Idea Mapping software

If you have been following this blog you will have noticed that I have been reviewing Note Taking software.  I have also found a program I like and which has almost all the facilities I wanted in a note taking program, it is not perfect but it is near enough, so now it is time to move on to the natural companion to note taking software, and that is Mapping Software.

By mapping software I mean software for doing mind mapping and concept mapping.  Programs which allow you to express ideas and connections between ideas graphically.

With note taking software there are no good free or open source offerings but the situation is completely different with mapping software.  All the programs reviewed here will be free or open source.  This does not mean that they are sub standard in any way, many of them are more sophisticated than a lot of the commercial programs on offer.

You could try all of these programs for no monetary outlay.  Indeed they are slightly different from each other so one could argue that having several of them alongside each other was justified.  Freeplane for instance is good at conventional mind maps but does not do concept maps very well, IHMC Cmap Tools is very good at concept maps but it would be hard work if you wanted to a produce a mind map,  VUE also does concept mapping and allows you to do presentations and Compendium is a good all round visual organisational tool.  The three I use regularly are VUE, Freeplane and Compendium.

The only thing wrong with having all of these programs installed is that you would be spoilt for choice when it came to deciding which one to use.

What criteria will be used to judge them?

One criticism I received for the note taking program reviews was that I gave too much importance to the visual appeal of the programs.  I think in patterns and in images whereas most people think in words, this is just the way my mind works, translating my thoughts into words is hard work and the need for a note taking tool is a compensation for this (some would say an overcompensation) but the result of the way I think is that the visual aspects of a program are very important to me.

I will split the review into sections each concentrating on one aspect of the program, each section will get marks out of ten then all the marks will be added up to get a final score, if you do not like the importance I have assigned to any aspect of the program then feel free to multiply or divide each section by your own weighting factor to arrive at a figure you agree with.

1.  Organisation

Is the map limited to a strict hierarchy (mind map) or not?  Can it be used to do different types of map, like mind maps, organisational charts, concept maps, process flow diagrams etc?  Does it support floating nodes?  Are the links (edges) typed?  Can you have multiple maps in one file or on one sheet?

2.  Attachments to nodes

Can nodes have attachments?   Can a node be linked to a file? or a URL? Does the program support universal links?  Can a node be linked to a different map?  Can images or icons be applied to nodes?  Can a node hold a note?  If so is there a limit to the size of the note?

3.  Appearance

Does the program look good?  Are the ideas in the map conveyed clearly?  Is the look organic with curved lines or the simple box and straight line approach?  Does the map allow manual positioning of nodes and vertices or does it position them itself?

4.  Ease of use

How easy is the program to use?  Is it obvious how to do things?  Does the view of the map centre on the node in focus or if not can the map be pulled about to get the view you want?  Is there an overview?  Does the program perform sensibly when there are multiple instances of it running?  Does the program support collaborative working?

5.  Import – Export

How easy is it to get your stuff into and out of the program?


Review of MyInfo

This is a note taking program which I missed first time around.  It did not come up in any of the Google searches I did, actually I was alerted to its existence by a comment someone left on this blog.  So belatedly here is a review of MyInfo.

Some of the terminology used in the program documentation and on the website is unconventional and confusing at first.  Files are called Topics, Notes are called Documents, so a topic is a collection of documents with shared attributes but each topic is a separate disk file, don’t worry it will become clear(er).

You can have many files (topics) open simultaneously.  I imported the usual set of one thousand text files which I have used to test out some of the other programs and there was no noticeable slowing of performance, in fact the performance was still very fast.  So I decided to take it a bit further and gave it the full database of about nine and a half thousand files, these are not trivial files they range in size from a few kilobytes to two and a half megabytes with an average length of about sixty kilobytes.  They took some time to import, but after they had finished importing there was very little slowing of the performance.  The places where it did slow down was on loading or saving the file (unsurprisingly), especially when the file was encrypted.  There was a slight delay when doing a search of all documents but nothing which would cause problems.  This was a severe test and most of the other programs reviewed here would fail, even Connected Text with nine and a half thousand texts in its WIKI slowed down in its navigation and search functions (and sometimes ran out of memory when doing search and replace).

