Mindjet MindManager 8 Review

Mindjet's MindManager is one of the best known PC-based mind mapping software products and is renowned as a solid, professional piece of software. It is one of the more expensive mind mapping packages but if you need software with good support and a long life then it generally has to be paid for.

Introduction to Version 8

Introduction to MindManager 8
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Now on its eighth version recent developments for Mindjet's MindManager have focused on integration and collaboration. Integration with Microsoft Office applications and RSS and PDF exporting have been in the product for a long time but version 8 offers much more. There's an integral web browser, linking into databases, desktop search tools, web services and sites and the ability to share mind maps and work on them together with colleagues on the web.

The bundling of the package is also changed. The Pro and Lite versions have been ditched in favor of one core installed product or a lower-spec'd online version (MindManager Web) can be rented on a monthly basis rather than purchased. Mindjet offer corporate and educational discount programs for the core downloadable product.

Installation and First Impressions

Downloading and installing the software was pain free if a little slow because of the size of the package. The installer recognized the test system's lack of a C++ runtime environment and installed Microsoft's Visual C++ Redistributable Package to correct the deficiency. The wizard offers a complete or customized install and going for the customized option allows you to see the wide range of languages that you can use for mind maps.

Mindjet was one of the first non-Microsoft packages to adopt the new Microsoft ribbon-style 'Fluent User Interface' of Office 2007, unveiling it in MindManager version 7. What you think of ribbon-style interfaces will doubtless cloud your view of MindManager but it does show its value here. Mind mapping software is necessarily complex and the ribbon allows users to uncover the depth of the application much more easily than a traditional drop-down menu.

Tutorials and First Maps

The user interface that greets the first time user is daunting, with five or six rows of icons and menus then a row of tabs running down the right-hand edge of the screen. But right in the middle is a large and clear splash screen allowing choices for new users, one of which being to take a tutorial. Taking the introductory tutorial is seriously recommended to new users and a must for those who haven't previously used mind mapping software at all.

The tutorial appears in your browser window rather than the main application even though it is hosted on your PC rather than the web. It is a slide show with an audio track and covers the basics of mind mapping. One good thing is that it tells you how long it will take (something many tutorials forget) as well as what you will learn. But then there is a black mark for ending the presentation without a link to the other online tutorials that the audio track encourages you to delve into.

One of the other options on the introductory splash screen is a similar presentation that introduces the idea of the Mindjet Catalyst service. It is this tool which allows groups of users to share and collaborate on mind maps in real time. The final option is a 'What's New', a link to a mind map which shows new features and is also a neat demonstration of a simple mind map and how it can be organized.

MindJet MindManager 8 Catalyst
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Even if you're not interested in 'What's New' this will at least put the interactive learning sidebar (Learning Center) up at the right hand side of the screen. From here you can access all the tutorials, the interactive quick start being very useful. This is in fact the top option of the splash screen but you need to switch back from your browser to find it if you take the introductory tutorial. All a bit confusing for the novice but soon sorted out. Eventually you work out that the tabs running down the right hand edge of the screen bring up the various task panes, the Learning Center being one of them.

File Locations and Keyboard Shortcuts

Once you've completed the interactive quick start you will have completed your first mind map. Unfortunately saving the map is something that's not covered and once you found the icon (top left) you discover another minor irritation. The software has decided to create a folder called My Maps where it will store all your mind maps and related information. As most people will store information by subject matter rather than the application they use this is a bit annoying but a quick scrabble through the comprehensive Help lead to the usual option setting dialogue box that until then couldn't be found (it's under the large red 'M' icon in the top left of the screen, by the way).

Interestingly the tutorials introduce keyboard shortcuts straight away, somewhat of a relief for those who spending their lives at a keyboard and resent having to switch to a mouse for one click, then back to the keyboard again. Hitting the ALT key also brings up clear icons showing the keyboard shortcuts for the ribbon menus and there's a keyboard shortcut section in the Learning Center. But then there are oddities like the Presentation Mode not exiting when you hit the ESC key, now a de facto standard introduced by applications like Microsoft PowerPoint.

Creating and Maintaining Mind Maps

Once you've got the hang of the basics it's time to start creating mind maps for your particular discipline and it's no surprise to find a number of templates to help kick you off. There are a number of different styles too, both for the look and feel of a map as a whole and for individual topics. Using these you can make a mind map fit in with a corporate style or customize them to emphasize relationships and differences, perhaps giving different styles to mind maps for different educational subjects, for example.

