OneNote vs. Evernote: A personal take on two great note-taking apps

Now that Microsoft's OneNote is free for consumers, can it compete with Evernote? Preston Gralla offers his take on both.

Let the note-taking wars begin.

With Microsoft's release of OneNote for the Mac and iOS , and its announcement that the Windows application is now free as well, the company has taken dead aim at the popular program Evernote. The two applications now both work on the same platforms (including mobile OSes such as Android, iOS and Windows Phone), sync your notes to your devices and include Web-based versions.

But they also have some very distinct differences. So which is better?

I'm a long-time user of both applications, so I've taken a look at the latest version of each for Windows, OS X, iPad, iPhone and Android. (There is also a version for Windows Phones which I haven't tried.) This isn't a deep-dive review, but rather a personal look on what I like and don't much like about each -- and the main points of differences between the two. I spend more time on the Windows version of each, but note similarities and differences in other versions as well.

OneNote: A great way to get organized

OneNote has been around as part of Microsoft Office since 2003, and it's very much a full-blown application. It lets you create simple or complex notes from scratch, organize them into searchable, browsable notebooks, and sync them among a variety of platforms, including Windows PCs, Macs, iPads and iPhones, Windows Phones, Android devices and the Web.

OneNote lets you create simple or complex notes from scratch, organize them into searchable, browsable notebooks, and sync them among a variety of platforms.

It bristles with note-creation tools for drawing, recording audio and video, scanning images, embedding spreadsheets and reviewing the edits of others (although the abilities of those tools differ somewhat depending on the platform). In fact, its note-creation tools are more comprehensive than Evernote's.

The organization-minded will appreciate OneNote's basic structure. You create individual notebooks; within each notebook, you can create section groups that contain multiple sections. Each section has individual pages, with each page a separate note. It's ideal for organizing content with a logical structure.

For example, if you're using OneNote to keep track of recipes, you could have a Recipe notebook, then section groups for Pasta, Chicken and Beef, and then within each section group you might have individual sections for that ingredient -- so under Beef, there might be sections for Barbecue, Stir-fry, Roast and so on. Within each of those sections, you would have individual pages, with each page having a single recipe.

Clipping notes

As good as OneNote is at creating notes, it falls short of Evernote's considerable capabilities for clipping content from the Web.

OneNote offers browser add-ins for Internet Explorer, Chrome, Safari and Firefox. When you're on a Web page from which you want to clip content, you right-click on the page or else drag it to the OneNote clipper on your Bookmarks bar.

The Internet Explorer add-in for OneNote opens a small window that lets you browse to the specific notebook, section and page where you want the clip stored.

What happens next depends upon the browser you use. With Internet Explorer, a small window opens showing you all of your OneNote notebooks; you can then browse to the specific notebook, section and page where you want the clip stored. Select the location and the clip gets placed there.

On other browsers, though, no such window appears. Instead, the clip is sent to a Quick Notes notebook. From there, you'll have to move it or copy it somewhere else. I found it a kludgy annoyance.

There's an even bigger problem: You can't select only a section of the page to clip. The entire page gets sent as a single graphic image. So if you only want to clip a single paragraph, you're out of luck. And the clip is a graphic only, so that any links or media on the page don't work.

The differences among versions

It's in Windows where OneNote really shines, because that's where it has its full complement of note-creation tools. It's also where its heritage as an Office application is clearest, because it uses the Office Ribbon as a way to give you access to all of its features.

OneNote for Windows has six Ribbon tabs -- Home, Insert, Draw, History, Review and View -- each of which gives you access to plenty of features. So the Home Tab lets you format text, add tags, mark items as important and more. The Insert tab offers tools for inserting objects into your notes, including spreadsheets, pictures, audio and video you can record, equations and symbols.

The Drawing tab has the usual drawing tools, while History lets you collaborate with others, so that you can find other users' recent edits and comments, and so on. Review includes familiar Office features including a spell checker, a thesaurus and a translation tool. And View has plenty of ways to change the appearance of your notebooks and their pages, such as adding lines, changing their size, changing the colors and so on. Evernote has nothing approaching any of these sophisticated tools.

Each page you create is a blank slate that lets you add text, images, media and objects in a freeform way, moving them around and formatting them with ease. For those who want to spend the time, it can mean creating extremely rich pages. But if all you want is text, that's simple to do as well.

The iPad and Mac versions have the same basic look, feel and organization of the Windows version, although with not as many features. They have three tabs across the top, rather than six: Home, Insert and View.

In some instances the tabs are as fully featured as in the Windows version -- the Mac's Home tab, for example, includes all of the Windows version's formatting and other capabilities. Other tabs have far fewer features -- notably the Insert tab; in that case, the Mac and iPad versions only allow you to insert tables, pictures and the date and time, not the wide range of objects and content you can work with in the Windows version.

