Note Taking Software, back to basics.

There are many note taking programs but there are none which are ideal in my opinion. Many of them do a lot more things that I don’t need and don’t do all the things which I do need. A couple of them do come tantalisingly close to my ideal.

So what do I actually need from a note taking program. Let’s build it up from basics.

I like things to be simple!

What is the simplest note taking system?

A pencil and paper!

But a pencil and paper is not connected, you can’t search a large paper document easily. Organising and re-organising paper documents is difficult even if you have scissors and glue.

It would be more useful if it were electronic and on a computer.

So what is the simplest note taking system on a computer ?

Plain text files!

This is true, but having lots of plain text files scattered about on a hard disk can also be frustrating.

“I’m sure I had that information in a text file somewhere, if only I could remember what it was called and what folder it was in, dammit!”

There are problems with organising and re-organising a body of information which is contained in plain text files. What is needed is a way of structuring them and indexing their contents so they can be searched as a whole.

Keeping all your notes together is a good idea. Being able to add structure to them so that they can be grouped by their salient features is a good idea. Being able to explicitly express the salient features of a note (tags & metadata) is a good idea. Having a mechanism whereby one note can refer to another note (or indeed something outside the program) is a good idea. That is why note taking programs are a good idea.

With a note taking program you can keep all your notes in one place, link them together and define a logical structure, add meta-data to express the significant features of the data, link to other files or websites and search for things which you want to find.

Everything over and above this is either the icing on the cake or superfluous and unnecessary depending on your point of view.

Of course there are programs which provide a myriad of extra facilities and functions but if they fail to provide these basic facilities then they still fall short.

All the extra functions do is obfuscate the basic functionality. I am not saying that programs should not offer extended functionality but if the basic functionality ends up hidden in a sub-menu of a sub menu or in a context menu somewhere obscure then that is a bad thing.

The basic and most often used functions should be in obvious places, the extra functionality can be hidden in obscure places. The developers task is to decide which functions are the most often used and which ones get used once in a blue moon by just a few people.

If a program tries to be all things to all people then what usually happens is the user interface becomes complicated in one way or another.

 

Organisation

Almost all note taking programs organise their notes in either a tree or a directed graph. Most of the other types of organisation are either trees or directed graphs if you look at their topology.

A wiki might be thought of as a free form structure but the notes are connected by links and thus it is actually a directed graph. A mind map might be thought of as different from an outline but they are both trees, they are just displayed differently.

Directed graphs are more useful than trees.

Trees have the problem that as they get bigger it becomes more difficult to place nodes within them, that is, it becomes more difficult to find a single place which is correct for that node. There are usually several places where it could plausibly fit. That is why directed graphs are more useful.

For example, if a node could fit in the tree under the project it is part of or under the person whose responsibility it is or under the problem which the project is supposed to address then with a tree you have to select which is the most important feature of the node. This leads to difficulty in finding the node later when you have forgotten what your original decision was. It also leads to inconsistency of placement.

With a directed graph you can put the node in all the appropriate places simultaneously. If a node in a tree can have more than one parent then that tree is a directed graph. If you can ‘clone’ a node so that it appears more than once in a tree then that tree is really a directed graph.

It should be noted that a clone is not a copy, it is the same node which appears in more than one place.

 

Tags

Tagging nodes to indicate properties of the node is a necessary feature of a note taking system in my opinion. Well thought out tags are very useful.

Hierarchical tagging systems are in my opinion most useful, but few note taking programs have hierarchical tagging systems. Ideally the use of a tag should also imply the node having the parent tag as well (inheritance) i.e. if the node is tagged as belonging to this electronics project then it should also be tagged with the parent tag of ‘electronics’ and if electronics is the descendant of another tag then it should inherit that one too, recursively right back to the root of the tree.

One caveat with this is that when selecting the tags to apply to a node the list should be just a flat list of all the tags in alphabetical order, i.e. the tree should be flattened out.

Tagging systems can become a mess if the user doesn’t think about what the significant features of their data are. If the collection of tags just develops ad-hoc then they will probably be inconsistent with each other and this can lead to confusion.

A tagging system is even more useful if on can refine a search by selecting from a list of tags held by the results of the current search. Similar to the system used by the website ‘Del.icio.us’ before it was discontinued to make way for Pinboard’s subscription service. One alternative to this is if you can build a query using tags combined with AND, OR, NOT and brackets.

