What's the Best Software for Tagging Files?
Finding electronic documents and emails can be a problem. The conventional approach has been to put them into a hierarchical folder structure, but with the advent of mobile devices with small screens and the requirement for minimal user cognitive load, the filesystem has become completely hidden and file managers are not part of the main operating system.
Historically, a hierarchical folder structure is easier to implement than a tag retrieval system and much more suited to fixed structures such as computer operating systems. This may explain its historic dominance. A study was conducted in 2008 compared tag and folder-based retrieval on email messages with two clients, one labeling messages with tags and the other grouping them into folders. The authors concluded that neither tagging nor folders were superior to the other for information retrieval: best results were achieved by combining their use. They also observed that users had a much richer concept of information than folders or tags or a combination of them could represent.
File Tagging Software
Creation and application of tags and retrieval of tagged documents from a folder-based structure can be achieved by a very wide range of software. The management requirement for large digital photo collections has spawned many different applications, mainly tailored to use the extensive metadata options available for digital image files. Some applications, such as Daminion Free can manage a range of non-image files. With the exception of Google Photos and XnView MP, these photo management applications are not reviewed, as the complexity of their interfaces makes them unsuitable for general use.
Social media applications such as Facebook and Instagram support the addition of captions or tags to images, but only by creating a web page including the image and the caption/tag. If the image is downloaded, the caption/tag information is not present.
All the software reviewed has the ability to provide a different view of collections of documents based on user-generated information, with the potential of improving information retrieval. However, there is great variation in interface design, terminology, functionality and support level. Many software products are available for download or purchase long after support or development has ceased, so consulting a review may help to avoid disappointment.
Many of the products implement a file manager, which runs over a single database rather than a filesystem, with elements of a folder hierarchy optionally treated as tags. The database contains links to the files in the filesystem location. Renaming or moving files or folders requires some method of updating the database if database links are to remain functional. This can be achieved by a continuously running monitoring component (as used by Tabbles) or by using distributed databases with very close integration with File Explorer to detect moves, copies or renames (Tagging for Windows).
Searching replaces folder browsing in the database architecture. Database performance becomes a critical factor if many thousands of file links are stored. As free versions of software frequently limit the number of files stored or the number of tags applied, it is difficult to test performance in this situation.
Another approach to tagging is to embed the tags into the file or folder name. This is more robust than the database approach and allows tagged items to be retrieved on any platform using only native search, but changing the names of folders and files will result in files which are linked by paths (such as linked Excel spreadsheets) having their links broken. SetTags and TagSpaces use this approach, with SetTags additionally using the target tracking property of Windows shortcuts to allow files to be retrieved by tag after moves or renames.
What about Help?
Most users dislike accessing application help documentation. "Operation should be self-evident" they often say. Whilst simple tasks (such as adding tags or retrieving documents by tag) can be made self-evident, the nature of document management using tags is such that less common tasks, such as deleting, merging, or changing existing tags invariably become necessary and making these self-evident is much harder. For this reason, good help functionality is particularly important in tagging applications.
Applications Compared at a Glance
Tagging can be performed by a multitude of applications. In some cases, the facility is part of a broader capability (such as that provided by document management systems and many Microsoft Office applications). Other applications are more specialized. The table below gives a quick comparison of the leading specialized offerings - more detailed descriptions of these and other applications follow. To locate these in this article type Ctrl-F and enter the name of the product.
Product Platform Tag Auto Multiple Track Moves Export Cloud Rating Emails Tag Users & Renames Support (Stars) Tabbles Windows Yes Yes Yes Yes No Yes 4.5 SetTags Windows Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes 4.5 Tagging Windows No No No Yes No Yes 4 for Windows
XnView MP Any No No No No No No 4 TagSpaces Any No No No Yes No No 3 Elyse Windows No No Yes Yes No No 3 ThatFile Win 10 No No No No No No 2
Other applications included in this review are listed below. Type Ctr-F and enter the product name to see more details.
Office - Word, Excel and Powerpoint
The widely used Office applications Word, Excel and Powerpoint provide access to a Tags field, into which text can be inserted on the right-hand side of the screen shown by File-> Info. An example is below:
Windows Search can find documents with a particular string using the syntax Tag:keyword as shown below:
This approach does not place any restrictions on tags and may be useful for individual users working only with Office authoring documents. Multiple tags are separated by commas, but there is no warning if you duplicate tags. Retrieval is via an Explorer search using the syntax "Tag:Tagname" in the search box in File Explorer. As the tag metadata is stored with the file, tagged files can still be found as long as they are in a location which is indexed. However, as most users access files other than those created by Office, this functionality is not widely used.
Office - OneNote
The Office OneNote application provides facilities for storage of files, notes, and drawings within a single, unified application environment. Each group of stored entities is shown as a tab (or page) in the master environment as shown below. Pages may contain sub-pages, but sub-pages cannot contain sub-subpages, giving two levels of hierarchical storage.
Tag objects can be added to tabs via the Home Ribbon. They appear as icons on the page as shown below and text, drawings or other objects can be associated with them.
A Tag summary screen shows a list of all tags, together with any objects associated with them. Clicking on any item, shows the tab on which it has been placed.
The OneNote environment is designed to facilitate the storage and retrieval of all types of information object including notes, drawings, and files without using a hierarchical folder structure. It is strongly focussed on the business environment.
Despite its sophisticated information retrieval facilities (when compared to the veteran workhorse Office applications of Word, Outlook, Excel, and Powerpoint), OneNote is not yet commonly used within organizations with networked PCs. As users need have no interaction with an underlying filesystem, OneNote is much more suited to Web, mobile and tablet environments than the veteran Office applications and has had significant uptake in education for note-taking., which may presage wider adoption.