On the iPhone, it's much simpler than on the Mac and iPad. You see your section groups in a scrollable list, and can then navigate easily down into individual sections and pages. It doesn't have tabs, given the iPhone's limited screen real estate, and it's built mainly for quick-and-dirty note taking, or checking your existing notes.

Unfortunately, I found the Android version to be quite poor. It doesn't have the visual notebook metaphor or tabs; it's not much more than a simple list of your notebooks, section groups, sections and pages that you can navigate through. There are no tabs giving you access to tools for creating content, and very few features for creating and editing notes. It's an afterthought at best, and not a particularly well-constructed one at that.

Web usage and storage

The Web version of OneNote features the tabbed design of the Windows, Mac and iPad versions, with the same basic feature set of the Mac and iPad versions.

OneNote syncs its content among all of your devices and to the Web via Microsoft OneDrive, which means that you get up to 7GB of space for everything you store there, including your OneNote content (there are additional plans available if you need more space).

Evernote: Best Web-clipping tool you can find

Evernote is a completely different beast than OneNote. It feels as if it was not primarily designed for creating notes from scratch, but instead for clipping content from the Web.

The application's features and layout are similar among all platforms. The left-hand side of the screen is used for navigation; tap Notebooks to see list of all of your notebooks, and then tap each individual notebook to see all of your notes in each notebook in a scrollable list. If you prefer, you can tap Notes to see all of your notes in a scrollable lists, regardless of the notebook in which they're located. For easy searching, you can add tags to each note when you write it or capture it; the front navigation also lets you view your notes by tags.

Evernote's features and layout are similar among all platforms; this is the Windows version.

I found Evernote to be more visually compelling than OneNote on the iPad and Mac. The display is particularly attractive when you scroll through a notebook, with the list of notes in the notebook showing small graphics pulled from each note.

Evernote doesn't have nearly as many note-creation tools as OneNote. There are the usual text formatting tools; the ability to embed tables, files and pictures; and to record audio and video as part of your notes. But that's about it.

Web clipping

Where Evernote really shines is in capturing content from the Web, organizing that content and making it easy for you to find it and use it.

Its Web-clipping tool is exemplary. The tool runs as a browser plug-in; the exact features vary somewhat from browser to browser.

Evernote's exemplary clipping tool runs as a browser plug-in and lets you capture content using a variety of options.

The best of the bunch is the Chrome version. When you're on a page from which you want to capture content, click the Evernote icon and the clipper appears on the right-hand side with a variety of options, including:

  • capturing just the article itself, eliminating ads and other unnecessary material
  • capturing a "simplified article" -- just text and graphics without the original layout or videos
  • capturing the full page as you see it
  • capturing only a bookmark to the page
  • capturing a screenshot of the page

In addition, the clipper has markup tools, so that you can annotate what you're capturing by adding text, highlighting, arrows and so on. You can also add tags. And you can choose which notebook you want to add the content to or create a new notebook on the fly.

And once you've captured the content, you can do more with it. In OneNote, when you capture a Web page, it's captured as a flat image, so all you can do is read it. In Evernote, the text is live -- you can copy it, paste to it, edit it, change the formatting and so on. And unlike in OneNote, the links are live as well, so that you can click any link and have it open in your browser. Any media on the page such as video isn't live, though -- click it and you're sent to the original page you captured.

As with OneNote, you can find notes by browsing through notebooks or by doing a search. But Evernote also lets you search for notes by browsing through your tags; if you wish, you can see them in a long, scrollable list.

The differences among versions

Evernote looks much the same on Windows, the iPad and the Mac, although the iPad and Mac versions are more visually compelling because they format notes more nicely when you scroll through them, and display graphics as thumbnails. The Web version closely mimics the Mac version.

The Android and iPhone version are similar to one another - they represent each note not as part of a scrollable list, but instead as a square with the title on top, and any pictures from the note displaying on the square.

Premium version

Evernote is free, but there's also a premium version available that costs $5 per month or $45 per year. It has a variety of features not available in the free version, including searching inside PDFs and attachments to your notes, as well as a monthly note capacity of 1GB (the free version allows you 60MB per month).

Bottom line

Although Evernote and OneNote are both note-taking tools, they actually have very different emphases and can be used for quite different purposes.

If you're primarily looking for a tool that lets you easily capture, organize and find content from the Web, you'll clearly want Evernote, because its tools for doing that are exemplary. If you instead want to create notes from scratch and have them in well-organized notebooks, clearly OneNote is the way to go.

Then again, you may be like me. I've been using both of them for years. OneNote is my go-to tool for organizing and taking notes for projects such as books and articles. I use Evernote for research. Given that they're now both free, it gives me the best of both worlds.

This article, OneNote vs. Evernote: A personal take on two great note-taking apps, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Preston Gralla is a contributing editor for Computerworld.com and the author of more than 45 books, including Windows 8 Hacks (O'Reilly, 2012). See more by Preston Gralla on Computerworld.com.

Read more about desktop apps in Computerworld's Desktop Apps Topic Center.

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