FreeMind Review

Freemind is a popular open source mind mapping application, developed by enthusiasts and given away at no cost (like xmind).  Written in Java it can run on a wide variety of platforms and the version tested was 0.8.5.

Download and Installation

FreeMind Startup Screen
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Being written in Java and open source the code is available to anyone to use on any platform that can run Java. The owners of the project realize that most people won't want to compile and build source code though, so installers are provided for Windows, Mac and Linux. There are two versions of the Windows download, a full version and a smaller one for quick downloads and installation. The smaller version is largely the same as its big brother but doesn't have the ability to export mind maps in PDF or SVG formats. Even through you may not think you'll need these it's worth downloading the larger version unless you have a very slow internet connection.

There are two Linux packages, one in RPM format and another in the Debian format used by a number of other Linux flavors including Ubuntu. There is even a version for eComStation, an operating system that we had never heard of but which is a commercially sold OS for PCs, derived from IBM's OS/2. For other operating systems and possibly some variants of Linux it will be necessary to compile the source code and build an image, but if you fall into this category you will be used that.

First Impressions

Freemind installs and starts up quickly, giving the impression of a small and neat application. The look and feel will be immediately recognizable to anyone who used Windows software before Microsoft changed to their ribbon style interface. There is a row of drop down menus at the top, a second row of icons for the most commonly used functions and drop down boxes for text formatting. The specialist functions are all activated by a row of icons down the left-hand side of the screen, a menu under an icon at the top of the screen or from a comprehensive right-click context menu.

FreeMind Context Menu
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Freemind calls the individual items of a mind map 'nodes' and they can be children, siblings or parents of other nodes. Most of specialist function icons running down the left-hand side of the screen add what Freemind call icons to a mind map node. So, for example, you can assign a priority icon to a task node or a 'to be discussed' icon to an issue node. There is only one sort of node so the only differences between them are the differences you ascribe to them by name, color or icons.

Help in Mind Map Format

The application puts its money where its mouth is so the Help file is in mind map format. This makes all the information about the package easy to find but also highlights a limitation, although it's one of mind maps themselves, not Freemind. As a quick reference to the commands it works very well but there is little information that puts the commands into context. Of course, as with many other mind map packages, a node can be a link to external information. In the case of Freemind this can be a hyperlink to a web document, a link to a folder on a local computer or a network, or an executable.

Freemind also has 'long' nodes which are capable of containing blocks of text. The blocks can be formatted using Freemind options or HTML. If some of these had been added to hold context information the Help could have been much more helpful. The other disadvantage, in this case a factor of Freemind being an open source project, is that the Help file is two versions behind the software. It wasn't clear if there was a significant amount of missing or erroneous information.

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Creating a Mind Map in Freemind

Each new map starts with a central node to which you can add whatever you need. Many people find it easier to start a mind map on a whiteboard or flip-chart before committing it to software because they find when they drill down into a subject that it is more complex in certain areas and the map has to be re-organized. With Freemind this isn't necessarily the case as elements can be moved around easily. There are many keyboard shortcuts which speed up map construction once you have got used to them.

When a node is in context the Insert key will cause a child node to be created, or a right-click with the mouse will open a context menu from which you can create a child node, sibling, sibling of the previous upstream node or a long node. There are keyboard shortcuts for all of these too, itís just a case of learning them. The Help has a long node which lists of all of them.

Putting in Textual Information

Information can be typed into the nodes, in either short or long format. For information that already exists Freemind has good interpretation of many textual data formats so they can be copied and pasted into a map. The paste function interprets the data and splits it into nodes, using carriage returns to denote a new node and tabbed indentations to go down another branch level. This means that you can construct data in, say Word, to take advantage of the better text manipulation facilities, then paste it into a mind map.

You can even drag text across from another application and drop it into a mind map. It is slightly disturbing that the text in the other application is deleted, not what had been expected, but at least it was noticed it and could be retrieved with an Undo in that application.

Assigning Attributes to Mind Map Nodes

Once nodes have been created you can tailor them to your needs. There are three main groups of attributes you can add, graphical attributes, grouping and icons. One of the best things is that they can all be accessed from a comprehensive context menu available when right-clicking on a node. They all have their own icons and menus too, for those who prefer those methods. The choice of graphical elements is very wide; as well as different fonts, point sizes and colors for the text of a node, the background color can be changed as can the borders and the lines joining nodes together.

Grouping options include graphical links (arrows) to show a relationship between nodes that are unrelated by the core links of the mind map. You can also select (by dragging the mouse or using CTRL-click to select nodes from different areas of the map) nodes and put them in clouds to suggest a stronger relationship that the arrow. The clouds can be colored and shaded as much as any other element of a Freemind map.

