iMindMapiMindMap is mind mapping software from Tony Buzan, the person who first popularized mind maps in the 1970s. He first came to prominence with a series of television programs made by the BBC in the United Kingdom and followed that up with a number of books about mind mapping and other memory improvement techniques. He is still active today in presenting globally about mind maps and other mental and educational techniques.
Development of iMindMap started in 2006 and intended to produce the most accurate representation of mind maps as described by Tony Buzan. This involves introducing colors, images and sounds to the map to help people with different learning styles to remember the concepts represented by a map. For this reason iMindMap focuses purely on providing rich and in-depth mind mapping features and producing them in the various formats that will be usable in a commercial or educational organization. There is less emphasis on expanding map styles into other formats or online collaboration, as with many other mind mapping software products. iMindMap concentrates on doing one thing well.
We tested version 4.1.0 which comes in three versions, Elements, Professional, and Ultimate. The download took a suspiciously long time, probably over ten minutes, although it wasn't being timed. Of course there are many different reasons why a download can take a long time, from the size of the package through Internet congestion to the state of the PC downloading the product, but it was the first sign that things might not go too well with iMindMap.
At a good deal less than 200Mb size should not have been a problem, although it is twice the size of any other downloadable mind mapping software package, but installation went off without a hitch apart from being slow. A learning tutorial runs on first startup, you can choose to close it but we thought we'd go through it. This video presentation assumes a certain level of knowledge about mind mapping. It's nice to see training which not only states that before it starts but also directs people who don't have that level of knowledge to more resources on the website to fill in the gaps. The video training allows you to actually perform the steps presented as you go along which works well, you get a good feel for the way it all works.
Building the First Map
The creation of a mind map starts with the selection of an appropriate image for the core of the map. It can then be expanded by either of two modes; either the default Mind Map Mode or a more hand-held Speed Mind Map Mode for brainstorming, minute-taking and making maps in meetings.
By this time we had already begun to encounter performance problems and went to the package's website to look for any hints as to how to improve this. As a result of finding an entry on boosting performance we changed the memory allocation to the Java runtime engine. This meant restarting the program which meant that we needed to save the mind map that we had created during the training. This showed us that iMindMap had created its own place to store MindMaps. Like MindManager, iMindMap's creators have decided that the software should create its own directory, in this case one called My iMindMap Files, with a sub-directory called Mind Maps. iMindMap is not alone in thinking this is a great idea, so many other software manufacturers do it, not only mind mapping software, to the extent that most PCs now have a plethora of My Something folders.
The problem is that very few people put files in directories based on application type. It seems far more sensible and popular to organize files around their subject matter, populating subject directories with the relevant data regardless of the applications used to create and manage them. Of course iMindMap will allow people to change the default locations for all files it uses from a dialog box found under Tools, Options, but it's still very annoying. Rant over.
Trying Times Again
Having saved the test mind map and rebooted the venerable testing PC just to be on the safe side it was time to try iMindMap again. We are prepared to accept that the testing PC isnít the newest or fastest around but it has coped well with other Java-based mind mapping tools like MindManager, Freemind and Compendium. It is also well over the system requirements specified in the FAQ on the iMindMap web site. The PC still had plenty of free physical and virtual memory but the effects and behavior of iMindMap are either very slow or designed to confuse. Increasing the JRE memory allocation as described above did improve things but still items on a very small test map would disappear at random and then be redrawn once the mouse got near to them. Moving closer to the red spot on a node meant that context menus faded in and out, again slowly. Perhaps less attention to fancy effects would deliver a faster and more satisfying user experience.
This behavior didnít seem to make sense, and certainly in the video training the maps appear stable on the screen. One of the supplied sample mind maps was loaded up and, as expected, the whole map appeared. Great. But then as the mouse was moved over the map parts of it would appear and disappear, all very disconcerting. Abandoning the usual click-on-things-randomly-until-you-understand-it learning method we returned to the learning videos and waded through them hoping for enlightenment. We also changed the JRE memory allocation again, assigning the maximum available, and rebooted to a minimum configuration. Unfortunately this didn't really improve things a great deal. Whole maps kept disappearing and the screen would become white with black dashes all over the foreground. As you hovered over an area where map items existed they would be redrawn but as soon as you took the mouse anywhere else, the Start menu, for example, it would all disappear again.
Initial Look and Feel
Having got this far we decided to do our best to ignore this behavior, put it down to Java or a tired PC, and get on with looking at the product and the way it creates and manages mind maps. The first impression of the user interface is the dozen or so very large icons in-between the obligatory row of drop down menus and the formatting bar. Although we recognize that this is a completely subjective view, to us large icons look clunky and out of date, no matter how nicely designed and shaded they are. Considering screen real estate is vitally important for mind mapping it's a surprise to see so much of it wasted on the icons. Full screen mode shows some very nice standard size icons and it's a shame those couldnít be used all the time.
While we're on that subject, full screen mode, unlike any other software package we've come across, does not have a clue on the screen as to how to revert to the normal mode. We had to refer to the help to discover that you needed to right-click to get a context menu up and select the appropriate option. There are a number of odd little inconsistencies like that. Another is being able to select two files in the Open Recent File dialogue from the startup splash screen but in fact only the first one opens.
