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OneNote vs. EverNote: A Side-by-Side Comparison

As new device types become ubiquitous, it's time to rethink how we take notes. While there are more cutting-edge products out there, Evernote and Microsoft OneNote provide forward-looking, highly productive options for multiple devices and the cloud. Each has its advantages.

Long ago I learned the thing that held people back from getting the most out of new technology was their tendency to view it through old paradigms. Note-taking software is, pardon the pun, a notable example. The purpose of taking notes is not just to take notes. It's to create records of information you can refer to later to help you do research or develop thoughts. In a paper notebook you can scribble notes and drawings, and you can tear pages out of periodicals -- and, perish the thought, books -- and stick them between the pages. Search involves flipping through the pages to find where you put the note you're looking for. Some people come up with novel page-numbering schemes to help them find things more quickly, but these require making a master list of topics, which is pretty time-consuming.

Leonardo da Vinci gave us a different note-taking paradigm. His notes started in the middle of the page, not the top, where he wrote or illustrated the core theme of that particular page of notes. From there he drew branches out to various main topics, which he then divided visually down into subtopics, drawing illustrations as needed, and drawing connections between ideas where connections needed to be made. His notes illustrated not only the information, but the relationships between different pieces of information. Had he not written everything backward as a mental exercise, it would be easy for anyone to see the "big picture" in his notes.

Recent "mindmapping" software, particularly MindManager from Mindjet, allows the user to adapt Da Vinci's technique to a computer where everything can be freely moved around and reorganized on the fly. But this goes beyond note-taking. The two most prevalent examples of note-taking software are Microsoft OneNote and Evernote, from Evernote Corp.

The first point of comparison is price: Evernote is free, while OneNote is available as part of several different Microsoft Office editions, or standalone for about $79.95. Even though I've long lived the Internet experience, I'm still a believer that free advice is usually worth the price, and the same goes for free software. Evernote, however, does present somewhat of an exception.

[Click on images for larger view.]
Using the Evernote mobile app to take snapshots means photos taken on the device are automatically synchronized to your other connected devices, such as PCs or tablets.

If you wish to remain "old paradigm," Evernote provides a perfectly serviceable note-taking experience. You can create typed notes, audio notes, "ink" notes that allow you to scribble, even "webcam" notes that allow you to record video. Very handy when all you have with you is your smartphone, you need to record a conversation or event, and you're one of those people who have trouble transferring files from your handheld device to your computer. Evernote automatically syncs your recording or other notes to its cloud server. When you get back to your computer, it then syncs your recording or other note to itself. Automatic transfer. Very convenient.

As far as organizing your notes goes, Evernote allows you to create multiple notebooks that you can file different notes in, and also to "tag" notes with keywords that you can later use to search for things.

OK, so I might be the only technologist on the block who just doesn't get the value of investing time in tagging all my notes. The search capability in Evernote is pretty good and can find words within notes. One of my problems with Evernote is that I can only have typed notes on a typed note, or scribbles on an "ink" note, or audio on an audio note. Most of the time, I'd like to mix it up and have typed, recorded and otherwise collected stuff anywhere I'd like, in any of my notes. Evernote just can't do that.

But OneNote can. In fact, OneNote takes information collection and organization to a whole new level.

Notebook Organizer
First of all, OneNote lets you create as many notebooks as you like, organized in whatever fashion you like. Remember five-section spiral notebooks? OneNote not only lets you create as many sections in each notebook as you'd like, it even lets you group those sections so can you get multiple levels of organization. You'll see your notebooks down the left side of the screen, the section groups and section tabs across the top, and the pages down the right side. You can even insert "subpages" under each page. The key point here is that you can organize your notes any way you like, into as many notebooks, section groups, sections, pages and subpages as you'd like. Or you can throw everything into one notebook. We'll talk later about finding things.

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As a component of the Microsoft Office suite, you'd naturally expect OneNote to integrate well with other components of the suite, including Outlook, and OneNote doesn't disappoint. As you're typing madly away in a meeting, you might find you've just been assigned an action item. Don't leave OneNote and try to enter it into your Outlook Tasks. Simply keystroke Ctrl-Alt-1, and whatever line of text your cursor is parked on becomes an Outlook Task Item automatically transferred into Outlook for you. Outlook e-mails and other items can just as easily be imported into OneNote. Text can be highlighted and dragged from Outlook to Word, Excel or PowerPoint. The integration is pretty seamless.

'See' Your Audio Playback
When you record audio you can type notes, and when you go to play back you can click anywhere in your notes and OneNote will play back from where you clicked. For those of us who do interviews and need to review what we missed in certain passages, you can't imagine how much time this saves.

But scribbling, highlighting, recording audio/video and typing are just the beginning. The "Insert" menu includes these features:

  • Insertion of tables, so you can create forms.

  • "Screen Clipping," which lets you "grab" any portion of your computer screen and paste it into whatever page you'd like in whatever section of whatever notebook you'd like, or just to your clipboard.

  • You can easily insert links to other information in your notebooks, or to anywhere on the Web.

