Tame That Unruly Digital Hub Collection With Readerware

< B>Digital Hub, digital hub, yakety yak, blah, blah, blah!

Apple has delivered on itis promise of providing a slick means for us to create and manage digital media like nobodyis business. iLife just plain rocks; we can manipulate photo, create movies, and listen to our music however and where ever we wish. Itis all good in the digital hub.

Well, not quite.

Before you started sinking nasty bucks into iTMS you bought a boatload of CDs, and while the movies you create are near and dear to your heart you still went out and bought The Matrix, X-Men, and Steel Magnolias. (Hey! Howid that chick-flick get in there?) You still find time to actually read a good page-tuner from Stephen King, Ben Bova, Octavia Butler, or Steve Martin (Pure Drivel is excellent). Just what has the Digital hub done for all of that stuff?

Kind of strange, really; you have in your possession a computer; a tool that should be able to catalogue every scrap of digitized or printed material that you own but it is most likely that you have not tried to organize any of it. Itis not your fault; most cataloging tools force you to tediously enter in all of the data you think is pertinent about the items in your collection. What kind of fun is that? So much for the Digital Hub.

Before you brand Steve Jobs a liar and toss your Mac out the nearest airlock you might want to take a look at some really cool apps from Readerware.

Database for the Rest of Us

We discovered Readerware while searching for a tool that would help organize DVDs. With many of us having 20, 50, or even 100 DVDs, thatis just far too many to manually enter information, especially if you want to get everything entered like cover art, whether or not the sound supports DTS 5.1, and other nice-to-have info.

When we stumbled upon the Readerware Web site, we thought, "well, this canit be any good, the site is green, for crying out loud!" After further inspection we started to think that Readerware might just be the set of tools one needs to whip any sort of collection into some sort of order.

Getting the Goods

Readerware comes in three varieties, all similar in the way they operate but each geared towards a specific type of collection: Readerware, which is aimed at taming your book collection, ReaderwareAW for your burgeoning CD collection, and for your video collection there is ReaderwareVW. Thereis also a version for your Palm device.

ReaderwareVW main interface
(Click the thumbnail for a larger image)

Getting and installing Readerware is simple: You can download the version you want and take advantage of the 30 day trial, or you can send for the CDs. There is goodness in buying the CDs; at least for a limited time, the company will send you a free CueCat with your order. What is a CueCat and why would you want it? Hold that thought.

After you install the app you are presented with a tutorial; a very nice touch. The Readerware databases are powerful tools with detailed search and formatting functions. You donit have to have a masters degree in computer science to get the most of the Readerware tools but you should go through the tutorial to at least get the lay of the land, so to speak.

Scan The Light Fantastic

Probably the most interesting, and fun, feature of Readerware is its ability to use barcode readers to get the information about the stuff you collect. Simply scan the barcode of any CD, DVD, or book jacket (in the appropriate version of Readerware, of course) and the app compiles a list of the UPC codes. After entering in your list you click a few buttons and voilà, Readerware trots out to the Internet and grabs info, including cover art, from the various sites youive selected. Next thing you know youive scanned in your entire collection and you are staring at a database with all sorts of great info, including commentary.

If you happen to have a title that isnit found in any of the online databases, or you have something that does not have a barcode donit worry; Readerware gives you the option of inputting information by simply dragging the link of the site to Readerware. The app then grabs the info from the site and creates a database entry, complete with cover art, if there is one, for you. Very slick.

An entered CD

Of course, you could type in the data, but whereis the fun in that? Doing so likely take you a very long time, especially if you are one who tries to put something in every field because there are lots of fields.

One nice feature is the Auto-Update function which will grab new info about a particular entry or multiple entries. Auto-Update creates a list of items to be updated in a similar manner as when you inputted the entries initially, it then fetches info and compares it to what is currently in your database, if an update is required, the software makes it happen, otherwise your initial data is untouched.

The Auto Update Window

The Catis Meow

A few years back there was an effort to tie ads and articles from printed magazines to information on the Internet using barcodes. You used a freely available device called the CueCat; they were available at any Radio Shack, they gave them away like candy.

The problem was that the CueCat software would set out personal data whenever you used it to link to a site. Once people found out about that their Web surfing habits were being sent all over the Net, the CueCat was tossed aside like bad egg salad.

