: Paid functionality targets those who are most likely to be willing to pay, without stunting those who might not be. This should really be the standard for everyone (OK, I know it’s wishful thinking, but still).

Pro-only enhancements also did happen in the past years. For instance, it is now possible to connect Minio and Digital Ocean Spaces locations besides Amazon’s S3, eliminating the second-hand vendor lock-in for those who need cloud storage.

S3 storage is now easier to use as well, as you can simply drag-and-drop anything from your system file manager into TagSpaces and to the connected location, at which the upload will commence without doing anything else; whereas previously you had to initiate the upload manually. There is also a progress dialogue now if you’re uploading a lot of files or the operation runs long.

Search also has a pro-only feature now, still in beta, called Global Search that would allow you to search in multiple connected locations. There are still some issues about unifying local and remote location results (thence the beta tag), but a fix is promised for, well, “next year”.

A welcome addition for Mac users is the ability to import macOS tags. While also in beta, this is an important step towards unifying the handling of file storages. The feature will, of course, only really be complete when TagSpaces tags can also be exported, but we can be sure that’ll be considered, especially after the developers read this article. (You can also put some pressure on them in the comments below.)

The latest additions (from the last release) include some usability enhancements, like being able to set a default perspective (the way files are displayed) on a per-folder basis, editing the file descriptions with a double click, embedding images in said descriptions form external sources, while also using markdown formatting in the text. One might wonder what makes these features “Pro”, but if you think about it, file descriptions are most useful in a shared environment, that’d most likely be used in a professional setting.

The most interesting new feature across the board made it into the Pro version, again, with a beta tag, and this is the new, shiny Kanban Perspective! That’s right, TagSpaces Pro now allows you to display your subfolders in a given location as a Kanban board, with files and inner subfolders being draggable, Kanban style. The feature is under heavy development and has some shortcomings, still, e.g. files that are not in any subfolder of the main location are not currently displayed, yet the feature is really interesting and could mean a whole new paradigm of file and folder management, bringing together the best of the on- and offline worlds. It gives you the power of Kanban to manage and organise while keeping everything as files (which has plenty of merits, when it comes to accessible, private and secure data storage). Kanban view is not yet accessible from the menu, as it’s nowhere near production-ready, only included for testing. If you want to test it, you have to go into the Director Properties and find it there.

It’s easy to ban the kan with Kanban

TagSpaces is a privacy-conscious offline file manager catering for the needs of home-users and professionals alike. I am well aware that I already wrote that, but you know how it is, repetition hammers the point home, and also gives the text some sort of contextual frame. And I’m not that good with writing conclusions. Anyway, you know what I mean.

The newer version of the software offers a lot of interesting new features, and even more to come (those currently in Beta). If you are a TagSpaces user already, it’s well worth upgrading, and not only because older versions might not even start on all systems due to an Electron issue, so you might just need to upgrade anyway. Whatever your reasons, you will not regret it.

Featured image by j zamora on Unsplash. Also published on Medium’s subdomain.

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Hungarian-born developer, entrepreneur and author of two books and over 100 articles across the web

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