Ribbons, screens and links

Why ribbons?

A few of years ago Microsoft started putting ribbons on most of their applications and trying to promote them as a good idea, “this is the future” they said and many people believed them. On a lot of applications the ribbon is optional, you can choose to have the traditional menus and toolbars but on Microsoft applications the ribbon is mandatory whether you like it or not. But on a small screen a ribbon is a really bad idea, it takes up far too much room. If you use the keyboard shortcuts a lot then this is just wasted space.

The reason Microsoft are so enthusiastic about ribbons is that they see the future of computing in small mobile devices with touch screens, like the Microsoft Surface. With a touch screen you prod the screen with your finger. With a finger you have much less precision than if you are using a mouse or even a stylus, so the icons have to be bigger and have to be spaced further apart.

So the ribbon should have been optional on mobile devices with touch screens but instead Microsoft chose to impose it on everyone. It is puzzling why they have caught on as much as they have, I think this is partially due to the novelty value and partly because Microsoft are such a big company with a disproportionately large influence over the computing community that anything they do becomes a standard so they do not have to pay any attention to common sense or ease of use.

How to tame the ribbon on Microsoft Office

You can make the ribbon less obnoxious on Microsoft Office programs. At the top far right of the screen just below the window controls is a blue circle with a white question mark in it. This is next to a white up arrow. If you click on this up arrow the ribbon goes away until you click on one of the menu tabs at the top of the screen, then the ribbon you have selected appears until you have used it and then it goes away again. There is also something called the ‘quick access toolbar’ which isn’t used very much by most people.  It is usually at the very top of the screen but in the options there is a ‘quick access toolbar’ tab with a tick box to put it below the ribbon, from this screen you can also select which commands go on to the quick access toolbar.

I have put many commands on there, if I find that I am having to use the ribbons a lot then I put the commands I need onto the quick access toolbar and so it has grown until now it is almost all the way across the screen and it only takes up a small amount of vertical space. Microsoft are very good at designing user interfaces so I suspect this is deliberate and how the interface is supposed to be used but it is not obvious and a lot of people just don’t use the quick access toolbar at all.

High DPI Screens

I recently had to buy a new laptop because Microsoft destroyed my old laptop. When Microsoft destroyed my old laptop in the upgrade to Windows 10 (an upgrade which I did not instigate or desire) I needed to buy a new laptop. The one I chose has a very high resolution screen, the resolution is 3200 by 1800. I thought that having a high DPI screen would be a good idea, now that I have been using it for a while I think that perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea. The picture on the screen of the laptop itself is very clear and incredibly sharp but at a scaling factor of 100% the text is un-readably small, currently I have it set to 200% and this is still a bit small.

The problem is the scaling of text in applications. If the application doesn’t scale the text properly then you get microscopic text or on some programs the text does scale properly but the toolbar icons are microscopic. And some programs have not got the idea that a computer can have two different resolution screens, so windows and dialog boxes are scaled correctly on the screen that they were drawn on but if you drag them to the other screen some programs re-scale the dialog box or window properly, some programs don’t scale the dialog box so it becomes very small, some programs make the window or dialog box disappear whilst other programs just crash.

The problem is the new ‘Windows Presentation Foundation’ which is an API for rendering text and images on a computer screen. Somewhere between Windows 7 and Windows 10 it has been updated to include new features to handle the scaling of text and GUI elements, so programs which use the new features in the API need to be re-written, or at least the GUI needs to be re-written.  The change is not trivial, it isn’t just like compiling to a different library, the changes cannot be done automatically so the code needs to be edited manually to include the new features.

Of course all the Microsoft applications handle this correctly, as you might expect, but other programs sometimes don’t handle it quite as well. This has meant that some of my favourite programs either don’t work properly or are completely unusable on my new laptop.

I tried out a few of the programs I have been using and which I have used in the past using my laptop with it’s high DPI screen and a 1600 by 1200 monitor plugged into the HDMI port of the laptop.

Compendium

Compendium ignores any scaling factors you have set on your screen and draws its user interface at the native resolution of the screen. The text and icons are microscopic and the program is unusable without a magnifying glass.  On the external monitor things are scaled to the same size but the pixels are bigger so that even with a magnifying glass it is unreadable.

WhizFolders

WhizFolders scales everything correctly and works as expected.

VUE

VUE ignores any scaling factors you have set on your screen and draws its user interface at the native resolution of the screen. The text and icons are microscopic and the program is unusable without a magnifying glass.  On the external monitor things are scaled to the same size but the pixels are bigger so that even with a magnifying glass it is unreadable.  This has left me looking for a new mapping program, I relied on VUE quite heavily.

CMAP Tools

Because I can’t use VUE on my laptop anymore I revisited CMAP Tools, a program I tried a while ago, but alas CMAP Tools ignores any scaling factors you have set on your screen and draws its user interface at the native resolution of the screen. The text and icons are microscopic and the program is unusable without a magnifying glass.  On the external monitor things are scaled to the same size but the pixels are bigger so that even with a magnifying glass it is unreadable.

Scrivener

Scrivener draws most of its user interface correctly but the icons in the toolbar are now small and the text in the binder panel looks cramped, it has been drawn at the correct scale but too close together. This can be solved by switching fonts to a font which has a larger line spacing, Calibri worked on my system.  The toolbar icons in Scrivener were too large, having them much smaller is a little tiresome but not as bad as it would have been if the icons had started out at normal size, this problem is trivial.  Scrivener works well on a high DPI screen.

