Best Free Project Time-keeping Utility

 
Introduction

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.

 
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Discussion

Task CoachTask 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.

 

Abstract Spoon To-do ListToDoList 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

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 Time Tool

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.

 

Time TrackerTimeTracker 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 image 1Zanami 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.

 
Related Products and Links

You might want to check out these articles too:

 
Quick Selection Guide

ToDoList
5
 
Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
Encrypt a task list, small memory footprint; Set priorities, due dates, time estimates, percent completion, etc; shows overdue items, multiple filters, powerful import/export, sort and search, share data, etc.
Does not show due date of a task once the task is marked closed; there was no way I could find to view time logged by date and time, it seems to record only the total time logged, not the actual times themselves.
http://www.abstractspoon.com/
6.7
2.03 MB
Unrestricted freeware
This product is portable.
Windows 2000, XP, probably all versions

Portability is determined with an option to save config in .ini file upon first running of the program.

Task Coach
4.5
 
Gizmo's Freeware award as the best product in its class!

Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
Data stored in XML format, create sub-tasks within tasks, multiple customizable categories, set alarms and recurring reminders, priorities on different tasks and sub-tasks, detailed task capability, and more.
No export to CSV format, no GUI or other reporting capability.
http://www.taskcoach.org/
1.3.22
11.2 MB
Unrestricted freeware
A portable version of this product is available from the developer.
Windows 2000 to 8, Linux (.rpm, .deb, Gentoo Ebuild), Mac OS X, iOS.

Additional software required: None for Windows, but Python source is available and you can run it from source if you have a Python interpreter and wxPython installed. For Linux you will need Python and wxPython windowing libraries.

Project Timer
4
 
Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
Smple to set up and use, multiple timers but uses more memory, customized colors and fonts, rename projects, stats in historgram form.
Only one color and font setting is allowed, data is stored in a binary data file with no data export or other reporting capability, data is not portable and stored in C:\Documents and Settings\<Windows user>\Application data\Project Timer\Project Timer.data
1.4.1
311 KB
Unrestricted freeware
There is no portable version of this product available.
Windows
Cratchit.org TimeTool
3.5
 
Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
Data can be exported to CSV format, times can be adjusted, toolbar and menu options, status bar shows totals in minutes and hours, active task or none, fully portable program with data file ttdata.txt stored in the application directory.
Quirky (buggy) scroll bar behavior, scrolls the tool icons and status line at bottom of the window; no color, font and other customization options.
http://www.cratchit.org/TimeTool/
0.5
460 KB
Open source freeware
There is no portable version of this product available.
Windows
TimeTracker
3.5
 
Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
Automatically records time for all processes, stop and start timers as you switch between windows, three different views, create custom tasks and rules, portable, data saved in CSV format in the same directory as the program.
Only current activity is displayed, need to open the CSV export to view previous activity. No color customization options.
http://ttracker.sourceforge.net/
4.4
553 KB (zip file)
Unrestricted freeware
This product is portable.
Windows (tested on 2000; XP, Vista, others may be possible)
Zanami Time Tracker
3
 
Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
Multiple tasks can be tracked at the same time, elapsed time is recorded even when the tool is shut down, sort on Activity name, Duration, Status or Created.
No ability to rename tasks, limited options and no customization ability, no data export, no GUI reporting, non-portable data which is stored in C:\Documents and Settings\<user>Application data\Time Tracker\TimeTracker.sdata
1.7.1
980 KB (Windows installer)
Unrestricted freeware
There is no portable version of this product available.
Windows (tested on 2000; XP, Vista, others may be possible)

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Comments

by Geert on 1. February 2013 - 19:42  (105021)

I just discovered the freeware time tracker software Grindstone.
It looks very basic, but it has more features then you would expect.
In my opinion it certainly deserves to be mentioned in this list.
(http://www.epiforge.com/Grindstone/)

by JDHeileman on 13. April 2013 - 22:54  (107057)

Thank you for your suggestion. I have looked this product over, and I really like it. I am currently working on adding it to the list. Thank you again for sharing this treasure. JDHeileman

by Geert on 14. April 2013 - 19:59  (107093)

You're welcome. Sharing good freeware, that's what this site is all about, isn't it?

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