The reality of 2016 is there are a lot of great note-taking apps on the market. Depending on your priorities, will depend on which app becomes right for you. I've found there to be two very popular apps on the market today. Evernote and OneNote. Both have very similar functionality and in a lot of ways have tried to compete with each other.
In writing this, I want to make clear some assumptions about my environment in both Evernote and OneNote. My system is Mac based. I'm using OSX El Capitan (10.11.3) and the most current version at publishing of both Evernote (6.5) and OneNote for Mac (15.20). Later in this post, I'll talk about mobile, but for the most part, I'm discussing the differences of these two apps based on the Mac ecosystem. This is important to mention because the Windows version of OneNote varies widely from it's Mac cousins. I'll discuss that towards the end. For Evernote, I'm using a Evernote Premium Account and for OneNote I'm using a Office 365 Business account.
My goal in this article, is not to figure a winner as both programs are excellent. My objective is to identify the feature and functional differences to allow users to make the best choice for their priorities. Also, let me point out that I'm not going to be covering specific "how-to" issues. I've grouped my thoughts into several categories. Special thanks to the members of the Mac Power User's Google+ community for their feedback on topics of discussion.
Both apps create a level of organization and provide some structure to the system. Evernote's approach on this is Notebooks, Notes and Tags. Notebooks are the primary container in which notes live within. Notebooks and notes can have a unique name. Notes can also have tags making for a variable structure system. Additionally Notebooks can be grouped into a Stack that takes the Notebooks and puts them into a group. Evernote has not done a great job with Stacks in my opinion. They are displayed as parent/child relationships, however in some areas of functionality, the Stack relationship is removed and only the Notebook names are revealed. Specifically this is frustrating in the web clipping systems.
OneNote uses a similar but I feel more intuitive way to organize content. The Notebook is the parent container for each major Section. For example, I have Notebooks for each functional area of my business. Within each Notebook there are Sections. Sections are tabs at the top of the screen (similar to tabs in a three-ring binder). Within each tab there are pages listed on the side. Each Notebook, tab and page can have a unique name. For pages, the name is the title at the top of each page. Pages can be manipulated to re-order and duplicate. In addition sub-pages can be created that are indented slightly from the main page. Although I don't use this often I see the potential of this when working with large projects. All elements of the OneNote system are color-based and both Notebooks and Sections have the ability to manipulate the colors. In addition, Section groups can also be created to add additional organization. Sections can be re-ordered by dragging them across.
OneNote has an additional level of complexity that can be a benefit, but also can be over-complex. It considers each Notebook, a separate file that has to be opened individually. This differs as when you sign into Evernote, you see everything sync down. In OneNote you have to manually open each Notebook you have saved in OneDrive and let them sync. Where this is beneficial is if you have a computer set up for a specific function (such as at home) and you don't want to see notes or Notebooks from work. Later in the Section on OneNote for Windows, I'll explain why this has been designed this way. OneNote will push a notification if you create a new Notebook on another device that isn't open on the current device and ask if you want to open this.
At the core of both programs is the ability to users to record text. At an extremely base level, both apps do this very well. Evernote's text entry is very linear. Very much like a text editor, text is paragraph based. OneNote has a different approach. Although the text entry is also paragraph based (linear), the user can drop text boxes anywhere in the note. Microsoft calls it an "Infinite Canvas". The note canvas is literally that and anything can be moved around such as images, tables and text boxes. There are also no size constraints so the canvas can stretch in either direction as more content is added. Each time something new is added (text, picture, table) a virtual box is created around it making it easy to rearrange the look of the canvas. I find this extremely useful. For example, you can add an image of handwritten notes, and then add text to the right or left, summarizing them or adding tasks.
OneNote also offers the ability to insert shapes, audio recordings, photos and tables right into the Infinite Canvas. The shapes feature is really nice as it also provides arrows etc when drafting flowcharts etc. There is a dedicated button to stamp the date/time on the page as well.
