I can see my life flashing before me on the screen

Janet Swift eschews paper and tries out a range of 'personal informatio n organisers' - otherwise known as computer diaries

A new year, a new diary. Or perhaps the computerised version, a "personal information manager". The computer alternative can take on many roles - appointment recorder, time allocator, priority manager, contact tracker, archivist, even alarm clock. I have been using Lotus Organizer instead of a diary for more than three years and it works well for me in all these capacities.

Organizer looks like a leather-bound Filofax, its pages secured on six pull-apart rings on a metal spine - the pages even "turn". It has seven components: diary, year-planner, anniversary recorder, to-do list, address book, note pad and phone-call log. Its advantage over the paper-based object is that the sections interact, so information entered in one section is displayed in other sections or is readily available to them. So if you use the planner to schedule holidays, conferences and meetings, these can be shown in the diary; if you link an appointment to a name in your address list, you can quickly find all the contact details you need.

For me, the to-do list is the central component. Organizer then sorts my tasks into future, current and overdue, and lists them by three levels of priority. When I have finished a task I can either drag it to the waste bin (where it bursts satisfyingly into flames) or mark it as completed - in which case a line is drawn through it and it is stored for posterity. I find this useful for making sure I invoice for submitted work. The kids, who use Organizer to keep track of homework, find it encouraging as the completed list quickly outstrips the pending ones. I normally opt for tasks on the to-do list to show in the diary just to help me to keep organised. But as with all the choices to do with layout, this is a feature that's easy to turn off. So, when I want to, I can see the pattern of my social life unencumbered by work.

Organizer lets me enter a whole series of recurring appointments or tasks, at daily, weekly or monthly intervals, in a single operation - a great time-saver. I can archive, print or export information and also import data.

Other diary packages include Sidekick for DOS; one of the first usable personal information managers; it is now available in Windows and Windows 95 versions. It has all the essentials - diary, planner, to-do list, and call manager - plus an Earth ime feature to help anybody doing business in other time zones. Sidekick 95 has its own mini word processor, complete with spell-checker, so you can write your letters, memos etc.

The emphasis in Microsoft's Schedule Plus is on setting up meetings. You work by default in the appointments diary, which doubles as a planner, though you also get a to-do list and a contacts manager. The product has close ties to Microsoft Project and has facilities such as actual and estimated time for a task, percentage completed and so on, while tasks can be assigned to specific projects.

Ecco is more "free-form". It has an address book and a calendar/diary, but otherwise you work in notebooks. These consist of a left-hand portion into which you enter tasks, and a right-hand side where you enter information about those tasks. Ecco is flexible and has excellent outliner facilities, and is an ideal tool for anyone who has to write up notes from interviews or phone conversations.

Then there is PackRat, for the dedicated user of a personal information manager. Although it is capable of being used simply to track appointments, it can be linked to other applications on your computer, and thus become the centre of all the information management on your PC.

Lotus Organizer, pounds 99, Lotus 01784 445808; Schedule Plus, pounds 79 for Windows 95, pounds 93 for Windows 3.1, Microsoft 0345 002000; Sidekick, pounds 39, Roderick Manhattan 0181-875 4400; Ecco Pro, pounds 129, Roderick Manhattan (see above); PackRat, pounds 129, Software Paradise 0800 413162.

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