Do you need to record the time you work on a project, or even a series of tasks you work on? There are many good, free tools available with varying degrees of functionality to suit just about any of your needs.
While the ability to have time recording to multiple tasks simultaneously is available in many of the programs reviewed, the true benefit of this is debatable.
Some people claim they have the ability to multi-task. The reality is, we may be task switching, but we are not truly multi-tasking, or working on more than one thing at any time. It is impossible for a programmer, for example, to be editing code in one window and debugging in another simultaneously. You could be running a long compile on a large application in a different window, but that is the computer doing the compile in another window without your intervention.
Is it reasonable to be charging time to a customer for compiling when you are not actually doing any work, while working on something entirely different, possibly even for the same customer? I don't believe so, that seems a lot like "double dipping" to me. However, not everyone will agree, and that is why multi-time recording may be a feature to you.
Go straight to the Quick Selection Guide
Task Coach is my personal top choice for features alone. It is an excellent task management and time recording application, and the most complete and fully featured application reviewed here. Task Coach goes much further than simple time-keeping. It is a fully featured task management package with the ability to create many levels of sub-tasks within tasks, and customizable color coded categories for different tasks. Tasks can have priorities, due dates and alarms set, and you can very easily track the time spent working on any task by simply right clicking it and then selecting either Start or Stop Tracking Effort. Time tracked in sub tasks is totaled in the highest level task, and logged in individual sub tasks. Entire trees of tasks and sub tasks can be marked as completed or uncompleted. Detailed descriptions, notes, budget and revenue tracking, file attachments and even date based reminders are all supported.
While the authors list Task Coach as "Alpha state software", with cautions to back data up frequently, I have found Task Coach to be stable and reliable, as well as very easy to use. Data is stored in XML format so it can be easily backed up and extracted, if necessary. Like TimeTool, Task Coach will continue to log time even if you shut the program down, so if you need to conserve the memory it uses while working, you can start the application, start tracking time, and shut it down. Start the application again later and stop tracking time and you will have all the detail you need. Two things that other applications do that would make good enhancements to Task Coach are the ability to export to CSV or other text files for easy import into a spreadsheet, and the ability to create reports and graphs of time spent on various projects without drilling into the Task Coach detail.
ToDoList developed by AbstractSpoon is a serious contender for the top pick as it offers many interesting and unique options. A few of them in particular stand out, such as the ability to import from and export to multiple file formats including an Excel spreadsheet, Free Mind (mind mapping) and other similar software. Something else I particularly like with AbstractSpoon's ToDoList is that it comes as a single zip file containing everything it needs, with no formal installation procedure required, and when first run, it asks if you want to use the registry or a .ini file for portability which is an important feature to me. This is a serious contender for my top pick recommendation. More details will be coming as I test it further and report back.
Project Timer is worth a look if all you need is a simple utility to record time against different projects. It's truly basic, not much more than a series of glorified stopwatches, but it's simple to use and does exactly the job required. Whether you want to record the time you spend on just one task or multiple projects, you will probably find this little program very handy for it's simplicity alone. You can view the time spent on the project for the current day, week, month, or total effort. There is even a nice graphical view of time logged, customizable to display the current, or three previous weeks of time periods with different graph styles—histogram, line, or both.
Cratchit.org TimeTool is a good simple alternative. It's very lightweight, has an extremely easy to use interface and can save to CSV files for import into Excel. It easily handles multiple projects, and only needs to be running when you clock on or off. Only one task can be accumulating time at any time while running. Starting a time collection on a task is as easy as clicking on it, and stopping is equally easy, click the stop button, or click another task to start it accumulating time.
TimeTracker is an interesting alternative that has a lot of merit. It may appeal to many people for the simple and customizable automation aspect alone. It takes a different approach and tracks time spent in all open windows, with time accumulating for each individual running application, based on which window is currently active. It even records system idle and system locked times. You can create your own tasks, just like all the other applications, and though, the behavior is a little quirky, you can start and stop the custom task timers independently of the actual window time tracking.
Rules allow you to create custom tasks and define rules so that for example, you designate all email, calendar and instant messaging window activity as administration, and all putty terminal emulation as Unix support. All time from those windows is then automatically accumulated into those tasks. You can double click the custom administration category to start the timer running, then switch to a putty terminal window, and it will accumulate time to both custom Administration and Unix Support tasks. When you then open a window that is in another custom task, such as email or calendar, the Unix task stops accumulating time, and when you switch back to a putty terminal session, the Administration task also stops accumulating time.
I think this is simply a bug in allowing the user to start a custom task then switch to a window in another custom task, but this could be a useful bug for some people wanting to double book time.
The real beauty of this application’s automation system is that if you define tasks and rules carefully, you can simply switch tasks and never have to do any clock starting and stopping. In addition to the full process list display, there is also a collapsible/expandable tree view where you can drill into the major tasks, e.g. WINWORD.EXE and see a list of all processes related to that process, or drill into the Administration custom task and see what all your admin activity consisted of. The third tab titled Chart shows a nice colored pie graph with a percentage breakdown of all time spent on each task. Each time you exit, the application offers to save its data to CSV format, and appends to the existing data so all historical data can be manipulated in Excel or Open Office Calc, but only current data since start is show on the current application display.
Zanami Time Tracker is another simple time recording utility, with multiple tasks able to be timed in a single instance of the program, which reduces the memory foot-print for those who want to track multiple times simultaneously.
The program is very simple, and can even be completely terminated, and when started again, elapsed time is recorded as though the program had never shut down at all, enabling saving that extra little bit of memory when needed. The program is very easy to use, but what totally killed it for me was that there is no export to CSV, text or any other capability, and while you can view the history of all dates and times recorded against a task, you can't even copy and paste that information into another application. The data file is in a proprietary binary format, so that you can't access data that way either, and to top it off, if you mistype when creating a new task, there is no way to rename the task. I did try hacking the binary file with a hex editor and successfully changed a single mistyped character, but adding or removing characters corrupts the data file so all your recorded time is unusable.
While this might be a nice simple utility for basic time recording, its usefulness is extremely limited by having no practical way to extract or use the data short of writing it down, or typing it by hand into something else like Excel or Open Office Calc.
Still under consideration and subject to review:
- Another alternative suggested is an online service, Freshbooks which by the nature of the way it works does not completely meet my criteria for a 'best free application' as it requires a constant Internet connection. This may, however, be adequate for some people, though the free access components are limited, and of course users are encouraged to use the for-a-fee access components for additional functionality. A number of separate download are available at a cost, at least one of which allows offline time-keeping that can later feed back to the Freshbooks online application. One feature of this service that may appeal to some people is that Freshbooks also provides abilities to generate, and mail invoices directly from their site, all for a fee of course, though a limited trial is available. More details will be coming as I test it further and report back (update August 25, 2008).
- RescueTime - is a new suggestion. What I have managed to look at so far, it seems to be similar to Freshbooks in its web interface with an agent reporting back what applications have been used and for how long. More details will be coming as I test it further and report back. (update August 25, 2008).
- ManicTime - is another new suggestion. I have taken a look, but I have not yet been able to install Manic Time as my sandbox (test) PC is running Windows 2000 Pro, and Manic time requires the .NET 3.5 framework and Windows XP with Service pack 2. This makes it somewhat limited for many people however, I will try it on an XP and Vista computer as soon as I am able to. (update August 25, 2008).
These will be covered as soon as possible. Please remember, these categories are all maintained by volunteers and many of us cover multiple categories so we can only promise to get to them as soon as time allows.
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Zanami Time Tracker