A Review of TheBrain

It is my opinion that in a mapping program moving the map to keep the node of interest in the centre of the screen is a very useful feature which should be more widely available than it is.

A long time ago I used a free mapping program called Cayra, it was unlike any of the mind mapping program which I had used before.  It was not organised into a hierarchical tree, anything could be connected to anything else and the map moved to position the selected node into the centre of the screen.  One of the results of this type of organisation was that your map could be any size and only the things which were one or two connections away from the node you had selected would be shown.

Sadly Cayra is no longer viable, it was not being maintained by its author and the original download site lapsed. The author didn’t release the source code and abandoned the development. Then an update to Microsoft .NET 3.5 broke something in Cayra and it started crashing every few seconds.  It is a pity, it was a good program.  Today I don’t think there is anywhere you can still download Cayra.

TheBrain Technologies have brought out a mapping program which exceeds the capabilities of Cayra in every way, but it is not free.  There is very little to dislike about the program itself, but there is a lot to dislike about the jingoistic documentation, marketing and support, also there is a lot to dislike about the licensing.

There is a free trial version which works like the Pro version for 30 days, then it reverts to the free version.  The free version has a lot of useful features disabled but annoyingly the icons and menu entries for these features are all still there, if you click on one then a dialog box opens telling you that you need to buy a licence in order to use this feature.  Very annoying, if the feature is not available the icon or menu entry should be either greyed out or absent.

The Pro version is $219 for which you get four activations (more on that later) each activation is locked to the computer upon which it was activated.

Finally there is the subscription version which is $299 for the first year and $159 for each year after that which works out at $25 per month for the first year and $13.25 per month for subsequent years.  Again you get four activations.

So, what extras do you get with a subscription?

You can store your maps online in the company servers or on the web where you will have access to them from a web browser.  You can allow others to have access to your maps, either read only or read/write, and so the maps can be used by groups of people to share ideas, communicate and collaborate.

You can also synchronise maps from different computers to the ones in the company servers.  So you can work on the same map at home or at work on different computers and keep them in sync.  Also the maps can be transferred and synchronised to Apple Mac computers and phones, both Android and Apple iPhones.

This would be useful for the stand alone program to be able to do.  If I have the same map on my desktop machine and my laptop both of which have access to disk drives on my local area network then it would be very useful to be able to synchronise the map to another map which is on a disk drive which is local to the machine.  TheBrain Technologies have already developed the code to do this, that is what they do when syncing to the cloud, syncing to a local drive would be less complicated.  But they are probably never going to do this because they want to encourage people to take up a subscription to provide the company with a continuing revenue stream.

To activate the program you need an account.

The company seems to assume everyone is going to get the subscription version, the documentation assumes a subscription and they have deliberately made it more awkward to use if you want to use it as a stand alone desktop program.

Then there is the licensing, for your $219 you get to activate the program four times. This may at first seem like an adequate number but it is not.  When I first got the program I activated it on my laptop and on my desktop machine (1 & 2) but when I updated my desktop machine to Windows 10 the program required re-activating (3) and when Windows 10 destroyed my laptop I had to get a new laptop and this was a different machine so required another activation (4).  It may be that the desktop upgrade to Windows 10 might not have used up an activation but I have no way to find out until I have the need to activate it again and it says ‘no, you’ve had your four’.

There are only two other software companies I know of which lock licenses to individual machines like this and one of those is Microsoft, and Microsoft do allow the transfer of a license if you ring them up and explain that the previous installation has been uninstalled.

So what about the program itself.

As well as being a mapping program notes can be stored in the nodes and they can be categorised.  As an organisational tool TheBrain is nearly as powerful as ConnectedText but much more graphical, which is good for people like me who think in pictures, diagrams and patterns rather than in words.