Meta-data is just another form of tagging, the meta-data expresses something about the node and as such it should be able to be searched and nodes should be able to be grouped on properties expressed in the meta-data.

One unhelpful characteristic of many programs is that their meta-data is common to all nodes. For example, let us suppose I have a notebase in which I have some notes on a selection of vacuum cleaners in order to choose which one to buy. One of the pieces of meta-data I might define for those nodes is ‘price’ and give each vacuum cleaner a number which represents it’s price. In a well designed note taking program that ‘price’ meta-data would only exist for those items I had assigned it to. In a badly designed note taking program all nodes in the notebase would now have a ‘price’ even where it is inappropriate. This would make the list of meta-data extremely long for every node because every node has an entry for every piece of meta-data defined for any node in the entire notebase.

Tags are all that is really necessary, other meta-data can be placed in the text of the node in a minimalist system.

 

Links

Linking notes together makes them much more useful. The information in one node can refer to information in another node and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The basic link is like a hypertext link and occurs in the text of a node, it refers to another node. Clicking on the link takes you to the node which the link points to. This basic link is all that is necessary in a note taking system. Just with this type of basic link you can build a wiki.

There are usually other types of link in a system, especially if it is structured as a tree or graph. The structure of the tree implies parent/child links and this is used to arrange the nodes on the screen.

In my opinion there also needs to be links where the information in one node needs to cite or refer to the information in another node. There needs to be a mechanism whereby a node can list other nodes which provide supporting or related information. These are sometimes called ‘see also’ or ‘related items’ or ‘reference’.

 

Text

The function of a note taking system is to hold notes, i.e. information. This can be plain text but the necessity of including links to other nodes implies something more than just plain text. And a bit of formatting is quite nice too.

The inclusion of pictures and diagrams is really useful as well. There is an old saying that ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’, pictures can aid comprehension and understanding of the information. The inclusion of pictures in the text of a node although not strictly necessary is a good feature to have.

Tables are also quite useful.

 

Conclusions

So my ideal note taking program would not have a lot of extra features which I don’t use but would include the all the basic functionality described in this article.

What would such a program look like?

It would have a directed graph structure presented as either a tree (or many trees) or preferably as a network (map). Each node could appear many times in the network/tree as a clone of the same node.

If the structure is presented as a map then the map should centre on the node which has the focus and if the user moves to a new node then the map should be re-drawn with the new node as the centre of the map, this allows you to see the node of interest ‘centre stage’ whilst still being able to see it’s context.

If displayed as a tree then it would be able to ‘Hoist’ a node so that it becomes the centre of attention and would be able to expand/collapse branches of the directed graph/tree.

Each node would be associated with a pane of text which could contain pictures, diagrams, tables and links to other nodes. Links should be opened by a simple single click just like a web browser. In addition each node would be associated with a list of ‘related’ nodes and/or a list of files associated with that node each of which could be opened by clicking on the entry in the list. Ideally the text pane should be floating so that it can be placed on a second monitor.

There would be a hierarchical tagging system with inheritance which could be searched by clicking on the tag in the tag tree but in which the search could be refined by clicking on further tags narrowing down the selection each time, similar to the system used by the ‘Del.icio.us’ website.

The text of each node would be indexed so that full text searches can be carried out quickly. In addition complex searches would be possible by building search criteria in a ‘search table’ each row having columns defining what is being searched for, what is being searched (node text, tags, meta-data etc.), what the conditions are (greater than or equal to, less than, equal to, text contains, matches wildcard etc.) and what the relationship is to the other search criteria (AND, OR), maybe a tree structure would be more useful here instead of brackets. Furthermore these complex searches should be able to be saved for later re-use. This does not mean that a quick and simple search should not be available as well.

There are a few (very few) programs which come close but there isn’t yet a program which ticks all the boxes for me.

This is a bit more complicated than a simple pencil and paper but I think it would be a lot more useful.

 

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InfoQube followup

InfoQube is a complicated program with many capabilities but it is difficult for a new user to understand.

It is very easy for a new user to feel lost, partly this is due to not knowing where everything is but its because the program is capable of doing so many different things, when faced with so many possibilities a new user might think “What the F*&@ should I do now ?”, option paralysis is a well known phenomenon in psychology.

