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OneNote for iPhone Review: Overly Simple Note Taking

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Yesterday, Microsoft launched its first Office app for iOS, a mobile version of the digital notebook application OneNote. If you’ve never heard of it, it may be because you’re using the Mac (s aapl) version of Office(s msft), which lacks OneNote, greatly reducing the usability of the iOS app.

Microsoft asserts that “78 million PCs in the U.S. have OneNote,” which, while not the same thing as having 78 million users, is still impressive. But the pool of potential overall Microsoft Office users from Mac and PC is more impressive still. Having tried OneNote, I’d suggest it may be the “practice” Office iOS app for Microsoft, before the team attempts to bring in that larger user base through Word, Excel, and PowerPoint apps. But unfortunately that “practice” feel doesn’t help the OneNote succeed as an app in and of itself.

OneNote requires an active Windows Live account to work at all. A Windows Live account allows automatic syncing between OneNote on an iOS device and Windows Live SkyDrive, which then can be synced with OneNote in Office (which, remember, is only available in the Windows version). There are no other way (like email) by which to send notes from an iOS device to a Mac or PC, so cross easy syncing off your list with OneNote.

After logging in once to Windows Live, the admittedly gorgeous OneNote Home screen appears, but looks can be deceiving. On the left, the Home screen shows a list of “notebooks,” which act as directories for your notes. Unfortunately, you can’t create notebooks in OneNote for iOS. You must use OneNote in Office, or use the OneNote web app at On the left are the contents of the Day-to-Day notebook broken down into sections. Think of sections as those little colored tabs on pages you might divide a physical notebook with. You can’t create or modify these in OneNote for iOS, either.

OneNote does perform well when it comes to actually taking notes, though. While OneNote can be used in landscape mode, you won’t have much screen real estate to keep track of what you’re doing. OneNote works much better, and looks just great, in portrait mode. As seen above, OneNote has options for both bullet lists and checkbox lists, as well as integration with the iPhone camera. The camera option is especially nice, as you can take a picture and have that be the subject of its own note. Apple needs to “borrow” that feature for Notes in iOS 5.

Unfortunately, even note taking in OneNote can at times be frustrating. Wouldn’t it be great if those ring binders on the left of the note indicated a potential action, like turning a page for the next or previous note? Instead, the only way you can get to different notes is by forever going back and forth through lists.

OneNote for iOS is free, for now, but Microsoft makes no promises about the future. If you want to be help encourage Microsoft to develop Office apps for iOS, get it now. If you want a full-featured notes app that really works, there’s Evernote. It’s free, but the premium service at $45 per year significantly increases what the app can do. For Mac users with limited needs, especially those with MobileMe, Apple’s Notes remains the best basic note-taking app. As for OneNote, for now it’s little more than an extension of the Windows application, better for viewing notes than actually creating, organizing, and sharing thoughts.

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3 Responses to “OneNote for iPhone Review: Overly Simple Note Taking”

  1. To me, OneNote has always been a very useful tool for organizing and sharing ideas. So I was very happy to see that now there is an iPhone app.

    I must admit it took me some time to understand about what this app can do and what not. But before integrating it into workflows I wanted to make sure about.

    So, not to have wasted my time, I’d like to share my experiences with you. My main objective was to establish a sync chain for some notebooks starting at my local PC, leading over Skydrive (access anywhere with a browser and share notebooks with others), ending on my beloved iPhone. And it should work the other way round as well. So, here are my findings:

    First of all, I think it was a clever decision by Microsoft to offer the app for free. And I am pretty sure that it will stay free, I tell you why: The app only works with OneNote files in the office 2010 format, and synching with the Web is only possible via Microsoft’s Skydrive. Two good reasons to spend some money and get Office 2010…

    Using the app: It is a little disappointing that the app has problems with showing simple tables, as this is a very helpful way of structuring thoughts. Also, when you access your notebooks directly on Skydrive, the web app is not fully compatible with OneNote.

    A hint for setting up the iPhone app:
    Before starting the app for the first time, I’d suggest to create a OneNote notebook in your personal documents folder on Skydrive, named “Personal (Web)”. If this notebook does not exist, it will be created at the first startup of the app. When letting the app create this notebook, I encountered sync problems using my local OneNote application: I couldn’t see any of this notebook’s folders (so, no chance to reorganize the quick notes I took on the iPhone).

    The setup process for the sync chain was pretty tricky, as you have to take into account different behaviour of OneNote on your PC, on Skydrive and on your iPhone.
    Still I think this is a very useful tool. Yes, you cannot reorganize tabs, create new notebooks with the iPhone app. But do you really want to do that while you’re off the desk? You’d rather want to leave a quick note for your co-workers or read their newest updates. And that’s what it does.

  2. I’m surprised that Microsoft didn’t come out with an iPad-only version. The iPad UI and screen size is more suited to where OneNote is placed, midway between a text editor and Word, than it is the iPhone with its many limitations.