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Brainstorm ideas with these three mind mapping apps on iOS and macOS

Write down every idea, and every unfinished notion you have into these Mac and iOS mind mapping tools — and use them to make plans. AppleInsider jots down a few thoughts.

The term mind mapping is reasonably new, but the idea goes back about as far as we've had anything to scribble on. It's just that we wasted those centuries doing them on paper when it's only since computers and especially the iPad that they've become indispensable.

If you're already a natural doodler, then mind mapping is going to feel second nature. If you're not, if you're under pressure and need to get things done right now — take a moment to do mind mapping anyway. This is the kind of tool that will save you time later and when things are urgent, and it will prevent you missing things too.

It's the iPad on your lap or the Mac on your desk that transforms this concept into a tool for everyone, and for everything. But, like everything else, it depends on having the right tool, and how much effort you put into it.

The best apps in this are MindNode, XMind and iThoughts - each of which comes on both the Mac and iOS.

Back before these, back when we used to use paper, you would take a single sheet and write down a few important words that pop into your mind. These key words or thoughts are called nodes and perhaps you'd then circle a few. Perhaps you'd draw some lines between thoughts that seem related.

For instance, this thing your boss needs is actually similar to that idea you wanted to throw in, so you put them together with a hand drawn line or an emphatic double circling.

The act of writing them down on a sheet is useful. You're dumping down any thought you have and seeing if they link up. You're seeing gaps and you're thinking of new ideas prompted by what's in front of you.

It is very much like you have taken the contents of your head and popped them all down on paper where you can examine them.

If that's all you ever do, that's great. If this is all you need, fantastic. Only, try it on paper so that you then appreciate the difference. People generally only mind map when things are complex, or they somehow need to straighten things out in their head, and in that situation the same thing happens every time. You run out of paper.

For this reason and this reason alone, Mac and iOS mind maps are exponentially better because you don't run out. You never run out. You cannot run out of space: they all use what's called an infinite canvas.

Plus we do like that you can just delete ideas and start again if necessary.

Visual thinking

Mind mapping definitely appeals to visual thinkers because you can see your thoughts on the page. Yet even if you are more a text kind of thinker and prefer outlining, mind mapping is a useful start.

The purpose of mind mapping is to get all of these ideas out, find a way to change and structure them all and then go do your work. Then go write your document, plan your event: any job that seemed complicated at first is simplified by using a mind map.

However, not all mind maps are created equal and while the best apps available tend to have similar features, they suit different people.

The most basic mind map

Take your iPad, grab your Apple Pencil and start sketching in any app that you can. If you do it in Apple Notes, you're limited to going up and down the page: the infinite canvas there doesn't extend left and right.

Even so, you can be doodling a map in moments and it will help you.

However, it won't be as much help as a dedicated mind mapping app will. You could add a text note and circle it, you could then delete that, you could make a line to another text note on the page. What you couldn't do is move those notes around so that you're grouping similar ideas.

You also can't collapse part of an idea. Say you're producing a sports event and for some reason find you've spent the last ten minutes scribbling notes about the concession stand.

It will have helped you plan those, and you'll probably come back to that detail later, but now your mind is on the sports players. With a paper map, everything stays on the page. With mind mapping apps, you can collapse all of that concession stand doodling down into a single heading like Food & Drink.

Visual but not visual

Put down your Apple Pencil. For all that they are maps, each of the best mind mapping apps is better used with a keyboard. You can use an Apple Pencil to move a node around but for actually entering it, you're going to type.

Each time you write a node down, a first important thought, you can use the Pencil or your finger to tap a button and create a related node. You can also drag images in to these nodes instead of text.

Ultimately, though, most of the time you're going to be writing text and both XMind and MindNode offer you a way to get that information in quickly.

With XMind on the Mac, you tap a lightbulb icon and the screen switches over to a combination list and map. Just type every thought you've got about a project, pressing return after each one, until you can't think of a single thing more.

All the time you've been typing, XMind has been building up what looks like a collection of tags. Drag any of them onto the map to get going.

Before you go into a mind map in MindNode on iOS, the app has a lightning icon at the top right of the screen. When you press that, it starts an outline-like list where you again keep typing thoughts and hitting Return. When you're done, tap on Create Mind Map and MindNode does exactly that.

Fast start

There isn't an equivalent fast start in iThoughts but once you've begun a map in that it works exactly the same way as MindNode and XMind.

You take a node or an important thought that summarizes your idea and you write that down in the center of the map. Then hit Tab.

In each of these apps, that then shoots a line out to a second, smaller node. It's called a child node and it's a thought that belongs to the parent idea. So in the sports example, the central node could be the name of your event and Food & Drink could be a child node.

