37 Signals’ Backpack

I’d seen some early previews and impressions of 37 Signals’ Backpack over the past couple weeks, and wasn’t very impressed by what I was hearing (and Basecamp completely underwhelmed me the last time I used it). But after it was release, I started playing around with it and was impressed enough to sign up on the $9/month plan.

Backpack does a really good job of capturing how I implement the whole Getting Things Done routine. There are a couple of improvements I’d like to see, but overall, it works pretty well.

For $9/month, the system will let me create up to 100 pages and store up to 100mb of data. It will also let me create up to 200 reminders — essentially events that will trigger an e-mail or text message, so if I wanted to I could have Backpack ping me at 4:45 p.m. to remember to pick up my drycleaning on the way home, etc. Not something I really care about, and it highlights the one real drawback of Backpack — the lack of any sort of calendaring system. At the moment, as far as I’m concerned, this is pretty much for task tracking only.

Backpack’s main benefit is it packs quite a few features into an interface-lite system that doesn’t take a lot of monkey around with to get going.

Each page has its own editable text, list, notes, files, images, and links to other pages within your Backpack.

For example, I have a Backpack page dedicated to all the things I need to do to finish my Buffy/Angel online episode guide. So at the top I’ve got a brief description of what I’m hoping to achieve, followed by a very long to-do list, a half-dozen notes going on about how I want to implement a number of dynamic features on that sub-site, and a few images I’m considering using.

Since, it is a very lite Wiki, its possible to build a rough project hierarchy. For example, when I log in to Backpack, I see a short list of pages in a right hand column, one of which is “Websites.” My websites page has overall information, tasks and goals about my websites as a whole, and then links to the subsites, so there is a page for Brian.Carnell.Com. The page for Brian.Carnell.Com then has a link to the Buffy guide project page, since it will ultimately reside as part of that site when it is live.

So its pretty easy to set up a system where I’m drilling down into the dozens of projects I’m currently working on. This is pretty much the setup I have on my PDA at the moment, but I am so rarely away from a web connection these days and the interface is much nicer, I’m using Backpack to replace the project tracking I was doing in my PDA.

For me, Backpack is only missing two main features. First, it really needs a calendar system. Its a little odd to have a system that can remind me of appointments, but not display a calendar-based list of them.

Second, it needs the ability to display list items on pages other than the page where they reside. At the end of each day I spend a few minutes going over all of my projects and highlighting the 8-10 things I need to concentrate on finishing the next day. I’d like to be able to check off a box and have those items appear on my home page in Backpack as a “Today’s Agenda”-style system. At the moment it can’t do that, so there’s a lot more manual work involved in creating a daily agenda than there should be (in fact, I use a paper-based system for that at the moment).

Adding such features would really help a lot, but Backpack is pretty darn good at doing what it sets out to do — offer a lightweight mix of the best of Wikis and to-do tracking applications. Its well worth the $9/month I’m paying (and you can sign up for a free trial at Backpackit to see if it works as well for you).

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