TheBrain

TheBrain scales its user interface correctly but cannot handle having two screens with different scaling factors.  If any of the panels are put into a floating window and dragged to the other screen then the program crashes if the scale factor is different on the two screens.  If the scale factor is the same on both screens then everything works as expected.

MyInfo

MyInfo scales everything correctly and works as expected.  Embedded OLE objects are rendered at the correct scale.

Ultra Recall

Ultra Recall scales its user interface correctly and works as expected apart from one problem.  Embedded OLE objects are rendered at a ridiculously large scale.  The developer said that he is using Internet Explorer to render the objects within Ultra Recall and so cannot do anything about the scale factor at which they appear.  However developers of some other programs seem to have been able to do this correctly.

ConnectedText

Unfortunately ConnectedText has some problems with high DPI screens, the icons on the toolbar become microscopic and the titles of topics show only the top half of the text.  Apart from those problems it works correctly.  I still use ConnectedText despite the problems.

Essential PIM Pro

This is a curious one.  I was using Essential PIM Pro 6 which had all sorts of problems with scaling when I was forced onto Windows 10, so I wrote to the developer telling him what the problems were and he wrote back saying that ‘Unfortunately there is no way to overcome this problem’ which I assumed to mean that he wasn’t going to do anything about it and started looking for a new e-mail program but then just a couple of weeks later Essential PIM Pro 7 came out which solved almost all the problems.  He could have told me that the new version was coming out and to wait a little while but for some reason he didn’t.  There is still a problem with some of the text in some of the panels and dialog boxes looking too cramped, this could be solved by switching fonts but you cannot change the interface font in Essential PIM Pro like you can in Scrivener.


So, which laptop should I have bought?  Well I think there is an optimum screen resolution for each screen size, you want it high enough that the individual pixels are not visible but not so high as to cause the scaling issues detailed above, and for the external screen you want it to have enough pixels so that you can set the scaling factors to be the same for the two screens.  So the external monitor should be high resolution. But I am stuck with the monitor that I have (1600 by 1200) unless I want to purchase another one.

For a screen which is 13 inches between diagonally opposite corners I think the optimum resolution would be 1920 by 1080.  If the screen were bigger then the resolution could be higher to keep the DPI (dots per inch) the same.

Universal Links

I sometimes get e-mails about the blog and sometimes people put comments on my posts.  One thing that has been asked more than once is :-

“What is a universal link anyway?”

A universal link is a link to specific content within the file of an application.  For instance Essential PIM Pro allows you to copy a link which will point to a specific e-mail in a specific database created in Essential PIM Pro.  This can be activated from another application and will not only start up Essential PIM but open the specific e-mail to which the link points.

There is a protocol which the application needs to register with the operating system when it is installed, once registered if the operating system receives a link of the correct format it will pass the link to the specified application.

As an example of what they look like a link to one of the e-mails in Essential PIM looks like :-

epim://D:\Data\EPIM\Pauls.epim/mails/544385275277860595

the bit up to the :// is the string which is registered with the operating system, the rest is application specific.

As another example a link to a topic in my ConnectedText notes looks like :-

ct://Potek/HD%20Clone%20Notes

again the bit before the :// specifies the application to which the link points but the rest of it is almost human readable once you realise that ‘%20’ is the space character.

So a universal link is like a URL but it points to specific content within a specific application on the local machine.

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A Cornucopia of Programs

Information Tools

I have not posted in a while (I’ve been busy) so I decided to do something special.  This is a list of all the information tools I could have found in my search for the perfect note taking program.  This is just a list, these are not reviews, just a few remarks on my impressions of the program.  I haven’t even tried many of them so being on this list is not an endorsement it just means they exist.  Not being on the list doesn’t mean anything either, it only means I must have missed it.  Some are free and almost all the others have a free trial period.

The prices were correct in October 2014, after that they may change.

 

My Personal Preferences

Out of all the note taking programs which I have tried Ultra Recall and MyInfo are undoubtedly my favourites.  Ultra Recall is more powerful and is probably the one I should be using but MyInfo has a better user interface and although it is not as powerful it is easier to use and the information you want is easier to find in MyInfo.  I ought to be using Ultra Recall but the program I find myself using on a day to day basis for general organisation tasks is MyInfo simply because its easier.  This blog post is being composed in MyInfo.

For serious writing Scrivener is unrivalled.

If I wanted a Wiki then Connected Text is the tool I would use.

For drawing concept maps, organisation charts and just laying out ideas graphically to sort out my thoughts VUE is the tool which I use, for mind maps I use Freeplane.

 

So.  What is available?

 

Note Taking Programs

Ultra Recall

Usage       Regular
License     Commercial
Price          $99  or $49
Website    http://www.kinook.com/UltraRecall/

This is a very powerful note taking program with a lot of facilities.  It can handle very large amounts of data without a slow down in either the navigation or searching.  Arbitrary metadata may be associated with any item in the database.  A full review is here.

Although Ultra Recall is very powerful I can’t help feeling that this is a program which keeps adding feature upon feature until the simple things you used to do are no longer simple, and the whole thing starts to feel overwhelming.

 

MyInfo

Usage       Regular
License     Commercial
Price          $99.95  or $49.95
Website    http://www.milenix.com/myinfo

This is a powerful note taking program with a lot of facilities, it is not quite as powerful as Ultra Recall but it is more user friendly.  Tagging/Keywords are much easier to use and searching is easier.  It can handle very large amounts of data without a slow down in either the navigation or searching, but the opening of a large file does slow down.  The metadata is the same for all items in the database but multiple databases with different data sets and different metadata may be open simultaneously.  A full review is here.

