Coolbase review: Tree-outline information manager hindered by poor implementation

Outliner programs (such as Treepad) have been around a long time. They allow for easy arrangement of arbitrary bits of data in a hierarchical format that's useful for writers, students, researchers, programmers, and anyone else who often works with many small pieces of information that lack a predetermined structure. Typically, they are "two pane"—an outline pane, like the File Explorer tree view, on one side, and details of the selected item on the other. Argentum Coolbase follows this effective and well-known style, though it is clunky and underdeveloped.

A typical use for this kind of tool might be to organize research for a protracted trip. You might begin with a top-level category such as "Country," then have folders for each city in those countries, and within those, documents relating to specific spots to visit, sub-folders for things you want more detail on, and so on. In Coolbase, you can include images, links to online reviews, clippings from travel blogs, and a list of useful phrases, all organized in a way that makes sense to you and is not imposed in advance by a database developer.

coolbase general structure

Coolbase lets you organize data hierarchically, with multiple data items.

However, unstructured data can be too unstructured. Without any kind of formal fields, vital information might be included in one item and forgotten in another, and you can't search for information by context: If you want to find a restaurant that has "Goblet" in the name, you will get every node that has the word "Goblet." Thus, structure of some sort is often helpful, especially as the amount of information increases. Coolbase does this through adding Properties— fields that can be searched individually.

In Argentum Coolbase, data elements are arranged in a tree, and can be sections, documents, or folders. All of these can contain individual items; those items are not shown in the tree. Each of the elements contains any number of properties and these are the actual data. Property data types include integers, real numbers, dates, text fields, links, and more. The specific properties associated with any given item are chosen from a set of pre-defined types (such as Name and Note) and user-defined custom types (such as a drop-down list with specific values, or a larger text field for memos).

coolbase predefined properties

These are the standard properties Coolbase provides. Custom properties are defined using this encoding.

And that's where it starts getting tricky. It was not intuitive how to set up "I want all items to contain these fields," and the documentation was sparse. New properties are specified in a simple text string, such as "Cost,r,4,2"—A property named "Cost," defined as a 4-byte Real displayed with two digits after the decimal place. The "Options" dialog is also used to decide what properties show up in the tree or item lists. This ability to display multiple values, not just a name, outside of the editing pane for the item itself, is a real bonus, one which shows off the potential Coolbase has.

Editing an item requires using a key combo or clicking the "Edit" button. It isn't activated by clicking in a field directly. Worse, once you're done editing, you must manually press "Alt-S" to save your changes. There is no warning that you have made unsaved changes. Edit an item, then click another part of the tree before saving, and your edits are lost. Coolbase is also silent about errors. I accidently created an invalid custom property, and it didn't alert me; it just ignored the entry, leaving me to wonder if I'd misunderstood how custom properties are added.

Searching is equally problematic. Full text searches are easy: Type in the string you want, and you get back the items. However, I wanted to search a custom property for a numeric value. I could only specify a literal, not ">5" or the like. Likewise, I searched for "1," and it returned items with "1", "10", and "12," even though the field I searched was defined as a number.

Overall, Argentum Coolbase is a product I really wanted to like, as it fills a niche I often need. And, it must be noted, it does work—I encountered no obvious bugs, response was rapid, and all the necessary functionality is present. However, the lack of development, the high price for what you get, and the sparse documentation all weigh heavily against it.

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At a Glance
  • PCWorld Rating

    While the basic idea of Coolbase is solid and fills a needed niche, the cost is high given the small feature set and lack of ongoing development.

    Pros

    • A mix of database and tree-style outliner
    • Supports links, file attachments, and user-entered data

    Cons

    • No auto-save when leaving edit mode
    • Adding new properties is somewhat confusing
    • Documentation is very sparse
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