The size of the file increases rapidly for the first few documents but does not increase so rapidly for large numbers of documents.  I think the programmer possibly has some sort of word index for searching the notes, this will have a much larger increase in size for words which were not already in the index but will only increase in size by a small amount for words it already knows.  The searching in MyInfo is very fast compared with other programs reviewed here.

For me this program has turned out to be the closest to being the perfect note taking program of all the programs reviewed in this blog.  It has some idiosyncrasies and deficiencies but so do the other programs reviewed here.

I am using version 6.16 (build 1683) of Milenix MyInfo Professional.

The program costs $99.95 from the Milenix website (price correct at 16th November 2013) this is more expensive than any of the other programs reviewed here but in my opinion it is worth the cost.  There is a half price version which has some useful facilities removed so look at the comparison chart and if these missing facilities are not important to you then buy the standard version, you will still be getting an awesome program.

Take note that the program reviewed here is the professional version so if you get the standard version not all of the facilities I talk about will be available to you.

Overall Score  = 49 out of 60

Verdict    Exceedingly good.

1. Connectivity            =    10

MyInfo supports universal links, the links out are very good, you can link to another application and include parameters which could specify which file or document the program is to open.  You can link to an application file (in which case the file is opened with its default application).  You can link to a web or E-mail address or a folder on the local file system.  The program has a web browser built in.  You can link out to just about anything.

MyInfo supports universal links into itself from other applications.  There is a context menu brought up by right clicking in the text editing area which contains the option ‘Copy Link to This Paragraph’, if you click on this a universal link is copied to the clipboard and can be pasted into any application which supports universal links.  The link points to the specific paragraph in the note (document) you are viewing.

Dragging and dropping a file from windows explorer into MyInfo has different effects depending on what type of file it is and where you drop it.  If you drop any file into the text area then this creates a link to that file, the file is still in its original location on disk and when you Ctrl-click the link it will open the file using its default application.

If you drag a file into the tree area then the behaviour is different.  If it is a file that MyInfo understands like .txt or .rtf or .docx (and maybe some others which I have missed) then the file will be copied into a document and will be just like any other note.

If it is a file type MyInfo doesn’t understand then the file is copied into the MyInfo topic file as an embedded file.  Embedding a file has advantages and disadvantages.  The link to the file will never break because the file is embedded and the topic file can be moved to another computer and the file will still be there.  However embedding many large files will make the topic file become very large very quickly.

There is a browser add-on (downloadable from the Milenix website) to send a web page to MyInfo which creates a live version of the page within MyInfo, MyInfo becomes the web browser.

Most embedded files will appear as a shaded blue area in the text editing pane, there will be two links in the middle of this area one to view the file and the other to edit the file.  If you choose to view the file then it is copied to a temporary area and opened with its default application.  If you choose to edit the file then it is copied to a temporary area and opened with its default application but when you return to MyInfo a dialog box appears in the centre of the blue shaded area asking if you want to save the new version of the file, if you don’t do this then any changes you have made to the file are lost.

Pdf files are handled differently.  When you embed a pdf file in MyInfo then what appears in the text editing area is a view of the contents of the pdf file, it can be scrolled and the magnification changed (with Ctrl + and Ctrl – ).  So MyInfo makes a limited but quite usable pdf viewer.

2. Classification            =    9

This program can assign tags to documents.  One of the problems with tags is that the list of tags can become very long, this is one of the problems with ‘Personal Knowbase‘, a way around this is to have the tags in a hierarchical tree to provide them with some context by grouping them.  This is not done in MyInfo but the tagging scheme it does provide is still quite good.

There is a hierarchical tree which is used to organise documents and this is where things get interesting because MyInfo implements transclusion.

In the traditional hierarchical tree a document appears in one position in the tree so you have to decide which characteristic best describes the document and ignore the other characteristics.  There is a problem where the document could be filed under two or more different branches of the tree, the tree becomes less useful because it becomes more difficult to find things.

