Collecting things is human nature. The things we collect change over time, but the process never stops. It was cuts and bruises when you were seven, cards when you were a teen and, although no one will admit it, those sweet wrappers with the free tattoos made an appearance somewhere too.
That's where collection mangers come in. These days, most are equipped with a slick GUI that can pull information from the internet to help you with cataloguing your collection. Moreover, they'll often enable you to tag the items in your collections, search through your stuff and even export the information to another system.
While you're not exactly spoilt for choice, the tools available are split into two different camps. There are expansive managers with veritable hordes of built-in templates and support for various types of collections, and their lightweight counterparts, which enable you to control the data fields that are associated with each different collection you enter.
However, a slick graphical interface doesn't automatically make these programs any more efficient than a classic leather-bound ledger or a modern man's text editor. So which, if any, of these data collation apps can you trust with your collection of precious treasures? And what do they provide that a paper record can't?
How we tested
There are many programs that can track collections such as your books and music, but few that offer support for a diverse range of items, which is what we're interested in here. Dedicated collection managers are built for one purpose: to help you file your collection, whatever it may be. While many of us are happy doing that with a text editor, a good collection manager that comes with built-in support for different collection types will make the task considerably easier.
So, what we're looking for here is the most able assistant. To do this, we'll be finding out if you can search your items, retrieve item data from the internet, are given features that make your life easier and can export the data later.
Written for KDE, but just as at home on your Gnome box, Tellico is perhaps the oldest collection manager that's still going strong today. It comes with built-in support for many different types of collections, such as books, movies, music, video games, comic books, coins, stamps, trading cards, wines, board games and more. Yet instead of using databases to store all this data, Tellico relies on the XML format.
Tellico's website provides a detailed illustrated guide in addition to the extensive documentation, but the drawback to having extensive built-in support is the in-your-face interface that comes with it, although this is more than offset by the program's features. When filing our comic book collections, we honestly don't want to enter the date we purchased the book, so we find it irritating that Tellico expects us to.
Even though you don't have to fill in all, or even most, of the fields, the result is unappealing. The dialog boxes you use to fill in the information for an item are crowded, but there are also all the ugly empty spaces from fields you didn't fill in.
Fortunately, then, despite this dodgy start point, you can control what fields are associated with each of the built-in collections. You can also change the parameters for existing fields. For instance, if you don't want a Purchase Date field for any of the collections, you can individually edit them and delete that field. Alternatively, you can add a new field to any of the templates if you notice something missing, such as a text box to write about the emotional value attached to an item.
Tellico is also an effective way to keep tabs on your items, since it can record whether you've loaned an item in a collection to someone. You can quickly generate reports about item data too, which can then be printed or exported to HTML if you like, and there are various templates for the reports, including a Loan view.
Finally, Tellico supports many different internet sources that you can use to retrieve information about an item in your collection. These include IMDB; ISBNdb (an online book database); CrossRef for academic articles and bibliographic texts; and the SRU servers, which many libraries use to provide access to their data catalogue. As a bonus, external scripts can be used to search for data on other information sources.
Apart from a simple search, you can create filters based on any of the fields for the collection. Once saved, these filters can then be used to list all items in a collection with a few mouse clicks.
Verdict: The design makes adding data simple and the templates are editable, but the interface could look better. 8/10.
With GCStar's 1.5.0 beta release, the version of the app residing in the software repositories of most distros has become a relic fit for retirement. But the recently released beta isn't just better than its forerunners, it stands tall among its adversaries too.
Like Tellico, GCStar comes with built-in templates for various collection types. These had been stagnant for a while, but the beta freshens things up by offering you the option of compiling a repository of TV episodes and a collection of mini-vehicles as well. In fact, the thing that shines through as soon as you start using GCStar is the attention to detail that's gone into each of the templates.
Attention to detail
Since there aren't any websites that offer a community-contributed list of mini-vehicles, however, you have to fill in all the details yourself. That's a shame, but the template is still a boon if you've got a lot of mini-vehicles to catalogue.
