Outlines vs. Mindmaps

I sometimes get asked about where I use outlining tools versus mind mapping tools. I can see why those lines could be confused. Both tools are good at taking a bunch of inputs and letting you organize them later. For me, the distinction is all about chaos and order. Specifically, where outlines are best for taking generally organized information and making it more organized, mind maps are all about taming chaos.

For instance, when I was making the initial attempt at organizing the Photos Field Guide, I used a MindNode-based mind map. I didn’t have a clear path when I started that project, and I needed to just get ideas on the screen so I could start organizing. By using a mind map, I saw there were multiple organizational paths for that course. Using the mind map also helped me determine to group courses by platform rather than topic.

Other good examples of mind map tasks, for me, are where I’m learning something new or when I have to get my head wrapped around my own thoughts on a topic. In that case, I start up a new mind map and add to it slowly.

On the flip side, when I create a chronology for a client matter, a project that is, by nature, linear, I start with an outline. I’ll do the same thing outlining contracts or planning structured long-form blog posts. Another place I often use outlines is when attending what feels, to me at least, like a structured lecture. You can just tell when the speaker has a beginning, middle, and an end, and those fit best as outlines.

Whether you are using mind maps or outlines, Cooking Ideas still works. This is the technique I’ve talked about in the past where you start to map or outline early, and come back to it every day or two with your subconscious mind doing the heavy lifting. If you can get started on a project this way early enough, it sometimes feels like the work does itself.

My weapons of choice these days for both? MindNode for mind maps. OmniOutliner for outlines. Both cover all the Apple platform devices and make it really easy to jump between devices and resume.

OmniOutliner 3 for iOS

This week the Omni Group released OmniOutliner 3 for iOS. It’s a worthy update that brings a lot of new features to iOS including password protected outlines, an improved slide-in inspector, focus & section lists, printing and pdf support, and some great looking themes. The update also gives you an iPhone X-friendly design.

The update came out this week. I was able to easily transition using my OmniPresence outlines.

I’m most excited about this upgrade’s inclusion of the new Omni Group scripting language into this new version. I can now design scripts to build template and script-based outlines and run them on either Mac or iOS.

The Essentials version is $10, and the Pro version is $40. However, if you have OmniOutliner 2 installed, the Pro upgrade drops to $20. The new version is worth the upgrade.

Get Started Outlining with OmniOutliner Essentials (Sponsor)

This week MacSparky is sponsored by OmniOutliner, my favorite outlining application for the Mac, iPad, and iPhone. Recently the Omni Group has released OmniOutliner version 5. One of the best things about this new version is the addition of OmniOutliner Essentials. It includes several of OmniOutliner’s key features, like keyword filtering, document stats, distraction-free mode, resource search, touch bar support, dark mode, opml mode, and pro file compatibility. 

I use OmniOutliner often. It’s a fantastic tool for collecting ideas and organizing them. Whether you’re taking notes, making lists, brainstorming, or starting your book, OmniOutliner can help you out.

With OmniOutliner Essentials, you get all these features for just $10. OmniOutliner Essentials is a great deal and if you have any interest in adding a world-class outliner to your tool belt, go get OmniOutliner Essentials today.

Sponsor: The New OmniOutliner 5

This week MacSparky is sponsored by the brand new OmniOutliner, Version 5. The new version adds several new useful features:

Saved Filters
Now you can filter rows based on different criteria: column values, status, note content, and more. You can save each filter to reference later.

Password Protection
Encrypt the documents you’d prefer to stay private. OmniOutliner can now encrypt documents with a password.

Distraction-Free Writing
Stay focused on your writing by automatically hiding the toolbar and sidebars in Full Screen mode.

Document Stats
Get a live view of statistics—rows, words, characters—as you’re typing.

Built-In Themes & Templates
A beautiful set of themes built in to the app.

There’s more including full screen improvements, dark mode, typewriter mode, and customizable keyboard shortcuts. They also have a new business model with the Pro version costing just $59.99. (I got it for half with upgrade pricing based on my purchase of version 4.) 

They also have a minimal, focussed version, OmniOutliner Essentials, that is just $9.99. Head over to the Omni Group and learn all about the new version. You may even recognize that goofy voice on the product videos.

OmniOutliner Essentials

This week Ken Case of the Omni Group announced the upcoming OmniOutliner Essentials. It is a focused version of OmniOutliner that doesn’t have quite all the bells and whistles you get from OmniOutliner Pro but still a wicked useful outlining application. The best part is that they are going to sell this for just $9.99. There is also a price reduction on OmniOutliner Pro. As they work towards the release of OmniOutliner 5, OmniOutliner Essentials is available for public test.