Creating maps in the first instance is quick and easy, particularly if you can find a template that suits your needs. This is one of the few mind mapping software products where the usual advice, to make your mind map on a whiteboard first, doesn't apply. Dragging and dropping elements after they have been initially placed doesn't appear to be a problem at all and the links and hierarchies all remain in place, unless you want them to change.

Modification and updating of mind map is more intuitive than some aspects of managing maps. Clicking on the Task Info button on the Home ribbon or down the right hand side of the screen will put the Task Info pane up. All the standard attributes aspects of a project element can be assigned and modified from this pane. One of the benefits about this pane is that changes are applied immediately rather than having to click on an 'OK' or 'Save Changes' button. This speeds up the maintenance and modification process; mistakes can be undone with the usual CTRL-Z or clicking on an 'Undo' arrow icon.

MindManager 8 Task Info
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Mind Map Distribution

MindManager 8 is all about the collaboration and integration features. Export to a number of different formats, including PDF and a number of Microsoft products, has been possible for some time but version 8 introduces the idea of exporting dynamic formats that can be played like presentations. Although other users won’t be able to modify mind maps, these active formats can be in Shockwave or PDF so that the mind map can be distributed to people who don't have MindManager on their PCs.

This makes Mind Manager more attractive for, for example, educational environments, where just a few licenses can be purchased for the PCs creating the mind maps but the resulting content can be seen on all other PCs. Note that you do have to be careful with version numbers of Adobe Reader or Acrobat to make sure that all PCs can view the content in this way. Although some elements of mind maps will be lost or converted when maps are exported to this Mindjet Player format, Mindjet have listed all those instances, and what happens in each case, in the help files.

MindManager and Microsoft Word
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Dynamic Integration

Integration with Office programs and databases allows MindManager to glue together information from most of the commonly available data sources that any corporation will have to hand. The database linker has plug-ins for Access, DB2, Oracle, SQL Server, MySQL and Excel. Dynamic links can also be made to Office applications and they can be edited within MindManager. Office files can be linked to mind maps and edited within MindManager, although opening a Word document in this way took three times longer than opening it in Word outside MindManager.

Dynamic web linking gives rise to some intriguing options. There is an integrated browser so that you can browse to online data sources from within MindManager, although it really needs a large widescreen monitor to be able to see it all easily. Once the data sources are set up you can, for example, link a topic on the mind map to a web search. The mind map topic will then display a number of results from a web search on the map.

Mindmanager 8 browser
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Web integration allied to the Mindjet Player functionality allows mind map presentations to be distributed and publicized via web sites, blogs and social network sites. Plug-ins to allow sharing via Twitter, LinkedIn, MySpace and Facebook are included and there is also the ability to import contacts from these sites into MindManager, although it's not that clear why that would be desirable. Ecommerce links to Amazon and Ebay are included as well.

Collaborating Online with Mind Maps

Realtime online collaboration, the ability for more than one person to work on a mind map at the same time, takes web integration a step further and requires signing up to Mindjet's Catalyst service. This is an online platform charged at a monthly amount per user and the collaborators will require MindManger installed as well, so this isn't a cheap choice. A web conferencing service is offered as an option too.

Unfortunately the product seems to be a little wobbly with some the functionality at the moment. It looks like the integrated browser is using the Internet Explorer setup on your system and in the case of the test machine this was IE6; it hasn't been upgraded as other browsers are used on this machine. This may have caused some of the instability and crashes that were experienced during the test, but it should be noted that this is informed guesswork and as such could be completely wrong. It was good to see that test maps that had been created were all successfully recovered by the built-in autorecovery tool.

There's also some doubt as to the usefulness of the social network interfacing tools. In common with other reviewers of the product we weren't quite sure what we were meant to be able to achieve, from a business point of view, with all these tools. It's clear that Mindjet is trying to make MindManager a core application from where you can do everything. But this approach doesn't seem that likely to succeed. The ability to draw mind maps, useful though it might be, is unlikely to be a core task for many people. MindManager is therefore more likely to be an application that sits to one side and is fired up only when necessary.

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Having said that, if you looking for a mind mapping tool there's no denying that MindManager is an attractive product. There are cheaper, even free, alternatives but if you want a professional package with support to match then it is a very good option. Many free (open source) software packages (xmind) tend to die away once the founder has lost interest. If you want to be certain of using mind maps that you created more than a couple of years ago, something that's not at all unusual in academia or when re-visiting corporate strategy, it's probably worth investing in a product with stability and longevity.

Mindjet's MindManager 8 is likely to deliver on all those counts.