PersonalBrain 5 review
There's a lot to admire, but PersonalBrain's presentation of data is inflexible and frustrating.
Review Date: 14 Jul 2009
Price when reviewed: (about £93) to $250 (about £154); free personal edition available
Reviewed By: Giles Turnbull
PersonalBrain is a cross-platform mind-mapping tool for associating disparate clippings of data.
Its documents are called 'brains', and the items stored inside them are 'thoughts'. A thought might be a chunk of text, a web address, or a reference to any other file on your hard disk. Its makers claim that any single brain can contain 100,000 different thoughts, so it's up to you whether you create a single all-encompassing document for everything, or create new brains for each project.
That decision may depend on how you feel about the way PersonalBrain works, and in particular your views on its floating, spinning animated interface.
Thoughts are shown as bubbles, which are linked by glowing lines. Child thoughts are automatically linked to their parent, but links can be made to any other thought, creating a web of interconnected ideas.
To start with, PersonalBrain looks like a spatial information organiser, but it's better to think of it as an animated outliner. You only have limited control over where on-screen a particular thought is displayed. As you switch focus from one thought to another, the visual arrangement of all thoughts changes - everything swims to a new position, centered on the thought that's in focus.
This can be disconcerting at first because it can result in thoughts, or whole branches of collected thoughts, disappearing from view. PersonalBrain treats your notes as a hierarchy, and hides sibling notes unless you explicitly tell it that they are linked.
Actions are applied to the thought at the front, which PersonalBrain always highlights with a gently spinning animated cursor and places in the centre of your view. Around the edge of the thought are tiny action blobs. Click and drag on these to create siblings, children, or links to other thoughts. These blobs are very tiny and require great precision with your mouse to hit them first time. There are keyboard shortcuts for these controls, but they are fixed to the function keys. It would be nice if they could be edited.
To get started, we tried writing notes for a novel into it, and here the outliner metaphor broke down. Because you have no control over the spatial display of thoughts, our carefully-imagined plot outline was displayed in the reverse order we typed it in, with no way of re-arranging chapters or sections.
So it's not quite a visual organiser and it's not quite an outliner either, but a strange mixture of the two. PersonalBrain is best understood by its name. It's perfectly suited to storing large quantities of small snippets that may or may not be connected, and helping you discover and refine those connections over time.
Overall then, it's a mixed result for PersonalBrain. It's good at what it does, and it's clear that it could be a powerful tool for people who have to juggle multiple sources of data at once. It's let down by a few things, though - the overly-fussy animated interface, the lack of customisation options, and the mystery surrounding just what it's suited for.
A little work on decluttering the Mac port interface and adding more flexibility to the Preferences would give us the confidence to recommend PersonalBrain in future.
Find a review