Document Management Systems
Most document management systems include search and tagging as well as hierarchical folder tree structuring of stored data. These systems are highly sophisticated, often including Web browser access, automated disposal, and elaborate permissions support. Some can be integrated with Microsoft Office, making the addition of tags or disposal classifications mandatory when saving a document. However, as document management systems commonly use a database rather than a filesystem to store data, performance may be considerably poorer than a filesystem, unless the hardware is upgraded substantially. Document management systems are also falling rapidly in price, with limited or “Community” versions of many systems available free. However, performance limitations and user preference for a familiar system often result in ‘off-system’ processing developing, with the document management system being reserved for the ‘good china’, working documents being kept on file shares. This may result in a poorer information retrieval overall, as documents may be found either in the document management system or on a shared filesystem.
Tag Explorer (ver 188.8.131.52)
Tag Explorer is a Windows 10 application from Dr. Cooper available from the Microsoft Store and CNET as a Universal Windows Program, making it particularly easy to download and install. However, the author's website cannot be accessed and support is via an email address, so it is not clear that the application is currently supported. The Help website cannot be accessed and support is via an email address, so it is not clear that the application is currently supported. However, the interface is simple enough to use without access to help:
The Tags Folders button at top left toggles between viewing a set of folders in folder view or tag view:
Clicking on a file or folder shows the tags already applied and allows for the addition of a new tag. Tagging a folder applies the tag to all files in the folder and subfolders.
New tags can only be added if a folder or file is selected. There is no list of tags already added available. Double-byte language tags are supported. Long file names are truncated – screen width for file names is not adjustable.
If the files displayed are moved to a folder not scanned by Tag Explorer using File Explorer, then clicking the original entry will not result in the display of the file. Clicking Refresh will remove the file from the listing. Folders on network drives may be included.
When a new tag is added, no existing tags are shown. This can allow the creation of tags with singular and plural forms, which can be confusing.
TagExplorer appears to have been incorporated into the BitQueues product OrganiserMaX, which is reviewed elsewhere in this document. It may be useful for individuals. It has no centralized control of tags or help but is quick to install.
Tag Spaces (ver 2.9.0)
TagSpaces is a heavyweight open source application (version 2.9 released in 2017), offering tag functionality on any platform (including Web browsers) and with a number of language options. The download is a 69 Mbyte zip file, unpacking to 1300 files. There is no installer for Windows – after unpacking, TagSpaces can be run by clicking on TagSpaces.exe. Voluminous help and support are available via GitHub. The forum-like nature of support allows potential users to see what kind of problems others have encountered and the quality and timeliness of any replies.
Unlike many other tagging applications, TagSpaces has no back-end database and stores tags by adding the tag text to the file name. The tags are added between square brackets just before the file extension. Different tags are separated by spaces – no spaces are allowed between tags, and tags cannot contain characters not allowed in file names. This approach is more robust – copying or moving files by any method moves the tags along with the file.
The TagSpaces file manager offers thumbnail views for images: the PRO version (costing €39 or US$45 per year) shows them for all files and offers other additional features, such as applying tags to folders.
Tags can be added by selecting a file and selecting Add/Remove tags from a context menu to show the Add/Remove tags screen:
TagSpaces supports tag groups – groups of tags related to a particular topic as shown below:
TagSpaces is a sophisticated product using a robust methodology. However, it does not offer any centralized control of tags, making it mainly of use to individual users. A paid Pro version offers a number of additional features but does not include support for multiple users. As shareware with an active developer base, it seems likely to be supported into the future, but it is very much a product for knowledgeable computer users. Adding an installer so that the application appears in the Programs list and reducing the volume of documentation to focus on user tasks would probably increase its user base significantly.
Tabbles (ver 5.7.1)
Tabbles is another heavyweight tagging product from Tag Forge IVS (based in Denmark and Switzerland), with a 70 Mbyte installer. It only runs on Windows platforms. After a slow install, it offers a choice of individual, cloud or LAN versions with sharing of tags between users available in LAN and cloud versions, with permissions control applicable via policies on the underlying SQL Server database, and from a Users Control Center. The cloud version uses an external database hosted by Tag Forge. The free version is limited to tagging 5000 files (before nagging sets in), with the basic version limited to 20,000 files costing €18 (US$21) per year per user. The corporate version costs €72 (US$84) per user per year, but with substantial discounts for students and organizations deemed to be ‘doing good’. Tabbles claims 2000 organizational users, making it the probable brand leader in this domain. Reviews of the product date back to 2010. Very detailed help is available, together with training videos, a blog, and a forum. A pop-up offering chat support appears on the Tabbles web page, but users outside European time zones may find this difficult to use.
In order to download and install you have to subscribe to the Tag Forge newsletter and supply an email address. You are then confronted with a choice of downloading Tabbles or another product called Confidential (v 1.7.1). There is no indication of what Confidential is or how it differs from Tabbles.
Tabbles' implementation follows the standard model of a file manager running over a database. The file manager is sophisticated, using a tree to represent a folder structure, with tags being treated in the same way as folders. A hierarchical structure of tags can be created, but items with a child tag of a parent are not selected when the parent is selected - the parent tag has to be applied as well.
When tagging folders, the options of tagging the folder only, the folder and files in it, or creating an auto-tag rule are created. Tagging can also be performed within the application, or by dragging file or folders on to tags within the application tag tree. This approach is good for adding single tags, but adding multiple tags is more complex.
There is very good integration with the underlying Windows operating system using a continuously running component called tagger. If a tagged file is moved or renamed using File Explorer, the Tabbles file manager screen is immediately updated with the new path, and if a tagged file is replaced the disappears from the files shown as using that tag. (If the file is then added with the original tag, Tabbles incorrectly warns you that it has already been tagged, but adds the tag correctly). If a tagged file is deleted, an option to delete the tag entry is shown. The file manager allows the addition of comments to files and many types of file can be previewed. File extensions are treated as a tag.
