NovaMind (the company) was started in 2002, in Australia, to develop mind mapping software that the founder had been developing for Macs. Version 3 was the first to run on Windows, but these days the tables have been turned and the latest version, v5, was released for the Windows platform a month or so before the Mac version. However, there is a long Mac heritage for this project so for people looking for quality mind mapping software for the Mac platform, NovaMind will be worth more than a passing glance.
We reviewed NovaMind version 5, which had only been released, and although favorable reviews had already come out they focused on the differences between version 4 and version 5 rather than looking at the product as a whole. That's what we'll be doing here.
Fully Commercial Product
Like MindView 3, NovaMind is a purely paid-for product with three options available, varying in price. At the time of going to press those prices ran from around USD50 to 250. The three versions are, from the bottom up, Express, Pro and Platinum. The website also offer free extensions for the Mac or Windows version and a separate product for Macs only, the Merlin Project Manager. In today's business climate, where using free software is becoming a viable option for many businesses, NovaMind shies away from offering a free version. But interestingly (and, as far as we can find out, uniquely) NovaMind offers a one year money back guarantee to anyone who feels NovaMind has not delivered 100% satisfaction.
Operating a traditional model where software is simply paid for could prove to be a difficult model to sustain, with open source products such as freemind and Freeplane on the market. A number of commercial operations, like Xmind, now offer a 'light' version for free. NovaMind tackles this, as MindMapper 2009 does, by offering more than these competing products, pushing into project management software territory. The Platinum version offers links to Microsoft's Project as well as NovaMind's Merlin. The product also endeavors to offer more features and a better experience than the free offerings. Does it succeed? Let's find out.
Download and Installation
The download and installation process was quick, smooth and efficient, the package being only 10.5MB, and the installed program is just one icon, rather than yet another program group with a three or four icons that you'll never use again. The trial version is 30 day limited but it's a full version, not one with reduced functionality. Another thing that endeared us to NovaMind was that this is actually pointed out on the website before you download it. There's nothing more annoying than finding out a trial version is not fully featured after you've downloaded it, installed it and tried to use it. NovaMind wins on both points, letting you know up front and allowing access to the full product.
Once the install is done and dusted you are presented with an uncluttered screen
with a 'Start here…' mind map node in the middle of the workspace, and a
'Getting Started' panel at the top of it. The getting started panel has a clear
tick box to prevent it from coming up once you have mastered the basics as well
as two large icons, one for an introduction and the other a link to a welcome
The green banner across the top left hand corner of the workspace is intrusive and it's meant to be. It's a countdown timer of the number of days of your free trial left and has clickable icons leading to product and license information and the online shop. The reason it's there is understandable but it still jars, preventing a completely benevolent feel towards the product, something the company ought to consider.
The overall feeling is of a light and uncluttered screen and this is probably in a large part due to the Office 2007-style 'ribbon' interface. This interface is becoming more popular with commercial mind map software, being used by MindMapper 2009 and MindManager 8 as well, as it is a tidy way of presenting the multitude of different formatting and structural options that mind mapping products simply have to have. Previous versions of NovaMind received very favorable views but comment had been made about the look and feel, some saying that some icons looked rather 'cartoonish'. This version is slick, professional and unpretentious.
Clicking on the Introduction icon takes you to a page on the NovaMind website where you can select introductory videos to watch. These are Adobe Flash videos which is fine apart from the lack of fast forward and, more importantly, fast rewind features. This makes it difficult to just rewind a couple of seconds to go over something you just missed. We were about to make the point that many mind mapping packages tout the educational benefits of mind mapping but don't use it for their own tutorials, (Compendium comes to mind), when we remembered the 'Welcome Mind Map' icon in the 'Getting Started' box and took a quick look at that.
Sure enough this is a rich mind map showing the various different forms of mind map node (NovaMind refers to them as 'Topics', a nomenclature that is gaining popularity). Some expand to show more detail and others are links to sources outside the map, either on an internal network or on the web. The difference between the two is shown by clickable icons, a plus sign on the left hand end of an expandable node and a chain link icon on the bottom left hand corner for an external link.
So far it's all intuitive and we haven't even looked at any help information, it's a great start for a product that is completely intuitive, unlike others such as Conceptdraw's MINDMAP. Clicking on a node brings up sizing handles and other markers to move a node or graft it onto a different parent.
The Getting Started video had been playing a browser window while we were
fiddling with the starter map so we now knew that pressing Insert makes a new
child node. The cursor is left inside the node to type the label, then pressing
enter completes the labeling, leaving the new node in context. Hitting Insert at
this point will create a new sub-topic or Enter creates a new topic at the same
level (a sibling node).
