Mind mapping tool
XMind took the open source route in 2008, changing their
business model to offer a free version of the software in the hope that it will
entice users to cough up for the Professional version. But is the free version
too crippled to be useful, or just a cynical marketing ploy? Happily the answer
to both those questions is no. The free version does without some of the
features that business users are likely to want but academics and dabblers can
probably do without. The result is a good looking and useful tool with the
choice to upgrade there for those who need and want to.
Being written in Java Xmind can easily cover a wide variety of platforms. The version tested was 3.1.0 and the website says that it should run on Mac OS X and Debian/Ubuntu Linux variants as well as the Windows distributions currently in play, XP, Vista and 7. The readme adds that Windows 2000 SP4 and 2003 are also supported and there is an option to obtain the previous widely distributed version, XMind 2.3, for those needing that level of backward compatibility
One neat trick that will appeal to travelling mind map users is the ability to put your own distribution on a USB drive and run it from there. This frees you up from your own PC and means that you can access your mind maps from any compatible PC. This could prove a boon for those using mind maps in presentations, releasing them from the need to lug laptops everywhere.
The installation and startup process is quick and simple and a couple of tricks show that there is a commercial organisation behind this product rather than a loose coalition. The first is that the installation offers to change the associations on your operating system for Freemind and MindManager so that they are automatically opened in the future by XMind. Some people might not like that but it's a trick employed by Microsoft and Apple, particularly with their media players, so it has inherent legitimacy. It certainly tells you, in no uncertain terms, which products XMind consider to be the predominate players in the market.
The second hint at commercialism is that on startup the package asks you for the email address and password for your account, offering registration for those who haven't yet joined the fold. Registration is an essential part of the collaboration and sharing elements of XMind (and many other mind mapping products, to be fair) but the fact that you can simply close the box and carry on regardless is not advertised. Again it's a little sign of the commercial heritage of the product.
When you do decide to sign up the signup page is a little odd. There's nothing too unusual in what it presents, fields for username, password and email and a Captcha field. But if you use tab to move between fields, as those of us who use a keyboard a lot tend to do, you get error messages as the web page you are using (without really knowing it) interprets the empty fields before you have had a chance to populate them. It's no big problem, you just get red error messages to ignore. This is perhaps less about XMind than about getting used to new ways of using software. These are emerging as we deal with the offline/online shift affecting software while moving towards a permanently online world.
The Help menu in the application leads you to a local help file accessed by a browser within XMind rather than spawning an instance of the user's browser. This isn't necessarily good or bad but you soon realise that you are missing the features that you regularly use in your own browser environment. It would be nice, for example, if the browser supported mouse buttons for going back and forth in the browser history as we've got very used to them – XMind please take note.
Getting to Grips with the Keyboard
As a product aimed at an academic or educational market as much, if not more than, business users, there is added emphasis on keyboard shortcuts. It's nice to see a direct link on the top level Help menu to a pop-up list of the most common keyboard shortcuts. With programs like Freemind you need to go through the help system to find the relevant section, with XMind you are two clicks away, maximum. And right there on the top level Help menu item there is also a keyboard shortcut for the list of keyboard shortcuts! It's a little thing but shows an understanding of the facilities that can make mind map construction faster and easier, particularly for people who spend a lot of time at a keyboard. It's also strange not seeing that thinking running through to the registration and login dialogue box mentioned above, but in time we will have everything.
Compared to Freemind, another popular Open Source mind mapping application, look and feel is much more professional and slick. Multiple browser or main map windows are accessible in tabs like a modern browser and there is a small toolbar on the right with icons for layout options. The configurability of the interface is good, with moveable toolbars and the ability to hide or reveal sets of functions depending on what you're doing to make the most of screen real estate.
Editing text in boxes demonstrates the spell checker, improved in this version and a valuable tool that is missing from many other free mind mapping tools such as Compendium. This is spoilt slightly by the spell check being in real time rather than waiting for a space to indicate the end of a word. This means that you are constantly seeing the red wiggly underline come and go as you type and an irritating 'checking spelling' legend appearing and disappearing in the bottom right hand corner. For touch typists this means the screen is always flashing, very irritating. I'm not sure we need to be told that the program is spell checking in the status bar. The red wiggly line tells you that anyway and we can't see why users would need to be told that the application is spell checking anyway.
This is minor fault though and there is much else to recommend the mind map creation and editing facilitates. It is easy to stretch and drag text box shapes to help the boxes fit into the shape of a map. Adding items in a list can be done in a pop-up window or, by hitting F4, in a Notes window at the bottom of the screen. Notes like this can have rich text attributes assigned to them and internal or external links to documents and web pages.