  • You can attach files to the page, either as files or as printouts. OneNote includes a print driver so you can actually print Word, Excel, PowerPoint, browser or other documents right onto a OneNote page.

  • You can also scan content onto the page from your scanner.
[Click on images for larger view.]
OneNote became the first Microsoft Office application released for the Apple iPad. The OneNote app is very limited compared to its PC counterpart.

Basically you can capture just about any information from any source onto any page in your notebooks, and combine them with other information to organize your thoughts the way you want.

Search Redefined
Over time, you'll collect many notebooks, each having many sections and pages of information. When you want to find a particular piece of information, you could look it up under the appropriate section of the appropriate notebook, but why bother?

Give OneNote a word to search for, and it will find the word whether it was typed, printed from a document, clipped from a Web site, handwritten or even spoken in a recording. And it will find it astoundingly fast.

Not Just Sharing -- Collaborating
One of the limitations of Evernote is that it only allows you to transfer 60MB per month to its cloud server. You can pay to increase that to 1GB, but there's still no facility for having multiple users share a notebook simultaneously.

OneNote shares notebooks using Microsoft SkyDrive, a free service that allows users to store and share up to 25GB of data. Once subscribed, you merely need to click a link to "Invite people to this notebook," which will then replicate the notebook on SkyDrive, allow you to specify who else may access it, and then send them an e-mail explaining how to link to it. They don't even need to have OneNote on their computer. The free OneNote Web App can be used to access notebooks on SkyDrive.

Once you've shared a notebook on SkyDrive, everyone you've invited can access that notebook simultaneously. As they update pages in the notebook, you'll see their updates show up on your screen, complete with indicators telling you who entered what updates. You can hold a meeting, present the agenda and take notes on the meeting by having everyone enter whatever they wish. This takes collaboration to a whole new level.

The Right Tool for the Job
Evernote is available for Windows, OS X, iOS, Android and other platforms. When I went traveling recently, instead of just opening the camera on my Droid, I opened Evernote. Every picture I took was automatically synced to my computer and waiting for me when I got home, as were the interview recordings I made.

OneNote is currently available for Windows and Windows Phone, naturally, and an iOS version has just been released that still lacks many of the more powerful features that make OneNote so extraordinary. BusinessWare Technologies Inc. took advantage of the lack of OneNote versions for other devices and released MobileNoter for iOS, Android and others, but use requires a paid account on the company's system. With the introduction of the limited iOS version, we'll have to wait and see if Microsoft follows the path it's setting in higher-end products such as System Center, where it has announced that it will include handheld devices from other manufacturers.

If you seek a simple note-transfer tool and you don't expect to transfer a lot of data, Evernote is free and available. If, on the other hand, you want to create an environment in which you can keep, organize, massage, file and find all the different kinds of information you deal with every day, take a closer look at Microsoft OneNote.

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Wed, Apr 17, 2013 Ioannis

OneNote has superior granular tagging. Each paragraph can be tagged independently with one or more tags. On the the other hand Evernote has superior document tagging. Treating each note as a document you can add multiple tags. I use Evernote for managing and tagging my PDF document collection. The build inPDF viewer in Evernote is also quite helpful and compact. I find it much better that OneNote.

Mon, Feb 4, 2013 Jonathan

Onenote can actually be used for free nowadays, with almost full integration of the Microsoft Office suite into Skydrive starting early last year. It also gets a whole lot more useful when you have a smartphone or tablet, as Microsoft has Onenote apps for many mobile OS's, such as iOS, that let you create and edit notes locally or in the cloud.

Fri, Nov 16, 2012 Syed A. Ali

Until Evernote can move forward with the times and come up a better editor for taking notes (Onenote's "write anywhere" feature), it is useless as a note taking app; if I am sitting in a meeting I need to be able to very quickly add a comment, figure, symbol, etc. anywhere within my notes. I love the tagging ability of Evernote (especially how you can organize them) but it is not enough to keep me using Evernote.

Mon, Jul 23, 2012 Peter Harden

I love Evernote, Onenote somehow never got me going, tried it several times and abandoned it again. Can really say why. It comes with office so I already paid for it, but that does not convince me. Anyway I am going for open source now, cause no longer need to pay al lot of money for office products and I want to have my hands free to be able to profit what the new cloud brings. MS ties you down and makes you pay for it. It is the inflexibility that I dislike most. Anyway I am sure most apps offer ample functionality, and its more your own investment than the limitations of the product that creates the real limitations. Both offer more you will use, one is free and open, the other comes with a price tag and a lockin. For me the choice is easy.

Sat, Jun 2, 2012 Danny Hopping

I use both OneNote and Evernote. One note is better as a PC app in most respects except one critical area. Tagging in OneNote is not very useful because you can only add a single tag to each note. This means you can't tag a note with a project name AND tag it for today. This makes tagging only ggod for reference information. It is nearly impossible to use for projects. Evernote, on the other hand, allows multiple tagging and searching using multiple tags to narrow down searches. Not sure what Microsoft is thinking. Such a simple and powerful thing yet they seem to refuse to budge. Hopefully someone will tell the king he has no clothes on.This is a MAJOR limitation to using OneNote for managing project work. It does work well for reference information though. So, until fixed, I use both.

