Angry Robot

OneNote Notes

It’s funny for me to be trying a Microsoft product willingly! I have been using a Mac since my parents got a Mac Plus in 1985, and back then Microsoft was the ENEMY. Then I was forced to use shitty busted up old Windows PCs at work for many years, which did not foster any love. But nowadays you could make a stronger case for Apple as Evil Empire of the tech world, and Microsoft in its post-Ballmer era is hustling hard in the corners. That OneNote is currently even a possibility for me shows how things have changed. A couple years ago OneNote would only have had apps for Windows and Windows Mobile, but now it’s got apps for macOS, iOS, Android and the web. And they’re really good.

OneNote has got got a rather forceful notebook interface metaphor: you open a notebook and then you have section tabs along the top, and lists of notebook pages along the side. To continue the paper metaphor, you can type anywhere on a note “page”, it will start a new text box. You can drag in whatever you want, and position it wherever. If you had a tablet and a stylus you could just start writing or drawing anywhere, too. I didn’t need that, but I do like it. Kinda fun!

If anything, the app seems to have more features than Evernote. It’s not what I was looking for, but at least they are gracefully hidden away when not in use. There are lots of formatting features, drawing, file embedding, note linking, video recording? OCR? Page versions? Page Templates? There’s a lot here.

The Windows app is actually ten years old and has that typical Microsoft thing where it’s absolutely rammed with features, and not very intuitive when it comes to discovering them, but you can customize almost everything in it. The Mac app is more recent and not quite as insanely customizable, but it is very nice. The iOS app, at least on iPhone, is much more stripped down, quite sensibly so.

There is a reasonably well-featured web clipper that works in Chrome and Safari, and saves either as “article”, “full page” or “section” (which means drag-for-a-screenshot). The separate iOS app Office Lens does your document scanning and sends stuff into OneNote. You can forward emails into OneNote, too.

The OneNote business model is interesting. The app is free, but storage is done through Microsoft’s online Dropbox-alike OneDrive, which gives you 5GB for free. After that it’s $2/mo for 50GB, and after that you go up to OneDrive + Office 365, which gives you 1TB for $7/mo, but also includes licenses for all the Office apps (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook). So OneNote isn’t really a product at all, but a way of upselling you to Office. There is a decent Evernote importer app for PC, and I imported everything from eight years of Evernote use and it takes up under 2 gigs, so I think this product is free for my purposes. For now anyway.

Downsides: inexplicably, there is no way to sort the list of notes other than manually. There were some goofups with the Evernote import, and now my notes are sorted in the right notebooks, but in random order. And all images are scaled up to wacky, scrollfest size. Another potential downside is that if you completely freak out with the “place anything ANYWHERE on the page maaaaan” attitude those notes are gonna be another scrollfest on your phone.

But these are minor gripes really, and for now, I have a winner. I’m surprisingly happy with OneNote, and if you’re looking to switch from Evernote, this is definitely the leading candidate.