When considering the layout of your map XMind shies away from the free-for-all approach of Compendium or the one-type fits all approach of MindManager. XMind offers five types of map structure and numerous versions, giving nine options to choose from in all. Although many of them aren't strictly mind map formats that doesn't detract from their usefulness. The project management style is in a spreadsheet style and there is a fishbone structure too. Mind map purists might rail against a product that forces their maps into any structure but for people just beginning to find out the power of a properly arrange map, a form to follow makes the process less scary.
The great thing about XMind's approach is that you can change the format at any time. Select the origin of the chart, click on the properties icon on the right hand toolbar and then select a different type of chart from the 'Structure' drop down box. It's easy and it's also a great indication of why the different types of diagram exist. Changing our simple test project plan from Spreadsheet to Fishbone (Right Headed) demonstrated exactly why a fishbone structure simply doesn't work as a tool to manage a project at task level. But XMind's flexibility means that if you think your structure choice is wrong, you can simply try another one.
Get Moving Quickly
In pure brainstorm mode the traditional mind map style is offered and the keyboard shortcuts come into play again. Populating a map from scratch takes a little getting used to but works well after a few minutes of playing around and looking at the help file. Using it for a novel structure was frustrating as the chapters kept jumping out of order until the 'Map (Clockwise)' structure was discovered. Once that was applied everything fell into place and the chapters resumed their correct order.
All mind map users know that you start a map thinking it will fill out a certain way but then it grows exponentially in the most unexpected directions. XMind provides a number of ways to deal with that. For overall management of different diagrams XMind is similar to Excel, with workbooks and separate sheets. Given the numerous different formats of map this works well in that you can place a traditional mind map, related fishbone diagram and an organisational chart for the project team all in the same file, on separate sheets.
Of course you can link nodes on one sheet to other worksheets just as easily as external sources or those on the web. It's worth pointing out here that these different formats can be mixed as well, so, for example, a child of a traditional mind map format can be a fishbone diagram. The different formats can even exist on the same sheet, although as the screenshot shows, this can be less helpful than you might think.
As the maps grow use can be made of the Drilldown and Drillup features, a quick
and easy way to bring sections of a map into focus then come back up for the
strategic overview. As with nearly every other XMind feature it can be activated
from a menu selection, a mouse click or the ubiquitous keyboard shortcut, in
this case F6.
Collaboration and Sharing
As with many other leading mind map products collaborating and sharing of maps is the big growth area, in terms of features if not usage. After eagerly uploading our first test map clicking on the button to 'see your map now' was a bit of a disappointment. The internal browser took us to an 'oops' page, although copying and pasting the url into Firefox did show that it was actually there. Uploaded maps can be featured on the XMind site and there are links to push them out to all the usual social networking sites as well. Maps can be commented on and you can look up the person responsible for uploading any public maps (private maps being a Pro feature). As it was just a small test map we immediately wanted to remove it from the XMind website. We are still trying.... perhaps it's in the Pro version?
Free or Professional?
All of which brings us neatly to the issue of the free version versus the Professional upgrade. XMind Professional may well be worth purchasing for business users because the extras are largely to do with linking into other productivity tools and processes. You can integrate your mind maps into an organisation with Gantt chart views, the Presentation modules and the ability to share maps with a restricted audience. There are productivity tools like a task information tool which hooks into the Gantt view, something that project managers would need to use if XMind were to be used as a full-on project management tool.
More Images / screen shots
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There are more export options with XMind Professional as well. The free version will produce maps in HTML and a variety of graphic formats but it's only in the Professional version that you’d be able to export to PDF, Microsoft Office formats as well as other mind mapping products such as FreeMind and MindManager. You also get more features to help merge maps or isolate sections of them for distribution and there are look and feel enhancements like a clip-art gallery, audio note attachment and theme creation and management. XMind makes it easy to upgrade as the package is the same and unlocking the professional features is done by changing your online account rather than the software.
As it costs nothing to have a go, anyone considering mind mapping software would not be wasting their time with XMind. It is a well produced tool with a professional look and feel. The only thing that lets it down in this regard is the proliferation of spelling mistakes in the product, the help and on the website but then it is a Chinese product so that is understandable.
It is obvious from the start that XMind is a commercial company offering a free version as an enticement to sign up to the paid version. This allows a different approach to a pure open source hobby project such as FreeMind or an institutional approach as with Compendium and the user is the winner.