OneNote vs. Evernote

Since December 2010, I’ve been a paying customer of Evernote. Cloud-based notes were a revelation for me at the time; anywhere accessibility to the stuff I put there has, over the years, proved invaluable. For me, Evernote was my container of choice for meeting notes, song ideas, PDFs of owner’s manuals, photos of wine labels I didn’t want to forget, and all manner of other things I just wanted to put someplace other than on a piece of paper or a in a notebook.

But my friendship with Evernote, like friendships can, has become strained. We just don’t click the way we used to; we don’t see things the same way. In short, I’ve moved on.

When Evernote and I were closer friends, it excelled at making things accessible, not just by virtue of having both web and native app access across laptops, tablets and phones, but also by the fact that it did such a superb job of indexing things and making them searchable. Even handwritten notes, scanned into Evernote, we magically transformed (albeit spottily due to my abysmal handwriting) into machine-searchable text.

The problem with Evernote from the very beginning is one that persists to this day: an uneven, disjointed user experience. While Evernote continues to add features and capabilities, it would appear that nearly no time has been spent improving and unifying the user experience. While there’s a family resemblance between the web version, the Windows version, the Mac version, and the mobile (smartphone and tablet) versions, a family resemblance is about all there is. Each has a different appearance, a different way of working, and different capabilities. About the only thing in common is Evernote’s brand color (green)—and my particular notebook structure and the notes inside them. It’s an opportunity that has been missed.

I’ve put-up with all this because frankly, there just hasn’t been a viable opportunity. Or, more accurately, I hadn’t found one yet. Now, I have: Microsoft OneNote.

The last time I touched OneNote was on Windows shortly after it was first introduced. To say I was unimpressed was an understatement. But I recently took another look, and I’m glad I did.

  • First, OneNote and the cloud storage that makes it work across platforms is already included in an Office 365 subscription, and I’ve been paying for the Home version of that for well over a year now. I never would have expected Microsoft to go cross-platform; their Mac software versions have been substandard for years. Suddenly, they’ve made everything work for Windows and Mac on full platforms, and iOS, Android, and Windows Phone on mobile and tablet, and moreover, you can use any of them you want from a single subscription. I chose the Home subscription, which lets me install the full desktop/laptop software on up to five devices, and an unlimited number of mobile or tablet devices, for one low, monthly fee. (It also delivers a full terabyte of online cloud storage for each of up to five people in my household, as well as a monthly allotment of Skype-to-phone minutes.) That ubiquity and accessibility is essential today, and the value makes the subscription a no-brainer.
  • Second, Microsoft has done an outstanding job of creating a consistent user experience across all those platforms. Sure, a smartphone app and a full desktop application are not going to have the same set of capabilities, nor is the usage paradigm the same. But having things look more or less the same, and having things function in a predictable and natural manner is also essential, and where Evernote has failed on this front, Microsoft has not. OneNote is visually attractive and reasonably intuitive no matter which version you’re running. (I’d argue that it’s the Windows version that—oddly enough—is the clunkiest, but it still is an enjoyable experience to use.)
  • Finally, Microsoft’s ability to do everything Evernote does (or at least everything I need it to) means that I have little incentive to keep my notes on Evernote, other than the migration pain.

That last point briefly held me back, and I wish Microsoft would come-up with a native way to migrate from Evernote. Where there’s a gap, there’s an opportunity, and there is an open source migration tool for Windows. It’s horribly clunky and time-consuming, but it’s free, and as I write this article, I’ve managed to get through the majority of the migration, one Evernote notebook at a time. Perhaps Microsoft or some third party will come-up with something better eventually.

In any case, OneNote (as I said) does virtually everything Evernote does, but it goes a few steps farther. The free-form formatting allows the product to work more like a conventional notebook, as does the support for drawing annotations (where touch capabilities are available). I also like the structure better; Evernote uses a two-level structure (notebooks and notes), whereas OneNote’s is three-level: notebook, tabs, notes. Evernote’s “stacks” seem similar, but frankly just don’t stack-up.

I’m constantly wanting to better segment my note taking—personal vs. work notes is just one example—and because of the way OneNote handles that, I can just keep my work notebook open on my work computer, and my personal notebook open on my personal one, and keep my personal information off my computer-issued work machine. Evernote, on the other hand, forces me to sync everything, everywhere—not ideal, especially given that all the local data on my work computer is backed-up to company servers. The only way around this with Evernote was to create a second basic Evernote account, and share m own work notebooks with that second user. Ridiculous, honestly.

Honestly, I never thought I could be so enthusiastic about a Microsoft product, but OneNote is one of many surprises the company is delivering. Maybe getting Steve Ballmer out of the CEO’s chair was a great idea after all.