OneNote To Rule Them All

I’m a recent convert to Evernote. I’ve never quite understood the appeal of the service, because it seems like a dumping ground for content that will inevitably get lost, but I was willing to give it a whirl for a few different scenarios.

Overall, my one month experiment with Evernote was a success. I even signed up to be premium. I created Notebooks to store images related to couches we were looking to be. I have a Glassboard notebook with random notes, images, and other bits of info related to the future of the service. I also began using Evernote as a destination of presentation slides I wanted to peruse when I had a few free moments.

The success of something like Evernote is its ecosystem of apps. To become “locked in” to a product like Evernote, it has to be ubiquitous with every platform you care about. It’s not enough to just have an iPhone app and a web app. You need iOS, Android, Windows, Windows Phone, and the web. 1Password is another product that succeeds at this. They’re seemingly everywhere, except the Blackberry.

While I have been using Evernote, I haven’t been happy using Evernote. It’s an incredibly powerful service, but it’s apps leave much to be desired. The Mac app is a mishmash of different visual styles, text sizes and odd bugs. The iPhone app is a bit better visually, but its one of the slower performing apps on any of my devices.

When Microsoft announced OneNote was available for the Mac yesterday, I quickly jumped at the opportunity to download the free app from the Mac App Store.

Sidenote: a major app from Microsoft given away for free on Apple’s proprietary App Store. The times are a changin’.

Satya’s Hierarchy of Notes

OneNote is similar to Evernote in some ways, but different in many others. The concept of Notebooks exists between both services, but OneNote allows you to create different “sections” inside your notebook and then attach pages to those specific sections. Evernote, by comparison, is just a single dumping ground for all the content in either notebook.

It’s hard to say which of these is better since everyone works differently. I personally resonate with the more structured organization of OneNote’s hierarchy. I’ve thus far created three notebooks in OneNote: Glassboard, Second Gear, and Personal.

Thus far, the Personal notebook is most interesting. I’ve broken it down into a few different sections.

  • “Home” is a dumping ground for random notes that don’t really fit anywhere else (To Read, To Investigate, Groceries).
  • “Financials” has receipts and other tax related info I need to keep track of.
  • “carpeaqua” is for any in-progress posts for this site. I have a different page for each post idea and its content.

“Lawn + Garden” is another section in my Personal notebook. I’ve become a bit obsessed recently with fixing the lawn and beddings at my new home this spring. I create a different page for each person’s advice I’ve received, archived web pages of useful info, and tools and toys I want to buy this spring.

Ubiquity & Sync

Evernote has their own dedicated backend service for storing your stash of notes and clips. OneNote piggy backs off of Microsoft’s OneDrive cloud storage service. If you install the OneDrive app on your Mac (also available from the Mac App Store), you’ll see each OneNote notebook in the Documents folder as just a standard website location file, much like if you dragged a site’s address from Safari’s address bar to your desktop.

Double-clicking that file opens OneNote.com to the document, which is weird compared to just opening the file in the OneNote app.

Since all your content is synced to OneDrive, there are apps on all the major platforms you care about: iPhone, iPad, Android, Windows, Windows Phone, and the web.

The iOS app is serviceable, but is still waiting for its iOS 7 update. Functionality wise it’s also fairly clunky compared to Evernote’s iOS app, which is saying a lot.

Creating new content in OneNote for iOS is a much bigger pain than Evernote, which conveniently has buttons for Text, Photo, Camera, Reminder, and List right at the top of its list view so you can easily create a specific type of note. OneNote instead creates a blank document and then has a toolbar along the bottom with small buttons to insert different types of content into the note.

Advantage Evernote. By a mile.

Mac App

Where OneNote shines and what got me to even try this experiment is the Mac app. On the surface, the app is really well done. It takes a lot of queues from Microsoft’s Ribbon metaphor for toolbar layouts, but I believe it’s done in a tasteful way. Yeah, it’s information overload compared to a standard OS X toolbar, but at least it feels like it belongs.

The OneNote Mac app, lets you insert content freeform wherever you want in a note. You can insert a table next to an image, with a todo list above it. I’m pretty positive that the app is using Word’s text processing engine rather than the standard OS X one (the custom dictionary settings in the Preferences is a big hint).

