I’ve preached the virtues of Basecamp here in the past, and I still dig it for my own lightweight project management needs. Earlier this month, like everyone else, I noted the release of activeCollab and made a mental note to try it out. I kept remembering to try it out, but never quite got around to doing the download-and-install dance.
Today I noticed that Dreamhost has bundled up activeCollab as a “one click install.” That was the final impetus to try it out. This post is my quick and dirty impressions and comparisons of the two systems. I’m no project management guru and all my projects are pretty lightweight marketing-type things. From what I can tell, both of these systems are perfectly suitable options for needs like mine. That said, let’s look at some of the details.
The install isn’t quite “one click”, but it went pretty well. I did create a new MySQL database and after you install activeCollab you still have to go through the web-based configuration process and type in all your connection information. I’ve done plenty of installs like that, so it went smoothly but it’s definitely not something a first-timer would be comfortable tackling. One point to Basecamp for the ease of getting up and running.
One other quick point goes to Basecamp for RSS feeds. Basecamp has ‘em and I can’t find ‘em in activeCollab. Kind of a drag, but I bet it’s coming soon (see feature requests).
While we’re on a roll with Basecamp, it also gets a point and a half for being able to integrate Writeboards (kinda like a one-page wiki) and Campfire (online chat). Both are made by the same folks who make Basecamp, so they’ve definitely got the edge there. The full point goes to Writeboard, which is a great place to make quick notes to share across the team. I’ve used Campfire a little bit and I didn’t like it. I used it with about 9 other people and it got too crazy–it’d probably be better with fewer people, but I don’t like chat much anyway, so half a point it is.
On the flip side, activeCollab gets a half a point for adding tag support to just about every element in the system. Pretty cool, though not without downsides. Fixed categorization has some benefits for me–a lot of the folks I work with, and who would be working on the system, don’t understand tags but they understand how to tick a category checkbox. If I was the only one working in the system, I could probably keep my tags straight, but there’s no chance with a dozen other folks across several projects. I wish I could have a choice, on a per-project basis, between categories, tags, or both.
Feature-wise, both apps do the basics. Milestones, task lists, messages, file attachments and user permissions. These features are all pretty similar for the most part, but there are subtle differences here and there.
Basecamp makes it really easy to add a new company to a project on the fly, even if that company hasn’t been created yet. activeCollab is a little bit clunkier in this regard, since you have to specifically create a company before adding them to a project. On the other hand, when creating new projects, activeCollab gives you easier access to all created companies and the people within them. Basecamp makes you add the company and save it before being able to add the people, and once you’ve added the people you have to go to yet another screen to manage what they can do. activeCollab allows you to add people and manage their permissions prior to hitting save on a new project. This is cool, but could also get unwieldy pretty quickly as you build up more clients/companies in the system. One point to Basecamp for ease of adding new companies to projects.
The Basecamp permissions offerings are more limited than activeCollab. Basecamp allows you to give users permission to Messages/files plus ToDo’s plus Milestones. You can’t just select only files and milestones or other personal combos–you’re limited to the preset hierarchy. activeCollab offers admins the option to give each user the ability to manage messages, manage tasks, manage milestones, upload documents and manage documents. You can select all or any combination of these permissions on a per user basis. activeCollab gets two points for extreme flexibility with user permissions.
In the file attachment realm, activeCollab gets the point since Basecamp limits attachments to 10mb, irrespective of whether you’re storing files on your own server or on Basecamp’s. activeCollab stores files on your own server and apparently if there are any limits they come from your webhost not activeCollab. Also, Basecamp tried to make it easy to do the file storage thing on your own server, but I really wrestled with it when I set it up. Probably part of that deal was the crazy way I had to connect to a filesystem at the university, but the docs just weren’t that helpful. activeCollab simply works.
Both applications treat messages in very similar ways. Basecamp gives you a title field, category options, a message body field, a message privacy option, a file attachment option, a milestone association option and checkboxes for which users should receive email notification of the message. activeCollab offers a title field, a message body field, an expanded text field which is visible only in the comments view, a milestone option, a privacy option, an important message option, an option to lock/disable comments, the tags field, email notification to users option and a file attachment option. I’m giving the point to activeCollab for the addition options for marking the message as important and the ability to lock down comments.
Basecamp first has you create the list and save it and then add the tasks to the list. When you create the list you have a title field, the option to make the list private, an optional description of the list and the option to associate the list with milestones. Once you’ve created the list, you can add items one at a time and assign them to individuals. activeCollab gives you everything up front. When you create the new list you get a title field, a description a milestone option, a privacy option and a tag field. Additionally, before saving, you can add up to six tasks and assign them to individuals on the project. Point goes to activeCollab for ease of use and the ability to categorize with tags.
When creating new milestones, Basecamp allows you to choose between adding one at a time, or up to ten at a time. In both cases you get a title field, a date field, an option to assign it to an individual and the option to have a notification sent immediately and a reminder sent 48 hours before the milestone is due. activeCollab offers the title, the description, the date, the privacy option and the user assignment option. It also offers tags. I’m giving the point to Basecamp for the email tickler feature.
Both apps rely heavily on tabbed organization along the top of the view. They each offer some variation of message tabs, file tabs, to-do tabs and milestone tabs. As mention earlier, Basecamp adds chat and Writeboards. activeCollab adds a tab to browse all your tags and a very interesting forms tab. Forms allow you to create a custom entry form for adding comments to specific messages, or items to specific to-do lists. You can also have the options of enabling the form you just made and making it visible. I’m not at all sure what practical use this is…maybe you can push forms outside of the activeCollab interface for additional users?
Both of these apps are solid and ready to use. Basecamp has a fee structure for any serious use, but in order to use activeCollab you have to have an account with a webhost. Basecamp is dead simple to get started with and I’ve never had any trouble with their billing system. activeCollab is easy enough to install for moderate to advanced users who are comfortable installing things on webservers, but there’s definitely a higher barrier to entry. On the other hand, though Basecamp offers some options for changing colors, activeCollab, since it’s open source and resides on your own server, is fully customizable by those who know what they’re doing. So what’s best for you? Geez, man, I dunno. Didn’t I give you enough info to figure it out on your own? :-) For me, I’m immediately moving to activeCollab for personal projects and it’s pretty likely that I’ll eventually begin migrating my work projects over to activeCollab. Probably gonna wait for RSS and some of the other features first, though.
- Scrivs has an interesting take on the two apps, and wonders what would happen if some folks copied Basecamp and offered it for free.
- 5thirtyone has a nice quick and graphical overview of activeCollab.
- Over at Performancing, Nick notes that a hosted service of activeCollab could be a serious threat to Basecamp. I totally agree, especially when it gets just a little more fleshed out.
- Speaking of hosted service, if you’ve made it this far, here’s a link where you can try out activeCollab for free as a hosted service. It’s super-easy to set up a project and get a feel for the app. I have no idea how safe your data is, though, so proceed with extreme caution.