Standing Alone: A review of the Zotero Standalone Alpha
Bottom line: It’s going to be great for researchers, and just as good for Firefox
Zotero Standalone (ZS) is the Center For History and New Media‘s attempt to break the Zotero bibliographic extension out of Firefox. In its alpha stage, ZS operates as an independent program. Thanks to extensions, ZS can grab citations not only in Firefox but also in Chrome and Safari, with an Explorer extension coming soon. This is extremely exciting, but I think what makes me most happy about ZS is that it is far less reliant on Firefox. At first blush, this means that soon I can drop Firefox for good in favor of Chromium just like everyone else – but read on for a different story.
I had no trouble installing ZS on my Ubuntu 64 bit system – I just downloaded it and unzipped it into my home directory. I had to make a menu launcher, but that was quite easy. After I pointed ZS to my existing Zotero directory, it opened up with my entire 5300 item library intact and ready to work. (If anyone running Ubuntu needs help with this, drop an email to me).
I was very concerned about syncing ZS with my other computers (running Zotero in Firefox), but it synced without a problem. I did note that, just like its Firefox extension big brother, ZS freezes up during syncs, which can be frustrating (especially during notetaking) but also can be mitigated by turning off automatic sync. In any case, the freezeups don’t seem to be as bad as they were in Firefox.
My beloved Open Office integration worked right away, too, once I set the paths correctly and once I “permanently updated” the open document (per a popup prompt). With sync working, Open Office integration, and a dash of Dropbox, I’m able to close a document at work, drive home, eat some dinner, and then resume work at night if I want to. (Ah, the extension of the working day).
Of course, the first thing I tested was ZS with Chromium (the Linux version of Chrome). This is, I think, a major source of excitement for people yearning to break Zotero out of Firefox. In Chromium, at first I thought something was wrong because I didn’t see the friendly little icon while perusing SAGE journals, but then I found that it worked very well with Google Scholar. Clearly, not every site worked with ZS like I was used to; for example, there was no happy little newspaper icon in the New York Times’s site. In addition, there appears to currently be no way to archive a Web page in ZS (both in Chromium or in Firefox), but I imagine that feature’s around the corner. (Repeat the mantra: this is alpha software. This is alpha software.)
I also noted that I could not export a bibliography to the clipboard, and the Magic Wand ISBN entry method isn’t working either. (Again: this is alpha software).
I will admit that I was hoping to see some changes to tag management in ZS, even in its alpha stage. Tags are so exceptionally important, and yet adding them, editing them, and searching them is slow and clumsy both in ZS and especially in the current Firefox version. It is noticeably faster in ZS, but still awkward. I would love access to the entire list of tags, in alphabetical order in a separate window/document, so that I can delete junk tags, edit them, reduce duplicates, and so on. Tag management, in my view, must be the next major improvement. With that, Zotero can absolutely blow away programs like Endnote.
In addition, as many people have asked in the Zotero forum, there needs to be a way to find duplicate entries (a feature that is in the works but is not yet fully functional). I would love to merge two duplicates, preserving my notes and tags in the process, but now it’s a manual process – again, not nearly as good as Endnote.
Despite this, I am absolutely elated. For an alpha release, this has been remarkably stable. I had a hiccup with a sudden shutdown of ZS, and a bizarre moment when one citation became the child of another, but after restarting the program all was well. But best of all: ZS’s RAM usage on my machine is 165MB. This strikes me as a little high; at this point in time, ZS is the biggest user of RAM on my machine when it is active – even bigger than my file manager and mail program. However, it is certainly not as high as using Zotero in the latest versions of Firefox, which often shot up to 300MB and thus bogged down my computer.
Now, however, if I run Zotero outside of Firefox, Firefox drops to 70MB of RAM. And here’s the complication to the dominant “switch to Chrome – it’s faster” narrative. With Zotero broken out, Firefox uses less RAM than Chromium on my machine. Chromium is currently drawing 90 to 150 MB at any given time. And, Firefox appears to be back to its old, speedy self.
What does this mean? Firefox, you are (eventually) free to return to doing what what you do best: being my Ad-blockin‘, No-scriptin‘, Firebuggin,’ cookie-destroying browser of choice. Chromium: better luck next time!
In sum, it appears as if the folks at the Center for History and New Media are seeking to shed the weight of Firefox to give us a leaner, faster, Zotero – and now a choice of lean and fast browsers, including a surprise dark horse: Firefox. I like it.