The downside of the continuously running component is that files may be opened without the user being aware of it and this may prevent other Windows actions (such as renaming folders) from completing. Messages about tag application for a file may be repeated each time the file is closed. Warning messages may also appear when external drives or devices are plugged in.
However, the file manager does not have the display options or display speed of File Explorer and the contents of a folder are displayed as a series of screens with Next Page and Previous Page, which can be a slow process for folders containing thousands of items. Files and folders are not grouped separately by default as they are in File Explorer, but folders as well as files can be tagged. The close integration with Windows means that tagging is available via a right-click context menu from File Explorer (three entries are added as shown below), but the Explorer view only indicates that a file has been tagged (via an addition to the icon), not what the tags are. The Confidential product from Tag Forge distinguishes tags indicating a level of confidentiality from others and provides a number of other features useful for data protection.
Files, folders or emails sharing a tag (or tags) can be shown by clicking on the tag list shown in the file manager. If the item is not accessible, a red stop icon is shown.
Tabbles also offers auto-tagging, allowing tags to be applied automatically on the basis of rules using file attributes including content, in a similar fashion to Microsoft Outlook rules. Rules can be applied to files on creation, or to already existing files in a folder by selecting the folder inside the file manager and selecting Apply Auto-tag rules from the right-click menu.
Whilst auto-tagging based on words appearing in content is appealing from a theoretical viewpoint, the ambiguities of language are such that the simple appearance of word or combinations of words in a document is not usually sufficient to classify it correctly.
An Outlook add-in is included allowing tagging to be applied to emails viewed in Outlook.
Clicking Tag brings up the tag selection screen.
Tagged emails appear together with tagged files or folders with an envelope icon when selecting a tag. However, if multiple emails are selected, different tags cannot be applied to different emails.
Tabbles is a mature product with a multitude of appealing features, many based on its high level of integration with Windows, but it may be over-sophisticated for single users or small organizations. Its use of the file manager/database model means that tags are not attached to files. This means that tagging a file on a removable drive and then re-attaching with a different drive letter results in loss of the tag. Its preview facilities are limited - if you need more than a thumbnail view of Office files before tagging you'll need to open it. The auto-tagging rules are powerful, but the facility for auto-tagging existing files is not obviously accessible. Tabbles offers multi-user operation via the cloud or a Local Area Network. Cloud versions support synchronization of local folders with tagged content between users using a remote SQL server database, or one accessible to users via a LAN. Permissions for users can be controlled using functionality only available to a network administrator.
Users will always know if they have Tabbles installed. Pop-up messages from it are frequent (although they can be turned off) and it overwrites hotkey combinations which other applications may be using.
Most individual users would find the free allowance of 5000 files tagged quite adequate, but if that is insufficient, the cost of €18 (US$21) per year for the basic version for individuals is reasonable. For organizations, the un-discounted cost of €72 (US$82) per user per year has attracted some negative comments on the Capterra B2B software site, but reviewers are generally very happy with the product.
Confidential (v 1.7.1)
Confidential is another product from Tag Forge IVS. It appears very similar to Tabbles, but claims to provide data loss prevention, and data compliance, on hard-disks, shared drives or the Cloud by mining sensitive data in files and assigning an appropriate confidentiality level tag. A user manual is not currently available (the user is referred to the Tabbles manual) and the instructions are simply to assign a confidentiality level tag to files or folders. At first inspection, there seems to be no functionality which is not available in Tabbles, except automatic sharing of confidentiality levels between multiple corporate users and the visibility of confidentiality level tags in Explorer. The automatic assignment of confidentiality levels based on text content and path name of documents is a challenging task but it is not obvious in the current release if this is even being attempted.
Like Tag Explorer, ThatFile is a Windows 10 Universal Windows Platform application from Ebey Tech, a Seattle company. It costs AS$4.95 (US$3.50) from the Windows Store. It is described by its creator as having a 'simplistic design allowing users to breeze through directories". Ebey Tech offer a number of games and productivity products. The ThatFile start screen is shown below:
The designers of ThatFile appear to be so confident of the usability of their product that they provide no help other than some videos on the Microsoft Store website. Hovering over the graphical entries on the control bar shows one or two words describing the functionality available. There is no hyperlink back to the author's website, to any online help or support or even any indication of what version of the software is being run.
ThatFile appears to use the file manager/database design of many tagging products and, like Tabbles, provides a list of tags in the same pane as the file manager, so that retrieval of the tagged files is achieved in the same way as opening a folder. Application of tags is achieved by clicking the tag icon after one or more files has been selected, but the tag icon remains greyed out after files have been selected. There is no preview of file content, such as is provided by SetTags and Tabbles, and no provision for multiple users.
There appear to be a considerable number of features in ThatFile, but finding out what they are and how to use them is a matter of trial and error.
ThatFile appear to be a fairly new product (the executable has a version number of 1.3.4, and is copyrighted 2018). Its light weight and speed of installation are commendable (for Windows 10 users), but it lacks maturity. The addition of help and support features would greatly improve it.
SetTags (ver 3.0.77)
Like TagSpaces, SetTags(from Aleka Consulting) does not use a back-end database for tagged file paths. It uses Windows shortcuts in a dedicated folder structure to store tags and uses the shortcuts' ability to track moved or renamed files. Tags are also stored as text within file names, making it possible for any user without SetTags installed to find tagged files using the native operating system. Email messages can be tagged via the Outlook Desktop mail client, but this functionality requires additional installation.
SetTags is available with desktop, cloud or workgroup licenses. Workgroup and cloud licenses allow central control of tag names. A desktop license costs A$29 (US$21) per year, with a free 30-day evaluation period. Workgroup and cloud license prices are A$69 per user per year (US$49), but the licensing model of limiting the number of users over a 24 hour period rather than the number of installations means a lower cost of ownership than licensing via the number of users.