MyInfo allows you to clone a document so it can be placed in two or more different locations in the tree, these documents are references to the same document and if you edit one then the changes appear in all of them.  I thought the process of creating a clone was very cumbersome, you get a dialog box from which you have to select the source document, but then I discovered the ‘paste as clone‘ command with its short-cut Ctrl+Alt+V.

Transclusion allows the hierarchical tree to become the tagging system.  Documents can be assigned to as many positions in the tree as appropriate.

Documents in MyInfo have a list of attributes, there is a comments field, date created on, size, unique ID number and so on.  Some of these are quite useful for classifying documents like the % completed field or the sensitivity field (which lets you indicate the document is private) but where it gets interesting is that you can define your own attributes.  If your file (topic) was all about publications you could define an ISBN field or a set of fields for bibliographic references.

The user defined attributes can be of many different types; as a string of characters, a number (integer, floating point or currency), date and time, logic value (yes/no, true/false) or you can define a list of possible values for the attribute (an enumeration) and you could even have this as a drop-down list.

The attributes appear in all the documents in the file (topic), there is no way to define an attribute for a subset of the documents in the file.  This encourages you to split up your notes into many separate files, each file dedicated to one purpose.  There is very little detriment to having many files as everything can be linked to everything else and searches can be done on many files at once.  I think this is the way the program was intended to be used, the files are called topics and you can put a number of different files into a ‘workspace‘, you can save a workspace and open it later.  When you open a workspace it opens all the files (topics) you had open when you saved the workspace it also restores the document windows you had open at the time.

Of course having all these ways of classifying documents would be useless unless it helps you to find the document you wanted to look at.  MyInfo has a lot of ways to search for documents, there is full text search of the body text of the documents, either in just one file (topic) or in all the files (topics) in your system or just in the files (topics) you have open.

There is also a way of filtering the documents to list a subset of documents based on conditions you set.  This is very flexible and comprehensive.  You can display the document if the text contains a certain string of characters or if an attribute is set to a certain value (or if it is greater than, or less than a value) or if a tag is present (or not present) or on a combination of all these conditions.  Very complex named queries can be built and saved for later use, also the query allows you to group and sort the documents in the list by various criteria.

This is the most comprehensive and useful search facility I have found in any note taking program except for Connected Text.

3. Text layout and formatting    =    8

The text editor is WYSIWYG all the usual effects can be applied, font, size, bold, italic, colour and line spacing.  Table handling is excellent,once you have created a table you can drag the cell boundaries about with the mouse, this is not common amongst this type of program.  Pictures can be inserted into notes and re-sized.  The text editor supports unicode characters.

There is no switch between edit mode and view mode, edit mode is on all the time, this is good, I find having to switch on edit mode quite obtrusive in Whiz Folders.  There is a spell checker which by default is in American English but you can download a British English dictionary from the Milenix website.

4. A sense of time            =    6

This program has a calendar and you can link documents to specific dates.  You can set a reminder on a document so that you will be reminded of that document on the date which you set.  Bizarrely there appears to be no way to set the reminder to repeat, this is a serious shortcoming and will limit the programs usefulness as a scheduling application.

Among the built in attributes which all documents have is a Due date, a Reminder at date, a % completed and a Finished at date.

5. Ease of use            =    9

The program is quite easy to use and seems quite stable, despite throwing thousands of text files at it and doing lots of experimenting with its features I have not managed to get it to crash yet.

The user interface is quite well thought out if a little dull.  The toolbars are configurable as are the menus.  The toolbars can be dragged about and positioned where you want them.  You can edit the keyboard short-cuts to suit your preferences.

The two main windows, the text area and the tree area can be arranged horizontally or vertically but it is not obvious how to switch between the two, there is an option in the Window menu called Tile Horizontally and Tile Vertically but these appear to have no effect upon the display.  I finally found the switch buried under the File menu in the option Properties & Security which alters some options for each topic (file), in the Appearance tab there is a checkbox called Use horizontal panes which switches between the horizontal and vertical arrangements.  It is very well hidden.

6. Visual Appeal            =    7

Not the best looking of the programs reviewed here but certainly not the worst.  The user interface has a bland blue colour which is not configurable, there are no skins.  On the plus side you can alter the font used for the tree, but that’s about it for visual interface configuration.