InfoQube is almost completely opposite to Microsoft OneNote, with OneNote the user interface is superbly designed to help the new user and to make the operation of the program obvious.  But the program itself sucks, many of its capabilities are superficial and gimmicky.  They are included just so that the advertising department can tick the box saying it has that capability.  If you use OneNote for any serious work then you come up against its limitations very quickly.  It is a typical product of Microsoft ‘focus groups’ which tend to make things so they are easy for the new user and difficult or impossible for the power user.

InfoQube on the other hand does not have a user interface which is simple and intuitive.  The user interface is very dense.  What do I mean by dense ?  It is packed with sub menus, drop downs and context menus and some of the sub menus have sub menus.  This can be confusing for a new user who doesn’t know where everything is.

There is a lot of depth to this program, but it can be intimidating to a new user. I am still learning and so I am sort of a new user but I don’t feel lost anymore. I was helped a lot by finding the option to customise menus and toolbars and experimenting with what I could and couldn’t move and/or get rid of.

Toolbars can have icons taken out of them and other icons put into them. New toolbars can be defined. The same is true of menus, the menus themselves are fixed but the contents of each menu can be changed. There are a few things in the menus which are fixed and you have to work around these entries but you can almost completely re-arrange everything else.

I was not aware how customisable InfoQube was until I went looking for the command to set up keyboard shortcuts.  In the sub menu there was an entry called ‘Customize’ (pardon the Americanism but that’s the way its spelled in the program).  This is a key feature and shouldn’t be hidden away in a sub menu.  Once I found out what it was capable of I dragged it up one level onto the ‘Tools’ menu between ‘Help’ and ‘Options …’ where I would have expected to find it in the first place.

I then butchered the interface until I was comfortable with it.

I am now using the cut down interface.  I have deleted many of the capabilities of the program, the things I am not interested in.

  • Like Pivot Tables and Pivot charts, since Microsoft Office is no longer installed on my system I can’t use these anyway.
  • Like sending e-mail to InfoQube, someday I may want the capability to send information to my InfoQube database from anywhere or for others to do so but for now I’m not interested.
  • Like Gantt Charts, maybe one day I will have to manage a project and if that is the case then I will be grateful for this capability but for now its something I don’t need.

These facilities are still there, they have just been deleted from the user interface.  If they are ever needed then they could easily be re-introduced.

Without all the stuff I don’t need and with the stuff I do need re-arranged I have a sensible manageable, comprehensible (to me) interface.  Actually I haven’t taken that much out, but in the process of re-arranging things I became much more familiar with where things are.  I have assigned a new set of keyboard shortcuts so that the operations which are common to the other programs I use are now in familiar locations where my fingers can find them on their own without too much thought.

So, what have I got left ?

I have a two pane organiser similar in operation to MyInfo with the columns in the left hand pane similar to Myinfo but it has the dockable panes which can be detached and placed on the other monitor just like Ultra Recall and it has a form of hierarchical tagging similar to ConnectedText.  It has the ability to assign different meta-data to different items like Ultra Recall and the capability to have saved searches like the $ASK command in ConnectedText (except the results appear in a table (grid) not on a page).

The hierarchical tagging is not native to InfoQube but it shows the flexibility of the program that something like this is possible with only the things which are already built in.

I am aware that I am not using InfoQube to it’s full potential but the question is, do I need to use the program to it’s full potential ?  If it does what I need then that is enough and the extra capabilities are there if I ever need to use them.  I didn’t use ConnectedText to it’s full potential either.  So what!  If InfoQube does become my main note taking program then my usage of other parts of the program would possibly expand over time.

If only the linking of pages (placing a link on a page which links to another page) was as good as ConnectedText then I could rebuild my ConnectedText wiki within InfoQube.

Moving lots of data over to InfoQube has highlighted the fact that the import facilities of InfoQube are very rudimentary unless you are importing from EccoPro or Evernote.

This is the reason I have not done a load test on InfoQube, importing a couple of thousand text files is only practical if it can be automated.  I suspect InfoQube would perform rather well in such a test but I cannot say that for certain until I do the test.  If I drag and drop files to the left Pane then all I get is links to the files on disk, the file contents aren’t inserted into the database.

The pace of development of InfoQube is quite rapid and things have changed (for the better) since my review.  I look forward to seeing what new developments are coming.  If there are substantive changes then it may be worth doing a second review.

Software rental brought to you by Microsoft !

I have recently been having problems with my laptop computer.

The nature of these problems is not relevant to this discussion but it did necessitate what Microsoft call a ‘Reset’ of the PC.  I opted to keep all my personal files.  I thought I could re-install the applications I had bought and paid for from Microsoft after all it was the same PC they had originally been installed on and I had bought a valid license key for that computer right !

