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Summary:

Microsoft recently brought its note-taking app to iOS. It’s still missing one pretty big piece, but it’s also a really useful service for those who use both Mac and Windows.

Microsoft OneNote for iOS

Microsoft recently released an updated version of its OneNote note-taking app for iOS. As a long-term Evernote user, I took an admittedly skeptical glance at the new offering, mostly because there is no OS X version of OneNote, and I wasn’t sure how well, if at all, the app would integrate into my workflow. In the end, I found OneNote to be so crucial I hope Microsoft releases a Mac version of OneNote with the next version of Office.

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The back end

OneNote iOS uses Microsoft’s free SkyDrive service as the sync engine. Once you’re logged in via the app, the default notebook is ready for you to edit.  Syncing was reliable, but I did notice I would have to re-log in via the app more often than I would have liked — several times a day — to keep syncing. It’s possible to work on notes offline, but you’ll need to make sure you haven’t edited the note in two places.

The apps themselves

The apps definitely have The Microsoft Look, with heavy uses of the Calibri font. I found the notes to be very pleasing to my eye.

While the apps have the standard suite of editing functions (formatting, indents, checklist), I found it successfully integrated into my note-taking workflow by eliminating some frustrations I have with Evernote.

The biggest workflow enhancement was how it handled creating checklist items. When I take a note in OneNote, and decide that this should really be an action item to track, once I click the checklist tool, it creates the checkbox at the beginning of the paragraph, no matter where I have the cursor. Evernote creates the checkbox where the cursor is, requiring me to either move the cursor before hitting the task button, or moving it after. It’s a minor thing, but it works in a much more intuitive fashion than Evernote in this regard.

I also found it easy to navigate through different notes. Each “page” is on the right-hand side in the iPad version, making it easy to switch between notes. What I also liked is that pages aren’t traditional pages as in a physical notebook; instead it’s just a way for you to keep all of the notes in one “page,” but the page scrolls continuously.

It’s also pretty easy to add pictures to notes. I frequently take pictures of whiteboards in meetings and add the picture to the note. You can also create tables (but not charts). It’s very easy to format your note.

The one downside I’ve found with the apps is that you cannot create notebooks within the apps; you have to do it from the web app (or via the Windows OneNote app). It’s not a huge inconvenience, but I hope they add this into a future version.

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So, yeah, no OS X client

The biggest issue Mac users are likely to encounter is there is no native client for OneNote. You can only access OneNote from a web app. That isn’t a huge problem, but for me, office.live.com is one of the websites blocked at work, and OneNote isn’t part of our standard Windows build, so I can’t use the Citrix Follow My Desktop app as a workaround. Also, I’ve tried running OneNote in Codeweavers Crossover, but no joy.

Naturally, if you’re reading this and you use iOS devices, but use a Windows machine and OneNote, this isn’t a problem.

How I use the apps

I’m still floating between Evernote and OneNote. I really, really, like the OneNote iOS app. Evernote’s native OS X client also makes it attractive, but I don’t really like that client – multi-level indents are a pain the arse on the OS X version, but easily done in the iOS version. Go figure.

Evernote is a great dumping ground for my information. I can use a bookmarklet to store a web page in the note. Because of the checklist tool and the multi-level indent on OS X. I’m still not finding Evernote to be good for taking actual notes.

The way I’m leaning now is to use Evernote for my storage of clipped notes and personal items, but using OneNote on iOS only for capturing work-related notes. During the week I’ve been using it, I’ve really fallen in love with the iOS apps. The nicest thing I can say is that the app didn’t really get in my way when I was taking notes.

  1. It’s good to read an article that was written with an open mind. I have found OneNote very useful. I work I use it a lot to convert office docs into pdf files. These type of apps will make it more practical to buy an ipad. If it has an actual use and isn’t just a novelty item I can justify the purchase.

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  2. This is otherwise a nice article but after the NSA PRISM leaks I am utterly floored there was no mention of whether OneNote etc offers the option to encrypt your notes when stirred in the sky drive cloud using YOUR private key (not the cloud owner’s key which could be copied and given to the NSA). Come on GigaOm your readers expect more constructive thinking!

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  3. I love OneNote – but something to do with the sync’ing of the new app causes the size to balloon exponentially. When you have limited space on a locked size device, dedicating upwards of 1GB on a note taking app just isn’t going to cut it. I see the ITunes reviews are littered with folks who have the same issue.

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  4. Hey Mark – This is Dan from the OneNote team, thanks for writing this up! It is always good to see what folks are saying about OneNote. That being said I wanted to ask about the auth prompts that you are seeing. Are by chance running iOS7? There is a known issue where on iOS7 we are prompting over and over, but it doesn’t happen on iOS6. This shouldn’t happen for our customers so I just wanted to find out if you are running the beta or not. If you aren’t maybe we should chat or if we could get some more details.

    Anyhow thanks!

    -Daniel Escapa
    http://blogs.msdn.com/b/descapa/

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    1. Hey Dan

      I’ve been using One Note through all of of high school on my PC and I LOVE it. However, when I came to college, I got a Mac and have been getting by using One Note on Parallels Desktop. But it’s really making my computer very slow. Will there EVER be One Note for Mac? If so, will it be within the next two years?

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  5. Dan from OneNote – will the iOS and web clients ever have the tag search/summary feature that I love so much on the desktop?

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  6. Can onenote search content/words inside a embedded PDF?

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    1. yep!

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  7. Can one import a .ppt file into onenote and take notes next to the slides?
    Thanks,

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  8. Switched from Windows to Mac, and was sorely disappointed to find out no OneNote for Mac.

    Tried importing into Evernote since i had heard so much about it, but OneNote is way way superior than EverNote…

    But without the client for the Mac, its yet another area where I see Microsoft losing a chance to be the ‘de-facto’ standard. Evernote has built a huge company based on just notes in the cloud, and OneNote is far superior and so close, but losing out again because of the incompleteness of its offering.

    I say losing out “again”, because after spending a year waiting for the Office for Mac team to fix the ‘sync calendar’ issue on non-Exchange servers, our entire company of 600 switched to using Google Apps. Yet another nail in the coffin over something so simple that could have been fixed in Outlook for the Mac instead of trying to sabotage it.

    Pity.. just poor decisions made by product managers which cost them the user base.

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