MapleXp: A Free Time Tracker

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2848, 2010-11-26, as a feature article, in both their PDF edition (on pages 15-21) and their website.

"Where did the day go?" In this hectic era, people oftentimes ask themselves this question as they try to juggle family commitments, put in long hours at work (or attempt to find a job), worry about the unending crises worldwide, fret over declining portfolios and retirement prospects, and try to stay healthy and sane in a nonstop modern life buffeted by accelerating change. Time is one of our most valuable resources, and so it makes sense to manage it wisely. For people who are serious about doing so, identifying how they spend their time each day on a personal level, can be a valuable tool in planning and scheduling, as well as for discovering inefficiencies.

In the professional world, salaried workers are expected by their supervisors to conscientiously allocate the day so as to maximize the amount of work accomplished for the company. This may involve recording the time spent on each project, especially at companies that charge the government for time spent on various programs. Freelancers and other independent professionals invariably need to keep track of the time they spend on each project for each client, down to the minute — so when it comes time to ask the client for compensation for services rendered, the worker knows that she is being fair to both herself, by logging every moment worked, and fair to the client, by not mistakenly overcharging.

There are a variety of ways that an individual could track the time devoted to a given project. There is the tried-and-true method of using pen and paper, which might be adequate for a simple or short-lived project, but lacks the many benefits of automatic calculations, report generation, reprinting, etc. Programmers have developed time-tracking applications for all the major handheld devices — including Android phones and Apple iPhones — but these may not integrate well with one's needs for invoicing, quick storage and backup on a hard drive, etc. Spreadsheets have proven their worth for a few decades, and can be practically turned into powerful desktop applications through the use of macros; but this does require some programming expertise, plus time and effort.

For these reasons, and others, most people looking to manage their projects using their computer, will seek out desktop software dedicated to the task. There exist a wide variety of such applications, ranging from the very complex, capable, and pricey, to those that are more straightforward and free of charge.

MapleXp Basics

Of all the free time-tracking programs designed to run on Windows-based computers, MapleXp is one that has gained more respect and widespread usage than the majority of those listed on shareware websites. This is due not only to the lack of a licensing fee, but the program's capabilities for managing multiple projects and tasks (the details of which will be examined below). The program was developed by Quasima Software Studio, a single-developer operation.

MapleXp homepage
Figure 1. MapleXp homepage

As always with any such application, the best way to explore its capabilities — in general, and specifically as to whether they would be sufficient for your own needs — is by trying it out. Before downloading the installation file, however, you will first want to confirm that your computer matches the minimum system requirements, namely, Microsoft Windows XP or newer, as well as the free Microsoft .NET Framework version 3.5 or newer. If your PC is not yet running .NET Framework, first download and install it. During this process, the system may complain that your PC does not yet have Windows Installer 3.1. If that is the case, then first download and install Windows Installer before trying to install .NET Framework. (Unfortunately, as with most Microsoft products nowadays, the downloading can take a long time, because the packages are so large. Also, the entire process will likely require at least one reboot of your computer.)

Once the required programs have been installed, you can download and install MapleXp itself. In this article, version 1.4.10.2 will be used to illustrate the application. As of this writing, version 1.5 is only available in beta, and it is usually safer to start off with a non-beta version, which is typically more stable. The installation process is relatively straightforward. MapleXp utilizes Microsoft SQL Server Compact 3.5 as a database system, so you will need to agree to its user license, after which the installation wizard will begin downloading it from a Microsoft server. When that download is finished, the MapleXp installation wizard continues, so you should simply work your way through the dialog screens. In this case, a "Complete" installation was chosen, so no customization choices were needed.

Assuming that you also opted for the standard installation, then you can start MapleXp either by double-clicking the icon on your Windows desktop or by choosing "MapleXp Express" from your Windows Programs menu.

MapleXp interface initially
Figure 2. MapleXp interface initially

The initial user interface is rather sparse. Before getting involved in creating databases, projects, and tasks, you may want to set the program's options to best match your particular situation. The menu item Edit > Options will display a dialog containing seven tabs.

