When it comes to project management on the Mac, one application has consistently stood head and shoulders above the competition: ProjectWizards’ Merlin. Merlin is a full-featured, highly customizable, and most definitely enterprise-ready, project management solution.

As a result, Merlin also comes with an enterprise-ready price tag. A single-user license for Merlin will set you back $199USD. If you want the additional functionality that separate modules provide, you may also be looking at $130USD for the web sharing module license, $49USD for the iPhone/iPad-sharing license, and a whopping $995USD for the Merlin Server component (although Merlin Server does come with licenses for iPhone and web sharing). Is Merlin really worth that cost?

The answer depends on how much you need, or use, project management. While a single-license of Merlin will work great for a small business or home user, for collaborative installations there is nothing that provides the ease-of-use that Merlin does, or the extensible sharing options that are available — if you can afford it. Merlin Server, in this regard, is quite valuable as it does not require a copy of Merlin itself to be running, and can be hosted on a central server.

Merlin Server has the ability to do web sharing for up to 10 concurrent web connections, and also can share projects for up to 10 iPhones or iPads. It is also always-on. Running as a daemon and configured via a simple System Preferences preference pane, you only need to ensure that the computer running the server is available and Merlin Server takes care of the rest. You can share with just Merlin, and the optional sharing licenses, but that requires that Merlin itself is running and the project to be shared is loading; Merlin Server does not have the requirement of having projects open to be shared.

Opening remote documents in Merlin is just as easy as opening local documents. With Merlin open, select File | Remote Open from the menu bar. You can specify a server name or, if the server is on the local network, it will show up in the Servers list automatically. Select the appropriate server and a list of available Projects can be seen; select the remote document and click Open.

When creating a new project, you can select from some pre-defined templates, such as Client-Website or Product Design. You can also create a new empty project if none of the templates are to your liking or fill your needs. After this you can tailor the template to suit your needs and define things like start and end dates, available working times, and phases (such as Pre-Production and Production). Depending on where you are in the project, not all of these phases may be applicable.

The main project window gives you four views: Activities, Net Plan, Resources, and Utilization. Each of these views gives you a different overview of the project. Aside from the Net Plan view, each view allows you to fully edit the project just by double-clicking on the field. Change the names of the default resources to match who is in that role, and set the rates for that resource (rental costs for equipment, wages for individuals, etc.) appropriately. In the Utilization view you can see time estimates for each resource, broken down by tasks as defined in the Activities view. By changing the completed percentage for a task, you can see where you are in the project, and where the overall project completion is at (Figure A).

Figure A

Each item in the Activities view can be further viewed and customized using the inspector. The inspector allows you to define when that particular task should start (defaults to “As soon as possible”, but it can also be “As late as possible” or on a specific date); you can set whether the duration of the task is an estimate or not (and also indicate the actual work time versus the estimated work time), assign priorities to different tasks, assign resources to the task, look at and set budgets, set dependent actions, set notes specific to that task, and more.

Each view has its own inspector, so with the Resources view you can set phone numbers, email addresses, type of resource, the cost, set available working hours, whether or not they are a user (and if they are, set a password and various editing permissions), and much more.

Figure B

Merlin also has an extensive range of exporting options. It can export the project to CSV, MS Project, iCal, various mind mapping software, an image, XML, and OPML (for OmniOutliner) files.

Figure C

Merlin is robust, there is no doubt about it. It is also very powerful and very customizable, which can be seen by the nearly 50 page Quick Start guide. This flexibility and power does come at a cost, however. It is reflected in the actual cost of the license, as well as the time it will take to fully learn the software and make full use of it. Merlin is no doubt overkill for individuals who simply want to organize their own projects, but for people with serious needs for project management, or organizations that need to share project files with multiple users at the same time, Merlin and Merlin Server are definitely worth investigating. And if you need to have portable project management capabilities, using the iPhone sharing license (part of Merlin Server or as an optional add-on for the standalone Merlin), will connect Merlin to your iPhone or iPad easily, allowing you to work with your project management files no matter where you are.

Merlin and Merlin Server are both available for free trials. They have some small limitations (such as a limit of 40 activities per project) but otherwise are fully featured and suitable for testing. If project management is important to you or your organization, you owe it to yourself to ignore Merlin’s price tag for the duration of a trial run to see if it meets your needs. The biggest advantage Merlin has above the competition is its sharing capabilities; if sharing project management files is a requirement, Merlin may be the only real solution currently available.