SetTags can be launched by right-clicking on a file, a selection of files, or a folder and selecting Send To->SetTags. Files and single folder content can be loaded into SetTags by dragging from Explorer. Folders can be tagged from within the application, and an Outlook Add-In (OutlookTag) allows single or multiple emails to be tagged from Outlook. Different tags can be applied to different emails in a multiple email selection.
SetTags displays loaded or tagged items via a simple file manager. A tag description field allows a more detailed description of the tags or the use of characters not allowed in file or folder names to be displayed.
Tags can be applied by dragging from the tag list onto loaded items and a preview pane gives information about the item to be processed with a single click. It also has a slideshow mode, where the preview occupies the entire application screen. Tags can be automatically set using rules based on the file name, path or text content. The interface can be driven by right-clicking in the tag list, or by showing control buttons.
There is good context-sensitive help available beside most buttons and menu options.
Tagged files can be easily exported as a Zip archive, with tag name sub-folders containing copies each file with that tag. This makes the application particularly useful for providing a classified set of files (such as scanned documents) to an external organization.
The main SetTags screen showing tagged input items of different types is shown below:
Single or multiple files, folder content or a single folder (or files) can be selected from the File menu items. The tags to be applied can be created (or edited) from the button below the main list. When a file (or files) or a folder are loaded, the Add from Slideshow button is enabled, allowing tags to be added from a slideshow view of any files loaded. When one or more tags are selected, the Add Tag(s) button in the Actions group is enabled and tags can be applied to all loaded by clicking it.
To add tags to a selection of loaded files, clicking one or more tags and then selecting some files from the grid enables the Add Tag(s) button in the Selected Files group above the grid:
Tags can be added or removed from a Slideshow view of loaded data.
When operating in Workgroup license mode, the tag names are stored in a commonly accessible database which only one user may modify, although any user may read them. In Cloud license mode, all files tagged and the Facet folder must be stored in the cloud local folder which is synchronized with a Web master folder.
SetTags’ shortcut-based approach is attractive where files may be moved or where tagged files need to exported to users who may not have the program installed. It has comprehensive preview and help facilities, and tags which it applies are visible in File Explorer on Windows, in Outlook and in environments where SetTags is not installed, such as mobile devices. Its functionality is logically consistent and easily accessed. Its ability to easily auto-tag existing files makes it attractive to businesses wishing to organise collections of files by customer and interaction type (eg quotations, invoices and reminders). The individual license cost of A$29 per year is reasonable, and the concurrent user licensing model for workgroups and cloud may reduce costs for organizations.
Elyse (ver 4.0.1)
Elyse, from Silkwood Software, describes itself as a cross-platform, tag-based file manager, operating over a database. After installation, a demo database loaded with tags and tagged images is opened to assist users in learning the software, which is very capable, but complex. The unlicensed version of Elyse can operate with up to 30 tags. A license to remove the tag limit costs US$10. The application has a detailed help file, but no link or email for support, although the Silkwood Software web page contains a contact email address.
The application screen is divided into four parts as shown below:
No action can be taken until a new database is created via Database-> New Local Database. The screen is then as shown below, with menu items to load files and create tags available:
After creating tags and loading files via the Tag and File menu items, files can be assigned to tags by dragging files onto tag lists with results as shown below:
The browsing tree options can then be used to filter the database content. Files can be displayed by clicking on the thumbnail in the 3rd pane. Image files display a caption field. Tag Groups can be constructed by creating a group with the Edit->Tag Group option, and then selecting multiple tags, and adding to the tag group via a right-click option.
Folders may be added directly to the Browsing Tree pane by dragging, allowing access to files either by folder location or by tag.
As Elyse maintains all its information in a database, changing file names of location via another file manager (such as File Explorer for Windows) result in the links breaking, so that clicking on a file in the 3rd pane results in an error message.
Elyse is a very capable application aimed at individual users, but it comes with a substantial learning curve. It claims to be multi-user by using a public Postgres database, but whether it offers central control of tags (allowing only privileged users to edit, create or delete tags) is not clear. Without the tight integration with Windows offered by some other products, it is vulnerable to changes in file and folder structure by other file managers. However, its low cost (US$10 for more than 30 tags) is appealing.
XnView MP (0.93.1)
XnView MP is a mature donationware product from French developer Pierre-Emmanuel Gougelet. It is primarily intended for digital image management, but which includes tagging facilities which can be applied to any file type. It is based on the image organizer XnView, which was first released in 1998. XnView MP is available for Windows (which was used for evaluation), Mac and Linux platforms. As a free application (for non-commercial use) it has attracted assistance from many other developers for different language versions. It has forum support and an email address for the developer contact
It operates using the common database/file manager model, with SQLite databases stored in the <User>/AppData/Roaming/XnViewMP folder on Windows. In the absence of any help facilities other than a forum, the extensive functionality could mostly be accessed by trial and error.
Launching XnView MP, the content of the Pictures folder as shown below:
The screen is divided into 6 panes, the upper left showing input folders or the category (tag) list according to the vertical tab , the upper right showing folders and files selected or having a particular category applied, with the same view options as File Explorer. Display of the details view mode is very fast even for folders containing many sub-folders and files. In the lower row, the Info and Preview panes show information about files. Previews are not shown for Word or Excel files, but most image formats and PDF files have previews available.
Double-clicking on any file shown in the upper right pane opens files with the default parent application. Double-clicking on a folder shows the files and folders within it in the same pane.
If an image file is selected, a range of image manipulation functions are available including rotation, renaming, and format conversion.
The Categories pane contains a number of pre-defined entries as shown below:
Additional categories (or tags) are automatically defined from file metadata if IPTC or XMP Subject metadata are present. New categories can be defined by right-clicking in this pane or added hierarchically to a category by right-clicking on it and selecting New Category from the context menu.
Categories can be grouped as Category Sets, although the addition of categories can only be done via Search – there is no support for creation by browsing and selecting. These sets allow categories to be grouped for ease of access when large numbers of categories have been created – clicking on the buttons shown in them puts the selected item into the Category.