WhizFolders

Usage       have used in the past
License     Commercial
Price          $49.95  or $24.95
Website    http://www.whizfolders.com/

This is a classic two pane organiser with a hierarchical tree.  It does have tags (keywords) but it feels like they were added as an afterthought.  Editing is a little awkward as you have to switch between edit mode and view mode.  It has little to recommend it over MyInfo or Ultra Recall except for the price. There is a review.

Essential PIM Pro

Usage       Regular
License     Commercial
Price          £26.88
Website    http://www.essentialpim.com/pc-version

This is an E-mail program with a calendar and reminders, it has tasks which may be given deadlines and it also has a hierarchical note taking section.  There are no keywords or tags but there are a limited number of categories (editable) which may be assigned to all types of items.  Linking (both in and out) is very good.  It is also available for various platforms, there is an android and iOS version available, the different versions can share data.

The note taking section is not as good as some of the note taking programs in this list but note taking is not the primary purpose of this program.

Memo Master

Usage       used to use this
License     Commercial
Price          £39.00
Website    http://www.jbsoftware.org/memomaster/details.htm

Memo Master is a two pane organiser.  It supports spreadsheets as one of the types of document instead of just text documents.  There are many facilities but a lot of them are well hidden in the interface, this makes it awkward and tiresome to use, but it does tick the box in the list of features in the advertising.  The user interface feels like it was designed by someone who never had to use the program.

There is a free version of this program with a lot of the facilities disabled, but annoyingly the menu entries and buttons for these parts of the program are still there.  If you click on one it brings up a dialog box telling you that you need to buy the full version to use this feature.

Right Note

Usage       never used
License     Commercial
Price          $59.95 or  $29.95 — £40.78 or £20.37
Website    http://bauerapps.com/rightnote/

I have never used this program, not even the free trial version but it looks good on their website.  This is a two pane organiser with a very colourful user interface.  It supports spreadsheets as one of its document types.  I don’t know how easy it is to use so I will not pass any judgements but it’s probably worth taking a look.

Silver Note

Usage      Tried it out
License    Commercial
Price         $49.95
Website    http://www.silver-note.com/

This may well be a good program when they get it finished but at the moment it is a beta test version being sold as a finished product.  There are no import facilities.  The drawing tools are buggy.  However this program shows great promise.  It has a novel hierarchical tagging scheme which is truly innovative.  I wish them good luck with their development of this program.

Debrief Notes

Usage       Tried it out
License     Commercial
Price          $39.95
Website    http://debriefnotes.com/

This was one of the most awful restrictive badly designed programs I have ever had the misfortune to use.  The user interface looks like it was designed in the mid 1990’s with a Borland style, don’t get me wrong many user interfaces built using the Borland tools were very good, it just depends on the programmer who designed it.  I only mention this as an indication of the vintage of this program.  No development has gone on since that time.

This program makes the assumption that you don’t need to link in or out (no you can’t even have a link to a file on the local file system) and that you will use their program for everything.

This program is no longer being developed it is just being sold.

KeepNote

Usage       Tried it out
License     Open Source/GPL
Price          Free
Website    http://keepnote.org/

This is a free and open source note taking program.  It is a three pane organiser, the pages are formatted in HTML.  This program performed very well under load, it can handle very large data sets easily, the navigation did not slow down but the searching did slow down in proportion to the size of the data set.  This program does not have keywords/tags and has very few advanced facilities but it does perform well as a very basic (simple) organiser and it is free.

Keynote NF

Usage       Tried it out
License     Open Source/GPL
Price          Free
Website    https://code.google.com/p/keynote-nf/

This is a free and open source note taking program.  It is a two pane organiser, the pages are rich text format.  This program did not perform very well under load, it slowed down considerably with a moderate data set, the navigation slowed down in proportion to the size of the data set, a few very large items could slow it down just as much as many small data items.  This program does not have keywords/tags and has very few advanced facilities but it is free.

SEO Notes

Usage       Not used
License     Open Source/GPL
Price          Free
Website    http://www.seonote.info/

This is a very basic free two pane organiser with very few facilities.  I have not tested this program, reading the documentation was enough to convince me that there were much better offerings out there which are free.

The Guide

Usage       Used to use it
License     Open Source/GPL
Price          Free
Website    http://theguide.sourceforge.net/

The Guide is a simple two pane hierarchical outlining program with no keywords or tagging.  I used it as a writing tool some years ago but there were some instances where it lost some of the text, I think there is a bug or two in there somewhere.  Even when working perfectly it has little to recommend it over some of the other free outliners (like KeepNote).

Personal Knowbase

Usage       Used to use it
License     Commercial
Price          $49.95
Website    http://www.bitsmithsoft.com/product.htm

This is a strange program, there is no tree, the tagging scheme is how you locate the items you want.  This program has one of the best tagging schemes that I have seen but it’s a bit of a one trick pony.  Although the tagging scheme is excellent the editing of notes is not very good and there is no support for tables or images in items and only very basic formatting of text.  This program is no longer under development, for the past few years there have been only very few updates and these are only maintenance updates (fixing bugs).

TreeDBNotes

Usage       Haven’t tried it
License     Commercial
Price          $34.95 or free for a very limited version
Website    http://www.mytreedb.com/treedbnotes_pro.html

I have not tried this program but it seems like a fairly ordinary two pane organiser with a hierarchical tree in the left pane and the item content in the other pane.  The paid version does have tagging but I don’t know how easy this feature is to use.

Leo Editor

Usage       Not used
License     Open Source/GPL
Price          Free
Website    http://leoeditor.com/

Leo is a plain text outliner and organiser which is also an IDE (integrated development environment).  This was written by programmers for programmers, the people who designed it definitely use it the user interface is well designed but a little esoteric.  Leo was written in python and it works well as a python IDE.  Python scripts can be associated with any outline item.  Leo is very powerful but not very graphical.

