What’s the king of the note-taking apps?
There are two leading contenders for the crown: Microsoft’s OneNote and the independent Evernote. Launched in 2003, OneNote was added to Microsoft Office in 2007 and is now bundled with Windows 10 and also offered for free as a standalone product. Evernote launched in 2008 and has enjoyed steadily increasing user numbers since then; the company now says it has 225 million users worldwide. (Microsoft hasn’t released user numbers for OneNote, but between Office and Windows 10, more than a billion users likely have a version of it installed on their machines.)
OneNote and Evernote are available for all the major desktop and mobile OSes, they can each sync your notes to all of your devices and the web, and both promise to be the only note-taking app you need. But they also have some very distinct differences. So which is better for business users?
I’m a longtime user of both applications, so I’ve taken a look at the latest version of each for Windows, macOS, iPad, iPhone and Android. This isn’t a deep-dive review, but rather a personal look at what I like and don’t much like about each — and the main points of difference between the two. I spend more time on the Windows version of each, but I’ll note similarities and differences in other versions as well.
Note that there are two versions of OneNote for Windows: a desktop app and a Windows 10 app, also known as a Universal Windows Platform (UWP) app. As I write this, the desktop version, although available for free as a separate download, is not included with Office 2019 or Office 365. That’s because Microsoft had planned to kill the desktop app and focus instead on the UWP app. However, the company changed course in late 2019, announcing that it will continue to add new features to desktop version of OneNote and that the desktop version will once again be included with Office 365 as of March 2020. In this review, I look at the desktop version of OneNote, because the UWP app has far fewer features.
OneNote: A great way to get organized
OneNote is 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, Android devices and the web.
OneNote offers top-notch tools for creating notes from scratch and organizing them intelligently. (Click any image in this story to enlarge it.)
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 notes about your sales staff, you could have a Sales Staff notebook, then section groups for each salesperson, and within each of those section groups there might be sections for each of their customers. Within each of those customer sections, you could have individual pages, with notes about the salesperson’s relationship with them, and include links to sales figures.
OneNote is gradually becoming more integrated with the rest of the Office 365 suite. For instance, every team in Microsoft Teams gets a shared OneNote notebook where they can collaborate on 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 a browser add-on called the OneNote Web Clipper for Microsoft Edge, Internet Explorer, Chrome, and Firefox. Note that you need to sign in to the extension with a Microsoft account to use it.
The OneNote Web Clipper interface is generally the same in all browsers. When you’re on a web page from which you want to clip content, click the Clip to OneNote icon in the browser’s toolbar and choose to clip the entire page, a section of the page (click and drag to select it), or just the article in a simple-to-read format without ads and other distractions. You can also save the page as a bookmark. Once you decide the kind of clip you want, you can save it directly to any OneNote notebook.
The OneNote browser add-on lets you clip an entire web page, a section of the page or a simplified article and save your clipping in OneNote.
The web clipper has some problems, though. It is frequently temperamental and flaky when trying to capture full-page clips. In some instances, it captures a link to the page instead of the page itself. In other instances, it won’t even do that, and instead displays an error message that reads, “No content found. Try another clipping mode.” When it does manage to capture an entire page, it sometimes overlays content with other content, making the page difficult to read. And for heavy pages, such as those with video on them, you’ll have to wait several seconds for the full preview to load before you can click the Clip button.
What’s more, if you capture the full page or a region of a page, the clip is saved as a graphic image only, so that any links or multimedia elements on the page don’t work. You can add your own text above and below that image, but you can’t edit the content shown in the image.
The clipper did a better job of capturing articles instead of the entire page, although it doesn’t capture video when you use this option. When you capture clips this way, the links on them work, and you can edit the text as you can any other kind of text, including deleting it, copying it, adding to it, changing its formatting and so on.
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 eight Ribbon tabs — File, Home, Insert, Draw, History, Review, View and Help — each of which gives you access to plenty of features. (To save screen space, you can press Ctrl-F1 to make the Ribbon commands underneath the tabs disappear or reappear later.) The File tab lets you open, print, share and export files; change settings; and more. 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.
In OneNote’s Windows app, the Office Ribbon offers the full suite of OneNote’s tools.
The Draw tab has the usual drawing tools, while History helps you collaborate with others, showing you other users’ recent edits and comments, and so on. Review includes familiar Office features including a spell checker, a thesaurus and a translation tool. 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, and Help lets you search for help information, contact tech support and give feedback to Microsoft. Evernote has nothing approaching this array of 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 as the Windows version, although with fewer features. (The Mac version has more capabilities than does the iPad version.) They have only four tabs across the top: Home, Insert, Draw 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 formatting and other capabilities of the Windows version. (The iPad doesn’t have as many capabilities.) Other tabs have fewer features — notably the Insert tab. There, the Mac and iPad versions allow you to insert a number basic items such as tables, pictures, files, links, PDFs, equations, and the date and time. You can also record audio and take screenshots (on the Mac) or photos (with the iPad’s camera) and insert those. But you can’t insert spreadsheets, online pictures or videos, or record video as you can with the Windows version.