Wrong !  Microsoft have stopped re-activation of license keys for previous versions of Office software.  This was a copy of Microsoft Office Professional 2010 which I had been forced to buy after Microsoft destroyed my previous laptop with the disastrous Windows 10 upgrade.  I bought this software in September 2016 so I have had just over 18 months use out of it and now Microsoft refuse to re-activate the license key.

For many years Office has been a very profitable product for Microsoft.

Software has different characteristics to normal products, the development costs are high but the production costs are low.  This means that for a small company who aren’t selling very many copies the development costs are a large percentage of the profit for each copy sold but for a large company who are selling a large number of copies the development costs become tiny compared to the profit for every copy sold, particularly at the excessive prices that Microsoft charge.

This is what destroys many small software companies.  However Microsoft are not a small company and they have sold many copies of Office and looking at the differences between Office 2010 and Office 2013 they have done little or no development in those three years.  But now they have become even more greedy than they were previously.

They have moved their business model over to ‘SaaS’ or ‘Software as a Sentence‘.  So they have stopped the service to activate the license key by telephone which means that a license key which needs activation can be activated just once online.  If it has already been activated then it can no longer be re-activated.  They are trying to kill off older versions of Office.  They are trying to force everyone onto the rental version, Microsoft Office 365 because it generates a steady revenue stream for Microsoft.

Be warned, if you have a copy of Microsoft Office previous to Office 365 installed on your machine do not un-install it unless you really mean to get rid of it completely because you won’t ever be able to re-activate it on any computer ever again, not even the one on which it was originally installed!

So what alternatives are there for people who don’t like being milked by Microsoft.

Microsoft Office Professional 2010 consists of Word, Excel, OneNote, Power Point, Publisher, Access and Outlook.

Free Software

Mozilla Thunderbird is a worthy replacement for Microsoft Outlook.  I don’t think there is another program either commercial software or free software that can beat it.

Libre Office Calc can do almost all the things Excel can do but with a quaint old fashioned looking interface.

Libre Office Impress can do almost all the things Power Point can do but again it has an old fashioned looking interface.

Libre Office Base is a very different animal to Access, the user interface is not as good but the capabilities of the database exceed those of access.  The back end of Base is the HyperSQL database.  The user interface is different to Access and will take some getting used to.

Libre Office Draw is not a suitable replacement for Publisher.  It is quite awkward to use, it can produce good documents but it takes a lot more work than in Publisher.  Inkscape however is a lot more capable and although the user interface is not as intuitive as it could be you do get used to it with experience.  If you want a full desktop publishing solution then Scribus is far more capable than Publisher ever was.

OneNote was never a very good solution to note taking, it has a nice graphical user interface that is quite intuitive and it has a lot of features but many of those features were only added to tick boxes in the advertising feature list and they were added with no consideration for how they would be used.  For example OneNote has a tagging system but it is designed in such a way that if you have more than about 30 or 40 tags then it starts to become unusable.

There are many suitable replacements for OneNote both commercial and free.  The free programs aren’t quite as good for note taking as the commercial programs and none of them is similar to OneNote, most of them are similar to two pane outliners.  Treesheets however is quite novel, it is like a spreadsheet for text. Among the free solutions are Treesheets, KeepNote, SEO Notes and Cherry Tree.

Libre Office Writer is not a suitable replacement for Microsoft Word for one simple reason, it doesn’t do Outlining.  The absence of this crucial feature in Writer is what is holding Libre Office back from becoming the Office suite of choice for business and academia.

Outlining is a good way of analysing a problem, divide and conquer, keep on dividing the problem into simpler pieces until the pieces are easy to do.  Businesspeople want to organise documents in an outline, Lawyers want to organise case notes in an outline, students want to organise assignments in an outline.   It is one of the basic tools which helps people to put their ideas into a document and arrange them into a coherent whole.

Microsoft Word has a very good, well designed and easy to use outlining mode and once you have finished organising your document you can go back to the normal mode and concentrate on the formatting and presentation of your document.  But at any time you can switch back to the outline mode and re-organise/re-arrange things.  As an outliner Word is hard to beat.

The outlining feature has been requested many times on the Libre Office forums but the developers at Libre Office say “well we have Navigator and it does the same thing”, no it doesn’t.  Navigator was designed to move about documents and find things, it is not an outliner, it does some of the things outliners do but it is not a fully functional outliner.

