I take a lot of notes. Some of them are little scribbles with just a title, whereas others are more involved documents with attachments, links, and ordered lists. I like to keep these notes digital because of how easily I can sort them and find them, even years later. This isn’t just a hypothetical advantage either. When called upon to train a new teammate at work I brought up notes from 2013 that fully explained our invoicing process, step by step.
I take the vast majority of my notes within Evernote, but I took a little time in August to try out OneNote. That experiment concluded pretty quickly, but not before I, well, took a few notes on the process.
I tried OneNote out for a spin because of its perceived flexibility: freeform text layout, images, and drawing. It also ticked many of the same boxes as Evernote:
- multi platform support
- attachment support
- rich text formatting
- seamless syncing
It seemed really promising at the outset.
Attachments and Layout
One of the coolest things about OneNote is its attachment support. It’s so much easier to view images and PDFs because it feels like the app was designed with that usage in mind. Files can be renamed or printed from a custom pop-up bar, and it’s always easy to open embedded files. Evernote, in contrast, can only open files when you’re viewing a note (if the keyboard is activated, you’ll have to dismiss it first).
Then there is OneNote’s major advantage: layout. This is an app that makes it really easy to create beautiful, presentation-worthy notes. Imported images live right beside drawings and files, and it’s easy to mark up my own files at any time with a highlighter. Tables are also handled beautifully, and they look clean across all platforms. Don’t even get me started on the sorry state of tables within Evernote.
Tags + Notebooks > Notebooks + Sections
Unfortunately, I just couldn’t get used to the way the app wanted to organize my files: chronologically, with the newest files at the bottom of a section. For those that aren’t familiar with the app, OneNote organizes notes by Notebook and Section. Notebooks act like folders and sections are sub-folders within a notebook. A single note can only be in one section at any time (they don’t operate like tags in OS X or Evernote).
OneNote seems built for having large notebooks, but smaller individual sections with fewer notes. Each notebook is a single file which can be specifically downloaded to a device. Evernote operates with notebooks and tags, but each note is an individual file. My Evernote setup uses few notebooks with hundreds of notes in each one, and so I quickly ran into issues with scrolling through those notes within OneNote. The lists were just too long.
I tried to work around this by splicing my personal notes into sections organized by year (2008, 2009, 2010, etc.). However, I still felt I was missing one crucial piece of context that Evernote would provide: the modification date of the notes I was scrolling by. OneNote shows this when you tap on a note, but there’s no metadata shown in the list view. If I’m scrolling through a whole year’s worth of notes, it’s really helpful to see whether I’m viewing notes from April or August.
OneNote does have options for viewing recent notes and manually re-ordering notes within a notebook, but this required too great an overhaul of my system. It took a few days to import everything into OneNote and I didn’t have the patience after that to divide my notes into sections, just to work around limitation in the app. If I had started off using OneNote, I don’t think the sections would have been as much of an issue.
Search is the obvious other workaround for overcoming the limitations of sections in OneNote, but it didn’t feel powerful enough. I liked that I could limit search to a section or notebook, but the search syntax seems limited. Evernote allows me to search for notes with specific tags and files within them, which really helps to narrow things down when you have over 2000 notes. That wasn’t possible in OneNote on the iPad.
I’ll admit that the above complaints are subjective. Although I’m really used to the way that Evernote presents things, I’m also good at adjusting to different systems given a little time. However, I never got to that point with OneNote because it was just too slow to sync for me.
I found it difficult to tell when notes had been updated with the latest edits, and there wasn’t a status bar or icon that indicated that a given note (or section) had not fully loaded yet. I was patient with this process, too. I set the iPad up at a charger, turned off auto-sleep, and just let OneNote sync overnight. It turns out that OneNote can only sync one section at a time, and you need to manually switch sections to initiate downloads.
The contrast to Evernote here is quite extreme. I can get a new device up and running with Evernote in about 10-15 minutes, with all of my notes downloaded straight to the device and accessible offline. I hit a lot of loading screens in my time with OneNote, and that really slowed me down.
OneNote looks really appealing in screenshots because it can create such beautiful notes; it’s much like a notebook-sized version of MS Word in that sense. The splitting of notes into Notebooks and Sections seems good for projects, but wasn’t or flexible for the way I organize my personal notes.
I think of notes as ideas that can be applied to multiple categories, so tags are really valuable in that regard. A note featuring the AustriAlpin Cobra Buckle has to do with my shopping list and my design ideas, so it’s useful to have tags for both. Helpful people on Twitter pointed out that I could use plain text tags within notes, but I’ve decided I don’t like to use those any more. I like to pick tags out using a graphical interface, instead of specifying them solely through search. In the end, however, it was sync that really killed it. Evernote does mess syncing up sometimes, but I found it far faster and more reliable across Windows, Mac, and iOS than OneNote’s implementation.
If anything, this experiment with OneNote showed me more of what I want out of Evernote: better note formatting. Microsoft has a great way of turning chicken scratch notes into great, readable documents, and I’d love to be able to do more of that within Evernote. Fortunately, it looks like that is exactly the direction that Evernote is heading.