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Digital Asset Managers

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At a Glance
  • Canto Software Cumulus 5.5 Single User Edition

  • Extensis Portfolio 6

Digital-asset management has become something of a buzz word in publishing circles over the last couple years. A digital asset is simply a file that you may want to reuse, be it a photo, movie, audio clip, illustration, article, or page layout. As with every large collection, most people will need a way to organize it. Digital-asset managers Cumulus 5.5, from Canto, and Portfolio 6, from Extensis, provide such a system by going beyond Apple's iPhoto and even Adobe Photoshop 7.0's File Browser, letting you find the files you need exactly when you need them. Available in editions for single users (reviewed here), workgroups, or even large companies, digital-asset managers are a boon for publishing companies and creative pros who must organize many types of digital assets.

Uncanny Similarities

Cumulus and Portfolio have broadly similar interfaces. Neither is Mac OS X native, but both run as well in OS X's Classic mode as they do in OS 9. Each file in the catalog is represented by a thumbnail--useful for previewing images and illustrations--and by various fields that store file information, such as keywords and a file's location on your disk. Cumulus gives you all the information at a glance, while Portfolio's main window has three tabbed panels that divide the information into subcategories. You can browse thumbnails, or you can use a Sherlock-like interface to search (see "At Your Fingertips").

When we put these two programs side by side, we found that Portfolio seems aimed at a less-technical user than Cumulus, but it also offers some user-friendly features that put it ahead of Cumulus. For example, Portfolio includes a utility called Portfolio Express, which acts as a floating palette inside other applications and lets you drag and drop assets into Portfolio even when Portfolio isn't running. Cumulus's Palette View mode offers similar functionality, but Cumulus must be running for it to work, and it doesn't float above other apps the way Portfolio Express does.

Building Your Catalog

You can build catalogs in both Cumulus and Portfolio, either by letting the software scan selected files, folders, or volumes for assets or by dragging and dropping files from the Finder to the catalog window. But while it's tempting to dive in and hope that the application will do the work for you, both applications need some setting up to behave optimally. Before you start cataloging everything on your Mac, you may want to read the manuals for these products, both of which are comprehensive and come in printed form.

Then you'll need to figure out which kinds of files you need the application to capture, and you must tell the app which meta-data--data about the files, contained within the files--you want indexed for speedy searching later. Capturing more data slows the cataloging process and makes the catalog larger but gives you more ways to find the exact file you want once they're all cataloged.

Cataloging is a lengthy, but automatic, process. The time it takes to build a catalog depends on the speed of your Mac, the size of your hard drive, the types of assets you're cataloging, and the amount of information you want to extract from each one. Portfolio is faster at building catalogs of digital assets than Cumulus is, but it captures fewer types of metadata and has fewer configuration options. In either program, if you're cataloging 10,000 files that take up 15GB to 20GB, think in terms of hours rather than minutes. And that's why you're better off planning ahead: if you decide later that you want to capture a data type you hadn't specified, you can update the catalog--but that, too, is quite time-consuming.

Working with Catalogs

Both Cumulus and Portfolio adopt the Finder's folder and subfolder structure as part of their catalogs, but in rather different ways. Cumulus presents a window showing the thumbnails, with a category viewer at the left. By default, Cumulus creates categories based on path names--the volume and its subfolders--so if you've already organized your files into folders and subfolders, that organization is preserved. You can click on a volume, folder, or subfolder icon to find all the files it contains. Portfolio's approach is a bit more cumbersome. It, too, assigns categories by path and works in a way similar to Cumulus, but Portfolio's categories appear in a separate palette.

It's important to note that the categories in both applications, though based on paths at the time of cataloging, don't have any live connection to the location of your files and folders. If you move or delete files in the Finder, you must update the catalog to make the categories reflect the changes. To compensate for this, Portfolio has a feature called FolderSync, which lets you view the actual files and folders in a column to the left of the catalog. Clicking on the FolderSync button updates this structure to reflect changes you've made in the Finder, and you can use FolderSync to actually move and delete files. FolderSync is a powerful tool, but having two separate interfaces--FolderSync and the Finder--that let you copy, move, and delete files can be unsettling.

Classified, Categorized Information

To fully harness the power of either Cumulus or Portfolio, you need to know a little about metadata, and you must spend time assigning keywords to your assets. Metadata standards, such as the EXIF (Exchangeable Image File) standard and the older IPTC (International Press and Telecommunications Council) standard, let you store information ranging from caption, byline, copyright holder, and transmission instructions, to camera model, compression options, shutter speed, and image orientation, right in the image file.

You can use these pieces of information in many ways--you may want to find all images that need rotation, all images shot with a particular camera model, or all images that belong to a specified copyright holder, for example. (Other file types contain metadata too--for example, MP3 files can contain technical information about the sampling and compression rate, as well as information about the artist and album.) What makes metadata so nifty is that it's already contained in the file, so the digital-asset manager can capture it easily.

Metadata is a great tool, but if you need to find all the images you shot in South America that contain birds, or all the MP3s that are songs by all-female punk bands, for example, you need to assign keywords to the catalog entries by hand.

Using Cumulus's Categories feature is a speedy way to classify files. While the default categories are based on the volume structure, you can define categories and subcategories that appear as folders and subfolders. Dragging a group of assets from the catalog onto a category icon associates that category with the assets.

Portfolio's implementation of its Categories feature is less obvious; you must arrange the catalog hierarchy manually, first creating a category and then dragging it into an existing category to turn the one you created into a subcategory. Cumulus, on the other hand, lets you simply select a category and create a subcategory within it.

Portfolio places more emphasis on user-defined keywords. To assign keywords to assets in Portfolio, you must select the assets, then use a text-entry field to add keywords, which in comparison, is less convenient.

Macworld's Buying Advice

Like the previous versions of these products (Reviews, October 2000), Cumulus 5.5 and Portfolio 6 are equally fine programs, so if you're looking for a timesaving way to find and use your various digital assets, either will serve you well. Portfolio is especially well suited to users who don't need extensive metadata support and who are willing to pay twice as much for the convenience of Portfolio Express. But if you need to capture more metadata from your files, such as the ICC profile embedded in images or the number of layers in an InDesign file, Cumulus delivers an industrial-strength solution that is remarkably easy to use.

At a Glance
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