Nota Bene 10
25 March 2013
Reviewed by Felix Grant
This review is made on the basis of several months’ experience with late public beta versions of release 10, which have proved solid enough, although some components of the final feature set are not yet in place.
Nota Bene (NB), generally thought of as a word processor, is actually a remarkably complete academic information management environment, with a word processor as its face. Its concept-based synonym searching also makes it a useful exploratory and preparatory text analysis tool.
Central to the platform, from that perspective, is Orbis which provides automatic indexed free form hypertext database searching of any material (notes, book length texts, field and lab reports, data sets) which has been written in or imported to NB. Creation of a textbase is a straightforward matter of choosing a root directory and file types, then letting Orbis run; chosen files are indexed down the file system from there, and will be maintained on the fly thereafter as new material is added.
The most immediately obvious developments this time around are in Orbis, which has been completely revamped. The Orbis interface now comprises dockable floating task panes, from entry through query, search, retrieval and source to history, with those not always needed sliding out from tabs as required. Text analysts will particularly like the vocabulary and search stack, retrieval links display, ability to flick back and forth between textbase and wider system, and the graphic search map.
That interface upgrade is evident throughout the whole suite; though it was always smooth and intuitive, it is now noticeably richer with options and alternatives thata together constitute an impressive gradient in productivity potential. Although the program installs with a full complement of bells and whistles, which might be confusing for newcomers, everything is customisable to suit individual working space preferences – right down to a sparse, bare-bones minimum if required. At the same time, a lot of work has been done on providing the bases for future updates and extensions as well. A small realignment away from internal traditions promises a large payoff in potential development of the tools and platform, which in turn assures a healthy evolutionary path.
Alongside Orbis is Ibidem, whose first layer of purpose is to manage bibliographic information, but beneath which lies a general purpose engine that (in the guise of Ibid Plus) can be used to manage any structured flat file database. The result is a flexible ‘mixed economy’ data environment combining the most appropriate typing for different purposes.
An optional add on, Archiva, integrates with Ibidem to become an automatic reference harvester feeding the data bases from online libraries and articles – depending on the version you choose, it may also capture and save textual information from web pages, convert ISBNs into full bibliographic data, and reverse engineer existing bibliographies into sets of Ibidem records.
Also optional, the Lingua extension provides the best multilingual facilities of any currently available word processor. This review used the Lingua Workstation variant, with particular attention to mixed, Greek and Ukrainian handling plus a little Hebrew. If extended multilingual support is not important to you, the alternative is Scholar’s Workstation.
Nota Bene itself, the frames-based word processor which unifies the whole, is specifically designed to take advantage of these information base capabilities and is explicitly oriented towards academic writing. It has acquired new ways to access options, such as an instant hierarchic tree selector for switching languages: almost without breaking typing speed, everything including mnemonic keyboards can be switched in mid line if required. It’s even faster and slicker than before, and easier too for users of other products to pick up – existing keystrokes are joined by new context sensitive pop ups, side dialogue bars and other cues.
There was a period during which NB could only be run under 32-bit Windows or on a virtual 32-bit machine. Version 10, however (and for many users this will, in itself, be enough reason to upgrade), is fully 64-bit friendly. Perhaps for this reason, the unusual course has been taken of releasing it in late beta for use alongside version 9 ahead of finalisation – though the help files are not yet complete or integrated, some of the interface refinements have yet to be fully polished, and development (including OLE insertion) continues, the released form is already fully usable with confidence. Both versions can be installed into the same directory and used at will on the same file base, which makes transition particularly painless. I’ve been testing it (with determined though not obsessive efforts to break it if there were any weaknesses) under 64-bit Windows 7 for several months now, without encountering any problems whatsoever. Brief testing in Windows 8 has also gone smoothly, as have quick experiments on emulators under Linux and Apple OS.
From a science user’s viewpoint, the one temporary shortcoming in these beta versions is that OLE embedding has not yet been ‘switched on’. This means that equations (or illustrations) can’t, yet, be placed within the word processor – though that will be corrected, of course, before market release.