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Review Update: Mental Case

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In this posting I offer some more comments on the desktop version of Mental Case for OS X following up on my review of the iPhone/iPod version of the application yesterday and an earlier review of Mental Case 1.2.2.

The desktop version of Mental Case is now strengthened by the ability to synch with its mobile counterpart, reviewed yesterday, but as I pointed out in that review, synch is slow and complicated to carry out. Like its mobile counterpart the desktop version has made some UI decisions, especially in the important flashcard arena, which make it frustrating to use for high-volume study. However, this remains one of the leading applications in its class. The price for the application has come down significantly and there is a further deep and welcome discount for educational users making this application good value for its feature set.Note: This review is primarily from the perspective of language learners. See the Terms page for an explanation of the technical terms used in these reviews. See the Basics page for a list of basic features found in flashcard applications useful to language learners.

This is only a review update. See the full original review for more.

Application Name: Mental Case
Version Reviewed: 1.4.3
Software License: Commercial ($25, $15 for educational license)
Review Date: 2009.01.28
OS Tested: OS X 10.5.6

Note: Some things mentioned or discussed here may have been present in the earlier version and I simply failed to notice or comment upon them at the time.

A number of things I pointed out in my original review have been changed for the better. 1) You can edit cards directly in the case overview, without going into the modal edit mode, by double clicking the entries. 2) The price is much lower, offering much greater value, especially for students. I think it is now perfectly priced for the target market relative to the competition. 3) There is a form of cycle elimination now, wherein cards studied in a case and the lesson will continually repeat if they have been marked incorrect. This could be further improved if, at the completion of all cards, you were presented with come visual feedback that announced correct completion of all cards, preferably with some statistics on the study session. A kind of debriefing card, as it were. This gives the user a satisfying feeling of completion. Without such a debriefing card, one feels like you have completed the most difficult level of a computer game, but are given no victory screen.

An improvement in this version which addresses a problem I discussed in the interval study portion of my review of Mental Case is that users can now select from a number of behaviors for entries marked incorrect during lesson study.


It would still be nice to allow users to create their own Lesson spacing algorithm and I hope a future version will include this ability.

Just a few more areas where further improvements could be made in future releases:

Flashcard Study

-Given the attention spent by the developer on the UI, I continue to be surprised there is no full screen option and way to format the display of flashcards. There is a full screen theme but it doesn’t cover the screen fully. The developer notes that he wants to leave space for the controls, but these can surely overlap the background of the card. As it is, all my other applications in the background and my desktop background are still distractingly visible. There should be an option for a solid and full screen background. Also, from a language student perspective, we are mostly dealing with cards with text that we would like to see big and clear on the screen so the current smaller text is a waste of screen space.

-I have the same complaint about flashcard study on the desktop that I had on the mobile edition (See that review for the developers own take on this), that is, I feel it should be possible to immediately move to the next card (or show the reverse side) when the card is clicked, or when the card is marked correct or incorrect. Mental Case started with an image of flashcard study as a more passive slideshow experience, I believe, but for high-volume study by language students, it would be best to provide at least the option of being able to quickly mark a word “known” or “unknown” and have it immediately present the next thing.

-Students of Asian languages or who wish to include conjugation information etc. in a separate and distinct field still will not find Mental Case compelling, given the fact it still only supports two fields.

Other Issues

-I have already mentioned in my review of the mobile edition that synching is not a pleasant experience, even though we should celebrate the accomplishment of adding this powerful feature. I hope this will improve in future versions.

-I want to say again, as I mentioned in my full review of the application, the pie chart approach to interval study, which allows users to “complete” an interval schedule for cards and completely “memorize” a word goes against a very basic principle of long-term interval study that other developers, such as Andre Khromov (whose Kanji Flip iPhone/iPod application I recently reviewed) have understood well: For all practical purposes one never permanently memorize a word. It should never completely exit the interval study environment even if, in reality, we will probably remember a word for many years without forgetting it. In fact, and I speak from plentiful personal experience here, even native speakers forget their own language after a long enough period of disuse. Mental Case would do well to rethink their interval study approach to make it accord with this fundamental principle of perpetual learning.

-I have been doing more tests with the sorts of large sets that high-volume students will need to work with, containing 500, 1000, or cases up to 8000 cards (Which is appoximately the amount of vocabulary the average student will learn in a one-year advanced intensive language program such as IUC in Japan, IUP in China, or ICLP in Taiwan, etc.). What I found is that Mental Case is extremely slow, in comparison to competitors such as iFlash and even the cross-platform application Anki, in handling such large sets. In comparison to the fragment of a second or 1-2 seconds of its competitors, sometimes Mental Case will present a spinning wheel for long periods of time, even 7-10 minutes in some cases.

