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Which is the best mindmapping software?
I track discussions about mind mapping on Twitter and in blogs, and I often hear or read the question "Which is the best mindmapping software?" Anyone who gives you a single, immediate answer either knows you and your mindmapping activities very well, or is likely recommending the one that they've become familiar with themselves.
What is "best" depends so much on how you use mind maps. Some people use them for study, some for planning projects, some for organizing information, some for sparking ideas and facilitating brainstorming sessions, some for planning the writing of a report or blog. Some mindmap alone, others mindmap in groups. Most of us probably do all of these from time to time, so we need a quiver full of arrows to choose from, some free, some not so free.
Click the images below to see a larger version of the image. To go to the site of the software mentioned, click the caption below its image.
If you're looking for detailed reviews though, you can pick up at no cost this eBook about free mind mapping and similar software with its very thorough analysis and examples showing the capabilities of each package. You may want to grab your copy now. But if you want to know the best paid-for mappers, read-on.
One package can't support all user profiles ...
… so here's my take:
For study, learning and memorization
... the colorful ones are said to help in retaining information: iMindmap, Inspiration, and for Mac MyThoughts and Mindnode are good candidates if you study alone; if you're part of a study group that likes mind maps, then software that supports collaboration may be a better fit: Bubbl.us (an online tool that runs in your browser) is really easy to learn and use. For students, there is also free software that lets you make simple but colorful maps. Look at this list for more than 25 packages, all free with some able to make very attractive maps.
|iMindmap||Inspiration||MyThoughts for Mac|
|Mindnode||Bubbl.us||The free mapping software list|
For planning projects and managing projects
... MindManager works well for project management, especially with with add-ons like Gyronix ResultManager and Power Markers. This is not a low-cost solution, but for professional managers, the return is great. If you have a lot of project information to organize, then use 3D Topicscape Pro - it can import a MindManager map, so as a project grows, the 2D map can also provide a framework for the 3D map to hold collected information and research materials.
When organizing information
... for moderate amounts of information, MindManager, or Freeplane; (I used to suggest FreeMind but its development has slowed right down to a crawl. After its years of good service, I'm coming round to the view that I have to propose Freeplane now. This is a fork of FreeMind, and has features that FreeMind users requested long ago and are still waiting for.
... for larger bodies of information and especially to cope with information overload, try Topicscape Pro.
To spark ideas and facilitate brainstorming sessions
... MindManager, Freeplane, or any mindmapper than can be controlled easily from the keyboard, because you don't want to be constantly moving your hands between keyboard and mouse;
When planning writing, reports or blogs
... many writers swear by Scrivener, though its visual form is an outline not a mind map; For small reports I use MindManager to produce a skeleton contents list with some draft content in place, because it can export to Word files. For large reports, where there's a lot of research and reference information needed to develop the report and support points made, I plan, gather and organize the information in Topicscape Pro which has a number of text output options.
To design a web site or other publication
... MindManager can export a web site, built from and following the structure of a mind map. There's a simple example here that was made this way. WriteMaps is useful for website maps, as well, especially if you're designing a site in collaboration with others, because it's on line so doesn't need software to be downloaded and you can view the map in a hierarchical or an outline view.
For organizing your personal tasks
... if your life is simple and under control, Freeplane; If you have many projects on the go at once, then 3D Topicscape Lite.
If you often work in dispersed teams or groups
... and the group is attuned to a mindmapping approach, then look at the many web based products, like Mind42, MindMeister, MAPMYself, Mindomo or Wisemapping. See which one fits your budget - the first three are free, but the others have more capabilities and are subscription-based. Even the charged-for ones offer a limited-access free account. MAPMYself is the only one that offers an organic feel and that's useful for some types of mind mapping - many people like that. If you collaborate in planning or designing, these browser-based mappers satisfy a real need.
The ones I just mentioned have a mind mapping topology (they build round a central topic), but if you prefer a concept map and more freedom of node placement, then I recommend bubbl.us. It is easy to use, and the beta version even allows adding linking phrases between the nodes. This is necessary if you want to make real concept maps. The regular version is a masterpiece of user friendliness. In the beta version, several functions are handled differently, and personally, I find it less convenient and less visually attractive but if you need linking phrases, use it by all means, it is still good.
