Examined: project management tool OmniPlan 3.6 with Touch Bar support in macOS Sierra

in Mac Software edited December 2016
Recent Omni Group project management tool OmniPlan has always been one of the best tools for Gantt charts, but the 3.6 update makes good use of the new MacBook Pro's Touch Bar as well. AppleInsider examines the new offering.

If you're forgetful, you need a Reminders list like the one provided on macOS and iOS. If you're busy, you need a To Do manager like OmniFocus. However, if you're really busy on very complex projects with lots of moving parts, you need project management software like OmniPlan. This new update adds well-done support for the latest Apple technology, plus the regular raft of general improvements with any new software point update.

The standard for project managers is actually Microsoft Project but that doesn't exist on Macs or iOS. It's also confusing -- and unnecessarily so. Project management is inherently bewildering because of the need to track dozens, hundreds, thousands and millions of components, staff and resources.
If you need project management software, you tend to really need all of it
Microsoft makes it hard for you to even figure out how much MS Project costs.

OmniPlan is significantly clearer than Project, in every regard. This doesn't mean you'll buy it today and start planning the next Hoover Dam tomorrow. However, it does mean that you'll enjoy using it more than you would the tools from Redmond.

Gantt charts?

As with nearly all project management apps, OmniPlan defaults to showing you Gantt charts. These have all your tasks as blocks whose width shows how long they're expected to take. For instance, those tasks can be linked together so that you know you can't book a builder before you've got planning permission.

When you have lots of steps, you can also have more than you alone can do. In that case, OmniPlan also tracks any staff or help you have. It keeps a track of all resources. So if you only have use of a cement mixer for half a day next week, that goes in the plan.

As most major projects have long durations and comparatively few steps or resources, Gantt charts tend to be wider than they are deep. The Touch Bar support helps with that.

Touch Bar support is a minimalist, unobtrusive addition: you don't require a MacBook Pro with this feature in order to use and benefit from OmniPlan. If you do have one, though, you will instantly take to it. -- click anywhere in your project and the Touch Bar changes to display a miniature graphic of the entire thing.

It's very similar to how Final Cut Pro X looks with its timeline: you see your whole project and can drag left and right across it. This is a small thing, but so handy that you forget you haven't always had it -- which is the supposed goal of the Touch Bar anyway.

When you're anywhere else in the app such as in the list of tasks, the Touch Bar changes to offer common tools such as marking all tasks as done. There's also one button for effectively saying, "okay, nothing's been done yet so move every task forward to begin today."

Most of the other new features in this update are bug fixes or improvements to how information is displayed. You end up with a huge amount of information in a typical project plan. As a result, even small improvements have an impact because you're using every part of OmniPlan constantly.

Not new to the game

OmniPlan was always good for showing the whole picture of a project. Since the release of the iOS version it's been good at showing you the whole picture wherever you are. Now with the handiness of the Touch Bar there is a small question mark over the iPad version. You could now more easily get away with just the macOS Sierra version and a light 13-inch MacBook Pro.

The ubiquity of OmniPlan is important, though. The ability to have it on your MacBook Pro, your iPad, your iPhone, and your iMac mean it's always available to you.

Despite the application's pedigree and ubiquity of Gantt charts, If you can, it is best to stick within OmniPlan for all of your project planning rather than mixing and matching apps.

If you're a Mac user in a PC company then in theory you can readily import Microsoft Project documents into OmniPlan and export back. However, while the Omni Group keeps updating this import/export, we've hit occasional snags with trying to round-trip between OmniPlan and MS Project.

What would be more useful would be to leverage features from other Omni Group products. Since you can assign tasks within OmniPlan to one particular person, it would be great to be able to export their tasks with no friction over to their copy of OmniFocus. Similarly, being able to import an OmniFocus To Do list would go some way toward making entering a project's tasks easier.

As it stands, you type a long list directly into OmniPlan and can drag things around or insert extras. It's the slowest part of setting up a project. This is especially galling when the company sells OmniOutliner, an outlining app that is much faster and capable for entering long lists.

Who's it for?

OmniPlan is not a quick fix or casual app, though. It is a very robust and functional tool that's meant to work with you over the days, months or even years of significant projects. It will take you time to learn but it rewards the effort.

Alongside this new update to the software there is an improved user manual available on the iBooks Store. There are also many books on using and exploiting Omni Group software.

Note that OmniPlan 3.6 for macOS Sierra comes in a Standard version for $149 and a Pro kit for $299. If you need project management software, you tend to really need all of it, so we'd recommend going straight for Pro.

We're also recommending that you buy directly from The Omni Group. This is because historically the company has been able to offer free trials and better upgrade deals directly. From this version on, though, OmniPlan is available in a two-week free trial from the Mac App Store.


  • Reply 1 of 4
    MacProMacPro Posts: 19,471member
    Looks cool but I'll stick with my Lisa Project. ;)

  • Reply 2 of 4
    dreyfus2dreyfus2 Posts: 1,072member
    Agree with the review, but calling MS Project the standard in huge projects is patently wrong. It actually plays no role in large projects at all, because it is shit (or, to be more precise: it turned into same over the last decade, it used to be quite decent in its early days). Pretty much every single large scale project I was involved in over the last 20 years (the biggest one being a $5 billion one) were managed using Primavera. It is so far above the rest, it is not even debatable.

    Still, we are lucky on the OS X platform, since there are quite a few great solutions (more than under Windows). OmniPlan, Merlin, FTS... they all run circles around MS Project and are actually usable, which MS Project isn't. I am going back and forth between Merlin and OmniPlan in smaller projects myself and can't really decide between the two. I prefer a lot about Merlin (the server especially, which is useful) as it covers more ground (project documents, deeper resource and cost management), but it totally lacks decent base-lining, a very important area where OmniPlan absolutely shines. 
  • Reply 3 of 4
    Desktop software for scheduling is only for small projects (< $20M in my business). The trend is moving to cloud software for large projects, which must have collaboration features and deal with distance between collaborators. Primavera is indeed #1 for large projects and Oracle offers it in the cloud. MSP is available in the cloud now too. I wouldn't say it is unusable. We have managed hundreds of projects in the $1M-$5M range with it for many years. Groupware these days must be platform independent and available anytime, anywhere, on mobile or desktop devices. It would be great if Omni took a product like this to the cloud and opened it up to all computing platforms.
  • Reply 4 of 4
    For sure I don't trust any cloud for project management - which is IMHO not a question of size! I still can't believe that security isn't respected anymore in projects. I lead a PMO and in the company we have a mixed platform situation. On Windows we're using MS Project and on Mac and iOS it's Merlin Project. All on local machines and via VPN. This works like a charm.
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