FreeMind: A Product Review & Guest Post By Penny Mattern

by Penny G. Mattern on February 9, 2011

I often mention my dear friend and editorial partner, Penny, on this site, but today I have the distinct pleasure of publishing a guest post and product review she has written. It was written to me as a letter/email, but I think you’ll find it both interesting and useful.


You asked me to keep you posted on how this works for me.  I’ve been exploring FreeMind, and I find I like it a lot, for a couple of reasons.

A mind map is a diagram that shows the relationship of one part of an effort, project, or idea to its other components.  You can create a mind map sitting at your desk with pencil and paper, standing at a marker board, or by using mind-mapping software.

What can you use it for? Look here for a starter list. For Getting Things Done (GTD) fans, check the bottom of this page where one user says:

If you have read David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” [1] you might seriously consider using Freemind as your reference source. I use Freemind, Gmail and the paper folder system (as described by David Allen) and people are amazed at how fast I can find answers and how much I remember.

Mind-mapping makes visual not only order but relationships.  The outline takes the simple list one step further by imposing hierarchical relationships on the list’s items underneath main headings.  The mind-map takes the outline one step further by visually displaying relationships among parts of a project or idea graphically, in two dimensions (by placing elements around the page, board, or screen). You can create, work on, or examine the mind-map as a whole, or in any of its recursively-considered areas or parts.

To see mind maps generated with FreeMind, check out this map (you’ll need Java installed to see it or use FreeMind). If you click on any of the bubbles, you will see the detail included within it.  To close down the detail, click the same bubble again.  Look here to see the same mind map exported to HTML.  Or, without requiring Java, click on any of the screenshots on this page.

Freemind is an excellent software mind-mapper.  A few things make it stand out from the rest, for me: it’s open source, it’s very fast, it does what you want it to do and not what you don’t, and it’s flexible enough to represent just about any conceptual relationship.

Furthermore, it’s oriented towards one user (at a time, at least) and I like that — I’m not particularly interested in collaborative mindmapping efforts at a distance (if two people are sitting in front of the same computer at the same time, and are talking together and working out a mindmap together, that is a different thing; those two people are acting as one as far as the mindmapping effort is concerned).

And, it’s flexible and easy to use, as easy to learn as any of the others I’ve looked at, and easier than some ‘bigger’ ones I’ve used in the past.  It’s worth reapeating that it’s fast, and it does just what you want with very, very few exceptions.

Given that it’s written in Java rather than on one or another OS exclusively, once installed it’s also fairly uniform in approach to all users, PC, Mac OS, Linux, or what have you.  For the most part, you use your usual keystroke combination for the basic functions like cut, copy, paste, select all, etc.

It also keeps simple formatting simple, but allows for more extended and detailed formatting with just a little more effort.  This is a key aspect of the program, to me: I want to be able to get my basic mindmapping done with basic preferences and basic formatting at a keystroke; but if I then want to go back later and worry about more detailed formatting, and spend time on that, that is and can be, in this program, perfectly possible.  My point: I want to get my ideas and their relationships down and arranged without having constantly to fiddle with everything just to make it look the way I want it to.  In a mind map, how it looks on the page is as much the point as the text on the lines or in the boxes: it’s mapping the relationships of the ideas to each other.

So I don’t want the program, as some others do, to rearrange things for me as I enter new data to adhere to some ideal of imprinted neatness or order. I’m not after neat or pretty, I’m after an accurate reflection of what’s going on in the map.  In fact, making it neat or pretty can make the information itself become hard to decipher when looked at as a whole: nothing is more visually anonymizing than a neat, pretty circle of words or lines splayed evenly on the page.  The eye always looks for irregularities, jaggedness, something to hang on to.  I sometimes want a big space between two sets of ideas or concerns, or want lots of things on one side and only a few on the other — whatever gives the state of play at a glance.

FreeMind is absolutely one of the best — I personally like it the best — of the mind-mapping programs out there.  And, like other open source programs, it’s created and worked on by the best, and it’s free to any user.

Freemind is available here. It’s an open source project and free to use.

The FreeMind: A Product Review & Guest Post By Penny Mattern by Penny G. Mattern, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Eddie February 9, 2011 at 1:22 pm

Love Freemind. I’ve tried others, but I always come back to it. It seems the most future proof, and it’s certainly the best for the price, $0.

Great review.


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