There is a fundamental difference between TheBrain and ConnectedText other than the graphics, that difference is the concept of ‘place’.  When you add data to ConnectedText it is not necessary to decide where to put it, in effect the data finds it’s own place in the matrix based upon the links you give it and the categories you assign to it and the properties and attributes it is given, these things define the place of the data within the matrix.  When you add data to TheBrain then you must decide where to put it within the matrix.  The node is dragged out from another node and that is it’s place.  The user can then connect it to other nodes within the matrix but it’s place was the very first thing which the user decided on before creating the node.

This difference may seem trivial but has some big implications, when building a wiki in ConnectedText you can sometimes stumble upon new insights into the data and be surprised at the patterns which became apparent which were not apparent in the original input. ConnectedText is a tool of discovery as well as organisation and recording.  When building a plex (map) in TheBrain you are unlikely to come upon any new insights simply because the placement of the nodes is entirely based on your pre conceived notions of where things should be placed and this is unlikely to reveal anything which you didn’t already know.  TheBrain is a tool of organisation and recording of data.

Ignoring the licensing, the only other thing I dislike about the program itself is the terminology.  Maps are called ‘plexes’ or ‘Brains’ and Nodes are called ‘Thoughts’.  This cringeworthy terminology is used throughout all the documentation and video tutorials.  The video tutorials exude a feigned gushing enthusiasm about the program which makes me feel like I’m being sold a used car.

I think this hype is an attempt to create the impression that this program is something special and not just another mapping program.  Undoubtedly the program is extremely good and has many technical merits but that doesn’t mean that it is something new and completely different from other mapping programs.

 

 Overall Score = 40 out of 50

  1. Organisation  = 9

Like Cayra TheBrain always keeps the selected node in the centre of the screen.  There is no hierarchy, anything can be connected to anything else.  The fact that the selected node is always kept in the centre of the screen means that the map can be very large without getting cumbersome because only the things which are relevant to the selected node are displayed.  There is a ‘Home’ node which you nominate but this is the only hint of a hierarchy.

In the normal display mode the map arranges itself and you have no control over where nodes are placed, in the normal mode you only see the nodes connected to the node of interest but this can be expanded to include the nodes connected to those nodes, this view can start to look cluttered.

There is also a mode where nodes can be arbitrarily arranged manually on the screen and the connections to other nodes can be expanded or collapsed.  This mode is just like most other mapping programs.

There is even an outline view.

Icons from the library supplied with the program may be assigned to each node, a screen capture of part of the screen may also be assigned to a node as an icon, if you have any icons or images of your own on disk you have to copy them to the clipboard before you can paste the image onto the node as an icon, this works for .png image files but does not work for icon (.ico) files.

New nodes are placed by dragging out from one of the anchor points on an existing node.  When you start to type the name of a new node the program pops up a list of existing nodes which match what you have typed, clicking on one of these entries will auto complete what you were typing and link to the existing node.  A node may appear in many places on the map.  You can generate several nodes at once by separating the names with semi colons but the auto complete doesn’t work if you go on typing and put a semi colon at the end of the name so you end up generating different nodes with duplicate names, probably not what you wanted.

Nodes may be ‘Tagged’, a tag is a keyword or descriptive term applied to the node which has been tagged.  The tags can be searched for and used as a selection criteria in a report.  By default tags appear on the map as text appended to the node but they can be hidden if the user wants.

You can also define ‘Types’ of node.  A type can change the appearance of a node, assign default tags to a node and assign it an icon.  All the characteristics defined for a type become the defaults for that type of node but they can be overridden if any of the characteristics are later changed manually.

As far as finding information goes the search facilities are good.  You can also generate reports which allows you to specify date ranges, tags, types and type of attachment, any node which meets the criteria will be included in the report.  Moreover the reports can be sorted in several different ways.  This is useful, but the similar facilities in Ultra Recall, MyInfo and ConnectedText are much more sophisticated.