Regular readers of reviews on this site will know that we are very hot on intuitive map creation as well as the use of keyboard shortcut keys and NovaMind does not disappoint. Some of the more esoteric mind mapping products try to use keyboard shortcuts in a way that scientifically might prove more productive in the long run, cutting out unnecessary key presses. But the reality is that what we use is governed, like it or not, by Microsoft.
No one is going to invest time becoming proficient in different concepts for a mind mapping product that even the most enthusiastic users will use less frequently than they use Word, email or other applications, not to mention Windows itself. So points go to NovaMind for refusing to re-invent the wheel and using the de facto standard, even down to the text editing functions. But they lose points by not providing an easily accessed quick reference to the keyboard shortcuts; they are only listed in the starter mind map and the online help.
Help at Hand
As with many other software packages today, not just mind mapping software, the Help function does not have a traditional help documentation application behind it. This is not a criticism, merely an observation, and under the Help menu there are links to the NovaMind website for official support and forums where users can help each other and share information. There is also an option to bring back the Getting Started box should you need to, useful if you want someone else to learn the product on your PC.
There is a bit of a disconnect between the website and the product though. The support pages you reach from the Help menu tell you to access tutorials 'built into the application'. But we couldn't find them, unless they mean from the starter mind map, which is hardly what we would consider 'built-in'. At the time of going to print the only available documentation was all version 4 of NovaMind so there is some catching up to do here.
Moving around and zooming in and out of mind maps is easy and intuitive, with the only missing option being the middle button press to pan sideways and up and down, as we're used to with applications like Word. Considering the close link to Microsoft standards in keyboard shortcuts and the ribbon menu it's a little odd that this hasn't been implemented. But you can scroll up and down with the wheel; hold the Control key and you zoom in and out, and you can pan everywhere by dragging with the right mouse button.
Design Templates and Palettes
As with other commercial mind mapping products there is a comprehensive set of designs and templates that can be applied to whole maps, either at the beginning of the process or, well, whenever you want. Virtually every aspect of a map can be changed in color, shape, size or any other facet. All the attribute changing options are under the Format menu with many also available from a right-click context menu.
One of the unique benefits of NovaMind is the ability to apply a set palette of colors that complement each other well. This protects the poor mind map from the thrashing of those of us who don't really have an eye for design or color, and we include ourselves in that camp. Joking aside, this is a big benefit for business users who want their mind maps to look good without constant agonizing – it's a real time saver. Pick a palette (NovaMind call it a 'theme') and as long as you stick to it the mind map will have a coherent professional look.
The only thing that is missing when compared with the mind mapping concept as popularized by Tony Buzan in the 1960s and 70s, is the ability to label the connecting lines between nodes or topics. However we believe that the product that carries the Buzan name, iMindMap, is the only one that can do this in the intended manner, although Freeplane has a good stab at it.
Although impressing overall, our experiences with NovaMind were not completely trouble free. We often blame performance problems on the venerable and much abused testing PC here at Graphics.org Towers and there's no doubt that NovaMind would be much sprightlier on a PC that's one or two years old rather than one that is (cough) four or five. On one occasion we had error messages regarding corrupted object references, which obliged us to quit the program. Now, we know enough about programming to know that on occasions there is serious number crunching going on under the hood.
So why doesn't the egg timer appear on those occasions? It was only after the crash that that we realized that we had never seen the egg timer appear and a few tests, opening and closing the sample map for example, showed us that we were not wrong. Without the egg timer were clicking all over the place instead of waiting patiently for processes to finish so it's not surprising that we forced a bug.
Purists will argue that the program still shouldn't have given a fatal error, and they're right. But we were using version 5.0.1, released the day before we downloaded it. It's not unusual for newly released software to have to have a couple of bugs fixed shortly after being launching into the hands of expectant and demanding testers. It is also worth pointing out that apart from a little sluggishness we had no other problems with NovaMind whatsoever, and we are very hard taskmasters.
What does work well is the way the maps adjust themselves as you build them to take advantage of the space on the screen. If you significantly change the length of a node title, for example, NovaMind will move the items in the area around it but won't redraw the whole map, something that would slow things down drastically. This is as a result of huge amount of coding behind the scenes for v5 and it works well.
There's no doubt that NovaMind is a high quality product and a great deal of thought has gone into product design and software development. With free online products such as Bubbl.us and MindMeister joining the PC-installed free products there are significant challenges to the traditional paid-for software model. Only time will tell if the extra features and intuitive design will be enough for NovaMind to attract paying customers, but if ever a product deserves to rise above the free offerings, this is one.