AM-Notebook

Usage       Haven’t tried it
License     Commercial
Price          29.95 Euros
Website    http://www.aignes.com/notebook.htm

AM-Notebook is a two pane organiser, but with a few extras.  It has spreadsheets as one of its item types and it has diagrams as one of its item types.  It also has a Calendar, todo list and contacts list, these features are very similar to Microsoft outlook features.  There is no tagging or keywords.

AskSam

Usage       Haven’t tried it
License     Commercial
Price          $395.00 or $149.00
Website    ?

This program used to be the biggest (and one of the more expensive) two pane organisers around but its web page seems to undergoing maintenance, but it has now been undergoing maintenance for a couple of years.  Now I get an error message when I try to go to the page.  Version 7 is the most recently released version.  It has lots of features but it’s very expensive compared to Ultra Recall.

Black Hole Organizer

Usage       Haven’t tried it
License     Commercial
Price          $24.95
Website    http://www.starresoft.com/bho.htm

This is a three pane organiser like KeepNote.  I have not tried this but it seems to have a lot of good features including user defined metadata.

MyBase

Usage       Tried it out
License     Commercial
Price          $59.00
Website    http://www.wjjsoft.com/mybase.html

This is one that I have tried.  It has a lot of good features but there are also some bad features, like the linking not being very good, it doesn’t support universal links.  One of the good features is a hierarchical tagging/keyword system.  It does not handle large data sets very well, there seems to be an upper limit of 300MB on the file size.

Surfulater

Usage       Haven’t tried it
License     Commercial
Price          $79.00
Website    http://www.surfulater.com/

I have not tried this program but maybe I ought to have done, from the information on the website and a review I read the main emphasis of this program seems to be collecting copies of web pages into a database which can then be viewed offline at a later date even if the web page has changed or no longer exists.  Of course you can also take notes with it.  The web clippings are arranged into a hierarchical tree.  There is also a hierarchical tagging scheme, which seems surprisingly good.

EverNote

Usage       Haven’t tried it
License     Commercial
Price          Sign up for free or paid account with a monthly subscription
Website    https://evernote.com/

This is an online note taking solution.  You need to get an account to use it.  If you always have a connection to the internet then it is probably a good idea but if like me you spend a large percentage of the day without a connection then it doesn’t look so attractive.  There are versions of this program for android and iOS and you can share data between devices.  It is possible to get a ‘Premium Account’ which you pay a monthly subscription for.  If you have a Premium Account then you can download your notes onto your computer or phone or tablet and use them without a connection.  But you are paying each month for the privilige.  In my opinion ‘software as a service’ is a BAD idea, you rent the software, if you use it for a long time then you end up paying far more than if you had bought a high end piece of software to do the same job.

Zoot XT

Usage       Tried it out, didn’t like it
License     Commercial
Price          $99.00
Website    http://www.zootsoftware.com/

Zoot is an unusual program, I am not a fan of it but you might like it.  It is a not taking software but it also includes an e-mail program, an RSS feed viewer and a web browser amongst other things.  It treats your notes just like e-mails to yourself.  The user interface is complex and I didn’t get along with it very well.

LexiCan

Usage       Tried it out, didn’t like it
License     Commercial
Price          39.90 Euros
Website    http://www.lexican.net/

Yet another two pane outliner.  This one has some limitations.  There was a significant reduction in response times when the file grew to just a few hundred notes or a couple of hundred kilobytes, this is very poor in my opinion.

When you open this program it takes a very long time before even the splash screen appears, this is annoying.

LexiCan has some serious issues which hamper its use, most of the other programs can have multiple databases or files open at once.  LexiCan can only have one file open at once and when you open another file it automatically closes the file you had open.

This program is produced by a German company, it has been translated into English.  However some of the more obscure menus and dialog boxes are still in German and if you get an error which happens frequently the error message which comes up is always in German.

Noteliner

Usage       Tried it out
License     ?
Price          Free
Website    http://www.noteliner.org/i/Main.html

This is a single pane outliner but has an optional second pane which can be displayed or hidden.  This program is free but not open source.  This program has a lot of hidden depth to it, for instance I didn’t realise until quite recently that it does Gantt charts.

Total Text Container

Usage       Tried it out
License     ?
Price          Free
Website    https://sites.google.com/site/totaltextcontainer/Home

This is a quirky little program which does a lot of different things but which also has some bugs.  It is free.  It has many different item types including spreadsheets and diagrams.  There has been no development of this program for a long time.

Cinta Notes

Usage       Haven’t tried it
License     Commercial
Price          Free version or a $39.00 uncrippled version
Website    http://cintanotes.com/

Cinta Notes stores its notes in a chronological order but in the Pro (paid for) version you have a good tagging scheme with a hierarchical tag tree and so you can gain access to your notes organised in a way you define using this tree.  This is a plain text organiser.

Cherry Tree

Usage       Tried it out, undecided
License     Open Source/GPL
Price          Free
Website    http://www.giuspen.com/cherrytree/

This is one of the better free and open source note taking programs.  There is a tagging scheme but it is not terribly useful.  There is syntax highlighting for a number of different computer languages.  Images can be pasted into items.

AllMyNotes Organizer

Usage       Haven’t tried it
License     Commercial
Price          $25.50 or Free for a version with limited capabilities
Website    http://www.vladonai.com/

A standard two pane organiser but with a quirky colourful interface and a number of different ‘skins’ which change the appearance of the user interface.  There are lots of customisation options.  No tagging scheme but items can have alarms attached to them so that they will remind you of their alarm at a given time in the future (if you are running the program at that time), or as soon after that as they can run.

