DEVONthink 3.0: New Tricks for Reading and Research

DEVONthink is one of the only software suites I remain unequivocal about. I’m a keen user of DEVONthink to Go for iOS, and I was happy to recommend previous version of DEVONthink Pro for macOS, even as it aged considerably. However, the recently released DEVONthink 3.0 has modernised and enhanced already excellent software. It is integral to the way I manage my research.

DEVONthink 3.0 Can Feel like Cheating

DEVONthink 3 is a remarkable piece of software. The Devon Technologies crew don’t do small, you’ll be peeling this onion for a while. If you come from the previous version of DEVONthink, the user interface is immediately familiar, yet modernised in all the right ways.  If you were one of those people who liked the idea of DEVONthink, but couldn't stomach the way it looked, the new interface has taken care of that. I spend most of my day in and out of DEVONthink at the moment as I finish writing my thesis. Not only do I rely on it, I actually enjoy using it —and this at a time when the likes of Apple continue to suck the joy from computing.  The advanced search functionality alone has always made DEVONthink worth it, and even that has improved, but it can do a whole lot more.

Smart Rules

DEVONthink has always had serious automation tools. However, it has traditionally relied on deep AppleScript hooks and actions donated to the native macOS Automator app. Then there is the AI engine that can help automate the classification of documents, along with its core heuristic data analysis. Beyond that, the global inbox means a little forward thinking can always bring third-party tools like Hazel into play before the DEVONthink sorter takes over.

Most of this functionality is now built into the app itself. With DEVONthink 3.0, we now have granular, dynamic user automation built into the software itself. The automator actions are gone, but in their place are user definable automation tools for building the kind of smart rules, and smart groups that Mac users will be used to. From the liner notes,

Last but not least, we have massively extended DEVONthink's automation options for version 3. Smart rules perform actions based on events and search queries, where events can be anything from a scheduled time to the arrival of a newly imported document. You can also attach one-time or repeating reminders to any document. They support several alarm options including running scripts. Insert dynamic data in templates, imprints, or smart rules without requiring any programming skills.

If you’ve ever built an advanced search in Finder, or made a smart playlist in iTunes (er..Music app), the logic will be familiar. If you’re a hazel user, you’re laughing.

Using Smart rules with DEVONthink to Go for iOS

The iOS version of DEVONthink has a few hidden elements in the navigation menu that hint at what be available in future releases. By all accounts, there are plans to port the syncing of smart groups at least.1 In the meantime, we are left with workarounds. To be fair, as much as I like this stuff to just work out of the box, finding workarounds gives one an excuse to get familiar with the new functionality in DEVONthink 3.0. It doesn’t take long if, like I do me, you are simple people with simple needs.

I do most of my academic reading and annotation on the iPad, so settings up a smart group to pull readings across automatically would be ideal. However, as DEVONthink can create replicants of documents2, we can approximate this behaviour with a smart rule:

DEVONthink 3.0 Smart Rules

Then, in DEVONthink to Go we set the group to download always. Now anything I label for iOS is automatically synced to that group, and ready to read on my iOS devices. Better still, as DEVONthink supports edit in place, I can use any PDF app that can access the native iOS files and my annotations are automagically synced back to my Mac.

I have another smart group setup that groups all annotated documents once they are synced. I generally use the excellent Highlights app to export my annotations in Markdown when I review them, but I’m working on automating that part too.

  1. Can’t say I’m entirely comfortable with the way this is communicated in the forums any times.
  2. For the uninitiated, replicants are clever links to master documents that make it appear there is a copy without actually creating one. It’s a kind of spooky action for documents.