Unfortunately if you want to stick with free software you will need a separate outlining program and word processor.  So unless the outliner has very good formatting and printing you will need both programs and there will be problems with re-organising things unless you maintain two versions of your document.

UV Outline is a very good free outliner and The Guide is also quite good.

Commercial Programs

If you are willing to pay a little money then the available options become a lot more numerous.  None of the programs here are rental versions.  When you pay you actually get the program, you don’t have to keep on paying for it over and over again.

For Office suites there is SoftMaker Office, it is quite expensive but at least you get the software indefinitely and don’t have to pay rent (although there is a rental version of the Office Suite as well).  I haven’t used SoftMaker Office so I cannot comment on its performance or features and it is pretty pricey.

For something a little more affordable Ability Office is quite good and this is one I have got.

Ability Office Professional consists of a database, a paint program, a presentation program, a spreadsheet and a word processor.  They claim to be Microsoft compatible and to be able to load and save files in Microsoft format and this is largely true apart from the database where it can load the tables and queries from your Access files but not the forms.

The word processor ‘Ability Write’ doesn’t do outlines, it doesn’t even have anything as functional as Libre Office Write’s Navigator, but as a basic word processor it is OK.

Ability office has some nice features like being able to link data from one document to another so you can have numbers in a table in your Writer document which come from the spreadsheet and this link can be both ways so you can change figures in the table and it changes the numbers in the spreadsheet.  The same links can exist between the database and the spreadsheet and between the database and the word processor.

You can also set up Ability Office to have conventional toolbars and menus and get rid of the ribbons.

The lack of an outliner in Ability Office Writer is a big limitation but there is another solution out there.  Scrivener from Literature and Latte is a word processor designed for authors to write books.  It has a lot of nice features to help in producing long documents and of course it does outlines.  For each project there is a section containing research notes or background information.  If I was writing a long complex document like a thesis then Scrivener would be my word processor of choice for such a task.  If I wanted to produce a quick half page note then Scrivener probably wouldn’t be suitable.  Scrivener is quite reasonably priced.

As far as desktop publishing goes then Serif PagePlus X9 is very good and is also surprisingly suitable for producing long documents.  Serif are heavily promoting their new replacement for PagePlus called Affinity, it looks good on the website but its someting I haven’t tried yet so I can’t give an opinion on how good it actually is.

There are many note taking programs out there for sale.  If you don’t want too many complex facilities and are satisfied with a strict hierarchical structure and no universal links then there is a note taking program called ‘Right Note‘ which is fairly simple to learn and also does spreadsheets as a type of note.

I was going to do a review of Right Note sometime in the future but a preview would be, simple to learn, attractive user interface with plenty of colour and quite useful features but not very sophisticated.  A lightweight!  However sometimes a lightweight program is all you need.

For something with a little more power then you could choose MyInfo or ConnectedText but there are some problems.  The developer of MyInfo is threatening that the next version of MyInfo will be a rental version (Software as a Sentence), if that is true then I won’t be updating my copy.

ConnectedText is very good and very powerful but I cannot honestly recommend it for new users as it is no longer being developed, version 6 (the current version) will be the last.

If you want something with lots of power but a very steep learning curve then you could try InfoQube.  InfoQube is a lot more than just an outlining program or a note taking program but it is a formidable program to learn.  InfoQube also links to and synchronises with Google Calendar.

There is also Ultra Recall, WhizFolders, TreeDBnotes, The Brain and 3D Topicscape. I can’t recommend any of these for a variety of different reasons, but they are all better than Microsoft OneNote.

As far as e-mail programs go Mozilla Thunderbird is as good as any commercial program and it’s free but if you really want to pay some money then Essential PIM Pro is just as good and quite reasonably priced.


There are many alternatives to joining the Microsoft hegemony both free and commercial.  Microsoft are a big company and their attitude seems to be that they can do whatever they want and their users will just have to accept it.

Unfortunately the version of SaaS they have chosen is a very pernicious one, if you stop paying the rent the program stops working completely.  In other words they are holding your documents and files hostage against your future payments.  There are some other companies which have chosen a less aggressive version of SaaS, like The Brain Technologies, if you get TheBrain on a rental deal and stop paying the rent then the program continues to work you just don’t get any upgrades or online services.

So help to promote more diversity in the software marketplace, switch to a non-Microsoft solution today!