You can hit Tab, type something, hit Tab, write some more and keep on going forever. When you suddenly get an idea for selling merchandise instead, though, you go back to the main node. Click or tap on that, press Tab and now you're off writing a completely separate line of thoughts.

Go back to that Food & Drink child node, click on it, press Tab and again you're off creating a new line of thoughts. This will be separate to anything else you've already written but still linked to Food & Drink.

Or you have an idea that you want to get down but it doesn't fit with anything. Create a brand new main node and write it in there.

Collapsing and moving

Sooner or later you're going to see that this new and unrelated idea is actually related. There is something else on your mind map that it goes with. Maybe it's a somehow similar thought or maybe it's just that both of these ideas need a football pitch.

Whatever it is, you drag the new idea over to another one to connect them.

It takes time to get used to how these apps work with the keyboard, to become so familiar that you forget you're pressing Return or Tab. Then if you don't use mind mapping all that often, you then take time to learn these keystrokes over again.

In the end, though, you do come to see mind mapping as an extension of yourself. And that includes an extension of how you like to think: mind mapping apps do the same job but in subtly different ways that suit different people.

The best apps

MindNode is hands-down the fastest for creating a mind map that is so clear and colorful that you can present it to a client as proof you've done a lot of work. MindNode automatically gives every new node a different color and it really helps you visualise how things are different yet related.

Then iThoughts defaults to one plain color but you can change the overall style and you can decide yourself that this node should be in red or that one in blue.

XMind is the same in that you get one plain color by default but can select one or many and add colors or shapes to them.

It seems to us that XMind is the most technical one or it suits the most technical people. It has many options and it tends to tell you about them: when you've exported a mind map, for instance, it reports that it's done it successfully. We just want to save the map and get on with the next thing.

That really does mean we're drawn to MindNode but it's probably iThoughts that has the most functionality. This is the only one that comes with a Safari extension, for instance: when you find a page you like on the web, you can add a link to it in your iThoughts map with just a single click.

All of them let you add more than text, though: you can have links or images as any node. It's meant to be a way to plan out ideas but mind mapping can also be a resource for collection information along the way.

The point, though, is always to then do something with your map.

The least and most you can do

If you create a map and then, understanding your idea and what you can do, you just walk away from the iPad and do the work, that's tremendous.

However, the best mind mapping tools score over paper in another way. They can take the information you've just created and do something more with it.

For instance, you can add tasks to your map in MindNode. Click on a node, right-click and choose Add Task from the dropdown menu. This turns that node and every child one underneath it into a task.

That means two things. If you're going to stay in MindNode as you do the work you've been planning, then as you complete something you can click on the task's new circle to mark it as complete.

More usefully, though, you can send the entire map over to a full To Do app like Things or OmniFocus. If you have added any tasks to your map then MindNode has a Share button which directly pops those To Do items into these fuller task management apps.

It seems odd to send a visual map to a text-based To Do app and yet this is the kind of thing that all three of these mind mapping tools excel at. You use them to create this visual image of your ideas and then you send that in a form that you can use in a To Do app, in an outliner or put straight into a project plan.

What's sometimes slightly trickier is to go the other way. You can save mind maps from any of these apps in a format called OPML which word processors and outliners can open. So say you save a MindNode map in this format and then open it in OmniOutliner. That app shows you all of the nodes as lines of text and you can add to them, change or delete them. You can re-order them.

Then you export it back from OmniOutliner as OPML and MindNode can then read it back in. So you can keep going back and forth between the more visual and the more text type of app.

You're unlikely to do this if you're mind mapping to solve a problem quickly. However, mind mapping is also a long-term aid. There is nothing at all to stop you beginning a map today and adding to it next week or next year as you think of new things to do.

Then when you have these apps, when you have the new thought or you need to do the work, you can pick up the nearest screen and get on with it.

That's what we love about mind mapping: it is a tool to first focus your mind and then to make actually doing work faster.

MindNode 5.1.3 is free to try on the Mac App Store or the iOS one. It requires macOS 10.12 or iOS 11 and higher. After a two-week free trial, MindNode 5 costs $39.99.

In comparison, iThoughts costs $49.99 on the Mac App Store and there's an iOS version for $11.99 on that App Store. It requires macOS 10.10 or iOS 9 and higher.

XMind has a different model. There is a macOS version that's free to try on the Mac App Store and on the iOS App Store but is then a subscription service costing from $9.99 for six months. It requires macOS 10.9 or iOS 10 and higher.

Both XMind and iThoughts are also available as part of Setapp.