When it comes to mind mapping on Apple hardware, there are lots of great options available. But two apps rise above the others as the true cream of the crop: MindNode, with a stunningly beautiful user interface, and iThoughts, with powerful features and impressive flexibility.
Both of these apps are great, but they take very different approaches to mind mapping that can make it difficult to choose which one is right for you. In this post, we compare these two apps side-by-side, using the following criteria:
- Overall Design
- Ease of Use
- Data Portability
Let’s start by looking at the design.
Our ethos in evaluating mind mapping app design is that the app you choose to use should give you the features you need, then get out of your way. The app is not the hero of the story, nor should it try to be. It should help you capture and develop your ideas, but the value is in the ideas themselves, not the features. What your mind mapping app should do is give you a great looking interface that helps get your creative juices flowing. Mind mapping is one area in particular where you really need an app that is fun to use, because the better mental state you are in the better your ideas are going to be.
The design of the user interface is where MindNode really stands out. It is an absolutely beautiful app and a joy to use. The design is simple, but it still gives you everything you need to make beautiful mind maps. In fact, it’s hard to create a mind map in MindNode that doesn’t look great. It has several great-looking themes to choose from, and in our opinion every single one looks good.
If you really can’t find one that you love out-of-the-box, you can even create your own themes by editing the style elements for things like child nodes and cross connections, then saving it as a theme from your current mind map for future use.
MindNode looks great on iOS, too. It even has cleverly-designed floating toolbars that give you access to all the features without cluttering up the interface.
MindNode looks incredible, even on the small screen of an iPhone.
iThoughts also offers a clean user interface, but it’s not nearly as polished as MindNode. There are lots of options available, but it is difficult to add these features without cluttering up the interface. iThoughts does a pretty good job balancing design and features, but leans more toward the features side and the result is that the app just doesn’t look as nice as MindNode. Like MindNode, there are several templates and themes you can use with iThoughts, but the ones included in MindNode are significantly better.
There are also some interface design choices that negatively impact the user experience, especially on iOS where it can be difficult to discover things. For example, the toolbar at the top of the screen on iOS eats up precious screen real estate and we much prefer the floating controls in MindNode.
This makes the iOS version feel a bit clunky, and it’s still difficult to discover features if you don’t know exactly where to find them.
In short, iThoughts feels like an engineer’s approach to mind mapping. That’s not necessarily a bad thing (some people may prefer it), but MindNode’s interface is far superior for most people.
Ease of Use
Related to overall design is ease-of-use. If you’ve never used the app before, how quickly can you get up and running? The interface can help facilitate this, but the way that MindNode and iThoughts approach user onboarding is very different.
With MindNode, you are presented with a visual overlay when you open a new mind map that makes it extremely easy to get started. You don’t have to understand mind mapping at all in order to start using MindNode, but it also doesn’t try to teach you everything.
MindNode seems to believe you shouldn’t need a tutorial before you start using the app, so it just tries to help you get started by showing you how to add a title and create a node. There’s definitely room for increased learning, but MindNode does a great job of minimizing the time before you start creating. And in our opinion, the quicker you get started, the better.
iThoughts takes a very different approach. It won’t get in your way once you know how to use it, but the first run experience isn’t nearly as nice as MindNode. Instead of the visual overlay showing you where things are, iThoughts attempts to on-board new users by showing you an example mind map. This is good in theory, but the mind map is actually pretty complex because it shows you ALL the features in iThoughts and can be overwhelming.
The iThoughts approach seems to be to try and share everything you’d ever need to know before you start mind mapping, which in our opinion isn’t ideal (especially on iOS). For a brand new user, you won’t need many of these features anyway, and it feels very cumbersome to try and comprehend everything when you first see it. It’s very possible a new user would see the tutorial mind map and just walk away, believing mind mapping is just too complicated for them.
Once you get up to speed, iThoughts is fine. But for new users (where ease of use is most important), MindNode is the clear winner here.
While you don’t need fancy tools to mind map (pen and paper work just fine), the features in digital mind mapping apps can give you some really cool ways to build out your mind maps. Each app will provide different features, and the essential features you need will vary depending on your individual needs and workflow.
