Like many people today, I keep a lot of my important documents and communications in digital form. But I still print out the files and put them on my desk so I can have them in front of me instead of buried in computer subfolders within folders.
This week, I tested BumpTop, a program that displays items in a way that makes programs and files easy to see and open. It does this by turning your digital desktop into a three-dimensional environment that looks like your physical desktop. A few quick gestures neatly stack piles of items or tack important items onto one of four virtual walls. You can even flick your mouse to “toss” files to programs or group files into a pile, like stacking all your PDF files together. Special photo frames on the walls show slideshows of photos from PC folders or feeds from photo Web sites like Flickr or Picasa.
BumpTop comes from Toronto-based Bump Technologies Inc. and it has been in a private testing stage for a little over a year. Starting Wednesday, it’s available for anyone to download at BumpTop.com. It comes in a free or $29 Pro version. In Pro, files you use most often will grow bigger over time and you can flip through a pile’s contents by rolling the mouse’s scroll wheel, among other things.
I used BumpTop Pro for over two weeks and tried it on four computers running three different Windows operating systems: XP, Vista, and the prerelease version of Windows 7. BumpTop says it hopes to develop a Mac version in the future. (It should work on Parallels, a program that runs Windows virtually on a Mac, according to Bump Technologies, but not on Fusion, a similar program.)
This program is a real looker. When I showed it to friends, they immediately wanted to play with it, dragging pictures to pin on virtual walls and drawing circles around several icons at once to stack them into piles like magic. And when you toss files to certain programs, they perform functions. A Microsoft Word document tossed to the email icon generates an email with the document attached. Photos I tossed to the Facebook icon were posted on the social-networking site. Files can be tossed to a printer, the recycle bin, other piles and, in the Pro version, attached USB drives.
But as much as I liked BumpTop, I kept coming back to the same conclusion: It was fun while I was using it, but I wasn’t naturally inclined to leave the program I was using — like my email program, my browser or TweetDeck — just to do something on the desktop in a more visually pleasing way. And since the computer’s desktop has never been as functional as popular programs, it’s hard to expect people to spend a lot of time there.
Also, while BumpTop introduces a new, attractive user interface to the desktop, its 3-D functionality doesn’t extend throughout the whole computer, so you find yourself jumping back and forth between different ways of doing things.
BumpTop requires a computer with 3-D graphics and drivers, which older machines won’t have. Just for kicks I installed BumpTop on my older XP machine, which didn’t have the necessary requirements, and sure enough, it ran slowly and didn’t represent programs like Microsoft Outlook (MSFT) and Mozilla’s Firefox with the correct icons. Specific system requirements for BumpTop, along with a list of what the Pro version has that the free version lacks, can be found at BumpTop.com/download.
BumpTop’s point of view is like looking down from the ceiling in a room with four walls. It installs with three picture frames on its walls, and these display content from three sources: your computer’s My Pictures folder, Flickr.com’s main photo feed and a Flickr feed of photos Bump Technologies chose. You can change the images in settings, or delete the frames altogether.
The picture frames show ever-changing slideshows, and to do this, they only load low-resolution thumbnails of the images they display. This looks good when you’re quickly glancing at BumpTop, but if you double-click on a frame to zoom in, you’ll see a blurry photo. Bump Technologies says it plans to improve this where possible. Any photos on BumpTop other than those displayed in frames are visible in high resolution when you zoom in.
BumpTop loads with icons representing Twitter, Facebook and Email pinned to its right wall. And you can add your printer to the wall and toss things to it, printing them immediately.
The small visual details built into BumpTop make it a pleasure to use. Every time you open something, its representative icon hurls toward you in 3-D as if it were thrown. Items that are pinned to a wall flip end over end and playfully cling to the wall surface like a starfish with sticky, suction feet.
Special mouse movements generate on-screen options for organizing your BumpTop. Lassoing multiple images by drawing a line around them with your mouse pulls up a pie menu with options like “Grow,” “Shrink” and “Grid.” A “Pile by Type” option can organize all or just some of your desktop icons into piles arranged by similar characteristics, which by itself could be a big help.
Searching for something on your desktop isn’t a hassle anymore. Any time BumpTop is open, you can start typing and the program will search names of all items in BumpTop for results with the text you’re typing; those that match your request will glow.
I tried BumpTop on a touch-screen PC running Windows 7 — the HP TouchSmart PC — and the feeling of reaching out and tossing things around with my finger was even more enjoyable than using the mouse. As touch-screen PCs become more popular, BumpTop and programs like it will fit in more naturally.
If you miss seeing the photo that was on your regular desktop, an adjustment in Settings lets you use your Windows background on the BumpTop floor. Images can be assigned to each of the four walls; I assigned a photo of the National Mall at night to my back wall and a photo of my favorite lighthouse to my floor.
BumpTop is a pleasure to use and for no cost, the free version is certainly worth a try. If you like what you see and you’re willing to change the way you use your desktop, the Pro version might be worthwhile. Just be sure your computer has the correct specifications and be ready for blurry close-ups of the picture frames.
Edited By Walter S. Mossberg