For its other new addition, GCStar can connect to the TVDB website to fetch information about your collection of TV episodes. The website contains user-contributed data, so there's a risk that the information is incomplete or inaccurate, so you might have to fill some information in manually.
You can set the system up to prompt your friends and family to return borrowed items.
You can also control what information is displayed for each of your collections, so if you'd rather not see the Comments field or a cast list, you can remove them. Changing the displayed data also changes the input dialogs, so you won't be asked for redundant information either.
A list of websites you can retrieve data from for each collection type is built into GCStar and you can request more in the active community forums. You can also configure whether or not you're asked to select a source every time you add a new item and even set a source site for each individual field.
The GCStar borrower system is neat too, enabling you to send emails to borrowers when the item is due back. One of the biggest caveats to using GCStar, though, is that it doesn't yet have printer support. This means that in order to print, you'll need to export your data to HTML and then print it using your browser. Alternatively, you can export the data to XML or as a tarball-compressed archive.
Verdict: This is great - new templates, a handy interface and decent documentation in one package. 9/10.
First released in 2003, Data Crow has grown over the years to become one of the most popular cataloguing software tools around. Released under the GPL and based on Sun's Java, it offers features entirely unheard of in similar tools. It can generate reports, retrieve data from the internet to help you quickly catalogue your collection and provides loads of handy wizards to guide you through pretty much everything, be that adding new items or editing its built-in modules. Not only that, but it can draw charts to help you graphically represent the make up of your collections and you can change its appearance to suit your desktop with its many different themes.
Also on offer are extensive search and filtering options and a clever interface. But perhaps it's too clever for its own good. While striving to be the top tool for cataloguing data, Data Crow has become quite a complex beast.
At least Data Crow requires no installation. Once you've extracted the files from datacrow_3_4_12_zipped.zip, all you need to do to launch it is run this:
java -jar datacrow.jar
When you run Data Crow for the first time, you'll be asked if you're a Beginner or an Expert user. Don't worry too much about this choice: you can change your status from the Experience Menu at any time. The difference between the two is that beginners can't create new custom modules or edit the built-in modules, such as Books, Music, Films and so on. Surprisingly, there's no built-in module for comic books, though - a staple for many collection managers.
The chart creation is great for getting an overview of your collections. Everybody loves a good pie, don't they?
From here on in, it's a case of building up your collections, and for this you can enlist the help of one of Data Crow's many handy wizards. Just enter some keywords or type in the ISBN number for a book and Data Crow will check online to find appropriate matches. Only when nothing is found will you have to resort to typing in data manually. Data Crow can extract data directly from your music discs too, which makes cataloguing a music collection much simpler.
Pleasingly, it can also create charts for each of your collections based on one of the data fields and keep track of what you've loaned. To do the latter, you'll need to enter your friend's details into the Contact Person collection, but then you can use the loan management feature to track which items are on loan and to who.
Our major gripe is that there's no documentation on the project website and Data Crow only comes with a barely decent help function that you can access by clicking Help > Help. The lack of helpful tooltips was sorely missed throughout our time with Data Crow.
Verdict: Tries to do a little too much, which results in a complicated interface that could definitely use tooltips. 8/10.
Designed to be so versatile that it can catalogue just about everything under the sun, StuffKeeper meets that goal with aplomb. Which is impressive, considering it's still awaiting its first stable release. However, this is a Marmite program, and what we love, you may hate.
Contrary to most collection managers that provide pre-built templates with a horde of defined fields, StuffKeeper requires you to set up the collection fields yourself. This may seem like a handicap, but the result is a cleaner collection that isn't burdened by empty fields. Plus, you'll be able to enter items quickly, because you'll have a better grasp of what data you'll need.
You can create as many fields as you like for each collection, but note that the interface is fairly basic and requires some getting used to. And while there's a basic tour to help you get acquainted with StuffKeeper on its website, the lack of detailed documentation makes this program ideal only if you're willing to devote plenty of time and energy to it.
Stuffkeeper is one of the most versatile collection managers you'll come across.