The website seems to run a perpetual ‘limited time offer’ just for your country (wherever you happen to be from).  This offer has been running for several years now, I don’t know what the limit on the time is but I don’t think there is any need to rush!

Idea Rover

Usage       Haven’t tried it
License     Commercial
Price          $89
Website    http://www.idearover.com/

This is a standard one/two pane outliner which is supposedly pitched towards academic writing, it has special facilities for what they call ‘structured citation extraction’ whatever that is.  In my opinion it doesn’t have anything to recommend it over Scrivener which is cheaper and better.

This program has an awkward interface with a large ‘ribbon’ of icons across the top of the screen, on a small screen (a laptop) this could get annoying.

Linked Notes

Usage       Haven’t tried it
License     Commercial
Price          Free version or a $19.95 uncrippled version
Website    http://www.linkednotes.com/default.aspx

A very basic two pane organiser program with no tagging and nothing to recommend it over one of the free organiser programs like Cherry Tree or KeepNote.

Notecase Pro

Usage       Haven’t tried it
License     Commercial
Price          It’s complicated
Website    http://www.notecasepro.com/

A two pane organiser program with lots of facilities.  There is a tagging scheme.  Files can be attached to items and alarms can also be attached to items to bring up a reminder at some point in the future.  There is a spell checker and there is a version for Android.

It might well be a good program, I have not tried it out.  The prices start low but there are many different prices you can pay for this program depending on the platform, the upgrade options, and whether you want it for more than one platform.

Microsoft OneNote

Usage       Tried it, didn’t like it
License     Commercial
Price          It’s complicated, there is a free version but it isn’t really free.
Website    http://www.onenote.com/

This is Microsofts offering in the genre of note taking programs.  I used OneNote 2007 for a while.  The more recent versions have become less useful as Microsoft moves more towards the ‘Software as a Service’ business model.

My comments here refer to the 2007 version.  The user interface is slick and well thought out, it follows all the standard windows conventions.  However many of the features aren’t as useful as they could have been, I think that many features were added in order to tick boxes in the advertising, this program is full of gimmicks which don’t really add to the usability or usefulness of the program.

For example, it has a tagging scheme but the entries are in a drop down box so when you get more than about thirty tags/categories selecting one becomes very awkward.

All the text on a page is in boxes.  This is very different to using a word processor, it is a sort of hybrid between a word processor and a desktop publishing program.  It ends up being not as good as either of them.

Writing Programs

Scrivener

Usage       Regular
License     Commercial
Price          $40 for Windows, $45 for Mac (Mac version is more advanced)
Website    http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php

Scrivener is in my opinion the best word processor around.  It supports not just the creation of a document but also the organisation of the notes and research for that document.  It may be used as a note taking program although this is not it’s primary purpose.  The interface is well thought out, this program has the feel of a program designed by someone who uses the program rather than by someone who’s job it is to design a program.

yWrite 5

Usage       Tried it out, didn’t like it
License     ?
Price          Free
Website    http://www.spacejock.com/yWriter5.html

yWrite 5 is free but not open source.  It tries to be the same sort of composition tool as Scrivener but is not as good in my opinion.  Whereas Scrivener is just as good for academic writing as it is for fictional writing yWrite 5 is locked in to fictional writing.  Scrivener has a free format note taking section for research and you can organise it the way you want but yWrite 5 has sections for notes on characters and scenes and has a chronological order in which the scenes take place.  This may be OK for fictional writing but it cannot be changed if you do not want to organise your notes in this way.

SuperNoteCard (Mindola Software)

Usage       Haven’t tried it
License     Commercial
Price          $29
Website    http://www.mindola.com/index.php

This program tries to mimic note cards used by some authors to organise information.  The note cards can be very large in that they can hold an enormous amount of text.  There are many facilities for organising research and background material for the story.  It can also be used for non fiction writing and as a note taking program as the ‘factors’ and ‘categories’ can be edited to suit your own way of organising things.

Having said this I can’t help feeling that although this program is very good at what it does Scrivener does it so much better.  However Scrivener is more expensive than SuperNoteCards.

Wiki Programs

Connected Text

Usage       Used to use it regularly but has decreased recently
License     Commercial
Price          From $39.95 up to $114.95
Website    http://www.connectedtext.com/

Connected Text is a desktop Wiki.  It is incredibly powerful, there is a markup language which is relatively easy to learn the basics of but has a lot of depth so that you can perform extremely useful and complex processing of text.  But the depths are not that easy to learn.  There is an edit mode where you edit the source code for the page and a view mode where that source code is executed and the resultant page is displayed.

If you are a tech head who is completely at home working with a command line interface then you will probably like Connected Text and you will get one of the finest pieces of Wiki software ever written.  If you like doing things with a graphical user interface and like to see what you are going to get without having to switch modes then you will find it uncomfortable.

One of the major drawbacks is that you cannot cut and paste formatted text from another application and paste it into Connected Text without it looking completely different.  The style pages are formatted with is controlled by a .CSS file and formatted text will be stripped of its formatting when you paste it.

ZimWiki

Usage       Never used
License     Open Source/GPL
Price          Free
Website    http://zim-wiki.org/

Zim Wiki is a simple wiki without a lot of the facilities or the complexity of Connected Text.  It is still a useful program, it is written in python and so you can run it on both Linux and Windows.  Zim Wiki is free and open source.

