Microsoft launched a free version its OneNote note taking software for Mac users today, ending a years-long drought in which the desktop version of the program was only available for Windows.

onenoteCombined with the decision to make OneNote for Windows free, the move is an attempt to compete with Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Evernote, which has taken a huge chunk of the digital notebook market, in part because it’s available for just about any conceivable platform.

I’ve been an Evernote user for several years now, in part because OneNote was never available for my Mac, even as Microsoft added versions of the app for iPad, iPhone and Android devices. Evernote has become an integral part of my daily workflow, to the point where it’s one of the first apps I install whenever I get a new device. Looking at Microsoft’s offering, though, there’s a lot that I like in OneNote. Here are my first impressions of OneNote for the Mac.

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The ability to do custom text layout inside a note is absolutely killer. Getting multiple notetaking columns out of Evernote is a pain, but doing the same thing in OneNote takes about 5 seconds. It’s easy to create and resize multiple text boxes without a previous understanding of how the app works, which is great for using notetaking styles that don’t conform to the basic bulleted outline format.

OneNote also hits it out of the park when it comes to line-by-line note tags. OneNote makes it easy to add small image tags to individual notes to remind users of key tasks and important pieces of information. The tags sit in the left margin of a block of notes, and make it easy to call out important information.

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I’m particularly happy with OneNote’s check boxes. While that may seem like a minor thing to praise, they’re larger and more easily clicked than Evernote’s check boxes, which frustrates me to no end when I’m trying to put together a shopping list or another checklist.

While I was using OneNote, I kept thinking that this is the app that I wish I had when I was a student. I would have killed to use something like this in high school and college, because it feels that good for taking notes.

But OneNote completely misses when it comes to taking on Evernote as a bucket for things that I want to save. Any outside files have to be added to OneNote through dialog boxes, which is an annoyance compared to Evernote, which lets users simply drag and drop any files into their notes.

One of the features that I love about Evernote is its ability to use optical character recognition to make any image with text that I add to my notebooks immediately searchable. As someone who spends a lot of time going to conferences, I love being able to take a screenshot of a day’s schedule on my Mac, and then search my notes on my iPhone while on public transit to figure out when I need to be at a venue.

While Microsoft offers OCR for Windows-based OneNote users and through the new Office Lens app for Windows Phone, it hasn’t made it onto the Mac yet.

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Microsoft’s OneNote Clipper bookmarklet that launched today can’t hold a candle to Evernote’s web clipper, either. While it’s great for saving and OCRing whole web pages, Evernote offers more precise control of what users clip. It also includes built-in annotation tools so that it’s easier for users to mark up what they see.

OneNote is also missing the file type support that I’m used to. It’s fine with JPEGs, but it won’t take PDFs or audio files. Meanwhile, Evernote works with a bunch of file formats, and will even let me record audio straight into the app itself. It’s easy for me to use that product to hold all of the relevant information and files I have on a topic in a way that OneNote just doesn’t support right now.

Evernote also has a more polished experience on its mobile apps for iOS. It’s easy to quickly create a note and add it to a notebook with only a couple of taps, while using OneNote on my iPhone and iPad feels clunkier.

What about the million dollar question: will OneNote unseat Evernote on the Mac? As a longtime note-taker, I think it depends on the user. For people who need a robust tool that’s focused on text-based notetaking, OneNote seems like the better choice right now. But for people like me who want their notetaking software to be a bucket for everything they need to remember, it looks like Evernote still beats OneNote, hands-down.

Microsoft OneNote is available from the Mac App Store. Important note: It can only run on Mac OS X 10.9 Mavericks, not on earlier versions of Mac OS X.

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  • Smash

    Good and fair review. Exactly as I saw it as well. I didn’t really like OneNote, but it is a good first iteration. I want to encourage Microsoft, though. Abandoning Windows (client) and building apps for the future (Android and iOS) is a way out of the mess they’ve gotten themselves into. So, yes, more of these kinds of investments, please.

    • SilverSee

      Abandon Windows? I can’t imagine why Microsoft didn’t think of that before now. They must be on pins and needles over your growing encouragement… Luckily, you’re an inspiration.

  • Angela Booth

    I downloaded OneNote right away, even though I’m a longterm, and loyal, Evernote user. I like having an infinite canvas, so I can sketch out ideas.

    No one could pry Evernote away from me, but I like OneNote as an idea repository, and scratch pad for projects. Evernote will remain my filing cabinet and library.