To help you sort through your entered data, you can create tags for items in your various collections and search using these tags just by typing them into the search bar. Additionally, you can search for data entered in any of the fields for your collection and, best of all, you don't have to be exact. For instance, you can search for all Liam Neeson movies in your collection by typing Liam in the search bar, which looks for that keyword in text fields as well as any related tags.
Finally, it's worth noting that StuffKeeper creates a database for each of the collections and enables you to back up all your stored data in compressed tarballs.
Verdict: The tags are great, but having to create fields is sure to divide opinion. 7/10.
Possibly the only command line tool of its kind, My Collection Manager (commonly known as Moll), is barely useful enough to share the ring with the advanced graphical alternatives on this list.
In fact, all it truly offers is large empty text boxes that you can fill with data about each item. The interface is pretty basic, but it comes with built-in documentation that can be accessed by pressing the F1 key. Unfortunately, when using Gnome Terminal to access Moll, pressing F1 will launch the terminal's help instead of the program-specific help, which is awkward.
Did someone say 'ncurses'? Moll is the perfect (only?) collection manager for command-line buffs.
Creating a collection is an equally unrewarding affair. It's customisable only in that you can enter some text to describe the collection, which is displayed in one of the many panels that make up the collection-choosing interface. For each item in a collection, Moll also enables you to write a short description. There's a cap on the number of words you can use for this, so you'll need to keep it simple. Everything else you wish to record about the item - such as the author, title, publisher, cast and so on - goes into the larger Description box.
And that's the extent of Moll's features. There's no search and no way to filter the collection. You can't sort items and you can't export the data you've entered either.
Frankly, it's not much better than using a text editor to file your collection and the only real benefits of using it are that you can create different collections each containing any number of items, and it connects with the Berkeley database to store the data you enter for all the items entered.
Verdict: Bare bones and barely more use than a text editor - avoid. 3/10.
Our choice: GCStar
When it comes to the world of collection managers, it's clear you shouldn't just settle for yesterday's innovation. These humble cataloguing apps are getting significantly better with each new release and as they've matured, they've raised a pertinent question: how involved do you want to be in collating the data about your collections? The default stance is to make the process quick and painless with internet databases and pre-built templates, but if you want to be more involved, there are plenty of options on offer.
Our view is that you should seek the best of both worlds, preferably with plenty of pre-built structure to handle everything you want, but something that you can still garnish with your own touches. As such, Moll is the least impressive collection manager here. It can't store anything more than basic information, doesn't support search or tags and doesn't give you any way to export your data. Still, it deserves some praise for having good documentation and a simple but useful interface to browse your collection.
Meanwhile, StuffKeeper is too extreme in its customisability, so it's best suited for niche users who want to control every aspect of their collection management. There's plenty to like if you have the time and the inclination to really get into it, though, so don't dismiss it completely.
Which leaves us with three similar programs from which to choose a winner: Data Crow, GCStar and Tellico.
GCStar lived up to its name with a great interface and really helpful features, winning out over even the old hands.
Best of the bunch
At first glance, Tellico seemed like the obvious winner of the bunch. It's got built-in templates, it's configurable and provides good documentation. The design is elegant, if not pretty, but it's been superseded by a superior program, one that's pushed the heights of what a collection manager can be.
Meanwhile, Data Crow washes up in third place because of its overwhelming interface. There are just too many fields cramped together and not enough help when you're trying to sift through the various options. That said, it does everything competently, has some brilliant features you won't find elsewhere and it's the most themeable program here, but it's too eager to do everything, which cost it the win.
Finally, there's GCStar, which really impressed us with its vast array of plugins for connecting to various source sites to retrieve item data. In addition, it has the cleanest interface of all, especially when it comes to editing an item in your collection. While most tools require you to double-click the item you wish to edit and then hack away at the comprising fields in a different dialog box, GCStar enables you to edit the fields without too much faffing around. It has a lively website, with users actively participating in the forum boards, so if you factor in the number of developers and contributors, you've got one attractive and active app.
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