MindMeister (Web Application, Free)
MindMeister is by far the most simplistic mind mapping tool in the top five, but its simplicity is definitely an asset. Once you’re logged into the service, you can create a fully functional mind map using little more than the directional arrows and the Insert key to add new nodes to your map. Additional customizations like font size and node colors are available for when you want to go beyond the basics. In the upper right corner is a navigation window, handy for when your mind maps become larger than the display space. Exporting is also a strong point for MindMeister; you can export your files to a text outline, PDF, JPG, PNG, or GIF. MindMeister’s history function lets you view past versions of your mind map and revert to them if you desire. You can share your maps for public collaboration or hand-select collaborators. Upgrading from the free account to the premium account gives you some handy additional features like map searching, offline editing, and the ability to export your maps to popular software like FreeMind and MindManager.
Mindjet MindManager (Windows/Mac, $349)
Mindjet MindManager isn’t cheap by any means, but you get more than your share of value and sophistication for the hundreds you spend on the program. The interface and feature set of MindManager are very polished, and the primary menus are set up like the Microsoft Office Ribbon. After the initial installation, MindManager walks you through the creation of a sample mind map—helpful both to familiarize you with the interface but also to show you features you may have overlooked. MindManager is definitely oriented towards corporate environments, including extensive integration with the Office suite and support for linking your mind maps directly into common database formats like MySQL and Access. Finding information in large mind maps is easy thanks to topic sorting, filtering, and text search tools. Mind maps can be exported in a variety of formats, but most notably in interactive PDF files and embeddable Flash animations. MindManager is available as a 30 day trial.
XMind (Windows/Mac/Linux, Free)
XMind is the kind of free application that makes you forget you’re not paying for the privilege of using it. The interface is simple and intuitive to use. You can quickly move through your entire mind map with only a handful of keystrokes or jump over to the outline view for even quicker navigation. In addition to a basic mind map you can also create fishbone, organizational, tree, and logic charts. You can export charts as HTML, images, or text, and XMind comes a free account on XMind.net which allows you to share your charts online and embed them into blogs and web sites. There is a professional version of XMind which expands on the functionality of the base application and allows you to create online charts and collaborate with others. XMind Pro is $49 per year, but most people will find the free version more than robust enough for their mind mapping needs. Portable versions available for all three supported platforms.
FreeMind (Java, Free)
One of FreeMind’s strongest selling points is a Java-based implementation. Whether you use it on Ubuntu or Windows, the features and user interface remain consistent. FreeMind is keyboard friendly with the core functionality well covered by keyboard shortcuts—I made the sample mind map pictured here without ever touching the mouse. The visual elements of your mind maps are highly customizable, including custom icons for flagging nodes on the map, color coding, grouping, and more. Mind maps created with FreeMind can be exported as HTML, PDF, and PNG files, among others.The support wiki for FreeMind is extensive and goes well beyond simply explaining how the application functions, covering things like how to add your own keyboard shortcuts and how to make the application portable.
iMindMap (Windows/Mac/Linux, $99-295)
iMindMap can claim two distinctions among the top five tools. First, it’s the biggest download—weighing in at 135MB. Second it’s the only application on the list developed by Tony Buzan—who lays claim to being the inventor of the mind map. iMindMap takes a different approach to mapping than the other applications in the list. Rather than create new nodes off the main idea by adding boxes, nodes are created by clicking in the center or the main idea and drawing away from it with the mouse. Each new idea is a branch off the center. Strangely, many of basic feature available in free mind-mapping software are only found in the more expensive versions of iMindMap, like the ability to expand and collapse branches. Mind maps created in iMindMap can be exported as PDF, JPG, PNG and text outline; a 7 day trial is available.