PersonalBrain: A unique software tool

In one of my recent Tinderbox posts, I mentioned that I was now also using PersonalBrain as an information manager, and that I hoped to compare the two applications in an upcoming post. Before I get to that comparison it will be helpful if I talk about PersonalBrain and why I started using it.

Most of my non-commercial (i.e. personal) computing is done on my MacBook, but for my official work — the thing that pays the bills — I use a PC. For reasons I don’t need to get into here, I have found myself recently trying to find a new information management solution for the PC. I’ve long been fascinated by PersonalBrain, so I finally decided to buy a license and jump in.

PersonalBrain is not cheap, but I felt confident in my purchase for several reasons:

  1. The company has been around a while and seems stable. New editions come out frequently.
  2. The company goes to great lengths to help users understand how to get the most from PersonalBrain. Their web site may be the most helpful of any I’ve seen, especially for a relatively small developer.
  3. As a Java-based application, PersonalBrain is cross platform, and I can use it on my PC at work as well as on my MacBook.

The big question is just how useful will it be for managing my information? I’m still discovering the answer to that, but so far the results are promising.

I imagine that most people have the same initial reaction to PersonalBrain that I had (eight or nine years ago). “Wow! This is really cool.” But then I found myself a bit underwhelmed by the functionality beneath the Plex — that’s the area in the PersonalBrain window that’s the cool part. However, as PersonalBrain has evolved and I have learned more about it, I discovered it has many thoughtful features. It is more than just a pretty face.

I like hierarchical free-form databases like MyInfo and UltraRecall, what are commonly called outliners, as well as real outliners, such as OmniOutliner. What limits these applications as information managers, at least for me, is that I quickly get lost in the hierarchy. Topics and sub-topics and sub-sub-topics and sub-sub-sub-topics can quickly become overwhelming. The better outliners combat this by offering cloning, hoisting and cross-database searches — basically, ways in which you can pare down your information into bite-sized pieces.

PersonalBrain is one of the few applications that can effectively handle all (or most) of my information in a single database. When I click on a topic (or “Thought” as it is called in PB), that topic moves to the center of the Plex. This is effectively a hoist to that topic, but with this significant difference: The context of that topic is maintained.

Here’s what I mean: Not only do you see the child (or sub-) topics of the focussed topic, you also see its parents and its siblings. In fact, you can also see topics you’ve designated as related. As an example, I have begun a CommonPlace Book database in PersonalBrain. This is the top level view with major categories:

CommonPlace Book - PersonalBrain 6.0.The Plex’s geography is carefully set up to provide meta information about any single topic. Directly below the topic, of course, are its sub-topics. Above the topic is its parent topic (or topics, because any item can have multiple parents). To the right are its sibling topics. And directly to the left are related topics.

For example, I’ve now drilled down to the topic of Desert Solitaire.

My CommonPlace Book

You can see a quote from the book as the sub-topic, and you can see that it was written by Edward Abbey, that Abbey also wrote The Monkey Wrench Gang and Lonely Are the Brave, and that the book relates to Arches National Park. That’s a lot more information about the topic than you generally can get from an outliner.

CommonPlace Book in OmniOutliner

CommonPlace Book Hoisted to the Desert Solitaire Topic

OmniOutliner is a very sophisticated outlining application, but it does not match PersonalBrain for providing context for your notes.

And with PersonalBrain, it is so easy to continue making links. For example, I decided I wanted to make Desert Solitaire the first title in my list of Favorite Books. Easy. And now I can see that Desert Solitaire has two parent topics.

I’ve just scratched the surface of the many thoughtful features built into PersonalBrain. Of course, it is not perfect. I’m not crazy about the note editor, for instance. And, I hate the fact that they call databases “Brains.” I refuse to say I’m dragging a document into my brain.

If I’ve piqued your interest, you’ll find tons of information at the PersonalBrain web site, and I will probably add further posts about PersonalBrain.


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