Items (single or multiple files or folders) are added to categories by selecting them and then checking the required category (or categories). If they are unselected and reselected the categories applied are checked.
Items in a category can be shown by selecting the Category filter tab and then selecting the desired category. The items in the category are then shown in the upper left pane.
Shift and ctrl-clicking allows selection of multiple categories. Tagging can also be performed by dragging files and folders from Explorer onto Categories icons.
If the path to an Item which has been placed in a category is changed (either through renaming or movement) the original path is shown if the category is selected, together with the item information, but double-clicking on the item does not open it, although the item appears with its new name in the display of items in the upper right pane.
XnView MP is a good example of successful free/donation-ware development over a long period of time. It is well-suited to individuals with reasonable computer application experience wishing to categorize image files, but categorized images cannot be viewed if the path of any categorized items is changed after categorization. It does not support multiple users with central control of categories. It provides extensive metadata information for images, as well as previews and some image processing, but its preview capability does not include Office files. It would be improved by the creation of an immediately accessible help file and/or some instructional videos but this perhaps reflects the fact that developers like writing code but generally dislike creating help facilities.
AllTags (v 2.2)
This free product, from Germany-based developer Gabriel Victor Herbert, offers tagging for individuals rather than organizations, using a file manager/database model. Its stated aim is to allow users to handle large numbers of files efficiently by replacing file and folder names with tags. The user interface requires some experimentation to perform the tasks of adding tags to files or a group of files, as no predefined tags are included. Tags are options are generated from the file name on loading a single file. The folder name is used as a tag when loading a group of files from a folder.
AllTags offers a search-based file management function, rather than a browser based on a hierarchical folder system. Opening a file results in it being saved to a local store with the tags included in the file name.
Tags are split at whitespace characters, which gives unexpected results, as does the presence of characters not allowed in file and folder names in tags.
The interface uses symbols rather than text for many functions, with text descriptions shown when the controls are hovered over. However, not all controls have text descriptions shown in this way and operation is often a matter of trial and error.
The help file is terse and only comprises answers to a number of questions.
AllTags’ mode of operation will be very unfamiliar to users of a conventional hierarchical filesystem and the unsigned installer results in a warning message appearing when the product is installed on Windows 10. These features may deter some users. AllTags may find a niche with power users, but its unfamiliar mode of operation and lack of support for a multi-user environment will limit its popularity.
TagFlow (ver 0.5.1)
This is currently a beta shareware product, originating in France, with Windows and Mac versions. It is an ongoing project to “create a (free) complete solution to manage, sort, organize, save, share and archive digital documents with a concept of smart tags”. As a file manager, it needs a lot of development to be competitive with Windows File Explorer, although it does include integrate user-created tags with tags automatically generated by elements of the path to files added (in the same way as Elyse) and uses search in place of a hierarchical folder structure. Its main screen is shown below:
TagFlow is a work in progress, with a worthy and ambitious aim, but it is not yet at the stage of being recommendable. At the moment it lacks the maturity to be very useful to anyone who is not a developer wanting to make a contribution, but in a few years’ time, it may be worth investigating.
After installation and starting Rummage (from Computer ConQuest), a Page Not Found message does not inspire confidence, but the current version is described as an Alpha release. The product does not appear to have been updated since 2014. It requests access to Contacts, indexes files in any selected folders and generates tags based on file path elements, file type, date and size, and allows additional user tags to be created. The main screen is as shown below
After uninstalling and re-installing, the program did not start.
Although it has ambitious aims, Rummage is not recommended through lack of robustness. As the Rummage installer appears not to have been updated since 2014, it is likely that development has been abandoned. The Computer ConQuest web site offers web and mobile application development services and lists a large number of UK clients, but does not mention Rummage.
The installer for this product is blocked by Windows SmartScreen as being from an unknown publisher. Proceeding anyway and clicking on the web links in the Help menu items or Purchase details triggered a fraudulent web site message from an anti-malware program. The publisher web site Tagtool.com contains only advertisements for other products.
The program hung frequently during testing and could not be uninstalled.
Not recommended. Possibly a vector for malware.
This intriguingly named free application is from LunarFrog. It is a simple, light application which has the following main screen:
The Help->Getting Started button shows the company website, but does not show any help. However, there is a small amount of operating information at http://lunarfrog.com/projects/taggedfrog/quickstart which indicates that the product supports automatic rule-based tag application. Tags can only be added to loaded files (or items). These can be selected by dragging files onto the light green part of the screen or clicking Add Items. However, the interface is complex enough to make it difficult to use effectively without help. As the executable is dated 2010, it is likely that the product is no longer being actively developed.
With adequate help, this could be a very competitive product, but as it is not provided the product cannot be recommended.
As ever, Google is the elephant in the room. Google Photos is a mainly automatic tagger operating on JPEG photos uploaded to Google servers. The service is free if you accept a slight resolution loss in your images from reducing the JPEG compression quality. Uploaded file size must be below 75 MBytes and image sizes below 100 MPixels. These limits comfortably include mobile phone photos, which typically have a file size of a few MBytes and an image size 12-20 MPixels.
With consumers now expected to take more than 1 trillion photos per year, mostly on mobile phones, the issue of effectively managing these is a now major one and represents possibly the biggest application of tagging. Google Photos has come up with a solution for making photos accessible from any device by storing them in the cloud and using auto-tagging based on time and location data, which are routinely captured. It also applies image analysis for face recognition and for coming up with tags describing the image content.
The results for auto-tagged time are impressive. The photos view shows photos listed beside a timeline on the right-hand side of the screen. Moving the slider shows images taken around the selected time:
Other views of a photo collection group by people, places and things in the Albums view:
Clicking on the People icon shows an index of all the different people found in the collection, with options to merge pairs of groups that Google thinks might be similar:
Clicking on any one of the people then shows all the photos containing that person. The results are surprisingly good and improve with user feedback.