Options dialog
Figure 3. Options dialog

Most of the default settings should work fine for your purposes, but you may want to go to the Formats section and change the values of the three radio button groups so as to remove the seconds from all time displays. One category of software that is somewhat related to time tracking, consists of programs that remind you to periodically take a break from your work (for health reasons). Within the MapleXp options, in the "Notification Area" section, you can enable MapleXp to pop up a reminder every five minutes or so if there is a running task, or if you have been working on a task longer than 120 minutes or so, or if you have reached a certain time in the day after which you should not be working on any tasks.

All of the data you will be adding to MapleXp needs to be stored in a database, so first create a new one using the menu item File > New Database. Choose a location and database name, and MapleXp will create a file with an extension ".sdf". Each database is intended for a single user, so if someone else is planning on using MapleXp on a shared PC, then you should create a separate database for them — possibly located in their own "My Documents" folder.

Turning Over a New Leaf

Now that you have an open database, you should define within it a hierarchy of tasks, in other words, major tasks (which could be thought of as projects), and subtasks within those, nested as deeply as you want. This can be visualized as the way that Windows allows one to create folders inside of other folders, in a hierarchical fashion.

Let's create a few dummy tasks. Open the Tasks window using the MapleXp > Tasks menu item. By default, the "All Tasks" task is already selected, so any new ones created at this point will be nested inside of this highest-level task. To create a new task, choose the menu item Tasks > New Task. To add a subtask to an existing one, simply click on the intended parent task to select it, and then create the new task. As the hierarchy of tasks is built, it is displayed in the Tasks window.

Tasks window
Figure 4. Tasks window

You can use whatever naming scheme you think best. To modify any of the existing tasks, you should right-click on it and, within the context menu that pops up, choose "Modify Task"; or you can choose that action from the Tasks menu. To delete an existing task, the two ways to do so are almost identical to those for modifying a task, except a task cannot be deleted if it has any subtasks, nor if it is currently running. Deletions cannot be undone, so be careful before deleting anything.

Provided that you have defined some tasks, you are now able to track the time devoted to each one, and monitor the results. To start adding time to a task, simply select it in the Tasks window, and then select the menu item Start Task from the Tasks menu or from the item's context menu. In the clipboard icon for that task, in addition to the red checkmark, there is now a small green box in the lower right-hand corner, indicating that this particular task is running. Note that you can only have one task running at a time.

For the task that is running, if any, you can simply stop the task, or stop it and review it. In the Work Item Review dialog, you can modify any of the settings, and add a description.

Task review dialog
Figure 5. Task review dialog

Once you have recorded all of the time you spent on the various tasks, you can now export that data as a comma-delimited text file (often known as a "CSV" file), which can then be read into other applications, such as Microsoft Excel. This capability could be handy if you want to generate an invoice for the tasks that you've worked on — a feature regrettably not built into MapleXp. The Export Wizard allows you to limit the data exported to start and end dates, or using predefined periods: one day, week, month, or year, and either the current one or the previous one. You can specify which tasks to export, the time format, the delimiter character, and a few other choices.

Export dialog
Figure 6. Export dialog

The way that the MapleXp application is designed, the idea is that when doing your day-to-day work, you will start with the Task Controller, which displays the up-to-date information about your current task. It presents information about your current task, such as whether you are currently working on it, the start time, the duration, and an optional description. To switch to a different task, simply choose one from the "Pinned tasks" list box.

Task Controller
Figure 7. Task Controller

Unfortunately, MapleXp's aggregation and reporting is limited to the Session Count and Total Time sections in the Tasks window. Perhaps future versions of the program will have more extensive functionality in these areas.

This should be enough information to get started using MapleXp. If you turn to the online help to learn more details about the program, beware that the menu item names and dialog labels do not always match the actual values in the program itself. All of the help information would benefit from complete editing and updating.

Even though MapleXp is free to use, if you do decide to make it a part of your personal or professional time management procedures, please consider making a donation to support further development and maintenance of the product. The homepage has links to make a payment, in any amount that you see fit, using PayPal or Dotpay. When you run MapleXp for the first time, it will pop up a nag screen asking for support.

Even though MapleXp is lacking in some features that would be quite valuable — such as invoice generation — it is still a viable choice for desktop-based time management. If it helps you get a handle on keeping track of how you are using your hours and days, then it should be more difficult for them to disappear unaccounted.

Copyright © 2010 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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