The web version of OneNote features the tabbed design as the Windows, Mac and iPad versions, with the same basic feature set as the Mac and iPad versions. It also lets you open a page or notebook in the client version of OneNote on the device on which you’re working, if the device has OneNote installed.
The Android tablet version looks and works much like the iPad version, with Home, Insert, Draw and View tabs, although it’s not as fully featured. For example, the Insert tab only lets you insert pictures, audio, to-do items, tags and links.
The iPhone version of OneNote features a simple-to-navigate, stripped-down interface.
The interface for iPhones and Android phones is much simpler than on PCs or tablets. 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 limited screen real estate on phones, and it’s built mainly for quick-and-dirty note taking or checking your existing notes.
Storage and pricing
OneNote syncs its content among all of your devices and to the web via Microsoft OneDrive. If you buy the non-subscription version of Office or use the free OneNote app, you get up to 5GB of cloud storage space for everything including your OneNote content, although you can buy additional storage space. If you or your organization pays for an Office 365 subscription, you get much more storage — 1TB to 6TB, depending on the version you buy. Businesses get 1TB of storage per user. (Here are the various plans for OneDrive storage for personal and business use.)
Evernote: The best web-clipping tool you can find
Evernote is a completely different beast than OneNote. Although it offers the same basic functionality — the ability to create, organize and sync notes among multiple platforms, including Windows PCs, Macs, iPads and iPhones, Windows Phones, Android devices and the web — 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; click or tap Notebooks to see list of all of your notebooks, and then click or tap each individual notebook to see all of its notes in a scrollable list. If you prefer, you can tap All Notes at the top of the screen to see all of your notes in a scrollable list, 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 main 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 find 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, and you can embed tables, files and pictures in your notes; use electronic “ink” on them if you have a touch device with a pen; and record audio and video as part of your notes. You can also set reminders on notes, with dates you’d like to receive email and in-app notifications. It’s a reasonable selection but doesn’t include OneNote’s advanced features, such as reviewing the edits of others.
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 add-on for Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, Microsoft Edge, Safari, and Opera; the exact features vary somewhat from browser to browser. In general, I’ve found the Chrome version to be the most robust, able to handle even the most complex web pages.
Evernote’s exemplary clipping tool runs as a browser add-on and lets you capture content using a variety of options.
With most browsers, when you’re on a page from which you want to capture content, click the Evernote icon in the toolbar 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
- capturing only the content of a Gmail message (available only in Chrome, Safari, and Opera)
When you clip something from the web, you can also add tags and notes. And you can choose which notebook you want to add the content to or create a new notebook on the fly. In addition, the clipper has markup tools when you capture screenshots, so that you can annotate what you’re capturing by adding text, highlighting, arrows, drawing on it, and so on. In your browser after you save a clip, you’ll see a Share button that lets you share the note with colleagues or share a link to the original source via email or social media.
Once you’ve captured the content, you can do more with it. When you open the note in Evernote, the text is live — you can copy it, paste to it, edit it, change the formatting and so on. The links are live as well, so that you can click any link and have it open in your browser. Any multimedia on the page, such as video, isn’t live, though — click it and you’re sent to the original page you captured.
The differences among versions
Evernote sports a similar look and feel across its Windows, Mac and web apps, with the iPad looking somewhat different. In the desktop and web apps, click the Notebooks icon on the left side of the screen, and your notebooks show up in an alphabetical list. Click any notebook to see a scrollable list of its notes; click a note to see it. You can also create shortcuts to particular notebooks and notes, then click the star icon in the left-hand navigation to see them all.
The web version of Evernote lets you see a long, scrollable list of all your notes, and also lets you quickly switch to a notebook.
On the iPad version, you tap a down arrow at the top left of the screen to see the list of notebooks. Tap a notebook to see its notes.
Evernote’s iPhone app makes it easy to quickly search through your notes via the Search box at the top of the screen.
The Android and iPhone apps are similar to one another — they represent each note as part of a scrollable list of rectangular cards; each card has the note title on top and any pictures from the note displayed on it. Like the web version, the mobile apps offer the Shortcuts feature.
It’s worth noting that Evernote is working on improving the service’s infrastructure and making its interface more consistent across platforms. There’s a beta version of the web app available that debuts a few new features, including a new to-do list format that makes it easier to see at a glance which items have been completed.
Storage and pricing
The basic version of Evernote is free, but it limits you to adding 60MB of new notes a month, lets you sync between only two devices, and doesn’t include advanced features. There are Premium and Business subscriptions available, which have differing features such as whether you can turn notes into presentations; search inside PDFs and attachments; integrate with other software and services such as Slack, Outlook and Salesforce; and perform team collaboration. Premium, meant for individuals, costs $8 a month and lets you upload 10GB per month. Business costs $15 per user per month and includes 20GB per user plus an additional shared 2GB per user.
Although Evernote and OneNote are both note-taking tools, they 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 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, or if you’re a heavy Office 365 user, 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 both free (at least for the basic version of Evernote), it gives me the best of both worlds.
This article was originally published in March 2014 and most recently updated in January 2020.
Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.