An unusual feature for a mapping program is the inclusion of a calendar, nodes can be assigned to a date and a reminder set if needed, when that date arrives a reminder is shown.  Events can be set to repeat.  This feature is more reminiscent of a normal note taking program than a mapping program but it is a welcome change.

The repeating event dialog needs improvement though, the developers need to take a look at the repeating event dialog in ‘Thunderbird‘ for inspiration. With the repeating event dialog in TheBrain I would not be able to set a reminder for two days after the last Thursday of the month for instance (two days after the last Thursday of the month is the weekend after my salary gets paid into my bank if you want to know the significance).

However even having a calendar is a huge leap ahead of any other mapping program I know of, this probably reflects the purpose of TheBrain as an organisational tool rather than just another mapping program.

 

  1. Attachments to nodes  = 9

A node may contain many attachments.

Firstly notes.  Each node has a notes field which contains text, in this case it is formatted rich text which can contain tables, checkboxes, all the usual formatting you would expect in a word processor and hypertext links.  I tried out the limits of the field by inserting one of the Project Guttenberg texts which was about 450 kilobytes long.  It did slow the program down significantly but it still worked and it was still there after closing and re-opening the program.  The notes field will hold all the text anyone might reasonably expect it to hold.  There is no obvious way of inserting images into the text, but they can be attached to a node as a normal file attachment.

Files may also be attached to a node, many files.  There may be some limit to the number of files you can attach but I only tested it up to sixteen.  The files may be attached as a link to a file on the local file system or may be attached as a file embedded within the map.

Also you can attach a folder to a node.  The attached folder opens in Windows Explorer.

There is another method of attaching a folder which creates a ‘virtual folder’ within the map.  The files and folders are not moved into the map, a virtual folder is a link to the external folder.  All the files and folders within the attached folder are represented as subordinate nodes and so the tree structure of files and folders on the disk is reproduced as a hierarchical tree within the map.  This has the advantage that you can attach notes and links to files and folders in that tree.  This gives you an alternative view of your file system.

Links may be inserted into the text of the notes field or a link may be attached to a node.  Links may point to a website, a file, an e-mail address, a node either in the map you have open or in another map or it may be a universal link which points to content opened by another program.  Universal links may either be pasted into the node as an attachment or pasted into the text of the notes field.  TheBrain can also generate universal links, by right clicking on a node and selecting ‘Copy Local Thought URL’ a universal link is copied to the clipboard which points to the node which is currently selected.

This is very useful, TheBrain fully supports universal links in both directions and everything works as expected.

 

  1. Appearance  = 8
The Brain

A screen shot of TheBrain in action.

This is the appearance as I have it set up, the wooden wallpaper is one of my desktop wallpapers. The appearance is very configurable. You can change almost anything so don’t be put off by the dark appearance of my particular setup.

The program has a somewhat idiosyncratic but attractive appearance.  There is a lot of customisation including setting an image as the background to the map.  The colours of most elements displayed on the screen can be set and the customisation is on a per map basis, different maps can be set to display different colours and background.

The positioning of nodes is automatic in the normal mode and is well behaved.  The map can convey its information clearly.

The map has a somewhat organic look.  The links between nodes can be labelled with any relevant information if required.

 

  1. Ease of use = 8

The program is simple and easy to use.  It is certainly a lot easier to use than ConnectedText. Most thing are easy to figure out or become obvious after a bit of experimentation.

There are some points which are not clear to a new user but there is a lot of help available.  There is a .PDF manual free to download from The Brain Technologies website and copious video tutorials are available to view if you can stomach the meretricious gushing enthusiasm about the program where every problem is trivial and every feature is wonderful, but having said that the videos are helpful and informative.

There is also a forum on which questions may be asked and the users of the forum are generally helpful.  However the forum is monitored and any posts which criticise the program in any way are removed immediately, even posts which ask questions about bugs which they have decided not to fix will be removed. I posted about a bug I found, they sent me an e-mail saying it would be fixed in the next version but they weren’t going to do anything about it in this version. My post was removed from the forum.  Anyone posting such things must be careful what they say because they can get their forum access removed.

