The software that can help you order your thoughts, hold virtual family get-togethers, or simply provide a distraction from getting your software review pages in on time.
MindJet MindManager 9.0 £199+VAT
Mind-mapping. You either can't do without it or can't see the point. For those in the former camp, it can be applied to a broad range of tasks, from brainstorming, through organising and visualising information, to planning projects and tasks. Its proponents say that drawing out the web of subtopics and sub-subtopics not only helps to identify interrelationships within the data, but it also boosts creativity because it reflects the human thinking process more closely than a simple list.
When it comes to mind-mapping software, MindJet's MindManager 9 is the proverbial daddy. While the core mind-mapping capability of this latest version is little changed from previous releases – some would claim there was no need of changes, of course – MindManager 9 has been significantly upgraded in several other areas, most notably in its ability to link to Microsoft's Outlook and SharePoint. That integration now allows Outlook content to be queried as well as linked to. Hyperlinks, documents and folders can also be dragged in and embedded.
Further Microsoft flavour is given by MindJet's adoption of the ribbon toolbar used in recent versions of MS Office. This takes up a fair amount of screen space and is initially confusing, but once you get used to it – and assuming you have a decent-sized screen – it can eventually make related functions easier to use.
MindManager 9 links to MindJet's Catalyst online service as well, allowing maps to be shared with others, even if they don't have MindManager installed. Maps can also be exported in a wide range of formats, including PDFs and Flash video, or turned into presentations – the program includes a slideshow capability – and there is a built-in Gantt chart view, making MindManager 9 an interesting option for project managers.
For those unsure where to start, the program includes a large number of map templates for all sorts of personal and business tasks, and MindJet runs a website where more maps can be shared and downloaded. The company also publishes a number of online tutorials which explain the software well; however, these may be less useful to novices as they tend to assume you are already familiar with the mind-map technique.
The other caveats are that MindManager 9 is Windows-only, and at £199 plus VAT it is not cheap. If you do not need features such as Outlook connectivity, there are quite a few capable mind-mapping tools available from other sources, including free ones that also run on Mac or Linux.
Still, MindManager is immensely powerful and flexible – and if you need what it can do, it can be seen as something close to a bargain.
Hello-Hello Language on the Go $9.99
Portable devices are not just for media consumption – they are good for learning too, and their multimedia capability makes language learning a good fit. One of the newer offerings is Hello'Hello. It has Web-based, iPad and Android courses covering 11 languages, each with conversational lessons, flash-cards and word games.
Although it cites the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages and is US-based, the site's founder is Brazilian and it targets a world-wide audience. Its (US) English app for the iPad has sold well in Spain, for example.
Each course has three levels, with 10 lessons in each. The lesson structure will be familiar to most teachers and quite a few students – a QuickTime audio track to listen to, then a transcript and translation, and you have a go at saying and writing it and answering questions.
The Web version also allows students to help each other online. The idea is that you can submit your spoken and written input for feedback, and in return you provide feedback for students who are learning your own native language. Of course, while working offline on a tablet gains you some flexibility – it can be used anywhere it is quiet enough to listen – on the other hand you do lose some of that collaborative edge by working offline.
Hello-Hello is by no means the first piece of software to try to do collaborative learning. Where it scores on the Web is that, unlike some of the others, online use is currently free. The mobile apps are not free, however, and they are substantial downloads – typically 30-40MB of content, which should be okay on most tablets but might overwhelm a phone. The phone versions download the audio on demand to ease this a little, but are still fairly chunky.
In some ways this is an e-book equivalent of the cassette or CD-based language courses of 20-plus years ago, but it is easier to operate and navigate. And for anyone disciplined and interested enough to use a tablet for learning, it is streets ahead of the many phrasebooks available in the app markets.
Skype Group Video Calling £4.99/month
Large businesses have been able to run videoconferences for years, bringing teamworkers together electronically on big shared screens to discuss projects and so on. Now, the voice-over-Internet and video-phone leader Skype is pitching to get the same thing into smaller businesses and the home.
Its new premium-priced Group Video Calling service allows several people – up to 10, but Skype suggests five for best call quality – to all see each other's webcam video. To use it costs '4.99 a month plus VAT, but only one person in the group needs a subscription for it to work. A seven-day free trial is available to give it a go, or you can buy Skype Premium for '2.99 a day.
Once you have group video active on your account, you can start a video call as usual, then add more people to it. For family get-togethers that means no more need to get half a dozen people crowded around a single screen – they can each have their own. Sound and video quality is respectable too, certainly no worse than one-to-one video, for small groups at least.
The one caveat is that getting group video calling to work for everyone involved could be something of a challenge. That's because in order to send and receive video within the conference, you have to be running the latest version 5 of Skype.
One of Skype's strengths has been that different versions are quite broadly interoperable, so Granny may still be running version 4 or even version 2, and video-phoning quite happily with her grandchildren. Now though you may have to talk her through a remote update. Perhaps this is another plot on Skype's part to ensure everyone turns on automatic updates, even when the new versions regularly confuse poor Granny with unfamiliar new interfaces that hide the stuff she's used to!
If you are not on Windows or the latest release of Mac OS X, you are out of luck: those are the only platforms that Skype 5 currently runs on. Anything else – Linux PCs, video-enabled mobile phones, tablets, etc – can join group calls by voice only, not video.
YooStar YooStar 2 £44.99
Within the last hour I have delivered the battle cry of King Leonidas on a cliff top overlooking Thermopylae and partied with Bluto in Animal House. If you want to star in a classic scene in a blockbuster movie, this is the nearest that most of us will get so far. Yoostar 2 works with the Xbox motion sensing Kinect system to digitise players and put themselves in a selection of iconic scenes - such as King Leonidas delivering the battle cry in the movie 300 (camp costume optional), Arnie stating that he'll 'be back' in the original Terminator and many more.
Digitally removing the actors who originally starred in them and having you step in to read their dialogue instead, it generates brief videos of you. It works best with a group of friends round to deliver a few scenes karaoke stye, but interest could wane fairly quickly. Therefore the makers have created a gaming element based on accuracy and timing when delivering the dialogue.
But this concept is a little bit forced - and you can see players getting tired of this as well. However, the makers are planning a portal allowing users to upload their best efforts to the web - with the caveat that it will be moderated to prevent profanity, nudity or insults to Hollywood stars who have allowed their likeness to be used. Damn!