iOS brainstorming apps
I’ll start this review with a small caveat: Mind-mapping on a small-screened iOS device is not much fun and best avoided. True, all three of the apps reviewed here are designed for the small screen, but the small size of the iPhone/iPod touch screen and the expanse that even a basic mind mapped brainstorming session can become are two things that don’t go great together.
Of these three apps, only two offer native iPad versions—SimpleMind and iThoughtsHD—and neither of those apps is Universal, which means that if you want to use them on all your iOS devices you’ll have to purchase both versions.
Tenero Software’s iBlueSky is the only non-iPad app in the mix (in the sense that there's no iPad-optimized version), while you can run it in 2x-mode on your tablet, it doesn’t scale well. The app offers a limited set of features, but they work well and, with a few small exceptions, make creating your mind map an easy process.
New iBlueSky projects open to a blank page with a single main heading bubble in the center. When you type a title in that bubble, your project takes on the same name; any time you edit the bubble, the name of your project will change as well. You add new sub-ideas by selecting the bubble that you want your new idea to branch off of and then tapping the small (+) button that appears at the bottom right-hand side of the screen. This marks iBlueSky’s first shortcoming—New branches added to your map are placed about an inch away from the bubble they’re linked to. This may not sound significant, but as your map grows, you’ll end up doing a fair amount of scrolling, or squeezing and pinching to navigate around the screen as the map expands well beyond what you can see.
iBlueSky does offer nice drag, copy, cut, and paste options for moving and copying branches and placing them in other locations on your map. Customization is limited to changing colors and adding notes, but you can only make these changes by tapping a bubble, then tapping an edit button, and then selecting a menu for what you want to change. Overall, I found the entire process to be a bit clunky.
XPT Software & Consulting's SimpleMind represents a collection of iOS, Windows and Mac mind-mapping applications that all sport a common interface and which seamlessly share your maps across all of those platforms. All the features available on the iPad version of the app are the same as those you'll find on the iPhone and iPod touch, though they suffer from the limitations of a smaller screen as I mentioned earlier.
As with iBlueSky, a new document created in SimpleMind takes on the name of your central idea, and new branches for subsequent ideas are added by touching a small plus sign that appears on right-hand-side of a selected bubble or by tapping twice on the screen. Once you’ve created a sub-idea, the left-hand side of the bubble above it displays a small arrow that, when toggled, hides or reveals all the sub-ideas linked to it.
One of the things that makes SimpleMind a pleasure to use—and I’m including the smaller version in this praise—is the way that your mind map realigns itself as your map gets larger. Creating a new sub-idea centers that idea on your screen so you can type its name and change the way it looks. Once you’re done the app realigns the screen so that you can see your new idea, but it is also aligned so most of the rest of your map is visible as well.
In addition to easy map creation, SimpleMind offers undo and redo buttons, eight pre-defined styles so that you can quickly change the way your map looks, and a tool that appears when you tap any branch for easily changing that branch’s color. That tool also lets you cut, copy, duplicate, and create a new sub-branch off of what you’ve selected. Finally, using the $53 SimpleMind Desktop application (available for both the Mac and PC), you can easily share all your maps between your computer and your iOS devices. One of the benefits of this application is that, unlike many other computer-based applications that link to your iOS device, SimpleMind Desktop can be linked to several iOS devices at the same time.
There's a free version of SimpleMind—SimpleMind XPress—that lets you open, view, and edit mind maps, though it lacks the sharing and exporting features you'll find in the paid version.
CMS’s iThoughts and iThoughtsHD are by far the most sophisticated of the three mind mapping apps reviewed here and they both offer features that rival or exceed features found in similar desktop applications.
Unlike SimpleMind, the iPad and iPhone/iPod touch versions of iThoughts sport completely different interfaces. The HD version’s use of the large screen allows for onscreen menus and map options that you can see all the time. The smaller version allows you to hide these menus, only displaying small triangles in three of the four corners of your device, which you tap to hide or reveal the app’s assorted tools. Once you get past the way the apps look and how they handle menus, though, map creation is exactly the same.
To create a new iThoughts map, you tap a small plus sign that appears in the app’s map menu. You can name this map anything you want, select an icon to represent the map, choose the folder you’d like to save it to, and use an existing map as a template to start your map. The map's central idea is the same as what you named the map, but you are able to change the name of the central idea without changing the mind map's name.
iThoughts offers a number of ways for you to manipulate and add new ideas to your map, including keyboard shortcuts so that you can keep your fingers on the keys while adding new ideas. You can also hold and drag ideas that you’ve already added to your map to link them with other ideas or set them apart as floating ideas. iThoughts also offers multiple levels of undo and excellent integration with Dropbox, MobileMe, Box.net, and any WebDAV server. You'll also find that you can open files created by most every mind-mapping application available for the Mac or PC. Finally, you can copy a text outline you’ve created using any iOS app and paste it into your map—iThoughts will create an appropriately organized map from that outline. In short, I found iThoughts to be stupendous.
iThoughts is, hands down, the best mind mapping app that I’ve had the pleasure to use on an iOS device and it may be the best I’ve used on any platform. While SimpleMind is quite good, when compared side-by-side to iThoughts, it falls short. But, because there’s also a desktop version of the app available and because it syncs so well with a multitude of iOS devices, SimpleMind is still a compelling choice. Because iBlueSky offers too few features and because it’s limited to use on smaller iOS devices, the app doesn’t make sense as practical iOS mind-mapping offering.
[Jeffery Battersby is an Apple Certified Trainer, (very) smalltime actor, and regular contributor to Macworld. He writes about Macs and more at his blog.]