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There is, of course a keyboard shortcut to get in and out of full screen mode, CTRL-F11. iMindMap, along with most of the major mind mapping packages, recognizes that people who spend a lot of time at a keyboard generally hate having to move their hand to find and click a mouse. There are not as many keyboard shortcut keys as other products though, XMind being the current leader, not only in terms of the number of shortcuts but also the ease of finding them, with a pop-up list one click or one key press away. This isnít really a major drawback as iMindMap has a special mode for fast mind map creation in which the keyboard can easily be used.
In Speed Mind Map Mode you use the keyboard (although there's nothing to stop you using the mouse as well) to quickly enter the nodes and branches for a mind map. Simply hitting Enter creates branches as the current level and typing the relevant text then hitting Enter creates a child under the current active level with your text on the branch. Once you have the basics in you can navigate around the nodes and branches with the arrow keys to enter further sub-branches as and where necessary.
Rich and Creative Options
One of the key points about mind maps is that mixing the senses helps people learn the concepts they represent. So once the mind map has been created in Speed Mind Map mode you can then change the colors that it has selected as it created the map, or leave them as they are. Images can be attached and audio tags as well (only in Professional mode). It's this attention to purist mind mapping that emphasizes the involvement of Tony Buzan in the development of the product. This faithfulness to the original ideal is also indicated in the help text and tutorials. For example, it's pointed out that although Speed Mind Map mode is very useful for creating maps quickly, perhaps in brainstorming sessions, it's only by free drawing a map in ordinary Mind Map mode that you will really get the full learning benefit of the mind map creation experience.
As your mind maps get bigger and more complex the unique features of iMindMap come into pay. The branches in most mind mapping software packages can be labeled and colored, and the style of the line and optional arrowheads are often configurable too. Of course that's all there in iMind Map but the active nodes on the branches offer so much more. There are small positive and negative symbols which at a click of a mouse will collapse or expand a complete branch. The active nodes can be dragged almost anywhere so a map can take on whatever shape it needs to be to fit all the information in. Hovering the mouse at the junction or end of any branch will bring two concentric circles into view. The inner red dot can be clicked on to create new branches at that level, clicking on the blue outer circle allows you to move or modify that branch.
And most importantly, from the point of mind map purists, the branches themselves contain the factual point of each element, being labeled themselves. With most other mind mapping programs the branches can be labeled but they point in the end to boxes where the core factual point is contained. This isnít strictly a mind map but more akin to a 'concept map', an idea also developed and popularized in the Seventies but in this case by the American educator Joseph D. Novak.
Collaboration and Integration Options
As with XMind, iMindMap offers importing for FreeMind and MindManager maps, thus identify the products that iMindMap consider to be the market leaders at the moment. Export options to share maps with non-iMindMap users include PDF and various graphics options, including SVG, something of a rarity but likely to increase in popularity. There are also options for exporting in spreadsheet, text and web page formats, including OPML, an open XML format for outlining documents. The spreadsheet export has two options: nested, which calculates totals for each branch level and flat, which exports data in two columns for you to format as you like.
As the evaluation version of the software doesn't have the export options we couldnít really play with this to find out what they offer in real terms but it is evidence of a lot of thought being put into the integration of mind maps into existing software in use at various organizations. iMindMap is also unique as far as we are aware in offering an export to PowerPoint format that creates an animated presentation. Note that if these export formats are important to you, you should check the iMindMap web site to see which version you need. Ultimate delivers all of them, Elements very few, and Professional, the middle ground, will offer some.
iMindMap hasn't yet gone in for the wholesale online integration, in the sense of online collaboration and simultaneous modification, that some other mind mapping products are obviously aiming at. The export and import facilities allow integration but iMindMap isn't trying to make its own mind mapping social networking site like XMind or inserting shared and real-time collaboration facilities as MindManager is doing.
Project Management and Education
Where iMind Maps' creators have spent their time is enhancing the mind map offering to allow it to be used for education and project management, although the Ultimate version is required to get full access to both these add-ons. The project management facility will produce Gantt charts and a task table view from a mind map. Pop-up dialog menus can then be populated to enter all the information required to track and manage a project. Import and export facilities for Outlook contacts and task lists and Microsoft Project help integration.
The E-Learning Course creation module allows educators to produce courses that can be delivered electronically. They can contain presentation slides, animations, voiceovers and other audio and visual content. The website offers a pack for developers to help them produce these courses which can then be distributed to other Windows-based PCs. Those with Elements or Professional versions of iMindMap can open the courses but authoring requires the Ultimate version. The company obviously sees this as a growth area as they declare an intention to produce an online store where people can offer their courses for others to purchase, although to date this has not yet appeared.
We had our problems with iMindMap and although we are aware that some may be down to the test PC rather than the software (Java version problems, perhaps?) it is the only piece of software that has not run flawlessly straight out of the box so perhaps some work is required on its resilience. That said the software looks easy to use and shows great potential for marrying mind maps with more widely used project management techniques. The ability to produce e-learning courses is an interesting area of potential development.
In terms of being able to faithfully recreate mind maps that conform to Tony Buzan's original definition there is no doubt that iMindMap betters any other mind mapping software on the market today. By sticking to this core functionality and not getting side-tracked into other areas iMindMap is easily the best pure mind mapping tool on the market. It's a shame that the evaluation period of eight days doesn't really give you enough time to get an in-depth look at the mind mapping potential..