OneNote Smack Down II – Inspiration

Continuing my OneNote challenge, the next contender for the title of best outliner on the Windows platform is Inspiration.

Inspiration — An empty boast or a promise fulfilled?

Inspiration is a hybrid application. It started out life as a diagramming tool, then incorporated an outlining function. It has now added a mind-mapping feature. Its primary market is middle- and grade-schools. They used to have a partner selling the application into businesses, but they seem to have dropped that relationship. An added bonus for some users (but not relevant for this review) is that it is multi-platform with a Mac version as well as the Windows version. It costs $59.00 and can be downloaded here.

Ease of use (40%) = 90 (36 points)

The keyboard short cuts for inserting a new topic or sub-topic are silly and arcane: CONTROL-G for a new topic, CONTROL-K for a new sub-topic. I suppose that after some time this can become second nature, but it always trips me up when I first try to use Inspiration after some time away.* Fortunately, you can negate this issue altogether by changing a couple of default settings in the preferences menu to set the ENTER key to create a new topic and TAB to demote that topic (consequently, SHIFT-TAB promotes a topic). It also has word-by-word extended selection when double clicking on the first word. It does not have extended selection for whole paragraphs, but that is a minor issue.

Inspiration also supports easy and functional drag and drop with the mouse (or touchpad).

All in all, I found it quick and easy to hammer out my (now all too familiar) Solar System outline.

Outlining features (15%) = 95 (14.25 points)

Inspiration has most of the key outliner functions. Reveal arrows allow you to hide and show sub-topics. These are set along the left margin of the document, which — I think — is a better choice than beside the topics, as UV Outliner does it. This keeps them out of the way of the labeling (not a problem with UVO, since it doesn’t include labeling). And speaking of labeling, Inspiration handles this task easily as well. It includes several standard labeling systems, and has the option to build your own custom system.

You can also easily change the text style level by level with an easy to use dialog box.

Hoisting (called Focus in Inspiration) is also supported, as demonstrated in the screenshot below:

Inspiration allows you to “focus” on one topic and its sub-topics at a time.

Export power (25%) = 95 (23.75 points)

Inspiration’s document export is limited to Word, Open Office or plain text, but that is enough. Because it provides as smooth an export to Word as you’re likely to find. The only reason I don’t rate export higher is the absence of a OPML option. You also have the option of including a JPEG image of the diagram, an interesting option, but not really relevant for this review.

Inspiration does a nice job exporting to Word.

The export dialog box shows you a preview of how your exported document might look.

Bonus features (10%) = 88 (8.8 points)

Inspiration is on a roll, and it continues its barrage with the nicest implementation of inline text in the Windows world. It isn’t perfect, doesn’t match GrandView for example. (In GrandView, you could view and edit the text of a topic in a dedicated word processing window in addition to inline.) All text can be modified with standard formatting options. Notes can be shown or hidden by clicking on the note icon in the left margin.

Like UV Outliner, check boxes can be applied to topics, but also like UVO, its an all or nothing proposition. There are no options to apply meta-data to topics.

For some people and in some instances, the ability to view your outline as a diagram could be very helpful. I am ambivalent about how to rate this feature, because I don’t really think it has much to do with the type of outlining I’m trying to test these applications for. Still, it is a cool feature when you need it. I bumped the score up three points for the diagramming feature.

You can use the reveal arrows and the note icon in the left margin to hide and show various parts of your outline.

Overall feel and functionality (10%) = 85 (8.5 points)

All in all, Inspiration provides a comfortable and fluid environment for outlining. It suffers slightly from its emphasis on being a tool for the primary school classroom, and for a small over-reliance on the mouse or trackpad for accessing some of its tools and functions. And it is definitely a better environment for writing and thinking than in planning. Still, it gets a good overall grade from me.

Total score = 91.3

Looks like we have a solid A here, and a new leader. But can Inspiration maintain its lead over the other challengers? We’ll find out.

*This is my soapbox chance to rant about why so many developers create crazy key combinations for basic, common tasks. In the old GrandView, the ALT key in combination with the A, S or D keys created a Parent Topic, a Sibling Topic or a Child Topic respectively and that is easy to remember with the mnemonic Aunt, Sister, Daughter. You also could move topics around at will using the ALT and the navigation arrows. Simple, easy, intuitive. What’s wrong with that?


  1. Your rant about arcane hot key strokes is common. I think it is probably a hangover when WordStar was the leading wordprocessor and lots of programers used it to write code. Back in the DOS era, competing programs either cloned the ctrl key combinations or had configuration features to make the programs compatible with them. Long since gone now. I still remember many of them :)

    I bought Inspiration after having had a look at a few Outliners. Over all, it’s a great program, but has limitations with regards to how much data it can handle – a 16 mb file size is the max and it forced me to split notes appended to subheading that were over 3 pages. Also, it doesn’t support tables. It might seem strange to complain about that, but outliners are the perfect tool for information management and the organizational need increases with increasing amounts of data.

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