The Places display is more reliable, being based on GPS coordinates stored at the time the photo was taken. If these are not present, Google Photos uses any location data present in photos taken at a similar time uploaded by the same user, on the basis that people do not move very fast. It may also use text present in the photo as a location clue.
However, the location may not be as precise as might be wished, as it is based on part of text string retrieved from a gazetteer using the GPS Latitude and Longitude as input. In the above example, Maldon, Essex, and Maldon, Victoria are separate groups but are given the same name.
The Things grouping is the least reliable. Being based on automated image analysis, it finds classifies images on the basis of objects which may not be the main subject of the photo. Additionally, its classes may not be the ones desired, but it still provides a useful level of performance.
If you want to create your own tags for images manually, then you can do this by placing the images into albums, whose names function as tag names. You can also add descriptions to individual images.
What Google gets out of this colossal store of images (they claim a billion photos are uploaded to Google Photos each day) is not clear. Dave Haynie speculates in a Quora post that it may make you more likely to use other Google products and thus deliver a larger audience for its ads. Google may be able to identify brands which are associated with you or people whom you photograph and use this to place certain ads before you through other channels. Perhaps the ads that have permeated into YouTube will eventually appear when you use it to upload or view your photos and you will have to pay not to see them.
All the image information added in Google Photos for single images is only accessible via Google Photos: if you download an image to which tags have been added, all you get back is what you uploaded - no data which you or Google have added is present, including the useful "Things", "Places" or "People" albums.
However, if you download all your Google Photos images in a 'takeout', the downloaded images are grouped into folders corresponding to albums which you have created and each image file in the album is accompanied by a .json file which includes much of the file metadata, including any description data you may have put in. If you share any of the automatically generated albums (not included in the takeout), these are included in the takeout file
Caption Pro is able to include this information in a caption placed below the image. If this data is uploaded again to Google Photos, slideshows can be created with description information visible, filling a frequently observed gap in Google Photos' capability.
Some reviewers have raised privacy concerns over the storage of personal images and videos on Google servers. It is certainly the case that you will have not have the degree of control over access to your photos and videos that you have if you store them on a local device.
Despite its limitations, Google Photos does a remarkably good job of tagging images with no user input, and its performance will certainly improve over time. For mobile phone users who have installed the Google Photos app, any photos or videos they take can be automatically uploaded. Google Photos also provides a backup for this data.
Manual classification can be achieved by creating albums (conceptually equivalent to tags) and dragging photos into them. They can then be easily shared by forwarding a link or downloaded as a takeout.
Tagging for Windows (184.108.40.206)
You have to be keen to install Tagging for Windows, a free application from Connect Software BV, a Dutch company, copyrighted in 2019, but it's worth the effort. First you have to verify your email address. Then, you are emailed a download link. After downloading the installer and running it, an error was flagged but the application ran anyway.
Tagging for Windows comprises a Windows Explorer extension providing tagging facilities, and an application called Search and Tag. Icons for tagging and Search and Tag are created on the desktop. The integration with Explorer simplifies the interface greatly, as shown below:
Tags are created by right-clicking Tag Group and then selecting New Tag from the context menu. Once created, they can be applied to files or folders applied by right-clicking the tag and selecting Connect from the context menu. This effectively loads the tag into the Clipboard and it can then be pasted onto any selected file(s) or folder via the Paste context menu. After tagging, the file icons have a small logo added to their bottom right-hand corner (in the same way as Tabbles does) to indicate that they have been tagged. Tagging of Internet locations is also possible by saving a shortcut or a link to the web site as a file and then copying and pasting the desired tag onto it.
Although Tagging for Windows stores the information connecting file and tags in a database, its close integration with Explorer allows the tag to be treated as part of the file. Tags are preserved if a file is moved, renamed or copied. Folders can also be tagged.
SmartView allows searching for different combinations of tags from Explorer.
The Search and Tag application (version 0.1.4.12) can be used to select files on the basis of file name and content by searching for a string within the file name or content within a specified path. Selected files can then be previewed and manually tagged by selecting the file and clicking the down arrow button to add it to the list of files sharing a tag.
Online help is available by right-clicking the Explorer Tags item, selecting About Tagging for Windows option and then "Connect Website" .
Tagging for Windows is an impressive application, providing a well thought out approach to a complex task, but the process of copying the tag to the clipboard and then pasting it onto a file is unfamiliar. A useful extension would be to support dragging of the file icon onto the desired tag. The close integration with Windows/File Explorer is a bonus. The application name is descriptive, but not distinctive, and search results for it do not easily lead to the download site. The use of the verb 'connect' instead of 'tag' is disconcerting at first but one soon gets used to it.
There is no facility for central control of tags for use within organizations, as provided by applications such as SetTags and Tabbles, but for individual Windows users, it represents a good choice.
File Juggler (2.0.15)
File Juggler from Danish company Bitvaerk describes itself as a file organizer rather than a tagging program, but its functionality is similar to a tagging program in that it can take action on the basis of rules operating on file metadata and content within specified folders. Actions include copying, moving, deleting, notifying. Command line actions are also available, providing a high degree of flexibility.
File Juggler only operates when files are created or modified in the specified folders - files which already exist and satisfy the rules are shown with status 'Pending' or 'Processed' and there does not seem to be an easy way of actioning these files on the basis of the rules. The distinction between 'Pending' and 'Processed' is not clear. Processed files are greyed out, but the right-click options are still available.
File content, as selected by right-clicking files listed in the 'If" box, shows the extracted text content rather than the file as opened by its parent application. The Open Preview button on the File Content screen requires the user to select the file to view from the parent folder.
The File Juggler interface is simple and intuitive, but rules are limited to and/or operations. Help facilities are limited to answers to 6 frequently asked questions, but some useful operation information is provided on the product home page. The product creator, Simon Hiort-Lorenzen, is refreshingly candid about his product on the purchase page. File Juggler offers a free 30-day evaluation and a permanent license costs US$40.
