Reviewing Notes Applications — Part 1: Microsoft Onenote

In my previous post I attempted to run through the criteria I think are important in choosing a note taking application and I outlined my plan to apply those criteria in reviews of the following apps.

  • Onenote

Following some feedback — I’ve added Google Keep to the list as well. This week, we are going to dive right in with Microsoft Onenote. I’m going to run through the criteria and follow the order and pattern given in my previous post.

Before I start however, I need to say that I am not sure where Onenote is going as an app. Microsoft have chopped and changed their approach quite a bit in previous years and some die hard Onenote users I follow are even questioning if this is the end of the app. So, whilst I will continue with the review — if you aren’t a Onenote user at the moment, I’d avoid for now. Let’s dive in.

Microsoft Onenote

A note taking apllication from Microsoft that is available on ever kind of device you can think. It’s basic structure is follows the structure of Notebook → Section Group → Section → Page → Subpage. There are different features available depending on which platform you are on. The basic note is based upon a canvas idea and you can place objects whereever you want on that canvas. The objects can be images, files, text, things you draw etc etc. The notebooks are actually a specific type of file stored within Microsoft Onedrive.

This shows Onenote for Windows 10

Onenote has a few different versions available for computer devices. Being a Microsoft Application, obviously the Windows versions are better. Previously there were two versions, Onenote 2016 and Onenote for Windows 10. Both are free. Both are being rolled into Onenote 2019/2021/etc which will now come as part of Microsoft 365. I am unclear as to whether or not this version of Onenote will be available for free seperately to that.

Functional Criteria

As previously mentioned, a notes app has 4 basic functions, and against these we look to measure any contenders.

Capturing notes — getting stuff into it

One of the themes for Onenote as we go through will be “this varies depending on your platform and version”.

Quick Capture

For those short little snippets of thought or ideas. The best way to do this with Onenote is on Android. The Android version has an option for a little Onenote bubble that displays over the top of you home screen and any apps you might be useing, pressing it brings up a box you can type in and then save it as a note. It is lightning fast and always available.

The ‘bubble’ on Android

It can be annoying that it displays over the top of everything though so you might not want to use it. Without this, there are wigdets that enable you to capture multiple different types of information with a tap. This is good. On computer devices it is a mixed back. Onenote 2016 had a global keyboard shortcut to bring up a sticky note that you could type in which would then stay on your desktop and appear in a ‘feed’ on the right hand side of the app when it was open. On Onenote for Windows 10 and on Mac, you need to open the app and create a new note in the normal way.

Web Clipper

This is pretty good for saving bookmarks or a text only ‘article’ clip but to clip a full page you only get what is effectively a screenshot of the page saved as an image. It’s perfectly serviceable but as web clippers go, it’s one of the least useful.

Other capture methods

You can e-mail things in which is really good. Anything you e-mail to me@onenote.com from an email address you designate will show up in your default notebook and section. It does a pretty good job too. If you use the windows version of Microsoft Outlook and have Onenote 2016 (and I presume later iterations of this) then there is a button that converts the email to a note extremely well.

Overall, I’d say this is pretty good but compared to other applications, it is not the best. The variation between devices and the relatively poor web clipper let it down.

Editing and formatting — actually writing, formatting and laying things out

Again, this depends a lot on the version you are using. In terms of ease and features the 2016 etc version for Windows are the best, Onenote for Windows 10 is good but with slightly less options available. Onenote for Mac is good but has even fewer options. Android Tablet versions are good, as long as you have a keyboard and phone versions are pretty poor.

I like the canvas approach very much but in all honesty, it is totally unuseable. In a former job I used Onenote on my desktop PC with a widescreen monitor. Notes I created that fit the screen here did not work on my Macbook with a smaller screen, that could only display a proportion of the canvas. On my tablet with it’s 10 inch screen, even less and then on my phone — unreadable. On the android phone version, the only formatting version you have are bold, italic underline etc. No colours. So very basic.

But, what you can do with a consistent screen size is pretty impressive. Your objects, whatever they may be can be moved around anywhere on the canvas. You can draw on it, create tables, lists etc. The tables can even be sorted. The feature set on a Windows machine is second to none in the notetaking app market, like combining the basics of Word, powerpoint, publisher and excel. It’s fantastic, but it doesn’t translate to other devices and versions.

