Tags 2 for Mac: Good Enough You Might Forget You’re Using It

Photo by Case Apps - http://www.caseapps.com/

Tags 2, from Case Apps, is a lightweight tagging and tag browsing tool for the Mac that is clean, fast and elegant — and so unobtrusive that you could conceivably use it almost every day for half a year before remembering to write about it… Plus, if you ever encountered the software in its previous version, forget everything you thought you knew about it: Tags 2 is way better (not to mention better-looking) than the original.

Readers of our earlier review of Leap 2 for the Mac (see “Leap 2.0 for Mac”) or who might be familiar with our code contribution for Ali Rantakari’s free Tagger application for the Mac will know we’re big fans of tagging as a way of keeping our heads clear of the flood of information flowing by each day:

When performed consistently and habitually, tagging is the kind of activity that can quickly recede into the background, mostly out of conscious awareness, while still managing to deliver repeated dividends in the form of less time spent trying to find things again and more time spent doing something productive with them.

Well, “out of conscious awareness” is exactly what I experienced when I changed my main tagging applications more than half a year ago, in effect replacing both Tagger and Leap 2 with the single tagging application and tag browser Tags 2, by Case Apps (formerly and probably better known as Gravity Apps).

The kind folks at (then) Gravity Apps asked me to review Tags 2, I installed it and tried it for all of about 5 minutes, and then…forgot about it completely. Oh, I kept using it, to be sure — for tagging mostly, for finding tagged items occasionally, and for browsing tagged items a few times — but I didn’t think much about it. I haven’t needed to.

And so it is that I find myself offering a sort of mini-review of Tags 2 more than half a year after I started using it, probably well into the product’s revision cycle. My only excuse? It’s easy. It works. It’s forgettable — and that’s a compliment.

When Tags 2 is running, it can remain quietly in the background while its HUD-style tagging interface appears and disappears with a keystroke, enabling me to assign tags in a jiffy. Its enhanced Spotlight search appears with another keystroke. (The latter can, incidentally, be set to search for tagged items only, offering an alternative way to winnow down your search results right from the start if you know for certain that you’ve tagged a given item you’re trying to find.)

Using the tag browser requires bringing the whole application to the front, which can be accomplished easily in any of the usual ways or by selecting the tag browser from the small menu extra which appears whenever Tags 2 is running. The inconspicuous menu extra is akin to those you may already be using for built-in applications like Time Machine or Spaces, or for third-party applications like Dropbox, Hazel, etc. As mainly a desktop user, I find it handy, but on a MacBook Air or other smallish laptop, the addition of yet another extra may cramp an already overcrowded menu bar.

The tag browser provides a three-pane window, with tag lists down the left, result lists at the top, and a Quicklook-powered view of the currently selected file at the bottom. See the set of files with a particular tag or at least one of a set of tags by selecting that tag or set of tags from the list. If the resulting set of files includes any with other tags assigned, those will appear along the top of the results list; click on any of those to add it to the selection criteria, or click again to remove it from the selection criteria. In other words, the main list of all your tags provides a way to search for files that contain tag 1 or tag 2, while the refinement list provides a way to narrow the results down to those which contain those and tag A and tag B. It’s all a whole lot simpler in use than it might sound from my attempt at an explanation: you can probably figure it out yourself intuitively just by looking at the window, and you can probably do so in less time than it took you to read this paragraph.

The one glaring omission from the tags browser? It doesn’t show the selected file’s location! Unlike the Finder, say, which shows the location of a selected file at the bottom of the window (a feature now optional in Lion), the tag browser doesn’t give any clue where a file is living. It does provide a shortcut to reveal it in the Finder, but switching the user to the Finder and opening a file’s enclosing window is a different matter altogether.

Comparing Tags 2 to the two other applications which I had been using as my main tagging tools, I’ve found the Tags 2 tagging interface, which is the part I use the most by a wide margin, to be a little slicker than Tagger’s. The tag browser in Tags 2, on the other hand, isn’t going to win any sophistication contests with the likes of Leap 2. However, there’s an important difference of approach between the two: Leap 2 provides a very complex set of ways to interact with your files, while Tags 2 provides a small but functional core and does it quickly and cleanly and with minimal complexity. I am not stretching the point in the least when I say that I can fire up the Tags 2 tag browser, find something specific, and get on to using it before I can even figure out how to interact with Leap 2. Don’t get me wrong: Leap 2 is the power tool here, and if you need that power, Tags 2 won’t compete with it. But for my own personal usage patterns, I rarely need that level of sophistication and power: I just want something that gets me to the end result quickly and preferably elegantly, while requiring as little effort from me as necessary. Tags 2 does that, and it does that exceptionally well.

Your mileage may vary, of course; some folks spend a lot of time re-finding their own stuff, while I spend a lot of time — probably unnecessarily — filing away a lot of stuff and retrieving any given item only occasionally. For the moment, I’ll set aside the question of whether I just save too much stuff, the question of whether the world would be a better place if more people let go of more files instead of hoarding them on capacious but not necessarily well-organized hard drives. Instead, I’ll just say that if your work patterns look anything like my own — saving more than retrieving, not needing anything terribly complex for tag browsing, and prone to forgetting all about a software tool you’re using just to get things done — then I think Tags 2 is well worth a test-drive. You can download it for free from the Case Apps site before deciding whether to pony up the $29 purchase price.

As of this writing, Tags 2 is at version 2.2, freshly updated for full OS X Lion compatibility. I’ll be keeping an eye on how it develops over the months, and I’ll (try to remember to) post something in a bit more timely fashion the next time there’s a significant update in terms of features or capabilities.

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