OneNote Smack Down III — Bonsai

UPDATE: Please see the comment from Dr Andus below, which corrects some errors in this review, and provides a different perspective on Bonsai.

I’ve decided to make a change in the lineup of challengers in the Great OneNote Smack Down. I’ve removed Scrivener (this is a Windows only test — for now), because the more I use the Windows version, the less appeal it has to me. It feels too much like an underdone production, rushed to release before it was really ready. I do think the general outlining approach of Scrivener would be an interesting to test, and maybe one day I’ll get back to it.

Meanwhile, I’ve decided to stretch the definition of “live” application, one of my criteria for picking software for this review set. Based upon a strong recommendation from one of the posters at, I’m giving Natara Bonsai a go. While it appears not to have had an update in a few years, I get the feeling from the web site that the application isn’t dead, just perhaps dormant.

Bonsai — Stunted tree application, or sculpted beauty?

Bonsai has been around a good long while. In fact, if my memory is not mistaken, it started out as a Palm OS application many moons ago, with the desktop app being added later. The program has a ton of features for building todo and task lists. In fact, it feels more like a list-builder, along the lines of ListPro. The current version, which I’m reviewing, is 5.03, which was released in September of 2009. It costs $26.99 U.S., and can be downloaded for trial here.

Ease of use (40%) = 80 (score of 32)

Building an outline is simple using Bonsai. Just type your topic names, hit ENTER to create a new topic, use the TAB key (or SHIFT-TAB) to demote and promote the topic. Drag and drop works by selecting a topic via its reveal arrow or bullet.  There is no extended text selection, which is a small drawback.

Another drawback is that there are so many options, settings and features, and these just get in the way. I must have had to adjust a dozen or more options, and even then my outline doesn’t quite look or behave the way I want it to.

Outlining features (15%) = 85 (score of 12.75)

Bonsai has some common outlining features. Reveal arrows show or hide sub-topics.  The hoist feature is called “Zoom In,” and is available under the View menu. There is no cloning.

Bonsai outline “zoomed” in to a specific topic — zoom is what Bonsai calls Hoisting.

In keeping with the notion that Bonsai is more a list-builder and less an outliner in the model I’m reviewing it for, it does not appear to have the ability to create level-by-level text styles. In fact, I could find no method for adjusting the text style at all.

Export power (25%) = 70 (score of 17.5)

Bonsai provides several export options, but several of these are not really applicable to the type of outlining. The four types that interested me are RTF, Text, HTML and XML. Of these, the Text export functioned exactly as I would expect, as did the HTML. The RTF export, however, provided a strange output, one that added extraneous labels, while dismissing the tab hierarchy, as you can see in the screen shot below (and I don’t know where the colors came from).

HTML export from Bonsai works well…
…RTF to Word export… not so much. Note the extraneous labels and the loss of hierarchy, the added colors.

I tried opening the XML in a number of applications, and it didn’t work as I’d hoped. When I was able to import it, it just came in as one long text file, and not a series of individual topics. As far as I can tell, there are not settings that can change the export of XML, so I’m either doing something wrong, or the export of XML does not work properly. Based upon the RTF export, I’m guessing the latter.

Bonus features (10%) = 75 (score of 7.5)

First of all, let me say that Bonsai has A LOT of features, but most of these are not applicable to this review. One that is, is the ability to view meta data in columns. The process for doing so is a little awkward in my view. I used the custom field to create a column in which to record distance from the Sun. While this worked, the application insists on summing the sub-topics, which gives wrong data and gums up the view. I even de-selected the check box that says to calculate the sums of children for “Customer numeric field.” But the summing continues. Again, there is either a glitch in the program, or I’m missing something.

Bonsai outline with column detail.

While Bonsai provides space for topic notes, those notes are not viewable inline, which is okay. What isn’t okay is that there is no visual indication that your topic has a note attached, unless the topic is selected, in which case you can read the note in the note pane.

Overall feel and functionality (10%) = 75 (score of 7.5)

Bonsai has a slightly archaic feel, more like a Windows 95 application, which is probably because that is where it started life. The developers have certainly packed it with many interesting features, most of which facilitate planning and the assembly of task lists. As an outliner, however, I must say I found it less enjoyable to use than Inspiration, and about on a par with UV Outliner, although the need to constantly fidget with settings was frustrating for me.

Total score = 77.25

Wow, that’s an exact tie with UV Outliner. Not impressive, but not bad. I can see the allure of Bonsai because of all the ways you can trick your information up (I didn’t include most of these, as I feel they’re not applicable to this test), but this seems about the right score to me. It is more powerful than UV Outliner, but UV Outliner makes a simpler task of building outlines.

3 thoughts on “OneNote Smack Down III — Bonsai

  1. Hi Steve, thank you for including Bonsai in your review series. As a Bonsai fan, I’m obviously going to disagree with your overall verdict (especially the comparison with UV Outliner. If you have Bonsai set up properly and are familiar with its features, it’s far quicker and easier to outline than in UVO in my experience).

    However, you’ve confirmed some of my suspicions about why Bonsai is not better known and more widely used as an outliner. The problem seems to be that when it is first installed, all the task management bells and whistles that are turned on distract from its underlying functionality as an outliner. Moreover, the controls to these features are in 3 different places: Global Settings, Preferences, and scattered around the various pull-down menus. It took me a few years of using the software (for a while in conjunction with the Palm app companion) to learn how to turn unneeded features off and turn useful ones on. E.g. I can see you still have Dates, Filters, and Views footers turned on in the screenshot, which end up crowding the interface (but they can be turned off under View > Toolbars).

    Not sure what you mean by “level-by-level” text styles (it can’t do different font styles for each level, although it can have different font colour per level), but the overall outline font and the notes font and font style can be changed under Global Settings.

    Regarding the export problem into Word, there is a work around. It is possible to export into text, copy and paste into Word, and then turn on the bullets function, which puts the items back into their original hierarchy.

    As for visual indication of notes in the outline, there is such a thing. Right-click on the outline header, select “Edit View,” and add “Note” to the displayed columns. This adds a column that displays a little note icon besides each item that has a note.

    I agree that Bonsai is unwieldy out of the box. However, I would suggest that spending some time to figure out all the little features rewards the user in the end, as Bonsai is an accomplished outliner for big outlining jobs, once it’s set up for the specific task at hand. However, for quick outlining jobs even I prefer Noteliner these days.

    1. Dr Andus,

      Thank you for the reply and for correcting my misconceptions of Bonsai. By necessity I don’t have a lot of time to devote to exploring all the nuances of each application, so I’ve been hoping that people who disagree with my conclusions will comment and correct me where I’m wrong or just point out another way of looking at the application in question. I’m glad you took the time to do so, and with so thoughtful a response.

      When I mention level-by-level styles, what I mean is that in some outliners you can set the program to automatically, say, make level 1 topics bold, level 2 topics underlined, level 3 topics italicized, as well as altering font size, etc… There seems no way to make those settings in Bonsai.

      Thank you, again!


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