Simon has been involved in software development since the days of paper tape. He has developed niche software for information management.
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 was 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.
Image analysis and search, often using cloud resources, has been stimulated by the massive growth of image storage. Individual users may have tens of thousands of images stored and locating desired ones using criteria other than date taken or possibly location is very difficult. Image analysis by products such as Google Photos or Microsoft Photos allows search by image content, but the current performance may not be adequate. This area is the subject of intensive development and performance will undoubedly improve.
File Tagging Software
The 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. Windows has native features for tagging some document types and for retrieving them via search, 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 primarily intended for images, such as Daminion Free, hydrus and Stagsi can also manage a range of non-image files. With the exception of Google Photos, XnView MP, and Eagle, these photo management applications are not reviewed, as the complexity of their interfaces makes them unsuitable for general use. There are also some specialized tagging applications for audio files only, such as the Web-based Tag Manager.
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 outside the application requires some method of updating the database if database links are to remain functional. Tagging for Windows uses a database closely integrated with File Explorer to persist tags even though files or folders are copied or moved. Tag persistence can also be achieved by a continuously running monitoring component (as used by Tabbles).
XYplorer is actually a file manager closely resembling File Explorer, but with additional tagging functionality. It represents what File (once Windows) Explorer could have been.
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 that 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.
Cloud repositories such as Google Drive, OneDrive, and Dropbox have become increasingly widely used and Digitile provides a very convenient web-based application for searching and tagging over multiple cloud repositories.
The demand for an improvement on Windows tagging facilities has been present for a long time, and a number of 32-bit applications appeared to meet this need. These include Tag2Find and TagTool. Although these stopped being developed many years years ago, downloads are still available for Tag2Find but the product does not run in Windows 10. TagTool downloads do not seem to be available from software libraries and the most recent update was in 2012.
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, with links to the product home page. 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 O/S Best Tag Tag Mult. Track Cloud Rating For Emails URLS Users Moves Support (Stars) Tabbles Win Any File Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes 4.5 SetTags Win Any File Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes 4.5 Digitile Web Files No No Yes Yes Yes 4 Tagging Win Any File No No No Yes Yes 4 for Windows XnView MP Any Images No No No No No 4 Stagsi Win Images No No Yes No No 3.5 TagSpaces Any Any File No No No Yes No 3.5 Elyse Win Any File No No Yes Yes No 3
Other applications included in this review are listed below. Type Ctr-F and enter the product name to see more details.
Windows and FileMeta
Windows has included search by tag using the syntax tag:tagname in the search box since Windows 7. In Windows XP the term keyword was used rather than tag, and tags (or keywords) could be applied to any type of file, through the extensive metadata support provided by the NTFS filesystem. With Windows 7 and its successors the approach to file metadata changed, with native support for tagging only provided for Office and a few other file types (not including PDF). Property handlers now needed to be defined for each file type to be tagged. This gap in Windows functionality has been addressed in the free product FileMeta from developer Dijji. FileMeta is a light, simple product incorporating an extension to Explorer. It allows definition of a property handler for any file type stored in the registry HKCU\Software\Classes via the File Association Manager, as shown below. This can be run from the menu item File Metadata-> File Association Manager. The System.Keywords item is displayed as Tags in Windows 7 and later versions.
File Association Manager allows addition of a standard or custom set of metadata fields to any file type. For PDF files, the Details tab of file properties as as shown repeats the data shown in the General tab as shown below:
After addition of the Simple set of editable properties with FileMeta, the details tab of PDF file properties is as shown below, with a number of editable properties (including tags)
The FileMeta installer for version 1.6 is not signed, resulting in a warning message appearing in Windows 10, and the program does modify Windows (or File) Explorer, which may be the reason for it being flagged as dangerous software on installation. Extensive detail on operation and history is given in FileMeta readme file.
The Windows tagging functionality is basic - only single files can be tagged, there is no list of tags created - but FileMeta allows this functionality to be extended to any file type with minimal effort. If you missed the reduction of tagging capability when Windows 7 replaced Windows XP this is an easy way to get it back.
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 184.108.40.206)
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 3.5.4)
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 Windows application can be downloaded as an installer or as a Zip file containing a .exe file which can be run without installation. 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. Enterprise and Web browser add-on versions are also available.
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:
Tags and text can also be added as a translucent overlay to images viewed with the TagSpaces Image Viewer, and it can also work with objects stored in the cloud.
TagSpaces is a sophisticated product using a robust methodology. Paid Pro and Enterprise versions offer a number of additional features However, it is not clear if the Pro and Enterprise editions support any centralized control of tags. As shareware with an active developer base, it seems likely to be supported into the future, and has kept up a steady release of new versions.
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. URLs can also be tagged from web browsers and viewed and opened from the main Tabbles client.Tagged URLs are visible as bookmarks Tabbles is also available as a Web application, installable on an IIS web server, from which tags can be browsed and files downloaded. Using a Web application avoids the problems organizations often have in installing and updating applications for multiple users, and provides a simple way for users to locate and access tagged items.
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.