WikidPad

Usage       Never Used
License     Open Source/GPL
Price          Free
Website    http://wikidpad.sourceforge.net/

Wikid pad is another free and open source simple wiki without much of the power or the complexity of Connected Text.  It runs on WIndows, Linux and Mac.  The appearance is like a two pane organiser with the pages listed down the left side of the screen and the selected page displayed on the right.

Mapping Software

VUE

Usage       Regular
License     Open Source/GPL
Price          Free
Website    http://vue.tufts.edu/

VUE or Visual Understanding Environment is a way of setting your ideas out in a graphical way.  It is free to download from Tufts University.  It does most of what you need and very little of what you don’t need.  The user interface is simple but it has a lot of depth.  One thing it doesn’t do is print out the maps to PDF files.  However a Mac will do this natively and a Windows machine can do this if it has a PDF printing program (like PDF Creator) installed.

In my opinion this is one of the best mapping programs around, I use it regularly.

design VUE

Usage       Tried it out
License     Open Source/GPL
Price          Free
Website    http://www3.imperial.ac.uk/designengineering/tools/designvue

Someone took the source code of VUE and added the IBIS relationship types and icons from Compendium to it.  This program does all the things which VUE does but may be used to produce Argument maps as well.  This program comes as an executable JAR file rather than being an installable EXE file.

Compendium

Usage       Used to use it regularly, not so much recently
License     Open Source/GPL
Price          Free
Website    http://www.compendiumng.org/

Compendium by the Open University must be one of the best open source free mapping tools around.  It is easy to use once you get used to the quirky user interface.  The user interface shows it’s Unix/Linux heritage and does not conform to Windows conventions very closely.  The maps produced are easy to understand and the program has an over abundance of features.  This program feels like it was designed by a committee.  On the maps there are several different types of node including a ‘Map’ node which contains a map. When you open this node you are taken to a new map.  This means that large maps may be split into chunks.  This is quite a useful feature.

Compendium also has a tagging system, nodes may be tagged and the tags may be grouped into folders.  Sort of like a semi hierarchical tagging system.  The tagging system is quite useful.  Compendium also supports transclusion (cloning) which is also useful.

Compendium is let down by a couple of issues, one trivial and the other is a limitation on usefulness.

The trivial issue is that nodes containing text are limited to 32,767 characters of text.  If you put any more text than this into a node then it will only exist until you close the program.  When you re-open the program that text will have disappeared.  No warnings, no error messages it just isn’t there any more.  I class this bug as trivial because very few people will put 32 thousand characters (about 10 to 15 pages of A4) into a node.  But it is something to be aware of.  The text would be better split up amongst several nodes.

The limitation on usefulness is that there are no links in to the program and it does not support universal links.

CMAP Tools

Usage       Tried it out
License     Open Source/GPL
Price          Free
Website    http://cmap.ihmc.us/

CMAP Tools is a concept mapping program from IHMC (the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition) in Florida.

In the documentation there is a heavy emphasis on collaboration and the sharing of maps.  There are several public servers which can store your CMAPs so that they might be shared with others and IHMC provides the server software so that you can set up your own private server so that maps may be shared within an organisation.

CMAP Tools when used with the server software supports simultaneous collaborative editing of maps so that several people can edit the same map at the same time.  It also has facilities for placing annotations on the map, making suggestions and setting up discussion threads (similar to a bulletin board or forum) to facilitate communications between separate users/viewers of the same map.  Of all the programs reviewed here this one probably has the best facilities for supporting multiple users.  Compendium is the next best and it’s multi user facilities are not as good although it comes close in my opinion.

There are versions of CMAP Tools for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux.  A portable version is also available which can run from a USB memory stick.

CMAP Tools is free to download but you must first provide your details and a valid E-mail address.  I have not received any spam E-mail from IHMC.

CMAP Tools is a good program but in my opinion for individual use VUE is even better.  CMAP Tools is probably better at fast layout and capture of ideas but VUE is more expressive.

Freemind and Freeplane

Usage       Often
License     Open Source/GPL
Price          Free
Website    http://freeplane.sourceforge.net/wiki/index.php/Main_Page

Freemind and Freeplane are free and open source mind mapping programs.

Freeplane is a fork of FreeMind which was one of the first free mind mapping programs available. The developers of FreeMind had a disagreement about the way in which FreeMind was to be developed and so some of them left and started Freeplane.

The programs are pretty much identical apart from one or two extras you get with Freeplane, like being able to embed universal links.

At the moment both programs have the same file format so maps may be exchanged freely between the users of both programs but this is not guaranteed to continue as the programs continue to be developed along different paths.  For me this is not an problem as I only use Freeplane, but it might be a problem for some people.  The file format used by FreeMind and FreePlane has become something of a standard, and can be imported into many other mind mapping programs, including some on the iPad and iPhone, and some browser-based, on-line mind mapping services.

These programs only do mind maps, they do not do cognitive maps.  The nodes are in a strict hierarchy and although you may create floating nodes and ad-hoc connections between nodes it would be possible but very cumbersome to construct a concept map this way.

These programs are easy to use, most of their interfaces are very simple and obvious in their functionality but there is also a lot of depth to the programs which are not obvious at first glance.  There are many advanced features, like the scripting and node attributes, which are available but do not clutter the user interface.  There are keyboard shortcuts for most common functions so that once you have learned the shortcuts you can use this program almost without reaching for your mouse.

There are versions of FreeMind and FreePlane for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux.

Scapple

Usage       Never used it
License     Commercial
Price          $14.99
Website     http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scapple.php

Scapple is a mapping program similar to VUE.  I have never tried it out because VUE is free and this is $14.99 but the  video  looked very good, it seems well thought out and easy to use.  It is from the same people who wrote Scrivener and so it should be good.  It is available for Mac and Windows.

