Mind Maps (sometimes known as brainstorms) can be a great way to sort through dozens of ideas or tasks and help your plans take shape. While this previously meant using reams of paper, index cards and string, creating mind maps can now be done with only your mouse and keyboard.
In this guide, you'll explore the very best mind mapping software available for download today. Some of these programs are suitable for students who simply want to order their ideas before writing an assignment.
Other mind map applications are geared towards writers who want to storyboard written works. Certain tools are aimed at companies launching major projects and have extra features such as the ability to export and collaborate on mind maps with others.
All of these programs offer either a free tier or trial, allowing you to test drive the software before you buy. Take some time to explore these and find the one that is right for you.
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Scapple enjoys the distinction of being developed by writers for writers. The group 'Literature and Latte' was formed in 2006 with the sole purpose of offering writers a simple way to develop their skills.
The result has been one of the best-known mind map tools on the market today. On first launch, Scapple invites users to double click anywhere on the blank canvas to create a note. You can repeat this process as many times as you wish to offload your initial 'brain dump'. Scapple also supports importing text files, PDF's and even images. You can then work out how to link various ideas together.
Scapple has been particularly praised for being easy to master compared to other mind map software due its small number of mind map tools. This does mean however that more advanced features such as embedding audio & video aren't supported.
Although the program itself is lightweight, Scapple won't burden your purse too heavily. There's a 30-day free trial, which only counts down those days on which you actually use the software. After this a standard license costs $14.99 per platform. Educational licenses are $12.99 each.
Mindomo was originally released in March 2014. The stated aim of its developers is to create, "useful, easy to use and beautiful software".
While beauty is subjective, most users will be delighted to find that the free version of the software supports creation of up to 3 mind maps, which is include all basic features.
'Premium' users enjoy a range of extra features denied to the free tier such as syncing projects such as iOS/Android, audio and video emdedding and backing up to cloud-based services like Dropbox. Mindomo also allows paid subscribers to export mind maps in a variety of formats including images (PNG), Adobe PDF (PDF), plain text (TXT) and Microsoft Powerpoint (PPTX). The program can also import data from a number of file formats.
If you need to collaborate on a project, 'Professional' subscriptions support 1 user and up to 5 guests. All Mindomo paid subscriptions support password protection of mind maps to make sure only you and your team can see them.
Premium subscriptions are $42 per user for 6 months, which include 1GB storage quota. Professional subscriptions cost $105 and offer a generous 5GB quota.
While these advanced features are acknowledged by the online community, Mindomo has come under criticism for its bare bones interface which offers little guidance to new users.
Bubbl.us is a cloud-based mind map service and can be accessed from virtually any internet compatible device. Its existence is thanks to a flash of inspiration by project founder 'Levon'. While at college, he was leafing through a copy of David Allen's Getting Things Done and discovered a chapter on brainstorming. Levon started doing this on pen and paper but later teamed up with fellow programmer 'Kirill' to begin development of Bubbl.us.
The beauty of Bubbl.us lies in its simplicity: the service is designed for mind mapping only, doing away with any redundant features. As it's cloud-based there's also no software to download. Users can get started right away and the project website claims that these include millions of musicians, artists, writers, teachers and people with dyslexia.
Like Mindomo, Bubbl.us offers a free tier which supports up to 3 mind maps with basic features. The Premium tier costs $4.91 per month per user, if paid annually, and allows for real-time collaboration as well as revision history. There's also a 30-day free trial to try out more advanced features.
Online reviews of Bubbl.us praise the fact that it's online and cross-platform, making very popular with students and teachers. Some reviewers have complained about lag problems when using Bubbl.us from mobile devices as well as difficulties with moving several bubbles at once.
MindManager stands on the shoulders of giants having been acquired by software giant Corel (of CorelDRAW fame) in 2015. It is designed primarily for business users and has been adopted by big names like Proctor and Gamble.
As an enterprise-focused program MindManager is capable of integrating with Microsoft Office and indeed the overall interface will be very familiar to Word and PowerPoint users, right down to the built-in text editor and spreadsheet program.
Users are introduced to this gradually, as on first launch MindManager only displays a virtual whiteboard from where you can easily add ideas, then drag them into place. Maps are accessible via an easy to use dashboard.
The general look and feel is extremely professional, meaning the finished map would be suitable for all purposes, from notes for a book to a presentation at a board meeting.
This professional pedigree doesn't come cheap. The Windows version of MindManager costs a heavy $327 per license, though the Mac version is around half the price. The Mac version which has fewer features is only $209. Whichever version you choose there's a 30-day free trial to check if you and/or your team are comfortable with the interface. This is especially important if any users are unfamiliar with Microsoft Office.
XMind is the flagship product of Hing Kong based X Mind Ltd. It was originally released in November 2008 and the project website now claims over 1 million users.
Like MindManager, XMind seems to be more focused on enterprise level solutions. The 'Idea Factory' is a great place to start listing items and there's even a useful built-in countdown timer to help regulate your mind mapping sessions.
The free version of XMind supports basic creation of mind maps but there's no option to export your work to a different format such as PDF. XMind 8 Pro costs $129 per license. The dedicated brainstorming module allows you to group items and concepts, as well as create links between them.
Business users can also make use of the presentation mode which can display maps as slides, as well as list tasks in chart form e.g. in 'tree format'.
X Mind has been singled out for praise online for its clear focus on business users, as well as its minimalist interface which allows for easy mind map creation through a series of templates. Other respectable features include 'XMind cloud' which can sync your mind maps across devices and 'day and night' mode which dims the screen to protect your eyes.
Other mind map software to consider
We've only featured five of the best mind mapping software solutions above, but there are plenty more to consider. Here we'll list a number of others worth considering. And as we mentioned that Scapple at the start, which was built for writers, we're going to open with what is the most popular dedicated writing platform:
Scrivener may be thought of more as an author's toolkit, but at its heart it is built on the concept of mind mapping concepts into a document of work. While this may have been built for a single writer to develop a novel, there's no reason why it can't be used for any other type of project. The way it allows you to bring notes together and organize them around a central document can seem a little daunting at first, but once you get the hang of it it's difficult not to imagine working on a project without it.
Coggle is all about flow charts, connecting ideas and concepts together. It's a simple app that's easy to use, as all that's require is for you to put down and join together ideas and the connections between them. You can then export your work as an image file or PDF as required. A handy feature is that the software continually autosaves so it's easy to roll back to an early version. Even better, the software is free to download.
WiseMapping is a web-based app which means you should have no problem with cross-platform compatibility. It can also be used collaboratively, and your finished mind map can be shared easily, including to online blogs. There's a free version available for individuals, but you can download a copy to your own company servers if you want to use it for business. Either way, it's free to use.
IdeaFlip is another web-app that runs in your browser, so it shouldn't matter which operating system you use, whether on desktop of mobile. It's a more developed collaborative platform than some of the others, and has both team and management features built in. Also unlike some of the others listed here, it's not free, with monthly plans costing between $9-$16, depending on how many users and features you want.
LucidChart is also focused on collaborative flowcharts for business users, and is probably best described as a diagramming app more than anything. This means that it is good for more than just mind mapping but also project flows. The flexibility built into the program means it has a large corporate following and boasts a number of Fortune 500 companies as clients. Even still, it's not that expensive to use, with plans starting at just $4.95 per user per month.