If you have a complex file organization task then File Juggler could well be useful. If you don't mind using a command-line interface, the free open-source product organize offers similar capabilities for any platform.
OrganizerMaX (v 1.12.5)
OrganizerMaX, a new product (2018) from US company Bitqueues is an ambitious product originating in the Mac world but also offering a Windows product which it claims is 'a perfect Windows Explorer Alternative [which] helps you with organizing the daily digital clutter'. It includes the ability to add tags to any type of file or folder and perform other useful organizational tasks. It incorporates Tag Explorer, which is reviewed earlier in this document, but OrganizerMaX is not a Universal Windows Program. Its major shortcoming is a complete lack of help for using what appear to be considerable capabilities. The only apparent guidance for using the program either from within the application or from the company web site is a link to a video presentation on the web site, which shows the message "Video Unavailable" when clicked on. Searching on YouTube does locate a video of the product in use but there is no soundtrack and any potential users will not be much the wiser after watching it. The BitQueues web site blog content does not appear to relate to the products sold by the company.
I was able to create and apply tags to files and folders, and view tagged entities by trial and error, but this capability alone does not justify the A$47 price tag. Operation speed was quite slow in a Windows environment as the application uses Java executables.
From inspection, OrganizerMaX has the potential to offer some useful extensions to File Explorer capabilities but until the product is better documented it cannot be recommended.
TagTower (v 1.8.3)
TagTower (from Plastiliq Software, who offer a number of image and video utilities) is a simple tagging program which can operate on files and folders. Tags are created only when a file or folder is loaded into the collection of tagged objects (known as a library). Loading can be performed via buttons, menu selection or by dragging onto the bottom half of the screen as shown below. Selection is via Windows/File Explorer - there is no preview. Pre-existing tags for the desktop and for recently accessed files are provided. Showing files tagged as recent may be slow as the list may include hundreds of shortcuts to files. There is no multi-user functionality.
Clicking on a tag shows all the items with that tag in the bottom of the screen and the available tags appear in 2 rows, with the clicked tag in the top row as shown below. If any files have multiple tags including the selected tag, this tag also appears in the top row. Clicking on the tag again deselects the tag. Files with one tag or another may be shown by clicking multiple tags.
If a file or folder is moved or renamed, the original path is shown but the icon changes to an exclamation mark.
When a file or folder is added, the screen below is shown, allowing the user to add either an existing or a new tag. If a new tag is defined, the green + sign must be clicked to add it to the available list.
The simplicity of TagTower allows users to work out how to use it without any help facilities. It may have been a leading product in 2012, which is when the current version dates from, but it has been overtaken by many other products since then. Its presence in the list of Plastiliq products is probably due to a long-standing user base and the fact that the product is still functional in current Windows versions. The downloadable version is not licensed and it is not clear what limitations are placed on the unlicensed version. A license costs US$19.95.
TagTower's functionality is considerably less than other tagging software, including free products such as Tagging for Windows, and as such, it cannot be recommended.
FileTag (v 2.1.3)
FileTag is a Windows Universal Program available only from the Microsoft App Store, written by Italian developer Luca Lindholm, who offers a number of other Windows 10 utilities. The free version only allows the creation of a single tag, but unlimited tags can be created with the paid version, which costs US$0.99. File Tag's promotional material is intriguing, but after downloading, installing and running it I found that the program did not work was because I had not passed through the Settings screens, which are accessed by clicking the > symbol on the right-hand side of the first Settings screen. After doing this and using the default values I was able to access the main screen. However, the program still did not appear to work. Attempts to add tags to selected files by following the on-screen advice were unsuccessful. The Help facility contains only a short description of a few features. Referring again to the Settings screen I found that not selecting a folder under the Permissions tab within which all tagged files would be found, results in Permissions denied messages when opening a file, and the failure of all tagging operations.
Having rectified these problems, I was then able to create a series of tags and apply them to files and folders (collectively known as elements) by dragging them into the main area when the region containing a color corresponding to a particular tag was selected. Adding elements using the + buttons was not successful.
The icon-only main screen shown below has a highly contemporary appearance. However, not all icons have text display of what the icon does when hovering over the icon.
Selecting the various active areas around the icons on the LHS of the screen shows the list of tags, tagged elements or the elements containing a particular tag. There is also a search facility. Clicking on a tagged element shows the options below.
The nature of these options is only evident when the icons are clicked. The Delete option removes the tagged file as well as the tag. The text icon allows a reminder to be associated with an element.
Visually, FileTag is appealing in its use of Windows 10 interface features but its current design will result in many users thinking that it does not work at all. The process of applying tags to files or folders is not obvious and application by selection does not appear to work. A help facility, accessible from the first startup, which describes how to perform all the operations expected of such a program would be a great improvement.
Email Tagging Software
Apply tags to emails can assist in their management as much as tagging files and two of the most popular mail clients, Gmail and Outlook, provide native facilities for this. There are a few products specializing in email tagging, mainly as add-ins to Microsoft Outlook, which has a public API, facilitating extensions to its functionality.
The Microsoft Office mail client for Windows desktops has a very wide range of capabilities including applying categories (or tags) to emails from the Message tab of the Message windows as shown below. The default categories are names of colors and each tag can be assigned a color:
New categories can be defined as shown below:
Emails can be filtered by category, and categories can be applied to multiple emails. Search folders can be defined to display emails with particular category values.
If Outlook messages are exported to.msg files, any applied tags are included in the files.
Gmail as a web-based mail client is necessarily less flexible than a desktop application and it provides tag definition and filtering via labels. These can be created hierarchically in the message view and the Inbox can be filtered by label as shown below:
Gmail does not support the folder-based organization of emails provided by Outlook, perhaps reflecting its more recent origin.