#DeleteMicrosoft

Your money would be better in the hands of small software developers than in the hands of a corporate giant that treats their customers with contempt !

 

A Review of InfoQube

Introduction

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

There was once a program called ECCO Pro which arranged data in grids very much like InfoQube. If you are familiar with ECCO Pro and liked it then you will probably like InfoQube, InfoQube is like ECCO Pro on steroids. However in my opinion the program tries too hard to be like ECCO Pro. A personal Wiki (ConnectedText) is a better place for your data in my opinion.

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 2018 it is predicted for the last quarter of 2017 but it isn’t here yet, I suspect the website hasn’t been updated and pretty soon it will be six months away yet again. Development seems to be progressing at a steady pace but I suspect that there has been some mission creep because no endpoint has been set. So how will the developer know when it is finished ? I think the answer might be that he will stop when there are no more features to add.

On the InfoQube website it says:-

While in beta, InfoQube is free to download and use. Initial release is planned for Q4 2017.

Each version is fully functional for 90 days, after which time it turns to read-only mode. Simply download an updated version to get another free 90 days. Simple and totally free !

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:

  • Donate $50 USD or more and you’ll receive a free Personal License ! (PayPal account is not required. All major credit cards are now accepted)
  • Participate in the Community forums
  • Contribute to the Documentation

Spread the word on how great and unique InfoQube is, to friends and in other forums.

Update – 15th May 2018 : The website has been updated, the ridiculous statement about paying for a free license has been removed and the price of a license has been dropped to $30.  And yet again release date is six months from now, but the development of the program is progressing at a fairly brisk pace.  I will wait and see with interest.

The developer is a guy called Pierre Landry from Canada. I don’t know what he means by a ‘Free Personal License’ because if you are ‘donating’ $50 in order to be issued with that free license then surely you are just buying the license for $50 in which case it wasn’t free.

So I tried the program out and decided it was worth further investigation, I made a donation and got a ‘free‘ license. I have tried this program out before but failed to understand it properly, this time however I did get a little further than previously. Try it out if you want but you can expect a very steep learning curve, you practically have to read all the documentation before you start understanding any of it.

InfoQube started out as a program called SQL Notes, this was a GUI front end for the MySQL database but it has developed a lot since then. It is difficult to describe it’s function because it quite literally can do so many different things, it tries to be everything for everyone. Imagine a program written by an enthusiastic and talented programming geek who tries to add every conceivable feature which has been suggested on the forum, all this backed by a very powerful database. Well this is what InfoQube appears to be.

Linus Torvalds once said that Linux developed when his terminal emulator program grew legs. Well InfoQube started out as a GUI front end for SQL and it grew legs and just about everything else, including a kitchen sink!

Score 48 out of 60

Verdict : Very Powerful but not very User Friendly.

 

1. Connectivity = 10

Some programs organise their data as a hierarchical tree. A node can only have one parent. InfoQube is not one of these programs, anything can be connected to anything else, a node can have multiple parents so the organisation in InfoQube is a graph and nodes (or items in InfoQube parlance) can appear multiple times. These multiple appearances are not copies or clones they are the original item appearing in a different place. So InfoQube supports transclusion.

Each item in the database has an area of text associated with it, in InfoQube this is called the HTML pane and every item has one.

The text in this area can contain links and/or the title text of the item can contain or be a link. Each link can link to other items in the database, other grids in the database, URLs, e-mail addresses, folders or files. This program supports universal links, both inwards and outwards. If the link is a universal link then the target program will be opened at the appropriate place. If the link target is an e-mail address then your default e-mail program will be opened on a new mail to the target e-mail address. If the link target is a file then the file will be opened with it’s default application. If the link is to a URL it will be opened in your favourite web browser.

Also you can generate universal links to the items, grids or views within InfoQube. If you right click on an item then go to the ‘Copy’ section of the context menu then one of the items will be ‘Copy items URIs’, if you click on this it will copy a universal link to the item onto the clipboard which can then be pasted into another application. If one of these links is used in another application it will open InfoQube and open the database the link points to and open the item, grid, view the link points to.

Items can have a link in their title so each item in a grid could be a bookmark to a URL. Thus InfoQube could take on the role of storing bookmarks to interesting web pages.

InfoQube can be set up to receive e-mails, it can be set up to poll a mail server and receive e-mails which are then imported as items. This means you can send items to your InfoQube database from a mobile phone or from a computer not running InfoQube and it also means that other people can send you items if you give them the e-mail address.

