If you ask me, one of the best things about living in the digital age is the ability to “brain dump” all the information in your head into some sort of digital format. Anyone who’s ever met me in person knows that I have the memory capacity of an earthworm, so these tools are especially useful for me.
It used to be that Evernote was far and away the king of the note-taking applications, and to some extent, it still is. But there are several challengers out there, and one of them is from a pretty surprising company: Microsoft. That’s right, Microsoft’s OneNote has been getting better and better with each iteration of Office, and it’s slowly gaining a loyal following among note-taking junkies like myself.
So today I thought I’d do a comparison of Evernote and OneNote, going over the pros and cons of each in the following categories: Cost, Interface, Features, and Platforms. At the end I’ll try to evaluate each program as a whole and make a recommendation.
Evernote operates on what’s called a “freemium” model, which means that they let you use a limited version of the program for free as long as you want, but you have to pay to unlock the rest of the features. The current price for one year of premium is $45, but you can also pay a monthly fee of $5.
Premium features include an upload quota of 1GB per month (as opposed to 60MB for free users), the ability to search inside PDF files, note versioning, no advertisements, high-priority support, and some other benefits. This is probably worth the money if you’re absolutely in love with Evernote and use it on a daily basis.
Evernote’s interface is basically made up of three panels: the notebook panel on the far left (which shows all the different notebooks you have created), the note list panel in the middle (which shows the title and an excerpt from each note in the selected notebook), and finally the note panel itself (which houses the actual content of the note).
There are also a couple different views that let you adjust how the note list and notes panels are arranged. You can choose between the Snippet View (shown in the screenshot above), a List View (similar to Outlook’s default email view), and a Thumbnail View (which is good if your notes tend to have a lot of images).
There’s no doubt that Evernote is a feature-packed tool. First of all, you get a ton of features that you’d expect from such a program:
- Searching across all your notes and notebooks
- Syncing to the cloud for always up-to-date notes
- Note sharing and collaboration with other users
- Handwriting recognition when you want to write
- A hefty slate of text formatting tools and options
You also get some features that are surprisingly innovative, like geo-tagging of notes so that they’re related to a physical location and an associated “web clipper” that lets you save entire web pages to your account with one click. There’s also quite a lot of unofficial plugins that let you add third-party functionality to Evernote.
One of the best things about Evernote is that, no matter what device or computer you use, Evernote probably has a client or an app for it. For mobile users, Android, iOS, Blackberry, and Windows Phone are all covered. For desktop computer users, Mac and Windows both have excellent clients. And for those who like to work out of their web browser, Evernote’s web application works across all major browsers.
While Evernote is available on all these platforms, sometimes you’ll find that certain features don’t work on some of them. For example, on the Windows desktop client I can record a voice note right from within the interface, but with the web client (in Chrome) I cannot. I’d have to record my note using some other piece of software and upload it to Evernote as an attachment.
Technically, OneNote only costs $69.99 when you purchase it by itself (without Word, Excel, or any other Office programs). However, the reality is that OneNote is most often purchased with a full version of Office, at least for most users. This costs $139.99 for the Home and Student version, the cheapest version that includes OneNote.
The bottom line is that, from a pure cost standpoint, OneNote is cheaper than Evernote if you are A) only looking for a note-taking application, and B) plan on using it for 2 years or more. This is because, at $45 per year, the cost of Evernote for two years is more than the up-front $69.99 cost of OneNote. At three years, you could get the entire Office Home and Student suite for only $5 more than an Evernote Premium subscription for that same time period.
OneNote’s interface is modeled after that of a 3-ring binder. Notebooks are chosen from a dropdown menu, and the tabs across the top are for different sections of that notebook. Finally, different pages of the notebook are accessed via the list on the right side. This is a little confusing to someone like me who’s coming from an Evernote world, as it’s not quite clear until you play around with it a little, which one “contains” the other.
At the top of the window is the familiar “ribbon” for formatting text, inserting images and drawings, viewing notebook changes, and altering the various settings. Personally, I like the ribbon interface, but I know a lot of other people do not, so this can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on your personal preference.
Also, I feel that OneNote’s overall look and feel is much more polished than Evernote’s. Compared side by side, Evernote seems like software from 10 years ago, and OneNote (at least the 2013 version I am running) outshines it by a substantial margin.
Like Evernote, OneNote is also packed with features you’d expect from a fully developed note-taking application. Taking notes in almost any format is supported, whether it’s recording audio, using a stylus, or even video. It also has an OCR feature so that text can be extracted and indexed from images.
For multiple users, it has offline caching and syncing of notes, as well as synchronization so that shared notebooks are always up-to-date with the latest changes from everyone. OneNote’s drawing tools are also extensive. Although I personally do not draw too much in my notes, this may be an attractive feature for others.
One big feature that OneNote has is the ability to put content anywhere on the page. In Evernote you can’t just insert an image over on the right hand side of the note; in OneNote you can. This makes OneNote a lot easier to use when you’re dumping information into it in a free-form way. On the other hand though, this makes is hard to create a bunch of notes with a uniform style.
OneNote is, of course, a Microsoft application, so it works just fine on just about any recent version of Windows. While OneNote is also available on Macs, it is version behind the native Windows app and can only be purchased as a part of Office 365 Home Premium [source].
As far as mobile goes, OneNote apps are available for iOS, Android, and Windows Phone. These versions are free for users with less than 500 notes, after that you’ll need to pay for an upgrade. What’s more, the iOS apps are widely criticized as being nearly useless. Finally, there’s also a web application for in-browser use.
Overall, it’s hard to make a truly objective decision here. Note-taking is a very personal, subjective thing, so a factor that may tip the scales in favor of, say, Evernote for me might actually be the very reason another person likes OneNote instead.
Evernote definitely seems to have the edge when it comes to anytime, anywhere information capture. It’s mobile apps are available for almost any device and have enough features to make themselves truly useful. OneNote, despite it’s valiant efforts, is still lacking in this department.
Having said that, OneNote offers a more polished and clean interface. It’s free-form editing abilities far surpass those of Evernote. Even some OneNote features that seem utterly basic, like the ability to resize images, are just not possible in Evernote. Taken together with the fact that it costs less, over time, than Evernote, you can make a strong argument for OneNote’s superiority.
In the end, it’s probably best just to try both programs and see which one better suites your particular needs. Let us know which one you prefer down in the comments!