Organisation — how things get sorted within the app

Onenote only really has a basic heirarchical structure. It has a good one and it is all clearly visible and easy to navigate and enables you to organise and group similar notes really well. I like this basic heirarchical structure and it is a lot better than say, Evernote’s basic heirarchy of notebooks and stacks. But Onenote has no other way of organising. There kind of is a tagging system which enables you to tag objects within a note. This could be amazing, but it feels very unfinished and like they never really decided on what to do with it. The tags are unsortable, so they display in whatever order you create them, they do not sync across devices or versions so a tag you create on either windows version, whilst it will show up in notes on the other windows version or on mac, it will not be in the tag list. On both windows versions you can search tags, even ones created elsewhere which is good, but you cannot do this on Mac and on Android tablet and phones, the tags aren’t there at all.

So the basic heirarchy I like, but really, the organisational features are quite limited.

Retrieval — finding things again down the line

It’s Microsoft. It is fitting that in the old days the microsoft search was brought to you by an over enthusiastic puppy. Remember him?

So, the heirarchy system is good and easy to navigate which means that if you use the folder structure well, finding things isn’t too hard.

My experience with the search is that whatever your type you end up with a very long list of seemingly unordered notes to trawl through. Like an over enthusiastic puppy who brings you anything and everything with a vague connection to the thing you want. It’s quicker to go through the search manually in my opinion. This is true across the board on all devices and applications.

Technical Criteria

In addition to the functionality of an application there are some key technical things of these applications that can be the making or the breaking of them.

Accessibility — where is it accessible and what limitiations are there on portable devices like phones etc

So Onenote is accessible on all devices. I’m not sure about Linux, I’ve not looked. This is a big plus point. But, there is such a disparity of features across devices that, whilst the accessibility is good, the useability is not. The canvas editor means that notes don’t translate well to devices with a smaller screen size. There are some features, like the tagging, that cannot be used on the mobile devices. I’m going to wait to the end to give my overall rating.

Privacy & Security — How secure is your data and are there any issues with privacy

Your information is stored in special files within Microsoft Onedrive, so my understanding is that the privacy and security will be pretty standard for this type of thing.

Speed of the application — load times for the application and notes etc, sync speed between devices

I’ve never had any problem with the speed of the application itself but I have had some sync issues and noticed slowness of sync. I think this is because the notes are files within Onedrive. It’s nowhere near the slowest though and so I wouldn’t consider this a big issue.

Offline support

This has been one of the best I’ve encountered. Obviously you cannot sync if you are offline but once a notebook has been opened and synced to your computer, you can access it and edit it offline as I beleive they store a copy locally and then sync back to Onedrive when you reconnect.

Export options — how easy is it to get data out of the app and in what format

There are export options, but if memory serves, it is a bit limited. I really should have researched this a bit more but I am lacking a Windows device right now! You could definitely export notes as a pdf, or as html files. However, the canvas! If your note canvas was wider than standard paper size, then the pdf would show up on multiple pages both horizontally and vertically! Which is not really viable. I seem to remember that exporting as anything other than a Onenote file, would involve a note by note approach, unless you have the 2016 Windows version and then it was hit and miss as to whether or not the export would succeed.

Bugginess — are there any bugs or issues that are either frustrating or risky

Overall, it was a fairly polished application and I never encountered any major bugs.

Conclusion

Microsoft Onenote is a program by Microsoft and if that is the ecosystem you are in, then it could be real contender. By this I mean if you are on Windows, and primarily use your notes on a Windows PC and use Microsoft’s suite of Office applications, inc. Outlook, then there are some real benefits of being a Onenote user. I am also told if you have a Surface laptop and stylus, then there are some really good features you can use here for handwriting notes.

For me though, even if I had all of those, the poor functionality on the mobile apps etc would be a deal breaker.

If you aren’t on Windows, or use more than one computer with different screen sizes (e.g. an office set up with a large screen and a laptop when out and about) then I would avoid Microsoft Onenote.

If you want me to score the application — 4/10 (or 6/10 if you are fully microsoft and have limited need to use multiple devices.)

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