 

2. Classification = 10

The basic unit of information in InfoQube is an item, items exist independently of anything else. So what I usually refer to as a node is called an item in InfoQube. The basic mechanism for the display of items is the grid, a grid has criteria for the display of items and will display any items which meet those criteria. Items do not ‘belong‘ to grids, you can have an item which appears in no grids.

Normally grids are ‘simple’ which means that any items created in that grid will have a flag in the meta data with the name of the grid and the grid just displays all items with that flag. However you can set up grids with complex criteria for the selection of items (a valid SQL statement which will return TRUE or FALSE) in the ‘grid source’ field. So a grid itself can be a search with the results of the search appearing in the grid.

Having an item which doesn’t appear in any grid is not good and so I wanted a grid which displays all items unconditionally, this proved to be ridiculously easy you just set the ‘grid source’ field to ‘item’ which returns true if the item exists, so it tests each item to see if it exists and so for all items it always returns true.

The program organises items in a different way to most programs. The hierarchical tree is present but it is not the way things are organised, it is there to arrange things in a way which is convenient for humans to look at. Items may have multiple parents so they may appear in many places (even in the same tree) so transclusion is inherent in the system and the hierarchical trees are really graphs.

An item has a title, it also has a page of text associated with it (known as the HTML pane) but an item may have any arbitrary meta data which the user adds. Different items may have different meta data. Usually you create an item in a grid in which case it will have a flag with the grid name automatically (if the grid is simple).

InfoQube has some powerful search facilities using multiple criteria combined with AND plus OR. For number and date fields you can use AND, OR plus the following operators are allowed: <, <=, >=, >, = the powerful search is unsurprising for a program which has the MySQL database engine at its heart.

You can also display a mind map of items from your database but these facilities are rudimentary compared to programs whose primary role is mapping.

https://i2.wp.com/www.sqlnotes.net/drupal5/files/1/images/Gantt8.png

There are various different ways to attach tags or categories to items.

Firstly there are Wikitags, you can add a list of named tags to items which can be searched for and linked to. They can also be used in the selection criteria for a grid.

Secondly you could add meta data to any item which could be a drop down list. The list either has a predefined set of categories or gets populated as things are added to it.

Thirdly you could set up a hierarchical tree (or graph) of ‘categories’ and assign them as parents to the items you want to categorise. Hierarchical tagging is not built in to InfoQube but that is essentially what I have added using the built in facilities of InfoQube.

The way things are organised in InfoQube is very open ended and you can arrange things the way you want them which can be very good if you think about what you need and how to achieve it before you start organising things but a consequence of this is that things can degenerate into a disorganised mess if you don’t know what you want or if the objectives are poorly specified.

InfoQube also does not have the concept of place, things appear wherever it is appropriate for them to appear. InfoQube and ConnectedText are the only two systems which I know of that have this characteristic. Patterns and insights can emerge from the data which were not apparent in the input once the data has been properly classified.

 

3. Text Layout and Formatting = 9

Each item has a ‘HTML pane’ associated with it. This is like a word processor document attached to each item. It is HTML but what you see is a WYSIWYG editor that supports tables, images, diagrams in SVG format. It can hold a copy of a web page or may hold a document formatted in a markup language called ‘Markdown’.

The HTML pane has a competent word processor/editor more than adequate for a note taking program. Links can be embedded in the text and all the usual formatting can be applied.

InfoQube has good facilities for using tables within text on the HTML pane. Cell borders can be dragged about to resize the cells. All the usual formatting can be applied and the cells can contain icons and images as well as text. Just like using a word processor.

 

4. A Sense of Time = 9

Usually this is the section which note taking programs fall down on but not InfoQube which has a very good calendar together with facilities for project management.

https://i2.wp.com/www.sqlnotes.net/drupal5/files/1/images/MonthView.png

The calendar supports reminders and repeating reminders. You can add a date to any item as part of the meta data and these will appear in the calendar. There are some pre-defined dates and durations which can be added to items to tell InfoQube that these items should appear in the ‘Gantt chart’, if you add a Gantt chart to a grid then any items with the relevant meta data will appear in it. Dependencies can be added so that the items will appear in the correct sequence in the Gantt chart.

https://i0.wp.com/www.sqlnotes.net/drupal5/files/1/images/Gantt1.png

‘Gantt charts’ can illustrate a sequence of events and show dependencies, the facilities for project management in InfoQube are not quite as good as Microsoft Project but InfoQube has many other facilities for general information management and organisation which would in my opinion make it far more powerful if it was used to manage a project.