MindNode gives you a pretty great toolset to work with, especially for those new to mind mapping. The Outline View is nice and gives you an alternative way to look at your mind map contents. Smart Layout allows you to drag things around while MindNode automatically keeps everything neatly organized for you. Folding and Focus Mode are great, allowing you to wrangle large maps and keep your data organized. Visual tags are a great new feature in version 7, helping you group information together. Tasks allow you to take actionable information from your mind map and share it to Reminders or your favorite task manager, and you can even attach things to your nodes like images, links, and even files. There’s also versioning so you can go back and restore an older version of a mind map if you need to and great external monitor support on iOS which is useful when giving presentations.
If you thought that list of features in MindNode was a lot, you haven’t seen anything yet. Features is where iThoughts really shines, as it gives you just about everything you’d ever need when working with a mind map. So in addition to many of the features that exist in MindNode, iThoughts lets you to do things like create a mind map through Siri, search your mind map using regular expressions, use additional attributes in tasks (like in progress, as opposed to the binary complete or incomplete options in MindNode), and password-protecting your mind maps for additional security. One of my favorite features is Research, which gives you an in-app browser for doing research as you build out the contents of your mind map. It’s not quite as important as it used to be with split-screen support on the iPad, but it’s still nice and can be essential if you do any mind mapping on your iPhone.
While MindNode gives you most of what you’ll probably ever need, iThoughts clearly wins this category. It’ll do just about anything you’d ever dream of doing with a mind map and then some.
There may be times when you want to move your mind map data from one platform to another. It can also be beneficial to get things into and out of your mind mapping app easily. In cases like these, data portability is important.
This is the area where MindNode feels limited once you know what apps like iThoughts are capable of. MindNode does offer rock-solid iCloud sync that allows you access to your mind maps on any Mac or iOS device, and for some people that may be enough. But there can be issues if you try to sync your MindNode files using another service provider like Dropbox, and you are limited to editing your mind maps on Apple devices. If you want to get data into or out of MindNode, there are several options available like PDF, image, and even DOCX (Microsoft Word). There’s a good chance you could use MindNode for years and never hit any walls getting things into or out of the application. For most people, the options supported here will be just fine.
iThoughts on the other hand offers a seriously impressive number of import and export formats. Looking through the list of supported options left me scratching my head as to how some of these were even possible. It really is an impressive list. Additionally, iThoughts has a PC version. Not every feature is available on the PC, but we did test opening and editing iThoughts files between Mac and PC and experienced no issues. If you have a need to occasionally work on your mind maps outside of the Apple ecosystem, iThoughts has you covered.
Here’s a comparison chart of the available export options in MindNode and iThoughts:
When it comes to data portability, iThoughts has a clear (and substantial) advantage.
Price is an important consideration when choosing the mind mapping tool you want to use as it weighs into the value equation. But with several different subscription and standalone options available, this can be a little confusing.
MindNode recently switched to subscription-based pricing, but they did it the right way. They gave the new app for free to all owners of the previous version without requiring that they sign up for the subscription (so version 6 owners received all the new features in version 7), and the pricing in our opinion is very fair at $2.49/month (or $19.99/year). A single subscription gets you access to all versions of MindNode, allowing you to use it on your Mac, iPhone, and iPad. That means the total cost to get started is $19.99/year, and you can try it out for free by downloading it and accessing the 14-day free trial.
iThoughts uses a pay-up-front pricing model. The Mac app is $49.99, and the iOS version is $11.99. The fact that they are separate app purchases means that it is more expensive to get started ($61.98 to get started), but it also means you own the apps and don’t have to pay every year. For some people, that fact will justify any additional cost.
To make things slightly more complicated, both apps are available for Mac users with a SetApp subscription. SetApp gives you access to a ton of really awesome Mac software for $9.99/month, like Ulysses (normally $4.99/month alone), PDFpen, and iStat Menus, just to name a few. So if you have a SetApp subscription, this changes the economics a little bit:
- MindNode is now $19.99/year for iOS
- iThoughts is now $11.99 one-time for iOS
There’s a lot to consider here, and it’s very subjective. It’s impossible to pick a winner for this category, but I will disclose that I am a paying customer for MindNode because I don’t mind the subscription model and personally think the value far exceeds the cost.
MindNode and iThoughts are both high quality mind mapping applications and it’s difficult to pick one over the other. In our opinion, mind mapping is more about the ideas than the features and this pushes MindNode over the top. It offers a gorgeous user interface that makes it easy to use and focus on your ideas.
But for people who need more from their mind mapping app or are morally opposed to subscription software, iThoughts is a great alternative. It offers more features and enhanced data portability, and is really the only option if you have a need to access your mind maps on both a Mac and a PC.
Overall Winner: MindNode