Inspiration

Usage       Tried it out
License     Commercial
Price          $39.95
Website    http://www.inspiration.com/Inspiration

Inspiration is a mapping program.  It allows other types of map besides a mind map.  Mind maps are limited to a strict hierarchy but Inspiration allows links which break the hierarchy.  It also has other ways to view the data so your map can also be viewed as an outline.

This is a well thought out and competent program but it is commercial.  Freeplane does the same thing and is free.  Inspiration does have a few extra bells and whistles but these are not particularly significant and are mainly gimmicks.

MindRaider

Usage       Used to use it regularly
License     ?
Price          Free
Website    http://mindraider.sourceforge.net/

MindRaider tries to be everything.  It is a mapping tool which is also an outliner and a wiki.  One of the problems with it is that it tries to cram too much onto the screen.  There are many panels around the central map and so the map is smaller and the screen looks cluttered.  On a small screen like a laptop this can be a problem.

The map is innovative in that it keeps the map centred on the selected node, very few mapping programs do this.

The notes which can be stored in nodes are plain text.

MindRaider could be quite a useful program but I must admit it is not a program I have used for any length of time, I installed it and tried it out but got frustrated with the small size of the map and all the panels clustered around it and so it fell into disuse and was eventually uninstalled.

This program is no longer being developed.  This is not a problem as long as changes to the operating system or updates to various components of the software environment don’t break the operation of the program, remember what happened to ‘Cayra’.

Blumind

Usage       Tried it out
License     Open Source/GPL
Price          Free
Website    http://blumind.org/

Blumind is a very simple and very basic mind mapping tool.  It is free to download but its facilities are uninspiring.

Instrumind Think Composer

Usage       Tried it out on two different machines, it failed!
License     Commercial
Price          $149.25 to $49.75
Website    http://www.thinkcomposer.com/

Instrumind Think Composer looks like a very interesting program, the documentation is long and detailed and shows off some very impressive capabilities.  Pity about the program.  I installed this program and ran it and the screen looked exactly as the manual had pictured it.  Unfortunately if I tried to use the program it crashes, not just once but every time and not just one type of crash but it fails in different ways, sometimes it locks up the machine so badly I have to switch the machine off to get it out of its catatonic state.

The customer support at Instrumind were monumentally unhelpful.  I have so far tried to install this program on two machines, both with the same result.

This looks like a good program and I would like to try it out.  If you want to try it then go ahead, it might work for you.  I can’t imagine the company would be able to make a living if their program failed on all machines.

Good Luck!

Other Programs

Tree Sheets

Usage       Tried it out
License     ?
Price          Free
Website    http://strlen.com/treesheets/

Tree Sheets is just like a spreadsheet for text.  It has a quirky interface which follows no conventions other than its own.  It will compress text to fit it into a box on the sheet.  So you can have pages of text compressed into on small box, it is only when you zoom in that the text becomes readable.

Apart from this one novel trick you would probably be better off using a spreadsheet.

InfoQube

Usage       Tried it out. Twice
License     Sort of Commercial but ambiguous
Price          $50
Website    http://www.infoqube.biz/

This program is just weird.  It is also very complicated.  It tries to do everything which Connected Text can do but without the markup language so everything is done through a GUI with tables of properties and context menus but there are so many options that it all becomes very messy.

This program has been in development for a long long time, the final version has always been predicted to be six months away.  In 2007 it was predicted to be six months away and now in 2014 it is still six months away.  Development seems to be progressing very slowly, I suspect that it is being developed by one person in his spare time.

On the website it says:-

While in beta, InfoQube is free to download and use.  Initial release is planned for Q4 2014.
Personal licenses will have a special introductory price of just $49.95

In the meantime … you’ve seen what can be don with InfoQube and you think it has a great potential.
Perhaps you’d like to give us a helping hand … You certainly can:

You contribute through donations which will be credited towards your purchase of InfoQube licenses!
Donate $50 or more and you’ll receive a free Personal License !

Pardon the bad grammar, this was copied straight from the website.  First thing to note is that the program stops working after the 60 day free trial period so if you want to continue using it you have to get a ‘Free Personal License’ but if you are being forced to ‘donate‘ $50 to be issued with that free license then surely you are buying the license.

The second thing to note is the mobile deadline, Q4 of 2014, when this deadline passes (which it has almost) it will be moved, probably to Q2 of 2015 untill that deadline also passes.

TreeLine

Usage       Tried it out
License     ?
Price          Free
Website    http://treeline.bellz.org/

This program is like a free form database.  It is OK but I think any of the two pane organisers would work just as well and be just as useful.  Try KeepNote or Cherry Tree instead.

Review of Compendium

Compendium has been under development at the Open University for many years.  Compendium does much more than just Mind Mapping.  It is a free and open source tool for representing, organising and communicating knowledge, processes and arguments.  It may not be as pretty as some of the other mind mapping tools but it is much more capable and functional.

There is one feature which was tried and found not to be useful but was not entirely removed.  In one of the earlier versions there was an e-mail system built in to the program so that different users of the database could send each other messages, but this e-mail system did not connect to the outside world it was purely internal.  It was found that most of the users of the program used external e-mail applications to send each other messages and so this function was removed but on your home map there is still an Inbox which you cannot delete or use to send messages.  It acts like a node and you can link to it.  You can open it but it will be an empty list.  I don’t know why it is still there.

Another thing which appears on your home map is a recycling bin which is where deleted nodes go to die or be resurrected.

