Any project that requires planning benefits from the use of project management software. The problem is that a lot of this software is so complicated, it's a project in itself just to figure it out.

Bucking the trend is Merlin from German company ProjectWizards, which has been building a reputation over the years for its ease of use. Now up to version 2.5.2, has the rare distinction of being a project management application aimed at professionals and designed specifically and exclusively for the Mac platform.

User-friendly interface

There are many aspects to setting up and using any project management system, so total simplicity isn't really possible, but Merlin does an excellent job of keeping things as clear and logical as it possibly can.

It's helped in this by a stylish design and intuitive interface. Everything happens in one big window that's divided up into a main panel plus one or more smaller ones that change according to the aspect you're currently working on.

There are four principal views for the main panel. These show either the Gantt chart with critical paths displayed as bold lines, a network diagram using the Activity on Node format, a list of resources involved in the project, and a time-based display of resource utilisation with under-utilised resources in green and overloads in red.

The smaller panels are where you'd enter detailed information on selected tasks, resources and so on. For example, if you select an activity, you can view six different Inspector panels covering its dependencies, budget and planned or actual progress, as well as any notes or user-defined fields.

Annotate your project

In addition to the Inspector panels, which show intrinsic information, there's also an Elements panel where you can annotate a project or activity, or attach any type of document to it. This means that anything from a simple checklist to a whole folder of correspondence or technical drawings can be gathered and connected to the activities they relate to.

With these external documents you have a choice of copying them into the project folder or linking to an existing file location. Merlin even has an in-built document management system that enables you to store and track document versions, which is great if you need to refer to an older copy.

Merlin provides good integration with Address Book and iCal. Events can be imported, exported and synchronised between Merlin and iCal, and any names imported from Address Book into the Resources list will automatically have their details updated if the Address Book entry is changed.

As for other collaborative working capabilities, if you use mind-mapping software for pre-planning your projects, you'll be pleased to know that Merlin can import from NovaMind and MindManager. Sharing projects over a LAN is also simplicity itself, and even sharing over the internet is easily set up.

Tutorials and templates

To help new users, Merlin comes with a detailed tutorial and a range of templates. The documentation is thorough, but it's let down by a rather stiff and incomplete translation from the German original.

The program itself could also do with a more international outlook. For example, Merlin's default currency is the Euro and there's no preference for changing that other than on a project-by-project basis.

Despite this, Merlin is a very effective application and clear proof that you don't need a Windows PC in order to run serious business software. For anyone who's been put off by the complexity of other project management solutions, Merlin makes this complicated task about as easy as it's likely to get. What's more, it does it at an affordable price.