For presentations with mind maps
... many mind mapping applications can be used for presentations and provide a welcome relief from PowerPoint to some people. A recent newcomer has been designed specifically for presentations, though: Prezi. If you give presentations or want to put them on the Web, you should look at this example to see how it could change what your audiences see and engage with. You need to watch the example to understand the effect of the zooming, swinging and sliding round this map during the presentation. The static images below cannot convey this.
|The above live in Prezi||Prezi|
For concept maps
I mentioned these in relation to bubbl.us and collaborative browser-based apps, but the grand-daddy is Cmap. I love this free tool and, though I make less than 10% of my 2D maps with it, when I do use it, it's because it is the best tool for rigorous thinking, reflection and verifying our understanding of a topic. The download link is not immediately visible, so here's help: Download Cmap here. Cmap has Windows, Mac OS X and Linux versions. Inspiration can also make concept maps.
PC or Mac?
Your computer will limit choice to some degree. Mac users have less choice and though some software runs on Windows and Macs, updates to the Windows version will often be released before the Mac. Here's a quick list of Mac mapping software: Free: Freeplane, FreeMind; Xmind; MindNode; iMindmap Basic. Not free: Novamind; iMindmap (other versions); MindManager; Curio; Mythoughts; ConceptDraw.
Two drivers for mapping
I've been mapping for more than thirty years but soon after starting, I concluded that there are two motivations for using mind maps and similar types: Where the mindmapping process is what's really important - to help you think something through or get new ideas; and where the resulting mindmap is important as a finished product that will be shared with others in some way. You will encounter both at one time or another, depending on why you're making the map, whether others will see it and the life of the project that it's part of.
... because it makes you think
In the first case, someone walking up to the map you produce may not be able to make much sense of it, but provided you can understand it, it's how you got there that will matter most. You're not building it to share. Then, ease of use of the software will be important so that it does not get in the way of the process of thinking. You need to look out for keyboard shortcuts, ease of moving round the map and searching, and ways of connecting maps. MindManager and Freeplane are fairly good for this and provide quite a lot of freedom in layout to suit your own immediate needs. You have to find out how to turn off auto-layout, though.
In the second, your colleague's comprehension of the map will be important, so a tool that produces clear and businesslike results is needed. Whether this means it's appropriate to stick to auto-layout and not too much color will depend on the business culture. Publishers of the on-line web application Comapping claim to have researched their left-to-right mindmapping style and found this easier to introduce to mindmap novices, though you may soon want to move on to maps that allow more flexibility. Alternatively, a product that can turn a mindmap into an outline may be useful in winning over people who are not 'visual thinkers'. MindManager and Inspiration can both do this.
Personally I use MindManager 8, 3D Topicscape Pro (naturally as much of it is my design), and sometimes FreeMind and nowadays Freeplane. I played with text2mindmap for a while, because it takes a different approach: Key in a text outline and it produces a mindmap from it. It's amusing, but it does confine the user to a rigid hierarchy and that's something I find very limiting.
Finally, I have to mention mind mapping on a mobile phone. Working on these tiny screens is moderately painful (once you've got over the 'Wow!' factor), but there can be times when stuck on a train, for example, you might want to whip out your smartphone and start mapping. Here, then, is a list of applications that you can consider for such moments. Of those I've tried, iMindMap is the standout in this tiny format.
Mapping on an iPad is a different case - it is more practical, and here I'd warmly recommend iThoughtsHD. Not only is it easy to use and able to make attractive maps, it has the ability to import and export maps from a wide range of other mind mapping software.
What have I missed out?
Xmind has a very capable and professional-looking free version suitable for business mapping, and a Pro option - both give you access to an online facility. I do use this occasionally, and would use it more if I did not already have a MindManager license.
NovaMind is widely noted for producing very attractive maps, but with what I already have, I can't justify to myself the extra cost. If you are in the market for a mind mapping software license and haven't committed yet, you should take a look at Novamind.
More about mind mapping
I'm on Twitter as @roygrubb where I frequently answer questions about information mapping and software. I hope I'll see you there! (Follow me on Twitter.)
And if you're here at WikIT, the mind mapping wiki, for the first time, you may not know that it is a vast store of free information about all types of information mapping. Why not explore now?
PS Don't forget to pick up a copy of the eBook about free mind mapping and similar software...
Roy Grubb is a management consultant who has practised internationally in the USA, Asia and Europe for more than 30 years. He has been using a variety of types of mind maps for project management and to organize information for almost as long. One of his consultancy's assignments is the project management for the development of the family of software called Topicscape. He is at present based in Hong Kong.
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