Collaborative working on maps is possible if you have a subscription to the companies continuous revenue stream scheme.

 

  1. Import – Export  = 6

There are quite a lot of options for getting information into and out of TheBrain. It can import a folder (as a child of the selected node).  It can import the Internet Explorer Favourites list, but why not Firefox or Google Chrome favourites?

It can import and export a special Brain XML format.

It can import a MS Word outline, a Mind Manager file, an OPML file, a FreeMind mind map, an OWL ontology and a text outline (using indentation to set the levels).

TheBrain can export to a bitmap image.

It can export a map to HTML, either SiteBrain HTML or Simple HTML, I have yet to try this out so I can’t comment on the difference but SiteBrain is supposed to reproduce much of the functionality of the map as it appears in the main program but on a website (either on the web or as a local site on your LAN). Whereas Simple HTML reproduces your map as an outline with much less functionality.

The XML export formats are Brain XML which can be imported into TheBrain on another machine or Brain EKP XML which can be imported into TeamBrain which is a multi user collaborative mapping program.

There is also an option to synchronise the calendar with a Google Calendar.

 

Conclusion

Nice program, shame about the licensing.

There is a lot to like about this program, technically it is brilliant but the company have made the decision to milk their customers as much as possible and I don’t feel safe and secure buying a program from a company like that.  Nonetheless I did buy the program and it is extremely good but because of Microsoft’s dirty tricks two out of the four activations have been used up, the other two have been used up legitimately.

Overall I like this program a lot, it is just a shame it has so much baggage.

 

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16 thoughts on “A Review of TheBrain

    • The article to which this comment is attached is called ‘A Review of TheBrain’. Guess which software I was reviewing when I took that screen shot?

      Still not sure?

      Why not read the review? or even the caption on the screen shot.

    • Thank you for the link, I installed it and it works without crashing very much. The operating system was never the problem, it was updates to the .NET framework which caused the problems. But it now runs (mostly), I remember the help file being more comprehensive, this one is just the titles without any text.

      Also if you try to switch layout (the push pin on the toolbar) then the program consistently crashes. The fixed layout was useful for manually positioning the nodes. The dynamic layout automatically positions the nodes.

      I will try it out and see if it is as good as I remember from all those years ago.

      Thanks.

  1. Desperate to find an alternative to The Brain… Why hasn’t someone made a mind-mapping program that recenters on the active mode when clicked?? Seems so obvious! I’d love to hear about it if someone knows of one…

    • There isn’t much similar to TheBrain, partly because the company behind TheBrain have software patents on just about every aspect of the program which they defend very agressively.

      However there is one program which is worth a look and that is 3D Topicscape. It has a very idiosyncratic user interface and works quite differently to TheBrain, if you can get along with the interface then it does just about everything that TheBrain does and it is cheaper, in 3D mode you can fly around your map and in 2D mode it does re-centre the map on the selected node, albeit in an unusual way. If you can get along with the user interface then it is worth the learning curve.

      I will review it at some point, when I can find the time.

  2. Bryan, Geist looks promising… You know, what I’m really dreaming of is something very similar to the Brain, but more modern-looking and less prohibitively priced. The tool I want MUST offer multimedia content and a re-centering on a clicked node. There are tools that do one or the other, but I can’t find anything that does both and looks cool. It also needs to be responsive, so that people can use it on mobile devices, and I’d also like to be able to either embed it on a WordPress site, or at least host it myself.

    • You can already upload images, video and audio, no attachments yet though. Centering a node can be done using an “explore” functionality that is built in but I am working on improving on it. Responsiveness is on my todo list as well. I’m making it open source so you can host it yourself although there are no installation instructions yet, but they will come. I’m just looking around for people interested in a project like this. Glad I’m not the only one thinking about this!

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