When brilliant ideas smash against the banks of your brain and threaten to overflow the narrow borders of a digital sticky note or notepad, mind-mapping software can contain the surge, and more--it can divert thought flows into manageable streams. Part brainstorming notepad and part presentation software, FreeMind's freeware canvas for Mac and Windows provides a visual, quasi-linear outlet for complex ideas.
FreeMind isn't the only software for the job, and it doesn't do everything, but when commercial mind-mapping products such as ConceptDraw Mindmap and Mindjet MindManager cost between $150 and $300, quibbles over FreeMind's minor function limitations seem suddenly petty.
FreeMind opens a blank document lined with toolbar controls on the top and icons on one side. The first bubble, or node, becomes the root, the anchor point from which other nodes branch. There's no foreseeable limit to how many "child" and "sibling" nodes users can add. Despite the capability for nodes to collapse, saving page space, populous charts can quickly look cramped and cluttered. However, there's a fix. Hovering the cursor just to the right of any node title calls up an oval handle that steers the node anywhere within a 180-degree territory when you click and drag. For some reason, FreeMind won't let users fan "child" nodes around the central root.
Customizations like icons and color-coding affix meaning to a node, designating nodes by data type, priority, status, and so on. The icon of a bomb, for instance, denotes danger or caution. Green text could indicate that a node requires follow-up. I especially enjoy the "cloud" feature that surrounds a node and its offshoots with fluffy-looking arcs. There are any number of tweaks you can pile on--thickening lines, moving nodes up or down in the ontology, shifting to bubble mode style, and changing node color.
The program's multimedia features free FreeMind from a static state by supporting image insertions and hyperlinking to Web sites and files. Clicking a hyperlinked arrow on a node, for example, can launch an associated spreadsheet or online directory.
Private mind mappers are meant to be able to encrypt top secret files using the program's Java-based encryption algorithm 3DES, though novices will find the interface confusing. The encryption function in the File menu creates a new, password-protected map, and the Tools file houses the function for inserting an encrypted node. In my tests, encrypted files appeared to open on a separate Java platform, but never demanded my password the numerous times I opened an "encrypted" file or edited an "encrypted" node. Those serious about encryption may want to rely on a dedicated encryption application such as the freeware TrueCrypt.
What do you do with your finished concept masterpiece? Why, share, of course! You can export FreeMind Mindmap files as HTML, XHTML, Open Office, and JPEG file types, or follow the help guide directions to plant a Java applet of the map on a Web site for users to browse. Users who aren't interested in sharing the entire tree can export a single branch, though file types are more limited.
At first I wasn't too convinced that FreeMind was a better option than the interactive MindMeister or the convenient, intuitive Bubble.us (both reviewed on Webware.com), but the more I used it, the more FreeMind grew on me. It's still not perfect--there's the bizarre limitation of where you can drag nodes around the screen, the confusing encryption process, and the frustrating way the cursor can slip nodes while you're building, which results in a new node or icon tacking on to the wrong place. However, FreeMind does its job at no cost to the user and produces a nice-looking mind map that's fairly flexible and customizable.