Microsoft OneNote is a note-taking and syncing program that works across a wide range of devices, for free, with a decent array of features. In terms of its functionality and ease of use, it's the clear number-two choice, second to Evernote. However, recent changes to Evernote, including a stiff price hike, have left many customers bitter and looking for an alternative. Microsoft OneNote is the only other service at the moment that comes close to Evernote, but depending on your needs, close might not be good enough. OneNote is available on mobile devices, Windows and Mac, and the Web. It provides many of the same concepts as Evernote, but in a different structure. It's free, includes heaps of storage space, and carries the familiar interface of other Microsoft apps.
OneNote is good, especially if you've never used any other service before, but if you're switching from Evernote and are used to the Evernote way, the transition is rough. Evernote remains faster, more capable, and quite frankly better, but at a cost that can be hard to swallow. Because nothing else can top it, Evernote still holds PCMag's Editors' Choice. Microsoft OneNote is the second best note-taking service available, which will be reason enough for many people to adopt it. Just be aware of its shortcomings before you sink all your notes into it.
This review focuses on the Microsoft OneNote Mac app. For a deeper dive into the service in general, including a more comprehensive price comparison between OneNote and other note-taking services, see PCMag's review of OneNote (Web).
Price and Plan
All the OneNote apps are free to download and install, with no feature restrictions on the free service. It does require a Microsoft account to use, however. A Hotmail, Windows Live, or Outlook.com email address is all you need.
If you have a subscription to Office and use those credentials to sign in, you'll get more storage space. Free users get 5GB of space, whereas Office 365 subscribers get 1TB all told, shared among other Office Online apps.
Office 365 Personal costs $6.99 per month or $69.99 per year. The annual price is the same as Evernote's Premium subscription, and the monthly price is less (Evernote charges $7.99 per month). An Office subscription gives you Office apps plus more storage space, but nothing else in the way of OneNote. An Evernote Premium subscription adds space, note-taking features, live chat support, and more.
A few other note-taking and syncing apps are entirely free, including Google Keep and Zoho Notebook, but they pale in comparison to Evernote and OneNote's capabilities. In terms of storage, Google Keep works similarly to OneNote, using Google Drive the way OneNote uses OneDrive. Google Drive gives everyone 15GB of storage for free. Zoho Notebook offers unlimited storage with a 50MB max file size for any single upload.
Design and Setup
OneNote conforms to the general look of other Microsoft Office apps. As mentioned, there are OneNote apps for Windows, Mac, mobile devices (iOS, Android, Windows Phone), as well as a Web app. Here I focus on the Mac app.
The basic structure and terminology used in OneNote is Notebook > Section > Page. For example, I have a notebook called Recipes, with sections for Sweet, Savory, and Cocktail recipes. Within the Cocktails section, I have pages for Negroni, Gin Fizz, and so forth. The nomenclature roughly maps to Evernote's Notebook Stack > Notebook > Note.
The OneNote Web app puts editing tools and other functional buttons at the top of the window, while reserving the right side for previews of pages.
A page is more like a pasteboard than a word processing document. Every piece of content that's added to a page comes in its own field or box. All images that are added are contained in a box pasted to the page, and the same goes for text and other elements. An Evernote note, conversely, is more like a word processing page or email text field, where you can type text freely, but you can also add other page elements or attachments, too. In OneNote, you can resize any box, including boxes with text, or drag and drop boxes to change their position.
Along the top of the window, below the main editing tools, are tabs. These are for sections. Sections help you organize notes within a notebook. I find the visual placement of sections confusing because they are separated from the pages that they comprise. Visually, it looks as if the page or note that you have selected to read or edit at the moment is the entire content of that tab (or section). Evernote's three panel display (which shows left to right a tree-like display of Notebook Stacks and Notebooks, Notes in preview, and the selected note in the main window) makes a whole lot more sense.
To do anything in the OneNote Mac app, you start by choosing a notebook, but only the four most recent notebooks will appear the dropdown list when you go to select one. To find others, you have to hit a plus sign (which makes it seem like you're creating a new notebook, even though you aren't) to find the notebook you want. This structural design absolutely slows down productivity because it takes unnecessarily long to switch between notebooks.
After choosing a notebook, all the pages associated with it appear on the left in a preview list. You can change the view to either show more of a preview, including an image thumbnail, or less.
Features and Performance
Microsoft OneNote is well endowed with features, and most of the core ones will be familiar to anyone who has used other Office apps before. Toolbar selections for Home, Insert, View will all seem standard, and you'll easily find all the formatting options and whatnot. Compared with the OneNote Web app, the Mac app is quicker and ever so slightly more refined in its looks.
Into any note, you can insert, images, links, symbols, tables, and more. You can record audio right into a note, too. You can enlarge, shrink, and crop images that appear in notes, although you can't annotate them, as you can with an Evernote Premium account. There's a new Digital Ink feature that lets you draw images and diagrams in OneNote, but it's only available to those who work on a Surface Pro, so Mac users don't get it.
There are some neat things you can do with audio memos. For example, you can place bookmarks throughout any recording. If you type notes while recording audio, the app links them so that later, when you listen to the recording, you can jump to the notes you wrote at different moments. It's a feature that's easy to miss because it requires that you know the feature is hidden in a control-click accessed menu.
If you have a very important or sensitive notes, you can lock the section in which it lives with a password. There's also a button that shows version history, letting you restore an old version of a note. You can share notebooks with collaborators, and you can restrict their access to read-only or edit. But be aware that you can't share a single note with others while restricting the rest of their access to whatever else is in the notebook. Sharing occurs at the notebook level only.
You can drag and drop pages from one section to another, although I wish there were indicators, like icons, to show that the move was in progress and then successful. Other features include the ability to choose the paper you want for your pages, such as blank or grid, as well as a search tool that highlights your keywords when it finds them.
Tags are handled unusually in OneNote. There is a list of pre-made tags that you can add to any note, but you can't change what's in the list or add a custom tag. You can, however, use a hashtag before a word in your note for custom tags, but they're treated differently. Evernote, however, lets you create whatever tags you want, and you can easily sort or filter your notes while including tags in your search criteria.
OneNote has a Web-clipping tool that I used avidly in testing, and it's decent. The Web clipper is a plugin that copies content from a Web page into your OneNote account with two clicks, rather than doing a cut-and-paste job. Evernote's Web clipper has a few additional options for clipping, and it suggests a notebook intelligently, based on the content, whereas OneNote suggests saving the note to the last used notebook.
OneNote Takes Silver
Note-taking and syncing service OneNote isn't short on features, and it gives a lot away. It also adds a heck of a lot of space to anyone who has an Office 365 account. It's more advanced than almost all other note-taking and syncing apps on the market, except Evernote.
OneNote is reliable, but still needs work to be great. It has some problems in its structure and design that make it slow to use and inelegant. Tags should be customizable. The Web clipper tool could be more sophisticated. But all in all, considering the other note-taking apps on the market, OneNote is clearly no. 2. Evernote earns gold, and OneNote deserves silver.
If you're dead-set on ditching Evernote, switch to OneNote, although I recommend waiting for transfer tools to improve first. OneNote is the only other app that comes close to Evernote at this time. But it can't beat Evernote yet, and thus Evernote remains PCMag's Editors' Choice for now.