The makers of Readerware realized that the CueCat wasnit the problem, it was its software. By creating their own driver for the CueCat, Readerware is able to use the device as a simple, but very effective, barcode reader. Whatis more, they were able to get a bunch of the remaining CueCats devices and are giving them away to anyone who buys the Readerware bundle on CD.

The CueCat works great, though it looks a little odd. If you have one lying around in a closet somewhere, drag it out and download a demo version of Readerware.

Digging The Digital Dirt

Once youive gotten all of your collection items entered, looking through your info is relatively easy. Readerware comes with a set of predefined searches: You can search on any field and move the field columns around to suit your taste. If youid rather have the authors listed first, then the book title, you drag the author column to the left most position, drag the title field next to the author field and you are done.

Searches and reports are similar in that reports are based on a defined search, and you can define your searches, and so reports, any way you wish.

Once your search results are displayed you can print it easily by clicking the printer icon; a printer dialog window appears which will allow you to adjust your printed output.

The search and view features are probably the two most powerful features in the Readerware databases; the application allows you to endlessly tweak your view outputs so that you can display information just so, then it will offer to save the view parameters, which will appear in the view pull-down menu.

The Dark Side

One of the first things youill notice about Readerware is that it looks more like a Windows application than something built for OS X, which isnit a bad thing, it just that you do get use to seeing certain visuals when dealing with OS X applications. What is a bit more distracting is how some things are done.

For instance: Under the File menu there is an option called Report Writer. Seeing it you would think, "Cool! A tool for creating reports." Clicking the option brings up another window and, sure enough, it looks like you can define a report simply by dragging some fields around. Unfortunately, that is not the case.

Report Writer is only a report template repository. To create a report template you have to know HTML and you have to bring up a HTML editor to actually create the report. The ever-present Help explains the procedure completely but it is something you would not want your Mom to tackle.

Another annoyance is that often, the data that get put in the fields from the Internet is either missing or is wrong. We noticed, for instance, that the iSoundi field listed nearly all of our test DVDs as being Mono, meaning single channel audio, when in fact nearly all of them were at least in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound. We also found many of the DVDs listed as full screen versions, though again they were really wide-screen versions

In order to correct that, we had to go through and change information by hand, a task that diminishes the ease at which you are able to scan in your collection in the first place.

Finally, getting your printed output to look like you want it can be a bit trying. Once you understand whatis involved and how to do it, you wonit have too much of a problem, but youill kill a lot of trees figuring it out for the first time.

Basically, what you see on your screen is always the result of a search displayed as a particular view, the most basic of which is a search for everything in the database (wildcard search). By defining which fields you want displayed then searching, for instance, using a wildcard search, you can tailor what is displayed on your screen and what gets printed. This is explained in the copious Help pages, but we found that Help to be more confusing.

Also, we thought it would be nicer to tie the search and views more closely together; we may want to display books or DVDs that weive loaned out. It is not hard to do that now; click the search pull-down menu and select "Loan Search," but what is displayed wonit be information important to you about the loaned items unless you also tailor a view. It would be nice to have the option to select the search parameters and what fields will be displayed in one iAdvanced Searchi window then allow the user to save it.

There are other things about Readerware that might have been done better. If you find such things you can write the company, they will listen and offer suggestions and may even incorporate your suggestions into the next version.

We wrote Readerware and asked about how best to get information from the Internet so that the fields are filled with good data. The company suggested that we test some of the sites where the information will be gathered with a few entries first to see which ones gave the best results, and then use the best site as the first one in the search list. The suggestion paid off and we found that the data in the fields was more accurate.

The Skinny

Readerware is design to work on different platforms, so its interface may not look and feel like a native OS X application, but you wonit find many other collection database apps with the ability to use barcode readers and cull information from the Internet with a drag and a click.

Though it has some annoying ifeaturesi, we think youill find that Readerware, together with a barcode reader, is a big help in taming your book, music, or video collection.

In fact, youill have so much fun scanning stuff into the database that youill want to go out and buy more stuff just to have something to scan.

Product: Readerware

Company: Readerware Corporation

List Price: N/A

Vendor Price: $40 each

Any Mac running OS X

Pros: Easy installation and setup, fun scanning in entries, powerful search features
Cons: Non-OS X interface, weak report features, some features are complicated to use.