Some examples:

-Case of 2500 Chinese characters, select all, right click and choose “Restart Lesson Schedule” – took over 7 minutes. (same task less than 1 second in iFlash for example)
-Moving 200 words from one case to another took 4 seconds (should be almost immediate!)
-Changing the interval schedule of a case in one case took 1 minute, in another case over 5 minutes for the same number of cards.
-Moving 1000 words from a case to the trash took over 2 minutes, in another case, the application hung for 5 minutes.
-In a separate case deleting a whole case of 2500 Chinese words (thus moving its contents into the trash) took 12 seconds.

As you can see speeds were not consistent, sometimes it happened faster. In all these cases I was dealing with two side cards with no images or sound. I don’t know if adding images and sound makes this even worse. Drew McCormack, argues that he is much at the mercy of Apple’s Core Data framework for performance issues, but I find it hard to believe that there are not ways to further optimize performance. I can’t fully recommend this application for high-volume students who will be adding and managing large sets to the application until this performance is significantly improved.


  1. I’m the developer of Mental Case. Thanks again for the review. Here are a few responses to the criticisms:

    Although the ‘standard’ schedule does not go on perpetually, there is nothing to stop a user from changing to a perpetual schedule, say, ‘yearly’, when a case has finished the standard schedule.

    Regarding performance: it is true that performance is not great when moving large numbers of cards around. The reason for this ‘weakness’ is actually one of Mental Cases ‘strengths’, namely, ‘cascading defaults’. Mental Case has a powerful inheritance-like system for determining a cards learning schedule, viewing time, and reversibility. This controlling these variables much simpler than in other apps, once you know how it works.

    The problem is, this is also quite computationally expensive. We have some ideas for performance improvements, and hopefully they will be added in a future release.

    Thanks for the review!
    Drew McCormack
    MacCoreMac Software

    Wednesday, January 28, 2009 at 6:35 am | Permalink
  2. K. M. Lawson wrote:

    Thanks Drew,

    On the first point about scheduling perpetually – that is a good point and a method I hadn’t thought of. Would be nice if there was a way to make that automatic (again, perhaps a setting in the “Lesson” tab of preferences: After interval schedule is complete, switch to ____ schedule)

    Good luck with those performance improvements!

    Wednesday, January 28, 2009 at 7:42 am | Permalink
  3. A quick update: after this review appeared, we took a look at these performance issues. Some can’t easily be fixed, so will have to wait, but others could be fixed relatively easily by working around issues in Apple’s frameworks.

    So in the next few days, we will release an update that makes dragging notes between cases very fast (<1 second for 1000 notes), and trashing notes fast.

    The places we couldn’t improve were the scheduling changes, because these have to do with the cascading defaults.

    We have also now added a short cut for syncing, and improved the stability of syncing with iPhone, and — in some cases — the performance.

    All of these changes will be released in a day or two. Hopefully that addresses some of the more serious issues raised in the review.


    Wednesday, January 28, 2009 at 10:27 am | Permalink
  4. K. M. Lawson wrote:

    Really great to hear that you are looking into these performance issues. This is just what I was hoping for with these reviews: to hopefully encourage developers to take another look and make improvements in their software. I’ll post the info here when the new release comes out.

    Wednesday, January 28, 2009 at 1:23 pm | Permalink
  5. Marcus wrote:

    These kind of exchanges are awesome. Keep up the good work with the blog!

    Thursday, January 29, 2009 at 5:33 pm | Permalink
  6. Simon wrote:

    Hi Guys,

    Having used a number of these applications I find your reviews and the comments extremely helpful.

    Although it appears that the reviewer enjoys a simple programme without the ‘eye-candy’ I must admit that I for one, quite like the eye-candy. Studying is boring enough without having to look at an ugly interface. My motivation to study does increase if I enjoy using the programme.

    I would therefore say that both eye-candy and no-animation are dependent on the user.

    Keep up the good work guys.

    To the reviewer: I really appreciate the depth to which you review the programmes, it certainly influenced which app I ended up purchasing.

    Wednesday, February 11, 2009 at 4:53 am | Permalink
  7. Ernie wrote:

    Great to hear on the improvements, what about the full-screen view mentioned in the review. that would be great and remove the background distraction

    Sunday, March 1, 2009 at 9:58 pm | Permalink
  8. Simon wrote:

    If you’re concerned about background distractions, I find this little free utility superb:

    Thursday, March 19, 2009 at 10:28 pm | Permalink