FreeMind Folding
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Iconic Assignment

The third element of attribution is the icons on the toolbar that runs down the left hand side of the screen. These include priority assignments, checking tasks as completed or in progress and highlighting issues and actions. Informational attributes such as email addresses, phone number and addresses can also be added. One slightly frustrating restriction is that you can only delete the last icon added to a node added or all of them. What's really needed is the ability to remove individual icons because the only way to remove an icon, unless it was the last added, is to delete all of them then add them all back in apart from the one you don't want.

Some of the icons are a little misleading as they don't follow convention. The 'to be discussed' icon, for example, is a magnifying glass, more usually used these days to denote a search, sometimes a zoom facility. The 'Look Here' icon is a paperclip, which leads you to expect an attachment on a node. The 'Undo' icon on the second row is upside down compared to a Microsoft application and causes a moment's confusion so it's perhaps best to stick to CTRL-Z.

Working with Scale

As the map grows in size you discover that you can zoom in and out, move the map by dragging it around with the mouse and scrolling up and down with the mouse wheel. This all helps the novice user to realize that you do not necessarily have to care if your mind map ends up being visually balanced. As long as you can move the map around and get to the salient points using folding and unfolding (see below) then how the map looks is irrelevant. The appearance can be worried about later if a map ever has to be presented to an audience.

Hierarchical Limitations

Once you get to grips with making and modifying mind maps with Freemind one of the core limitations of the package rears its head and that is the forcing of the mind map into a hierarchical structure. To be honest there are not that many mind mapping packages that don't operate this way, as it's time-consuming and tricky to create reliable software that will handle this complexity. The few packages that can do this are all commercial too.

It is possible to drag and drop nodes around the map and thus change their level in the hierarchical structure, something that, to be honest, was expected to fail. This makes the hierarchical restriction easier to work around and, as it's sometimes hard to remember, this is free software, so it's all the more impressive for that.

Folding Branches

There is much else to recommend Freemind too. Once you have started to create mind maps of a significant size you will appreciate what Freemind call 'folding'. This is the ability to hide or reveal a branch and all its sub-nodes just by clicking on it. This is great when browsing and reading mind maps but a little confusing when modifying them, as you tend to single-click on a selected node so that you can edit it, as with most other programs.

Instead it's right-click to reveal a context menu then select Edit Node although, even more confusingly, if a node has no children, the de facto standard of a single click works. It might be better to get into the habit of using F2 instead, a reasonable enough choice as it conforms with the 'edit element' function for Windows Explorer and Excel if not many more applications.

Freemind Modes

Freemind starts by default in MindMap mode where you create and modify maps. For browsing maps already created (for example the Help file) the program automatically switches to Browse mode. Maps can be folded and unfolded just as if the map is opened in MindMap mode but not edited. There is a third mode, File mode, which allows you to browse a file system as a mind map. Even the Help file admits that this is of little use it but exists to demonstrate the ability to feed data into the mind map tree from other sources

There seem to be some glitches when switching between modes. Without much clicking about a dozen maps were opened, most of them duplicates of the Help file. Trying to close these seemed to put the program into a strange state where the menu wasn't active, meaning you couldnít move on. It was eventually discovered that selecting a different zoom factor from the browse mode's drop down menu gave control back. Other than that the program was responsive and trouble free even on a PC (running XP) that's at least five years old.

Distributing Maps

The output of your creative sessions with Freemind can be exported to a variety of different formats so that they can be distributed for other people to view and print even if they don't have a copy of Freemind on their computer. PDF is possibly the best for widespread read-only distribution or there are different graphics formats which might be better suited when putting maps on websites. RTF format allows importing into office productivity products and clickable XHTML exports allow a large mind map to be expanded and explored in a similar way to folding and unfolding.

FreeMind Review: Freemind Export Options
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For those who are sharing mind maps with other Freemind users the current version has an experimental version of file locking to avoid accidents when two or more people are editing the same file. With Freemind available at no charge, distributing it across an organization is possible at no immediate cost although IT professionals will be mindful of the support and training costs.

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Freemind is a more than competent mind mapping application and is obviously written by people who really understand mind maps and how they are used. There are some gremlins but the comprehensive feature set more than compensates for that. One of the risks with open source applications is that they become moribund but the product's home site, an easy to navigate wiki, shows that there is a core team actively working on the product, fixing bugs and moving the application forward. The support forums on also show up-to-date interest in noting and solving bugs and users helping other users.

The features missing from Freemind are generally those that are only present in high end commercial competitors, for example dynamic linking to external data sources or n-dimensional mind maps. These are not really disadvantages as the software is free and it's not unreasonable to expect that the feature set will not match up to an expensive commercial product.

People considering getting into mind maps could do nothing better than download Freemind and get cracking. The fact that Freemind is free means that there's nothing to lose by taking it on an extended test drive and then buying a commercial product once they are sure they will stick with mind maps and need the extra features. With the exception of the inability to delete individual icons it's unlikely that many users will feel that need.