Is Merlin Project a worthy replacement for your current project management solution?

Jack Wallen kicks the tires of the macOS version of Merlin Project to see if it lives up to the cost of the software.

Scrum task board on dark wall in office
Image: Pixel-Shot/Adobe Stock

If you depend on Gantt charts and kanban boards to keep your projects on schedule, you might assume your only recourse is to sign up for one of the many services available. There are plenty to choose from, but when a project might be of a more sensitive nature, or you prefer a more traditional desktop client-type solution, what do you do?

One option is Merlin Project, which is a professional-grade project management system for macOS and iOS devices. With Merlin Project, you can plan, control and monitor all of your projects. The feature set found in Merlin Project includes:

  • Gantt diagrams
  • Mind maps
  • Kanban boards
  • Net plans
  • Costs and budgets with both top-down and bottom-up planning
  • Resources with optional resource pools
  • Project sync with iCloud, Dropbox and other cloud services
  • Automated resource-leveling
  • Modular reporting
  • Import from MS Office and MindJet MindManager
  • Export to PDF, HTML, MS Project and more

SEE: Hiring kit: Project manager (TechRepublic Premium)

One thing to keep in mind is that Merlin Project is not free. There are two different takes on Merlin: Merlin Project and Merlin Project Express. Express is for private project management and Project is their flagship application that can be used by either a single person or teams of users. You can try Merlin Project for free for 30 days. After that, you can either pay an annual ($169.99) or monthly ($16.99) subscription fee. But is the software worth it, given how many free options are available? Let’s take a look and find out.

Initial impressions of Merlin Project

Upon the first run of Merlin Project, my initial assessment of what I saw was a bit pessimistic upon seeing a UI that seemed a bit outdated (Figure A). Given the cost of the software, I would have assumed it to be a beautiful UI that was every bit as modern as the current macOS.

Figure A

The initial Merlin Project window seems a bit outmoded by modern standards.

Of course, I’ve learned over the years to not judge a book by its cover, so the real test will be how easy the software is to use and the available features. To that end, I opted to use the General Project Management Plan to see how much mileage I could get out of it.

After choosing the template, I was surprised to find it filled with demo data (Figure B).

Figure B

The demo data for the General Project Management Plan.

Right out of the gate I realized that Merlin Project means serious business. This isn’t a piece of software that will hand-hold you through the onboarding process. When you opt to use Merlin Project, you better know your way around Gantt charts, otherwise, you will be lost from the jump.

Not being a big fan of Gantt charts, I immediately wanted to know what Merlin Project had to offer by way of kanban boards. I’m not gonna lie, it took me a moment to figure out how to open the Kanban View (go to View | Net Plan | Kanban). My next surprise was, upon opening the Kanban View on the project, that Merlin Project was far from a traditional board. One thing you have to work with is the idea of groupings. With Merlin Project, groupings allow you to dynamically group the contents of the current view based on certain rules, such as:

  • Complete
  • Expected Duration
  • Expected Work
  • Milestones
  • On Critical Path
  • Priority
  • Resources
  • Status
  • Tags

Those are just the out-of-the-box groupings. You can create your own custom grouping by opening the Groupings section and clicking + at the bottom right of the pane (Figure C).

Figure C

The Merlin Project kanban groupings window.

You need to pay close attention when creating your first kanban board in Merlin Project. When you open the view, you’ll be greeted by a window with a button labeled Group By Status Field. Click that button and then, in the resulting popup (Figure D), select By New Field From Template.

Figure D

Creating a new kanban board in Merlin Project.

Select the type of project (such as Software Development) from the drop-down and click OK. Your new kanban board will be created and you’re ready to go.

The thing about using kanban with Merlin Project is that once you’ve created a board, you can’t really customize it. Because of that, you must do any customization after selecting your template (and before clicking OK). In that window, you can add, remove and rename columns to fit your needs. If you don’t customize the template before creating the board, you’re out of luck, as you cannot add or remove columns once the board has been created.

If, however, you do take the time and customize the board to meet your needs, I’ve found the Merlin Project take on kanban to be very powerful and useful.

Who is Merlin Project for?

This is a tough question to answer. Given the cost and complexity of the app, I would say Merlin Project is aimed at those who are serious about Gantt charts and who have already mastered the art. If you come into Merlin Project not knowing what you’re doing, you will be immediately lost.

Merlin Project is one of the most feature-rich desktop apps of this nature I’ve come across. It’s also one of the most complicated. But if you’re looking for serious Gantt chart power, you’d be hard-pressed to find a worthier contender for your needs. If the price isn’t too steep for you and you already know your way around Gantt charts and kanban boards, I highly recommend you take Merlin Project out for the 30-day trial and see if it doesn’t meet (and, most likely, exceed) your needs.

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