Compendium stores its maps in a database so there is no ‘save’ button, whatever changes you make to a map are saved continuously.  By default Compendium uses the Derby database embedded within Java (Compendium is written in Java and you can download the source code) but it can also use a MySQL database.  For home use the database will most likely be set up on your local machine and you will be the only one to have access to it, but it is possible to set the database up on a remote machine and to have many people working on the same database at the same time.  Collaborative editing of a map is possible.

The version I am using is Compendium NG but there is another version, Compendium LD is a fork of an older slightly less advanced version aimed specifically at students and which has been given a more extensive set of node stencils (templates).  Fortunately it is a simple job to install Compendium LD, copy the extra stencils then uninstall it and paste the stencils into appropriate place in Compendium NG.  So then you have the best of both.

VUE is easier to use and has more extensive documentation.

 

Overall score = 23 out of 50

 

1.  Organisation  =  6

Compendium places few constraints on how you organise material.  A Compendium database starts off with one ‘Home’ map on which you can place nodes and connections between nodes (links).  Maps can be as big as you like, the canvas is enormous.  One type of node which is particularly interesting is the Map node.  This type of node contains a new map on a new canvas which can contain map nodes which contain other maps, etc …  Memory is the only limit to the depth to which this can go.  This means it is easy to split up your information into many small easy to understand maps instead of having one gigantic sprawling map.

There is no hierarchy unless you make it yourself, the map can contain floating nodes and there can be as many maps on one canvas as you have room for.  A node may be any one of eleven types selected from a pallet and dragged onto the map, or you can type the keyboard shortcut to create a node at the mouse position, so creating nodes is very quick.  Links are also quick to create, just right click and drag from one node to another.  Links can have a type but they cannot split or join like they can in VUE.

Although there are eleven types of node you can extend this by using what the Compendium team call stencils.  This allows you to roll your own type of node with your own icons.

Compendium also supports transclusion, the same node may appear in different places and when it is edited all the instances of that node are changed.

Nodes can be tagged with keywords which can then be used to search for particular nodes, although using the results of a search is not intuitively obvious.  If you mouse over the ‘views’ column of the search results then a box appears under the mouse with a list of the maps where that particular result appears, clicking on one of these entries will bring up that map.

 

2.  Attachments to nodes  =  4     (would have been higher but for the bug and not supporting universal links)

In Compendium a node is not just an icon with a title in a map.  You can open it to reveal its contents.  There are five basic types of nodes, one of these is only used by Compendium itself and two of the others aren’t particularly useful so when defining a new node type for a stencil (a palette of your own custom node types) the choice is very simple, the node is either a ‘Map’ which contains a new blank map or it is a ‘Reference’ which contains text but which can also link to things.

The other types are Note, List and Movie Map.  The Note type is used exclusively by Compendium but it is just a Reference type without the link field so a Reference node can be used in its place without any detriment.  The Movie Map type is used for displaying video files but these are probably better displayed by linking to the file and using its default application.  The List type is a list of nodes, but this is not very well implemented and it is difficult to populate the list.

Opening a Map node takes you to the map contained within the map node.  Opening a Reference node opens a window containing the contents of the node which are a title field, a notes field, a Ref field and an image field.

The title is the text which appears below the node on the map.

The notes field contains text, there is a bug in the program which prevents it from holding large amounts of text.  The note field can only hold 32 kilobytes of text, if the text exceeds this length then it will only persist until the program is closed.  When you next run Compendium the text will have disappeared, there will be no error messages or warnings, it just isn’t there when you next run the program.  This is quite a serious bug in my opinion, not the fact that there is a limit on the size of the text but the fact that there is no warning when you reach that limit, your text just isn’t there when you next run the program.

So the note field is for short texts only, but 32 kilobytes is more than enough for most purposes on a program like this.  The text is unformatted, just plain text in the default windows dialog box font and size.  The text can be divided into pages but where you put the page breaks is entirely up to you.

The reference field can contain a link to a file or a URL but unfortunately Compendium does not support universal links.  The Image field contains the pathname and file name of the image to be used for the node, if it is blank then the default image from the stencil is used.

There is no way to create a link into Compendium from another program.  Since the maps are all in a database you cannot even use the trick of running the program with a particular file because there are no map files which can be run.

 

3.  Appearance  =  5

Compendium has the appearance of a Unix program, there is some customisation, the interface may be set to some of the styles supported by Java Swing.

The positioning of nodes on the map is set by the user but links between nodes take the shortest path.  In my opinion the maps are not as expressive as the VUE maps although they do come close.

Compendium

 

4.  Ease of use  =  4

Compendium has a very idiosyncratic user interface, it takes a while to get used to it.  It follows very few of the conventions which windows users have grown used to.  There are many things which can be done but which are not obvious or intuitive.  There is no good documentation for Compendium.

You can zoom in and out from the map using the mouse wheel and pan by right click and drag in a clear part of the map.  Zooming out gives you an overview of the map.

Compendium can only have one database open at any time and there can only be one instance of Compendium running at a time so this is less useful than it could be.

There is support for collaborative working but I have not investigated this aspect of the program.

 

5.  Import – Export  =  4

Compendium does not have a comprehensive list of import and export formats, it can export to XML or to a Web page or to a .JPEG file.  It can import an XML file or from a ‘Questmap’ file (whatever one of those is), or there is an option to ‘Import Image Folder into current map’ which copies all the pictures in a folder and pastes them into the current map (which is actually less useful than it sounds).

So maps may be exchanged from one instance of Compendium to another by exporting the map in XML format and importing it into the other Compendium in XML format.  XML format is also useful to see the structure of a map but beyond that I have not been able to import the generated XML file into any other application.