Gmail message labels are exported if you decide to download all of your Gmail messages, but making these accessible to any other mail client is likely to be difficult.
EmailTags (from Standss, a company specializing in Outlook productivity tools) claim on their very slick website that their product will “Organize and find emails without changing the way you work”. It costs US$39.95 for a license, which is required for operation after a 14-day free trial period
After installation, the main Outlook window and message window ribbons contain new sections as shown below:
The Lightning icon contains a dropdown for recently used tags.
The arrow icon at the bottom right shows settings options and a 5-screen tour of the application, which gives some advice on email management. Clicking Tag It! From either window shows the screen below:
Any existing tags are shown in the Tags: box, and clicking the Tag button applies the tag to the email. If a different tag to the one applied is chosen using the lightning icon, the existing tag is replaced, giving the impression that EmailTag can only add a single tag to an email. Multiple tags can be added vis the Tag It! button. The result of the tagging can be seen in the Categories column on the main window, and above the message in the Message window:
Clicking on the Search button in the EmailTags ribbon section allows emails to be filtered by Tag.
There are no help facilities other than the application tour, and there appears to be no way of deleting tags from the available list.
Despite its glossy presentation and some glowing testimonials, EmailTags has some major deficiencies, the most notable being lack of detailed help. It provides little functionality which is not available in native Outlook. Whilst the Outlook tagging and email management functionality is not easy to access from application documentation, the product is so widely used that guidance is readily available.
There is no one best product for tagging files. Searching for products on Google will give you a lot of results, but many of them are products no longer supported or still in development.
If you’re an individual Windows user, Tabbles is the most mature of the offerings, with multi-user options. The license (if you exceed the free limit) is reasonably priced at US$21 per year. SetTags offers comparable capability, easy export of tagged files to external users and read-only tag access from any platform at a similar price. The free Tagging for Windows is another good choice, but be prepared for some installation hiccups. If all you want to tag are photos, XnView does a good job of this if you're an experienced application user. Novices may find it daunting.
For non-Windows platforms, the free TagSpaces is well developed, but it assumes a reasonable level of familiarity with computers, and some of the desirable features are only available in the paid version. XnView, which is completely free, is the other option but like TagSpaces, it requires familiarity with applications, in the absence of any immediate help facilities.
If you need to tag documents in the cloud and to have tagging available on multiple devices, you need a product which attaches tags to files rather than storing them in a database. This restricts the field to TagSpaces and SetTags.
For organizations, Tabbles has a multi-user mode with central control of tags, but if you’re not an organization eligible for their worthiness discount, the cost of US$84 per user per year is significant. SetTags offers similar features and a price based on concurrent rather than potential usage, which could provide substantial savings.
If you're only interested in tagging photos and don't mind placing your photos on Google's servers, Google Photos offers free, good quality auto-tagging and easy sharing of the results, but manual tagging and organization are difficult.
For tagging emails, Outlook and Gmail both provide good support, but you may have to spend some time finding out how to use the Outlook functionality. Tabbles and SetTags include email tagging for Outlook email clients.
Recommended File Tagging Software Summary
Office Authoring Apps
Included in Office
Document Management Systems
Included in product
Tag Forge IVS
Windows Vista & newer
Windows Vista & newer
Tagging for Windows
Connect Software BV
Included in Office
Tagging Software Notes
1 -Office Authoring
Incudes Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Only files from these applications can be tagged. Duplicate or variant tags easily applied
2 - DMSs
Tagging often included, with sophisticated permission control. Free versions may have poor performance.
3 - Tag Explorer,ThatFile
No help or support, but quick installation as Universal Windows Platform app. Available from MS App Store.
4 - TagSpaces
Free basic functionality, cross-platform. Users assumed to be highly computer-literate. No installer.
5 - Tabbles
Mature product. Email and auto-tagging on creation available. Free for up to 5000 files tagged, US$21 individual user/yr, multi-user US$84 user/yr (US$21/yr with discount)
6 - SetTags
Good preview, cloud-ready, tags readable without installed program, email and auto-tagging. Demo license for 30 days or 100 files tagged, US$21 year for individual, US$49 user/year for multi-user.
7 - Elyse
Complex interface. Free for up to 30 tags, US$10 for unlimited.
8 - Google Photos
Photos only. Good auto-tagging, poor manual facility. Provides cloud backup
9 - Tagging for Windows
Integration with Win Explorer, simple interface,file selection for manual tagging.
Good tagging facilities supplied but only within application.
Your use of Tagging Software
What software have you used for tagging?
Used Other Tagging Software?
Let me know what it is and what you thought of it and I'll add my opinion of it to this review.
What do you think of tagging software you've used?
What do you think of tagging software you've used?
Questions & Answers
I use Adobe Lightroom to tag all images on my laptop (The older purchased desktop version.) I have digital photos, but also scanned documents. IT does a good job of managing the tags, you can nest them like file folders, and it writes the tags to the file so that other Windows file manager can see them. However, It doesn't handle PDF files, and the latest version is a yearly toll rather than software you buy. What software can be used to tag PDF files?
I wouldn't expect Lightroom to tag PDF files as they may not contain any images. All the recommended products will tag PDF files or indeed any type of file - SetTags and Tabbles will give you a preview of the 1st page of PDF files to allow you to tag it more quickly. SetTags and TagSpaces put the tags in the file name so it's visible to any file manager. Tabbles offers a hierarchical structure for tags, like folders. If you want to add text information to image pixels (for example, to view on a phone or tablet), then Caption Pro from Aleka Consulting is your best bet.
Yearly or monthly fees for software are increasingly common, perhaps to deal with the problem of permanent license keys being shared between users. Free software can be funded by Google ads if it's popular enough. Sharing can still happen, but only for the duration of the license. Licensing to individual machines is fraught with problems that very expensive software solves with dongles. Software with a massive user base can manage per-machine licensing but expect some problems if your activated copy of Windows goes up in smoke with a major hardware failure.