The calendar in InfoQube can be synchronised with the online ‘Google Calendar’ (both ways).

 

5. Ease of Use = 3

Ahh … there had to be a downside didn’t there and to be honest this program has a pretty big downside.

This program has so many features crammed into it that the user interface has become complex and is certainly not intuitive or consistent. There are features hidden away in context menus which if you don’t know about them you might never find them.

Pierre Landry the developer has spent most of his time and effort adding new features to the program but I think there should be some time and effort put into making the user interface simpler and easier, looking at how the features work together. Perhaps take a look at how some other programs have designed their user interfaces. For example the support for universal links has only recently been added and on the forums Pierre was asking users about what the best way to implement the links were not about how they would be used. But the user only sees the user interface, usually they don’t know or care about how it is implemented. It is much better to have a clunky feature with a slick user interface than a slick feature with a clunky user interface.

On the plus side it does get easier with time but you can expect a very steep learning curve, even steeper than for ConnectedText.

You can customise the toolbars and set keyboard shortcuts for any command but the basic problem is that there are so many commands and so many features everything is too densely packed in. This program tries to provide anything and everything you might need but it ends up providing none of them very well. Often it is better to have several programs which are each good at one task than to have one program which tries to do everything.

InfoQube has Visual Basic built in. You can write programs in Visual Basic which have full access to the database. This can be used to customise the database still further but it is a whole new level of complexity to master (especially if you don’t know Visual Basic to start with).

When put under load InfoQube eventually performed very well and did not noticably slow down with a very large database of text files, but importing the files in the first place proved to be more challenging than I had anticipated.  Text files were perhaps not the ideal source of data to import but that was the data I had.  The InfoQube documentation states that it does support database formats like .CSV and Tab delimited files and many other formats but if you try to import a simple text file it wants a specification of how to split it up into fields.  In my case there were no fields I just wanted the text of the file in the HTML pane and the filename as the item name.

 

6. Visual Appeal = 7

The user interface is a pale blue colour with a standard toolbar (not a ribbon). There are no themes and I have not yet found a way to alter the colours of the interface.

Everything else is configurable. Items and grids can have their default colours set but this can be overridden for each item. You can change the font used for each item and include icons in the text.

The various panes which can be displayed can be docked in any part of the main window or they may occupy a floating window of their own. The floating windows can be placed on a second monitor if you have one.

Overall the interface is OK visually but not the best I have seen, and certainly not the worst. However having said that a lot can be done to configure it and reduce the clutter. The icons on the toolbar are configurable so one configuration of InfoQube can look quite different from another.

https://i1.wp.com/www.sqlnotes.net/drupal5/files/1/images/GridColumns1a.png

The misnomer of ‘Software as a Service’

There is a type of deception which takes place where something is renamed to obscure what it is and to leave behind any negative connotations of it’s original name.

Like the Conservatives slowly privatising the health service but calling it outsourcing so that people don’t realise the health service is being privatised.

Another example of this deception is ‘Software as a Service’ which should really be called ‘Software Rental’, the people who push this idea don’t like the name ‘Software Rental’ because they would like to obscure the fact that you are renting software so they call it something that doesn’t sound as bad.

Let us call it what it actually is, Software Rental!

I can see why software developers like rental software because it provides them with a continuous revenue stream so they are pushing the idea but I have yet to hear any convincing arguments as to why it is good for the customers.  For the customers it is a continuous revenue drain.

The software companies claim that it is better because the customers get continuous updates to the software, but if the software worked properly in the first place it wouldn’t need fixing, and the continuous tweaks to the way things work and to how things look for the sake of novelty are just annoying and unnecessary.

There are two models for ‘Software Rental’ one of them is the model adopted by The Brain Technologies (TheBrain) where if you stop paying the rent then you are left with the version of the software you had when you stopped paying but it still works, but there are no updates.

This is not as bad as the other model adopted by Microsoft (Microsoft Office 365) where if you stop paying the software stops working altogether.  If you have a lot of data and documents produced by these programs then it is as if the company are holding your data hostage against your continuing payments.  This model is very bad.

The problem is that ‘Software as a Service’ may come to be seen as the norm in the software industry, this would be very bad for the users.

I hope this does not happen but I suspect a lot of people in the software industry might use the fact that Microsoft are using this model as justification to use it themselves.

 

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.

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.