A Second Round with OneNote for iPad

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I’ve given OneNote another shot over the past few months, using it both at work and at home for tracking receipts and personal thoughts. I’ve written about OneNote before, but I don’t think I really gave it a fair shake, so I moved 2000 notes over to the service to really determine whether or not I could adapt to the service. Unfortunately, the answer is still no, but I have a more detailed idea of why.

In OneNote We Trust

OneNote has been around for years, but it was only in the past few that it became a free product. You don’t have to pay for any monthly plans because the app just uses space in your Microsoft OneDrive, and there’s more than enough space with a free OneDrive account that it’s indistinguishable from unlimited for most users. Microsoft is so large, and OneNote such a core product, that I really do feel like I can trust in the service to stick around for the foreseeable future. That factor is a big deal when thinking about which note app to invest in: with platforms coming and going, where will your cache of notes still be accessible in four or five years? With OneNote, Microsoft has built up enough trust with me that the answer feels like a pretty safe “Yes”.

The Draw of OneNote

The reason I looked at OneNote initially was that, on paper, it shared many of the same features as Evernote. It syncs across platforms, takes rich text, images and files, and supports multiple notebooks for different kinds of notes (personal vs. work). Those were some of the most important features to me in Evernote, and it was encouraging to see them in OneNote.

But what made me most curious about Microsoft’s offering was the freeform note-taking. OneNote is simply unrivalled in the flexibility it allows. It’s really like a smart piece of paper that treats different forms of digital media very well. The moment you start typing on the screen, you’re basically creating a resizeable text box. You can make the margins really wide, or you can make them very narrow to make a thin column of text.

That alone is already pretty novel, because you can start to structure your notes visually, if you’re inclined to. But the power of OneNote really comes through when you start combining text with media and drawings. You can insert files beside the text, and even insert drawings to highlight or elaborate on specific paragraphs of text. This works well for little scribbles about what your next video might be about, but it’s amazing for more detailed notes. OneNote allows you to basically format little documents, but still have them searchable as if you were in any other notes app. I’ve used this a few times, like during one of my first times playing Dungeons & Dragons. I could map out which spells my character could cast, which ones I had used up, and how much health I had in the game. We did have paper clipboards as well, but I liked the idea of using OneNote as a digital clipboard that could also capture images of my spell library.

The thing is, aside from that standout experience, I haven’t really been taking advantage of OneNote’s formatting powers. They are amazing, but I just don’t really need them in my day-to-day. Mixed media notes that just scroll vertically, which Evernote and Apple Notes provide, are enough for me.

Can’t Wrap My Head Around OneNote Notebooks

Before going into this second round with OneNote, I knew that my biggest issue from my first time around was the sorting of notes. OneNote sorts notebooks by Date Created, and not by Date Modified. This means that, with a list of hundreds of notes, my newest notes are always going to be at the bottom of the current section.

I tried to work around this by splitting up my notes into various sections in OneNote. Personal notes from 2011 through 2016 where each placed into their own notebook sections, and I also made new sections for notes that would previously have been tagged “gear” or “receipt”, since OneNote doesn’t support tags in the same way Evernote does. However, even after sub-dividing my notes, I couldn’t help but feel lost within my own sections of notes.

This feeling was compounded by the way search behaves. When you activate search in OneNote, you’ll see a small sub-window for all the results that match. Tapping on one of the results will take you straight to the section containing that note. This is expected behaviour, but it also means that, as I search for different notes over the course of the day, it’s very easy to lose track of my place. If I simply want to see my recently created notes in that section, I have to scroll all the way back down to the end of the list. This process repeats each time I start to search.

Square Peg, Round Hole

At a certain point in the past week, I decided I was really just forcing things. OneNote is not a bad solution, but it really doesn’t fit the way I think. It does have a “Recent Notes” section in the sidebar, but this section displays all notes, and not just the ones in my current notebook or section — and that’s just not how I want to see my notes. The way that Apple Notes and Evernote organize things just jives better with me. So unless OneNote makes a fundamental change to the way they organize notes (e.g. allowing you to sort by date modified in notebook sections), this is likely the last time I try their product out. I took about three months in total to try out Apple Notes and OneNote, but it’s about time for me to return to Evernote.

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2 thoughts on “A Second Round with OneNote for iPad”

  1. if you click “Edit”, you can drag the notes up and down the side bar, so you can reposition the last note you made to the top of the list. Bit of a faff, would be better if most recent was automatically on top, which makes much more sense.

    You seem to have missed using the pencil on iPadPro for note taking – this I find is absolutely killer. I can draw and write during meetings but on an infinitely large piece of paper. I’ve given up on Molskines. And what’s absolutely amazing – onenote will search on your writing!

    This is also and extremely handy way of giving presentations – just plug iPadPro into a projector, open OneNote and you have an interactive white board.. and if you’re being presented to, then you can take photos of the slides and annotate them in real time using the pencil.

    I’m not an MS fan, but frankly it knocks Apple’s Notes app into a cocked hat.

    1. Hey Neil,
      I do know about the manual re-ordering, but it’s not something I want to keep doing on a regular basis to keep recently modified notes at the fore.

      I did do some Pencil drawing and emphasizing of text, but I never got around to using it as a full note book replacement because of the way notes were organized. I do not disagree with you, though, OneNote does do a great of of acting as an infinite digital notebook.

      I don’t have many presentations like the ones you discussed, but my sister used OneNote extensively for this exact purpose. It’s a fantastic classroom tool, just not a good daily notebook for me.

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