The first version of OmniOutliner I purchased was in a box at a computer store. Those stores are all gone but OmniOutliner continues to evolve.

OmniOutliner 4.1


The Omni Group just updated OmniOutliner 4.1 with several useful new features:

  • Row padding control has been added to the standard feature set.
  • There is a new set of colored toolbar icons. (Purists can switch to Graphite appearance in System Preferences to use monochrome versions of those icons.)
  • The Pro version now allows you to link to rows to quickly navigate or reference other sections. To make a link, select a row and use Edit > Copy As Link. Paste this where ever you’d like to make a hyperlink to that row. I often use OmniOutliner for witness examination outlines and deposition outlines. This new navigation trick will be huge for me.

The app also got improved Word export and other nice interface tweaks and attachment support. I’m happy to see the Omni Group giving my favorite outliner further love.

OmniOutliner for iPad Review

The day the Omni Group releases a new iPad app always feels a little bit like productivity-nerd Christmas. There is always a lot of anticipation leading up to the event and, despite having spent far too much time thinking about how the Omni UI wizards will go about it, you always find a few unexpected surprises. With today’s release of OmniOutliner for iPad ($20), the Christmas metaphor holds up.

Last year, no sooner did we get OmniFocus installed than we all immediately started clamoring for OmniOutliner. So now it is here. How does OmniOutliner stack up against are expectations? I’ve been using the app through the beta and report the Omni Group delivered, again.

Interface and Iteration

What puts the Omni Group applications above others is their unwillingness to accept “good enough.” The Omni Group spends a lot of time getting the touch interface right. With each new iPad app, they realize they are blazing a trail. They generally throw out all the assumptions made with building an interface for a traditional keyboard and mouse and start over. OmniOutliner is not a simple port of the Mac OS X app. Instead, it is a ground up, outlining application built around the iPad’s strengths (and weaknesses).


Outlining real simple. Type an entry and then use the arrow icon buttons at the bottom of the screen to promote or demote entries. For speed outlining, that is it. No magic incantations or multiple button taps. Type the words. Set the level. Move on.

To type on a line, double tap it. A curser drops in and the iPad on-screen keyboard jumps to life. Once done editing, tap the row handle to the left and OmniOutliner exits edit mode. The row handles also include icons to display row level. Any rows without children appear as a dot. Rows with children have an oversized disclosure triangle. Tapping the triangle will collapse and expand the children points below it. OmniOutliner also includes the ability to add notes in an option text field below individual entries. This is one of the Mac OS X features that came over to iPad and it is damn useful.

Tapping the Edit button brings up a series of editing tools to move, group, and delete individual entries. Even easier though is grabbing and moving the row handles and moving manually.

Columns and Customization

It wouldn’t be OmniOutliner without columns and the iPad iteration delivers. You can add columns of various formats including text, numbers, date, duration, pop-up list, and checkboxes. Everything is intuitive and creating and styling new columns is easy. With certain formats, like numbers, OmniOutliner will optionally perform a math functions providing totals, averages, minimum and maximum values, and additional functions.

There is a lot of customization available under the hood. Tapping the Tools icon button opens a popover that lets you set styles and view for the entire document or the current selection. You can also create custom styles for certain outline levels. The screenshot, for instance set a tan background, bold typeface, and numbering for the level one entries.

One of the many nice touches are the built in color schemes. The color picker includes a series of custom palettes. These are the same color options available in the iPad OmniGraffle app and much better than those available in the Mac OS X color picker.

Document Management

Document management is handled in the document view. This app feels a lot like Apple’s iWork apps in this regard. You flick between documents and tap one to open it. There are also options to open documents from iDisk or a WebDAV server. There is no Dropbox access. The Omni Group explained that they are still exploring ways to make online sync better. However, if you really need that Dropbox sync, you can use a DropDAV account and access your Dropbox files via WebDAV. You can also export outlines to iDisk, WebDAV, and iTunes or send them as a mail attachment. Export options include the OmniOutliner format, HTML (both simple and dynamic), plain text, and my beloved OPML.


When the iPad was first announced, OmniOutliner was one of those apps that I thought would be perfect for it. I often use outlines for brainstorming and organizing thoughts. I also use OmniOutliner to take depositions and prepare witness examinations. Furthermore, every one of the last fifty episodes of the Mac Power Users started life as an OmniOutline. I miss the templates available in OmniOutliner Pro on my Mac and native Dropbox support would have been nice but I’ve been using the iPad OmniOutliner exclusively for a month and the iPad has supplanted my Mac as my “go to” outlining device. Like mind mapping, outlining really lends itself to the touch interface. The Omni Group just “gets” the iPad and it is no surprise that they nailed it again with OmniOutliner for iPad.