Personal Brain 5 Review

PersonalBrain 5 is out. A new year is out and I haven’t posted anything yet. Now seems like a great time for a new, long, rambling review of PersonalBrain followed up by a bit of philosophizing.

First up: What’s new?

The coolest changes in PersonalBrain (okay maybe not the coolest) are the changes I submitted myself. A few months ago I created some open source icons and sent in some suggestions as to how PersonalBrain could look more natural in OS X. TheBrain (the company that makes PersonalBrain) changed PersonalBrain to use icons very similar to the ones I created. Also gone is the giant, unnecessary “PERSONALBRAIN 5 PRO EDITION” button that previously was at the top right corner. I also created a new background for PersonalBrain, but it wasn’t included. If you’re interested in downloading the background, you can get it here.

The full list of new features in PersonalBrain 5 is located here  thebrain.com [pdf]. I won’t go through the entire list, but I will mention a few highlights. The biggest new feature is the outline view  - which offers another way of visualizing your data. This feature is probably the most useful for newer users. When I first started using PB it took some time to adjust to the mindset of having parents at the top, siblings to the left, “other relationships” (I’m not sure what the official terminology is) off to the right etc. The new outline view makes it very apparent what the relationships are between each node.

PersonalBrain Outline View

PersonalBrain Outline View

Another great new feature is the ability to save “expanded views.” It replaces my previous method of taking a ‘snapshot’ of my Brain which was simply to take a screen capture. The new presentation view is useful as well. I have never given a public presentation usingPersonalBrain , but given the opportunity, I’d love to try this new mode out.  Tagging was introduced in PersonalBrain 5 and while I haven’t used it much, I think it has some good potential. Also new are some nice Mac only features like iCal and Spotlight integration which are definitely welcome.

On the whole, PersonalBrain 5 is a solid release. Most of the changes are evolutionary rather than revolutionary, but there are enough of them to make it a significant improvement.

My Wishlist

I’m happy with PersonalBrain as it is, but since I have a soapbox, here are a few things I’d love to see in the future.

iPhone app. This is surely the hardest, and possibly the least likely item on my wishlist. If, however, there was an iPhone app for PersonalBrain that could sync with the desktop version it would be amazing.

Better keyboard navigation. Currently you can navigate PB almost entirely by keyboard, but doing so involves using lots of “F” keys (F7 creates a parent thought for example). Keyboard shortcuts would be much better if they the common conventions of using the command key on OS X or the control key for Windows. Even better would be to allow user-customizable keyboard shortcuts.

Sync. Lately I’ve had a big need to use PersonalBrain on two different machines. Dropbox has made this fairly simple. I put my whole PersonalBrain file in Dropbox and it syncs automatically to any computer that I’ve installed Dropbox on. There is one potential pitfall though–if I forget to close PB on one computer then open it on another it causes some, non-fatal, errors. I leave screen sharing (VNC) enabled on my home computer so if I leave PersonalBrain open I can login and close it on the home machine, but sometimes if I’ve closed the laptop at home I can’t do that and it’s problematic… but I digress.PersonalBrain makers: an “official” way of syncing PersonalBrain between machines has been long-hinted at, how’s that coming along?

Even more native look improvements. As mentioned before, PB has come a long way on OS X, however there are still some major areas for improvement, most having to do with the bottom half of the screen. PB could take a great leap forward by cleaning up the interface down there, even without adding any new functionality.

Areas for Improvement

Areas for Improvement

Some philosophizing about PersonalBrain

The PersonalBrain website lists 12 “top PersonalBrain Uses.” Unfortunately, I think that they still miss the real benefit of PersonalBrain which is that you can have an infinite amount of information connected in extremely flexible ways all stored in one place. No other piece of software does this. Consider the following diagram. It’s a little complex and cluttered, but it illustrates well the uniqueness of PersonalBrain (click to enlarge):

PersonalBrain Capabilities

PersonalBrain Capabilities

If you’re a curious person, if you want to know something about everything, if you’re a generalist, an aspiring polymath, a reader, a researcher, you can’t beat PersonalBrain for organizing all the stuff you come across. Nothing comes close.

Let me preface the following thoughts by saying that I am strongly biased towards the way I use PersonalBrain. Some of these thoughts are controversial for those who use PB in other ways, which is fine, some controversy is welcome.

I think that the list on thebrain.com gets most of the top uses for PersonalBrain wrong. Most of the items on the list are things that could be done in PersonalBrain but could better done with other software. Before I dive into specifics, let me reiterate, PersonalBrain is quite possibly my favorite piece of software and I use it every day. My criticism is meant to be constructive.

The uses listed on thebrain.com

1. Visual bookmark manager. I think this is better done by something like delicious.com and the del.icio.us extension and/or native browser bookmarks. I have bookmarks in PersonalBrain, quite a few actually, but I prefer to keep the majority of my bookmarks in the browser where they can be tightly integrated and easily accessed as I’m browsing.

2. File and everything in your life manager. In OS X I use the Finder and I use Windows Explorer in Windows. These programs are built with the specific purpose of managing files and they do it well. I have hundreds of file attachments in my PB but I still can’t imagine trying to use it as a general purpose file manager. As far as the “everything in your life manager” part goes, I’m just going to ignore because it’s not specific enough to be meaningful.

3. Capturing expertise and special interests. This is the best item in the list. It ends with this gem: “PersonalBrain becomes your ultimate reference.” Indeed. I think that (or something very similar) should be right on the front page of the site. Make this one number one in the list, make it bold, elaborate on it for a few more sentences and make the font size 3 points bigger.

