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One of the things that I have to do often at my “day job” as an automation engineer is create schematics of machinery and electrical control circuits that make it easier to collaborate with electricians who need to understand how my software controller interfaces with the machinery.
In most large corporations, you’ll use professional CAD software, or in smaller companies you may use flowchart software like Visio that aren’t free. But for the individual who’s looking for a high-quality, free alternative there really aren’t a lot of good options.
There are a few that come close, like LucidChart or DIA, the open source alternative to Visio that Karl recently covered. Then of course there are the multitude of mind-mapping apps out there that Kaly and other writers here have covered. However, what I want to share with MakeUseOf readers today is an impressive, professional quality flowchart/mind-mapping application loaded with professional clip-art, images and templates that makes it on par with, or even better than, much of the desktop flowchart software out there. It’s aptly located at Flowchart.com, and that’s also the name of the online application.
It is currently in beta, but you can get a free invite just by submitting your email. The invite came back for me in under a couple of hours. Right now it’s unknown if there’s going to be a scaled down free version of this software, but let’s hope so! Let’s take a closer look at this impressive, online flowchart software.
Don’t Start From Scratch – Use a Template
The first thing you’ll notice when you start up Flowchart.com is that when you start a new flowchart, you’re offered a variety of existing templates to choose from that will get you started without much effort.
As you can see, you can start out with some pretty cool templates like engineering diagrams, mind maps, subject-specific flowcharts, and more. For the sake of this review, I started out with a blank template. The first thing I noticed was that to the left there are lots of clip-arts and even industry standard symbols to choose from.
There are three areas of the flowchart software that I’d like to point out that you’ll find at the upper left of the application window. In the upper left window, you’ll find the standard symbols, shapes and clip-art organized in easy-to-find subfolders. As you click on a subfolder that that contains the images, you’ll see those displayed in thumbnails in the window below. As you draw your chart in the larger grid-backed design window, you’ll see your design taking shape in the small preview window show here. The large design window is very slick – you can have the images you create “snap to grid” or now, and adding symbols is as easy as grabbing them from the left library and sliding them over to your design area. As an example I’ve designed the start of a diagram for a vacuum pumping system.
As you can see here, when you add a symbol to the design area, you can rotate it and place it wherever you like. In addition, if you click the “M” symbol, you can write a caption for the object as well.
Flowchart.com Features and Limitations
Keep in mind that this software is in beta, so you’re bound to find bugs. I find a few minor ones where the pop-up description for some menu items didn’t always work. You can report those bugs by clicking on the “forums” icon in the upper right corner of the application (the conversation icon).
Below this area, you’ll also find the design toolbar where you can draw your own images from scratch using all of the basic shapes you’d expect to find in any drawing application.
Other features offered at the top toolbar – from left to right in the image above – include snap to grid, show/hide rulers, properties & history, preview, script editor, sharing properties, view recorded charts and record charts. One of the coolest features of Flowchart.com is the fact that it’s not only flowchart software, but it’s a collaborative one at that.
When you click on the sharing icon, you’ll be able to get the url for your online flowchart, as well as manage the people allowed to access and edit that flowchart. Finally, when you’re done with your flowchart design, it’ll obviously save in the system as an online flowchart. However, what good is such flowchart software if you can’t store your charts offline and use them elsewhere? To this end, Flowcharts.com offers the ability to export to either a PNG image or a PDF file.
Here you can see the two icons to do that export in the menu bar. I’ve overlaid the actual PNG image displayed in my IrFanView application so you can get an idea of how your design will convert over. The conversion is pretty much an exact representation with your design, and I saw no quality flaws or errors with either exporting to PNG or PDF.
In my personal opinion, this application is one of the best online flowchart applications I’ve seen, however it probably runs neck-and-neck with a lot of the mindmapping apps out there, which are pretty impressive as well. I only hope that when it goes off beta that the application developers are smart enough to provide scaled-down free version as a promotional offering – and because…well, most of us here at MUO never usually pay for software unless we absolutely have to!
Go ahead and get your invite, try it out and let us know what you think of this app in the comments section below.