FreeMind open-source mind mapping app is capable, flexible

When I looked at FreeMind, the open-source mind mapping software program, several years ago, it was still a bit rough around the edges. But what a difference a few years can make!

When I looked at FreeMind, the open-source mind mapping software program written in Java, several years ago, it was still a bit rough around the edges. But what a difference a few years can make! The current version of FreeMind (v0.8.0, available for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux operating systems) is a polished, feature-rich application that can hold its own against just about any commercial competitor in the mind mapping software arena.

In this “first look” review, I will highlight some of the most significant features and benefits of FreeMind, with an eye toward how it can be used in business applications

The FreeMind interface: FreeMind conforms to the de facto style that most mind mapping programs follow: A main navigation bar across the top of the workspace, which provides buttons for common operations, such as adding a child topic to your map or applying formatting to text (bold, italic, fonts, sizes) and a drop-down box to change the magnification of your map within the workspace. A vertical toolbar along the left side of the workspace contains map icons.

Map navigation: FreeMind gives you multiple ways to navigate around your map, including clicking on the map background and dragging it around, as well as horizontal and vertical scrolling of your map using the mouse wheel (vertical scrolling is accomplished using the mouse wheel; horizontal scrolling is done using the control key plus the mouse wheel). For those users who use a mouse with a scroll wheel, this could be a real timesaver when you’re trying to move around within large maps.

Folding branches: FreeMind’s developers believe that this is one of the program’s most unique features. Clicking on a node in your map causes all child topics below it to fold into the currently selected topic, so they are hidden from view. This can be a great way to reduce visual clutter when you’re working on your map, so you can concentrate on the branch you’re currently working on. But I found it to be annoying, because if I wanted to select a map node by left clicking on it, that would cause the branches below it to fold into it. Not what I was trying to do. I also discovered that if I had a node selected and clicked it again, assuming that it would allow me to edit its text (this is the way it works in most other mind mapping programs), the branch would fold or unfold instead. To edit an existing node, I had to use a right-click command or the F2 key. Beyond the first level of topics, however, node editing behaved just the way I expected it to: Click once to select the node, then a second time to edit its text. Weird…It’s too bad this doesn’t behave consistently, because this is the type of functionality that will drive new users crazy.

Smart drag and drop: FreeMind gives you plenty of flexibility when you want to rearrange the topics of your map. You can drag and drop single or multiple selected nodes in a map from one location to another. In addition, you can drag and drop text or lists of files from outside applications into FreeMind. I tried highlighting some text in a Microsoft Word document, and dragging it to an open FreeMind map – it worked like a charm!

Smart copy and paste: FreeMind is designed to intelligently handle information pasted into it from other applications. For example, if you paste HTML into a map that contains hypertext links, the program will automatically parse them out and treat them as links in your map. It can also convert text to parent and child topics, based on the number of leading spaces in front of a line of text. In addition, FreeMind can recognize and capably handle rich text format (RTF) text from Microsoft Office applications, including WordPad, Outlook and Word. Considering the ubiquity of Microsoft Office in most corporations today, this is an important capability!

Excellent support for right-click commands: When you right-click on a topic or node in your map, a context-sensitive menu offers numerous options for handling common tasks including editing, copying or removing the node, creating a new child node (one level below the current topic) or a new sibling node (at the same level as the current topic), toggle branch “folding,” (which controls whether or not a node’s child topics are visible), insert icons or links, format the node text, and more. I really like how FreeMind supports this capability so aggressively, because it enables users to work quickly and intuitively, without having to maneuver the cursor to the toolbars at the edge of the workspace.

Excellent support for keyboard commands: FreeMind supports a huge list of keyboard shortcuts, which can help you to accomplish common tasks quickly and efficiently. Nice!

Topic linking: Like any good mind mapping program, FreeMind offers users a variety of options for linking other content to your maps. In this open-source program, you can create links to web pages, local folders, executables (to launch programs), and any file on your local computer or company network. However, removing a link is not as intuitive as it should be. To remove the link from a node, you must use a link command from one of the program’s drop-down menus, and delete any text in the link dialog box (what the programs manual calls “setting the link to an empty string”). This isn’t very intuitive; hopefully the developers will add a “remove link” command to the right-click contextual menu that pops up when you right click on a node in your map.

Modes: FreeMind has three modes of operation: mindmap, which is your normal map view; browse, which apparently is only used in the FreeMind viewer application but for some reason shows up in the program’s mode menu; and file mode, which you can use to browse the files on your computer – as a mind map! I’m not sure what the usefulness of this mode is, but it sure is cool to see your hierarchical list of file folders represented as a visual map!

Physical styles: FreeMind enables you to set up text styles, incorporating specific fonts sizes, colors and formats, that you can quickly apply to nodes within your maps. Think of physical styles as being similar to the pre-set formats that you can utilize to quickly format text in Microsoft Word.

Topic formats: In addition to styling the text of your map nodes, you can also embellish them in other ways, including selecting from either text on a line (following the traditional Tony Buzan style of mind mapping) or a bubble (which encloses the text in a rounded rectangle). You can also highlight a region of your map by surrounding multiple topics with a “cloud,” a scalloped line that encloses all of the child topics of the node that you select.

Conclusion

FreeMind 0.8.0 is an impressive mind mapping program that has improved significantly in just a few years. Despite a few quirky behaviors, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to businesspeople who want to learn what all the excitement surrounding mind mapping software is all about. It’s also well-suited to people with fairly basic visual diagramming needs, or if you simply cannot afford one of the commercially available programs. If you need the ability to integrate your maps with Microsoft Office or other business applications, I wouldn’t recommend FreeMind.

Because FreeMind is an open-source application, it will continue to improve in the months and years ahead. I can’t wait to see what’s next for this unique mind mapping program!

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