Outliner: Planning Made Easy

Since its introduction in 2007, the iPhone has become far more than just a mobile phone. For many, the iPhone helps to organise and order their daily lives. There are any number of productivity apps available in the App Store, but choosing between them can be difficult. This is where Outliner can help.

Outliner, developed by CarbonFin, is adaptable to your needs and operates in the gap between a daily planning and note-taking app. Simple but effective, Outliner is a great tool to use and harbours some neat surprises for making your daily and working lives easier. Let’s check it out.

Meet Outliner

Outliner’s strength lies in it’s simplicity. Creating, editing and saving your thoughts, ideas and lists couldn’t be easier and is totally stress-free. In a market saturated with various incarnations of organisation apps, each offering a new or improved feature, it can be hard to make an impression. But Outliner has succeeded by keeping it’s features simple and understated.

Left: List of outlines -- Right: Sorting the outline order

Left: List of outlines -- Right: Sorting the outline order

The first screen you see upon opening is the list of existing outlines. From this page there are many options you can toggle. Ordering the list of outlines is easy; simply select the edit button and drag your desired outline to where you want it to be — simple.

Want to search your entire list of outlines? No problem. By selecting the search bar above the list and typing your desired search terms, Outliner temporarily removes any outlines that do not feature those words within their content, allowing you to easily identify the outline you require.

Creating Outlines

Whether you’re writing a screenplay, planning a blog post or creating a simple to-do list, Outliner provides clear and easy to use tools to help plan your thoughts. Outlines consist of Siblings and Children with the former acting as headings and the former as sub-headings, to get started simply select the + button from the main screen.

Left: Creating a new outline -- Right: Example of an outline hierarchy

Left: Creating a new outline -- Right: Example of an outline hierarchy

As can be seen above, Siblings are the dominant items in the list and spawn Children below them at an indent. To create a Sibling, simply tap the down-arrow icon and name the new item. For Children, select the angled-arrow icon and the new Child appears indented below the Sibling. It is even possible to have another set of Children beneath an existing child.

The process of alternating between new Siblings, Children or even sub-Children is made easy by pressing space on a newly created item to toggle between the options. Another great feature is the addition of notes to the outline items. Select the blue arrow next to any item in an outline to add your notes as shown below. A one-line preview of the notes can be shown on the main outline list for easy reference.

Left: Adding notes -- Centre: Task checkbox example -- Right: Bulk outline actions

Left: Adding notes -- Centre: Task checkbox example -- Right: Bulk outline actions

Another neat feature in Outliner is the check-box option. When creating your outline, it’s possible to make the Siblings and Children into tasks by pressing Return when editing a newly created item. The check-boxes, shown above, are to the left of the listed items and can be ticked off by tapping or un-tapping the box.

When an outline is populated with your Siblings and Children, the list can become quite long, but worry not. By tapping the bottom right list icon, a group of bulk actions are available, including unchecking all tasks, collapsing all siblings (thus hiding their children) and cut-copy-paste functionality.

Customising Outlines

Unlike some of its rivals, Outliner takes a more minimalistic approach to it’s outlines. Though this is great for creating unconfusing outlines, the lack of customisation options is a slight drawback. For example, only one option is available for changing the text. The ability to change the font of different items in an outline could make the app slightly easier to use and would further highlight the differences between Siblings, Children and sub-Children. That said, this a minor complaint.

Left: Outline feature options -- Centre: Numbered outline example -- Right: Outline tagging

Left: Outline feature options -- Centre: Numbered outline example -- Right: Outline tagging

The lack of custom options is the only disappointing part of Outliner, though it does offer a few other abilities. One such option is Numbering, which is especially useful for structured writing and group projects. The numbers are whole for Siblings and to a decimal place for Children (see the above example).

Also shown above is the ability to tag outlines, which is especially useful if you keep a lot of thoughts all at once. Tagging is easy and allows you to sort the outlines by tag, thus enabling you to find your required target relatively easily.

Dropbox Support: The Holy Grail

Dropbox support is hardly a new phenomenon, but it is quickly becoming an essential feature of any app in my workflow. Outliner gives a masterclass in Dropbox integration and allows for seamless syncing across all your devices. However, it doesn’t stop there. CarbonFin offer their own dedicated storage service, again allowing for easy syncing to an iPad but also allowing your outlines to be accessible online.

Left: Storage & synchronisation options -- Right: CarbonFin web-browser viewing

Left: Storage & synchronisation options -- Right: CarbonFin web-browser viewing

Linking outlines to your Dropbox and CarbonFin is done by selecting the wrench icon from the main outline screen. Then, when creating your outline, it is possible to alternate between Dropbox/CarbonFin from the settings cog. Though DropBox is my personal choice, you can’t go wrong with the baked-in service offered, and both are smooth and reliable.

To Buy or Not to Buy?

Outliner is a brilliant app. Its simplicity and ease of use is staggeringly good, and makes using the app a pleasure. Unlike some of it’s rivals (such as OmniOutliner), there is no learning curve on how to use the app and it also comes in at a fraction of the price, at $4.99. If you like making lists or want to keep track of your thoughts and projects, Outliner is the app for you.

The only disappointing feature of this app is the lack of font/text customisation options, but this does fit in with the simplistic nature of the app. One feature request to improve the app would be push notifications. Though not an essential feature, for those important tasks and to-do’s it would be an improvement without impacting on the app’s simplicity.


A simple app for outlining ideas, thoughts and lists in a structured and hierarchal list.