In this OneNote review, Cloudwards.net looks at the second-most popular note-taking app on the market. Though OneNote doesn't have some of Evernote's handiest features, we predict that many will prefer it over the number one note-taking app. Read our full review to find out why.
Most of the big-name cloud storage services, including Dropbox, Google Drive and Box, now offer digital notebook apps. However, beating them all to the punch, and way back in 2003 no less, was Microsoft, with OneNote.
Of course, seniority doesn’t always mean much when it comes to technology. However, in this case we have no problem placing Microsoft’s entry ahead of its cloud storage rivals when it comes to sorting through the best digital notebook entries.
That’s because OneNote is a flexible and feature-packed thought-collecting tool that’s very clearly nipping at the heels of the acclaimed Evernote. It even outperforms it in some ways thanks to inclusions like video recording, handwriting to text conversion and the ability to arrange your notes in any haphazard way you want, just like the real thing.
That’s because OneNote is a flexible and feature-packed though-collecting tool that’s very clearly nipping at the heels of the acclaimed Evernote. It even outperforms it in some ways thanks to inclusions like video recording, handwriting to text conversion and the ability to arrange your notes in any haphazard way you want, just like the real thing.
- Free application
- Good organizing tools
- Flexible note design
- Sync & share notes
- No private encryption
- No at-rest encryption (on OneDrive Personal)
As a digital notebook, OneNote is capable of saving notes to the cloud and syncing them across your devices. OneNote uses OneDrive for cloud storage, sharing space with other Microsoft Office products like Word and Excel, plus whatever other files you stash in the cloud.
Platform support includes Windows and MacOS for desktops, and Android, iOS and Windows Phone for mobile devices. Browser access is also available, in case you need to access your notes from a computer that’s not your own.
You don’t have to store files in OneDrive, you can store them locally, instead. However, doing so would nix your ability to sync content between devices, since sync relies on the cloud as a middleman.
Key to getting the most out of OneNote is the ability to create as many separate notebooks as you want (well, until your run out of cloud storage space) and divide each individual notebook into color-coded sections and pages, which are basically notes. Evernote, meanwhile, limits you to 250 notebooks.
OneNote provides seemingly limitless flexibility in creating pages themselves, letting you position text, images and tables anywhere on the page. This makes it ideal for precisely copying lecture or meeting notes from a whiteboard, diagrams and all, making it one of our favorite things about the tool.
OneNote Voice and Video
Voice and video can be added to notes, too, using a built-in recording feature. You can also add videos from online sources by inputting a source URL, such as from YouTube.
There’s also a very useful web clipper that you can add as a browser add-on to Chrome, Explorer, Firefox and Safari. This add-on lets you save web pages directly to OneNote, useful for compiling research in one place. Within the OneNote client, you can then add annotations and call-outs to your clippings so you remember why you saved them later.
OneNote has a handful of drawing tools, too, letting you do things like circle text, plus most of the text formatting tools you’d find in a word processor. If you’re using a tablet or laptop with a touchscreen, you can draw diagrams and doodles using a stylus, or take handwritten notes.
OneDrive can convert freehand notes (commonly called “ink”) to computer font to clean up your notes later. That’s a useful feature, too, if you want to take a photo of notes on a whiteboard. It’s also something Evernote doesn’t do.
You can automate note collection in OneDrive using IFTTT or Zapier. This lets you do things like automatically send key emails, attachments, liked tweets or uploaded Instagram photos to OneNote. Both IFTTT and Zapier can also integrate OneNote with task managers like Trello and Todoist, useful for keeping your work life in some semblance of order.
Later on, you can share your notes with others directly from the application, so long as your notebooks are hosted on OneDrive and not locally. You can grant access to specific people based on email address, or create links to your notes that can be used by anybody.
In summary, OneNote includes pretty much any feature we could want. It even integrates with Cortana and Siri, letting you speak your thoughts and having them transcribed into text. Stenographers of the world, take note.
While the OneNote app itself is free, OneNote makes use of Microsoft OneDrive for hosting notes online. That might not be an issue, since you can register for 5GB of free cloud storage. That’s not exactly the most generous allotment of free cloud storage, but it’s enough for a quite a few notebooks.
|OneDrive Basic 5GB|
|Microsoft 365 Personal|
1-year plan $ 5.83/ month
$69.99 billed every year
Save 17 %
|Microsoft 365 Family|
1-year plan $ 8.33/ month
$99.99 billed every year
Save 17 %
|OneDrive for Business Plan 1|
1-year plan $ 5.00/ month
$60.00 billed every year
|OneDrive for Business Plan 2|
1-year plan $ 10.00/ month
$120.00 billed every year
| Microsoft 365 Business Standard|
1-year plan $ 12.50/ month
$150.00 billed every year
Save 17 %
Should you find you need more gigabytes, you’ll need to look at upgrading to a 1TB OneDrive account. Doing so will also give you access to desktop versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint.