  • Mike_Acker

    i tried using One Note a while back. it was cool in that you could paste anything into a note file. but sadly lacking in that there was no easy way to generate a reverse chron note where adds would be automatically inserted into the top of the note. if you are keeping an event log you probably want to see last activity first.

  • uberlaff

    Good review. I use both Evernote and OneNote for exactly the reason you stated above. Any time I need to dump notes to find again later (ex. Meetings) goes into Evernote.

    For anything that I need to reference and update frequently (project notes or product plans), this goes into OneNote. It’s so much better with structuring and relating content so it can be referenced together.

    They’re almost more complementary than competitive.

  • John Head

    Great review. I am not sure how it works on the Mac, but on windows, I can set the clipper to always save to a specific location without being prompted. And I agree about the PDF clipping – hope that gets improved.

  • Donald Billings

    I love having OneNote for the Mac but also use Evernote, just differently. Evernote is really my idea or quick-snapshot repository. See an idea I like for web design? Clip it to evernote and add a couple of key words. OneNote is my go to app for more structured notes. For example, I track research for my doctoral dissertation in OneNote, and it’s really the only place I can keep notes for my day job with a law firm.

  • SemaphoreSlim

    Good article. Nice to get a decent comparison between these two apps.

    One minor nit:

    “…and will even let me record audio straight into the app itself.”

    You can do this in OneNote also – on the Insert toolbar, click “Record Audio.” It stores it as WMA or WAV, which is less efficient, but it works just fine.

    I’ve used this method on mobile OneNote on my phone, too – very handy for recording short meetings, or notes when I’m driving and need to keep hands-free.

    • Dan Morrow

      The Insert toolbar, for me, only has Table, Picture, Date, and Date & Time. There is no Record Audio option. Am I missing something? (I wouldn’t be surprised!) I believe my old Windows version had this option, but I don’t see it on the new Mac version.

      • CTS

        Yes, only on Windows version for now.

  • nishan1501

    Absolutely great review n comparison. You have pointed out some of the best features of evernote over oneNote, which are rarely discussed. The drag and drop features, screenshot, screen clipping feature, audio recording feature on evernote is just more than awesome. These features beat oneNote.

  • Dan Morrow

    Good quick review! I am a big Evernote user, mostly because there is nothing else I have found that allows me to do as much across numerous devices. I love being able to open my phone and add an audio note, or a picture or video with a click or two. This is perfect for book or blog post ideas. Also, the OCR in Evernote is excellent and much used. Finally, because of Evernote’s ubiquity, I can add content efficiently from a ton of different apps, which is nice.

    That said, I much prefer the notebook organization and style of OneNote to Evernotes Stacks>Notebooks>Notes approach. It gets the job done, but it’s something I’ve endured more than enjoyed. When I have a notebook open in OneNote I really feel like I am working IN and WITH that note, that subject….if that makes any sense. OneNote makes me feel like I am working in a spiral bound notebook dedicated to my current subject, where Evernote feels more like I am playing around with a stack of sticky notes. : ) I don’t mean that to sound as bad as it does.

    Unfortunately, this first version of OneNote for Mac is not doing much for me (except giving me hope). There is not the variety of note formats available, the mobile apps seem like also-rans at the moment, and the syncing for me has been very hit or miss for me. I may try to use both for now, but I really prefer to keep my key apps to a minimum. I hope OneNote turns into something that can replace Evernote for me entirely, but that remains to be seen. Moreover, MS has not demonstrated that they are in much of a hurry. : ) I hope that is changing too.

  • Bill Morey

    Was looking for this for a long time. I am using MagicalPad kind of similar to OneNote, MagicalPad has some unique features that makes it better for me. Mind mapping and task management are more robust. Check out MagicalPad on the mac app store.

  • diwul62

    Web clipping with OneNote only works with Internet Explorer. No luck with other browsers unless an add-on is installed. Regretfully so.

  • Dave Ruedeman

    I kept coming back to Evernote looking for Outline support. If they had this I would have used evernote. Since OneNote does has outline support I decided to try it out. It is on my Mac and iPhone , no problem. However when I installed it on my Windows 8.1 VM it decided to take over my Windows Login. It automatically changed my local login to an outlook email account login. “Don’t worry we will keep your settings”. Oh sure except for the fact that bidirectional cut-and-paste from my host suddenly quit working.Which is very unfortunate since I use it all the time. A mere 2 hours later I re-added a local login account and had to re-setup all my prefs. I finally got cut-and-paste working again.
    Thanks Microsoft. This type of behavior is simply unacceptable. You need to do better than that Microsoft.

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