4. Competitive Intelligence and Product Development. I like this one too. I think it could be a great addition to any PersonalBrain though I wouldn’t create a separate brain just for this.

5. Research and Analysis. Another good one, though why the heavy business focus? Because that’s where the money is? Fair enough, but it minimizes a whole world of other research.

6. Event planning. I think this would be done better in iCal or Outlook or Entourage or even in a mind map or an outline. PersonalBrain just doesn’t seem like a natural tool for this.

7. Brainstorming and mind mapping. I much, much prefer Freemind or MindManager for this. If it’s a finite brainstorming session or a mindmap related to some specific, ephemeral project then I’d prefer to capture it in mindmapping software where I can use it, then be done with it (again, perhaps attaching it to a PB node when I’m done.) I think suggesting PersonalBrain for general mind mapping is confusing because it lumps it in with specialized mind mapping software that all have specific features thatPersonalBrain can’t (and shouldn’t try to) compete with. Another way of stating this is that PersonalBrain is a great mind mapper, but not a great Mind Mapper.

8,9,10,11,12. I’m not going to cover each one specifically because the general problem with each them is the same: you could find specialized software that would better suit your needs. It isn’t that you can’t do any of these things in PersonalBrain, it’s that PB is not the “best tool for the job” and presenting it as such only serves to take away from the real uses of PersonalBrain.

A Personal Note

My PersonalBrain has over 5000 thoughts. 5179 as of this moment to be specific. I have grown to “trust the system.” If you’ve read GTD you’ll understand the significance of that statement. If I was sent to a deserted island and could only take one piece of software, it’d be PersonalBrain. I have enough reading material in the attachments to keep me busy for the next 10 years. There are enough areas to left to explore to last me a lifetime, which is what I plan on doing–spending a little time every day for the rest of my life adding to both of my brains, myPersonalBrain and the one on top of my shoulders.

I have much more I could say about my uses for PersonalBrain, and at some point I’ll create another video showing how I use it, but for now, thanks for reading, feel free to comment and disagree (or agree) as much as you’d like.

  • Steeph

    PB is IMHO a perfect bookmark manager.
    Why? Because you can associate with other stuff you have in your brain. It's decoupled from your browser so you can switch browsers without migrating stuff. And it useful to contain all your data and things in one place instead of here and there.

    • marcusv

      Steeph, have you found a way to quickly add bookmarks to PB? I could possibly see using it as a bookmark manager, but the process of switching applications, creating a node, going to the menu and "paste web link" is too much for me to do for every bookmark.

      I currently use delicious.com (http://delicious.com/zzzmarcus/) which is hosted and available everywhere (even where my PB is not) and has really nice browser integration through plugins or bookmarklets, but if you know of a better process to get bookmarks into PB, I'd be open to considering it.

      • Steeph

        As Dyslucksia says, just Drag&Drop.
        You could set a 'collect' thought as you home thought where you can return to quickly. You can then just drop the bookmarks into PB and deal with the admin later if you wish to.

  • dyslucksia

    I agree Marcus, PB is arguably the best independent bookmarks manager in the market today, probably because no one else has yet considered how important it is to be able to file something under more than one heading.

    The quickest way to add a bookmark, I’ve found, is to drag-and-drop the favicon into the plex. Alternatively, DnD it into the Notes Editor. If you choose the former, see if AutoHiding PB works for you. If the latter, make your browser’s window a little narrower than PB’s so a little of the Notes pane is showing behind the browser, then drag the favicon into Notes without changing windows.

  • zenrain

    Good read Marcus, thanks!

    I tried Webnote Happy and also Webbla, and used them both for a while. Where they both fail is they don’t automatically synchronize to Safari. This is a rather large issue for me, since I use an iPhone, and I use Safari to sync my bookmarks. Since I also use LaunchBar as a quicklaunch which catalogs the Safari bookmarks, it’s a dealbreaker for me. If you use MobileMe and several Macs, you may be wanting the same thing.

    What I ended up doing is using PB less as a bookmark manager, but more as a reference. For stuff I want to find easily and quickly, it becomes a Safari bookmark. If it has a reference to something in PB (or I may want it to have one in the future) I drag it to PB. If I want to find it fairly easily, but references to other topics, it goes in both. If it’s purely a reference, it goes into PB.

    You can also create a frequent tag in PB, and attach very common bookmarks, this may be another option for you.

    Once again, thanks for the great post.

  • woodwise

    I was introduced to PB many years ago (v1.x), and didn't follow up because it didn't seem worth the effort, as novel as it was – and I like novelty. But novelty has to be useful sometimes. I recently decided to look at PB again, and installed v5.x. I, too, think that the list of top uses doesn't do much to sell the product. For example, I keep my web links (800 links, 50 folders) in a simple directory structure that is easy to DnD update and backup (I use Backer). So I always have my web links with me, and they are browser-independent. I place a link to the top level directory on the Windows task bar, and the links are very accessible. The only con is that I can't conveniently cross-list web pages in two directories, and I don't want dupes. So I occasionally must search the top level dir for the web link I want because it isn't where I expect it to be. If I find myself doing this a few times for a particular link, I move it. PB would make this much easier, but with more overhead, because a) I'd have to run PB, and b) I'd have to keep opening and closing the Web Pages Brain (unless PB now permits multiple open Brains).

  • Loose_Wire

    Marcus, I think you're right on the money here, though I'd agree with some of the commenters that it also works great as a bookmark manager–altho I'd still love to find a way to merge it with delicious in some way.

    One thing I'm trying to improve on is to connect it to an outliner database. My best bet at the moment is MyInfo, but I'm not sure it's as easy as it could be.

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