Wed, May 16, 2012

Evernote is really an uninspiring, dull, and not very featureful app. I've used it off and on for a couple of years, but it really just can't compare to OneNote. If MS would only bring a fuller OneNote experience to non-PC devices, it'd really take off.

Sat, May 12, 2012 Dave M

I am not sure that you know how Evernote works. It does have built in OCR (once note has synced to the web). It has had that feature as long as I can remember, and I have been using this app for quite awhile. Evernote is designed to take notes of anything you want to track or remember. To clip many webpages, pictures, documents, PDFs, etc. If I see a restaurant I want to try, I can take a picture of the restaurant sign. This will sync to Evernote with my geolocation. If my phone calendar has an appt. (ex. vacation in Peoria) it will put the geolocation in and 'vacation in Peoria) . If I want to modify a picture I can draw on it with Skitch. Also, since I use Chrome as my browser I can search Google or Bing and simultaneously link to evernote and pull in notes that match the search criteria. I am not giving an extensive use of features. I use Evernote to do my remembering. I can take a note with my phone, my home pc or my work laptop, and I can email a note to my evernote email. All of these notes can be searched from any of those devices, or from any internet connected device that will allow me to log onto the service. That universality is what I want in a note service.

Thu, Mar 8, 2012

I have've used OneNote on my Windows Tablet (running Windows XP, not Win8) and liked it. It's one of the few apps that allows seamless "inking" from a stylus along with keyboard and audio input. But on WinPhone it sucks. Limited features make it almost useless, sync-ing with the tablet or laptop is impossible without going through Skydrive and Zune (which I hate), there is no security in the file transfers so I have to watch what I use it for, and it crashes! When trying to record long-ish lectures, it failed and trashed the entire file system on my WinPhone.

Thu, Mar 8, 2012 KurtGP

Anybody have any feed back about an app that have been using on my Android ICS for about 2 months called SpringPad? I have tried the three others listed above and I like SpringPad the bear thus far. Feel free to comment back with which app works best for you.

Tue, Mar 6, 2012 William Kennedy Australia

I think both products are great and your article was as comprehensive as you could expect. The two things that put OneNote ahead in my opinion is the OCR of images during searches which we use for IT documentation and the collaboration which allows for real time sharing of documentation.

Mon, Mar 5, 2012 TJ Longacre

"One of my problems with Evernote is that I can only have typed notes on a typed note, or scribbles on an "ink" note, or audio on an audio note" Not true.

Mon, Mar 5, 2012 Andy McCann Atlanta

Howard, while I think you did a good job of presenting the strengths (of IMO opinion, the strongest) of the Office applications, you might want to spend a little more time with Evernote. Between it's platform ubiquity and cloud DNA, it's become my de facto personal information cloud. I have gone completely paperless and rest easy at night knowing that I lost everything, I'd still have years of my history backed up and ready to come back down to whichever clients I wish. Seeing that I get 1GB per month, I have over 36GB of data in Evernote and will pick up another 1GB every month until they up the amount again. Something they've done a couple times. All that being said, I'm still a huge OneNote fan and many of my OneNote notes end up in Evernote. Thanks for the write up! Looking forward to seeing more from you.

Sat, Mar 3, 2012 Tom Pittsburgh

The biggest problem I have with OneNote is you MUST use the desktop app. The mobile app, and even the online version that comes with the SkyDrive/Hotmail/Live account is so limited as to make creating notes on the fly pretty much useless. Sure it is great for viewing apps, and you *might* be able to make passable notes away from your laptop/desktop/whatever; but it is just far too restricted. Make the mobile/online app just as powerful, and it will truly be irreplaceable. Otherwise, eh - it's okay for what it is.

Fri, Mar 2, 2012 Kevin

I am a power OneNote user, and after trying Evernote for several months, I am sticking with OneNote. Evernote is ok, but it does not offer some of OneNote's most interesting features. I used OneNote in all my courses in college, including economics. I used the draw features to draw models right into my notebook, and I used the equations features to add econ related equations. The new mobile app is great as well.

Thu, Mar 1, 2012 Mike Kanakos

I thought that you review was a pretty simplistic view of Evernote. I do know that OneNote is powerful but as a heavy Evernote user, I think you definitely did not represent the product to its fullest extent. ..and the space limitations??? 60 MB a month on the free side is something like thousands of notes. Okay start adding attachments and obviously the number goes down. I am a paid user and I have never gone over the limits of what they now include fro free. ..and I have over 3500 notes...

Thu, Mar 1, 2012 Busters

Great article. To be complete you need to mention Outline app, which provides great read only access to OneNote notebooks. It is a great complement to Onenote Mobile as the last cannot display pages as they are on PC, which makes it not that useful for serious work

Thu, Mar 1, 2012 Donna M.

I just installed Microsoft OneNote on my Android phone, then discovered that the free version limits you to 500 notes, and after that you will be prompted to upgrade. Based on that, I will stick to Evernote unless I need to collaborate on something because I already have over 500 notes in Evernote.

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