January 1, 2007

Track your swag with GCstar

Author: Nathan Willis

How many times has this happened to you: no sooner are the holidays over than one of your friends begs you to let him borrow the brand new DVD set you just got -- and the next thing you know, it's Labor Day, and your so-called friend swears he wasn't the one who borrowed it? What you need is a collection manager like GCstar so that you don't lose track of your valuables.
A book collection; click to enlarge

The free software collection manager just made its stable 1.0 release, and it can handle multiple types of collections (including user-defined), import and export a variety of data formats, and help you keep on top of who's borrowing what.

GCstar depends on GTK and Perl; packages are available for a wide range of Linux distributions as well as Windows, and instructions are available for installing from source on both Linux and Mac OS X. The source installer sports an easy-to-use GUI that checks for the required Perl modules and lets you specify where to install the application -- rather than just dumping it in /usr/bin/ as so many apps do.

When you start GCstar for the first time, the first thing you will want to do is create a new collection using the File -> New menu item. You can choose an existing collection type (the current crop of predefined types includes books, movies, music, and video games) or create your own. The common media types will suffice for most people who are just getting started.

Once you have made your choice, click on the Add toolbar button to add a new item. Type the item's name (or even an approximation of it) in a large blank field on the top of the right-hand pane. Click on the Fetch Information button, and GCstar will attempt to look up the item through its catalog of searchable Web sites. You can choose to limit the search to a particular site (say, Amazon.com) or use several. GCstar will pop up a dialog box listing the search results; if you see the one you need, select it and the retrieved information will automatically populate the record. Lather, rinse, repeat -- and in no time, your virtual book/movie/music/video game shelf is full.

Get collecting

On top of basic bibliographic information, GCstar lets you store personalized ratings, rankings, and comments for each item. Video game records also have a "tips" section where you can store codes, cheats, or notes, and a field to keep track of how much of the game you've completed. For audio and video media, you can associate a digital file with each physical item, and open it with the audio or video player of your choice.

In a particularly nice touch, you can have multiple items in each collection with the exact same name -- making GCstar useful for obsessive collectors with multiple editions of their favorite works. Along those lines, book records have fields for edition and acquisition date -- although the other formats, regrettably, do not.

Emailing a delinquent; click to enlarge

All of the collection formats allow you to keep track of when you loan out an item, and to whom. Choose Borrowers from the Settings menu, and you can add the names and email addresses of people that you lend to -- then keep track of who has what via the Lending tab of each item. GCstar keeps a lending history for each item, helping you remember who's a fan of what, and it can send a customized email reminder to the borrower (through your choice of mailer) at the click of a button.

If you take a look at your shelf and the task of importing all of that data seems daunting, fear not. GCstar can import data in a variety of formats -- everything from other collection manager apps to a plain-text list of titles. It can also export its data in multiple formats, including HTML, if you want to show off your wares to other collectors, or SQL insertions to populate a database. The import/export feature also lets you back up your collection and access it through multiple computers. You can even call GCstar's export plugins from the command line and back up all of your data through a cron job.

Nitpicks and closing credits

For a 1.0 release, GCstar exhibits considerable polish, but there are some features I would like to see expanded. For instance, the "percent completed" field for video games I mentioned above would be useful with books as well. And since GCstar can cope with digital copies of movies and music, it seems like e-text and video games should warrant the same treatment.

Search result ambiguity; click to enlarge

By and large the program's interface is smooth and unintrusive, but it has its quirks as well. Whenever you search for a title, the "results found" list that pops up displays only the first few characters of the titles, forcing you to click on the "preview" button for each one until you find the exact item you are looking for. Each preview takes several seconds to retrieve; with the glut of "special editions" for every DVD title out today, that can add up.

The other big pitfall is that searching for media in online stores like Amazon limits you to current or recently-in-print material. For book and music geeks, that can be limiting. Although Amazon does have reasonably deep records, the older editions rarely have complete info, including cover photos, so if you are a fan of the obscure classics, keep your digital camera handy. Fortunately, GCstar's site-search plugins are updateable, so if a really top-notch site springs up for your favorite media, there is a good chance a site-search plugin will follow.

GCstar stands out from other Linux collection manager apps thanks to its ease of use, its flexibility with collection types and import/export, and its simple list of dependencies. Not that Perl is simple, mind you, but you don't have to have an entire desktop environment installed as you do with many similar applications.

GCstar can't prevent a crook from walking out of your house with your new CDs and books in his pocket -- but it can help you keep better track of what you have, what you are doing with it, and where it ought to be.

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