With the Word text processing engine you get some neat features, but you also get a lot of wonkiness you’re likely not used to. For instance, I tried to copy/paste an HTML page I had imported into Evernote to OneNote. The app inserted it as a big pile of gibberish and garbage text. Not even raw HTML tags. Just junk text.

Outside of that though, its a well done 1.0. Keyboard shortcuts feel natural. Data input is quick and works well. And there are so many different data detector types supported by OneNote that’s important.

The visual cues of giving different notebooks and sections inside them color codes is a nice touch that really helps separate content and allows me to match the styles I already use on Google Calendar. I keep personal related stuff green, work blue, and travel yellow.

Clipper

One of the new features with this new OneNote release across all platforms is their new Clipper bookmarklet, which will take any web page you clip and insert it into your QuickNote notebook.

It works, but it’s lacking compared to the Evernote clipper. For one, pages that are clipped into OneNote are imported as static images rather than actual HTML like Evernote does. I believe OneNote is doing some server-side processing to detect words in the document so that it’s still searchable, but it’s far less functional and reliable than having actual text from the document in the note itself.

There’s also no ability to select which notebook or section you want to clip directly into. It goes to your QuickNote notebook, and you will like it.

API

If you’re a developer and you’re ever asked to do work with the Evernote platform, I am so sorry. As powerful as their consumer product is, their developer offering is shit. I’ve yet to meet an iOS or OS X developer that has shared a good experience integrating Evernote sharing into their apps. The Evernote API wrapper for iOS is autogenerated from Thrift and is a beast of messy, nearly unreadable code. It also supports its own unique HTML-ish language for wrapping a notes content before insertion.

OneNote now has an API and just by existing I will conclude that it’s better than Evernote’s developer offering. The OneNote API is a familiar REST implementation and hosts example code for Android, iOS, and Windows on GitHub. I have a few nitpicks on the iOS code that OneNote’s developer team provided, but compared to Evernote I was able to understand it and pick up their platform infinitely faster.

To create new content in OneNote through their API you just post Plain Jane HTML to one of their endpoints.

Is it as powerful as Evernote’s current API iterations? Probably not? Is it easier to use? By a mile. I’ll take simplicity and ease of use over complexity any day.

TODO

OneNote has been around as a product for nearly a decade. As a Mac user, OneNote is a 1.0 and it shows. It’s a really well done 1.0, but there are some missing features and functionalities that impact my workflow.

The biggest is the lack of drag-and-drop. If you have an image you want to insert into a OneNote page, good luck dragging it from your desktop and into the app. The only way is to go to the Insert menu and insert it using a standard OS X open panel. It works, but oh so clunky.

The same can be said for dragging and dropping a document into a OneNote document. This is seemingly impossible. As I mentioned before, I like to use Evernote as a one-stop PDF store for presentation documents, receipts, and other bits of information. This doesn’t seem to be possible with the current incarnation of OneNote.

Finally, lock-in is a concern. There’s no way to import or export your data from OneNote into a format that makes me feel good and safe about my data not being lost into a single vendor’s product forever.

On iOS there’s even more work to do. Getting data into an stashbox app like Evernote or OneNote easily is paramount on mobile. Creating a new document in the right notebook in OneNote on iOS is far more difficult than it should be. There’s also no way to move a page from a your QuickNote section to any other notebook, which feels like a major missing piece of functionality.

So….which one?

This is where I’m conflicted.

From a technical workflow stance, Evernote still reigns supreme as a predominantly Mac and iOS user. The apps are more full-featured and support getting any sort of content into them with ease.

From a “this is how my brain works” stance, OneNote and me are getting along a lot better than Evernote.

I’m leaning towards sticking with OneNote for the next few months and seeing where Microsoft takes it.

My biggest concern with OneNote for Mac is that Microsoft lets it languish for years in between updates like they do the rest of their Office lineup for the Mac. It’s been nearly four years since Office:mac has seen a major update. The iPhone 4 was released in the same timeframe.

Microsoft can easily prove me wrong by improving the app on a regular basis, but there’s an inherent risk with jumping on a new-to-me platform such as OneNote, that I’ll look back six months from now and realize what a horrible idea this was.

I’m willing to make that bet. Don’t let me down, Satya.

About Justin

Justin Williams is the Crew Chief of Second Gear. He writes about consumer technology, running a bootstrapped software business, and more from Denver, Colorado.

Follow @justin on Twitter or get new articles via @carpeaqua.