At $6.99 a month, 1TB of storage isn’t a bad deal. With Office 365 included, in fact, it ranks among the best deals in cloud storage. However, if you don’t intend to use OneDrive other than for OneNote, that value completely diminishes, and you might be better off with Evernote for $3.99 a month.
Before we get started, we should point out that the OneNote application we’ll be looking at below is the desktop application available for free in the Microsoft store for Windows 10. There’s another application called OneNote 2016 available for download on the Microsoft website but it won’t be supported much longer, meaning it won’t have the newest features going forward.
With that public service announcement out of the way, on to the good stuff.
The developers behind OneNote did a nice job creating a tool that doesn’t derail your train of thought. The workspace is clean and for the most part, the use of toolbar ribbons along the top keeps everything you need to create just a click or two away.
For total note-taking immersion, you can click the diagonal arrow wedged into the top-right corner of any note to go distraction free. Doing so will maximize the note within the OneNote application, like so:
To access different notebooks in OneNote, click the arrow in the top-left corner of the client to slight them out from the left margin. There’s also an “add notebook” option near the bottom to create a new one.
We really like the way this application is organized, and the fact that you can collapse everything to focus on your work. It’s a bit like Evernote but perhaps a bit less distracting overall. However, it’s in the actual creation of notes that OneNote has real leg-up on Evernote.
OneNote gives you many of the features of a basic word processor, like Microsoft Word. That includes a formatting toolbar that you can access by clicking on the “home” tab in the ribbon.
Text options include the usual suspects like different fonts and font sizes, the ability to bold or italicize text, bulleted and number lists, and so on.
You can also tag notes in OneNote, which helps to sort them later. However, the Microsoft Store version of OneNote doesn’t let you create custom tags: you’re left with predefined options like “critical” and “contacts” that ultimately aren’t that useful.
Oddly, the OneNote 2016 version of the app does let you create custom tags. With that version of OneNote being abandoned, hopefully, the development team will get on adding the same feature for OneNote.
One of the cooler features and one you won’t find supported natively with Evernote is the ability convert handwritten words (ink) to computer text. From the ribbon’s draw tab, circle the word using the lasso tool, then click the “convert” button and choose “ink to text.”
Text in images, scanned pages and .pdf files can be converted to editable text, too, thanks to OneNote’s optical character recognition capabilities, saving you from having to type them out manually or use an outside tool.
We love the fact that with OneNote you can organize your notes pretty much any way you want, effectively mimicking an actual notebook. That includes positioning text anywhere on the page, along with diagrams, doodles or whatever else you fancy.
Using the “insert” tab, you can attach files to notes, plus insert links, timestamps, symbols, tables, screenshots and images. There’s also a button for adding video from various online sources like YouTube, plus built-in voice and video recorder options, which are nice inclusions for bad notetakers.
Overall, we think OneNote makes life pretty easy. There’s even a review tab with a language translator to help students cheat on their Spanish homework.
However, the user experience is something that Microsoft generally gets right these days thanks to forty-plus years of experience. The company’s biggest issue remains, as always, security.
Whether you’re compiling notes for a new invention or keeping a personal journal, confidently storing your thoughts in the cloud requires trust that they’ll be safe there from prying eyes. We’re not just talking about safe from server breaches, but also safe from winding up in a data warehouse belonging to a marketing department or government agency.
We detail some of the concerns we have with the security of OneDrive in our review of that service. Those concerns include the fact that OneDrive manages your encryption keys, without an option for private encryption like, for example, pCloud (read our pCloud review).
The bigger issue is that OneDrive data isn’t encrypted at rest for consumer accounts. That means it’s left in plain text while sitting on the Microsoft servers, which in the post-Snowden era is pretty uncommon. The problem is that anyone who gains access to the cloud server will be able to decrypt them without an encryption key, making mayhem all the easier.
Business users don’t share this problem, as we mention in our OneDrive for Business review, since for them data does gets encrypted server side. For everyone else, we’d recommend at least encrypting the files you store in OneDrive yourself, using a zero-knowledge service like that discussed in our Boxcryptor review.
A third-party private encryption tool designed for OneNote, SafeRoom, is another good option. It’s also available for Evernote.
Microsoft does have an option for two-factor authentication (2FA), which we suggest using. Doing so will help prevent anyone who gains access to your password from logging into your OneDrive account and ransacking your notebooks. 2FA achieves this by requiring an additional credential when logging in from an unfamiliar device, typically a code sent as a text.
Microsoft has had plenty of time to refine OneNote, and for the most part that headstart shows. As a digital notebook, it comes packed with just about every productivity feature we could want. Not only does it outshine similar products produced by rivals Dropbox and Google when it come to feature set, it even has few tricks that Evernote doesn’t.
The ability to convert ink to text, add voice and video notes, draw arrows and stick figures, and generally arrange notes in any way you want makes it an enticing tool for a creative mind. No, we’re not saying we’re ready to replace Evernote just yet. However, if OneNote took a few more unique steps, like letting users privately encrypt notebooks and notes, we just might be swayed.
Care to chime in? Share your OneNote thoughts in the comments below to let us know where you stand on that matter. Thanks for reading.