Currently, this is a feature, only available on the mobile platforms. I find Evernote's version of this to be an afterthought, where OneNote's handwriting is at it's core. Because OneNote was developed around the Microsoft Surface product line, the handwriting features are significantly better. Some of that has been captured in the iOS version of OneNote. Also because Evernote's treatment of a sketch is a photo, it makes it difficult to mix handwriting and text or other elements in the same note. As OneNote treats sketching as an object, it's fairly seamless to have handwriting on the same page as text, photos or clippings.
I find the outlining features to be extremely important for a note taking environment. Many of my notes, start or end up as an outline. I see the success of outlining to be flexible. Both apps have outlining capabilities however the OneNote version is more intuitive. Because, OneNote is born out of the MS Office ecosystem the look and feel is very "Word-y". Both have similar interfaces for creating bullets or numbering. OneNote has a specific button to adjust the indentation. Tab also works to indent but outdenting is more challenging on Evernote. The infinite canvas on OneNote also allows for multiple outlines to be made alongside each other or alongside an image or table.
Both Evernote and OneNote have list making abilities for adding checkboxes into notes. I find this to be almost equal in both systems. That said, lately Evernote's system has been somewhat unpredictable in functionality. Sometimes adding a checkbox to a list in Evernote is flawless, other times, not so much. OneNote has a very similar system to adding a checkbox to a list. The one thing I like about OneNote in this regard is if you highlight a list of bullets or just a list of items and click the "to-do" button, it will add boxes next to each line or bullet. Evernote's version of this "sometimes" puts a check box for the first item.
As an added feature, OneNote consider's the checkbox to be a "tag". Let's make sure we are clear that their definition of a tag is very different than the tag system in Evernote. Other tags that can be added in OneNote are "Question", "Client Request", "Phone Number" etc. they are assigned at the line level so you can throw a tag (such as Client Request) next to a line in a note and it will punctuate that for follow up later.
For many users, adding tables into notes is critical. Evernote has worked really hard on making this solution work and it does, it's just not that polished. In Evernote, you can pretty quickly add a table and manipulate it's look and feel. I find that doing anything to change the width or the columns to be challenging but it's possible and with some patience, effective. OneNote is a much more polished interface, and it should be. With Excel as a sibling in the Microsoft Office suite, Microsoft knows how spreadsheets work. Adding a table within OneNote is a breeze and it's very easy to manipulate. Just like in Word, whenever a table is active, a special table tab comes to life in the ribbon to help users work with the table. Although close to Excel, OneNote doesn't offer the same mathematics and calculations functions in Excel. You can't use formulas in a OneNote table to create calculations. This is defiantly something I would like to see improved in future versions.
Copying and pasting from Excel into OneNote is fairly seamless. It transfers all values and formatting as well. You can do the same thing with Evernote, however it adds it as formatted text, not as a table. This means it's not easy to work with it once you've added it.
Both Evernote and OneNote allow you to add a recording to your note, based on your computers audio system. In Evernote this is simple, however the button to make this happen is hard to find depending on the size of the Evernote window. Once you click it, a recording ribbon opens up and you must then start the recording. OneNote has a large button on the insert tab of the ribbon for "Audio Recording". When clicked, it automatically inserts the recording file where your cursor is and begins recording. OneNote adds the feature to add a bookmark to the recording which I find useful. It adds a note below the file where the bookmarks are loaded. It also adds the feature to skip ahead or back +/- 15 seconds when playing back.
For a long time, I'd been trying to use Evernote as an alternative to Dropbox to store files alongside notes and clippings. There's a pretty small spectrum for when this "works" for me. That said: I think a lot of people add files to these systems and the functionality is important. There's a vast difference to both of these apps which is extremely important. You can drag just about any file into Evernote. Evernote will suck the file up into the local Evernote storage on your computer and upload to the cloud. If you open the file (from within Evernote) and make changes, as long as you save back to the original location that file will be saved as-is and then the next time it's opened from within Evernote, it will open just as saved. Big difference when you add a file to OneNote. When a file is added to OneNote, it looks the same as Evernote, by adding an icon of the file with it's filename into the note. The big difference here is that file is now Read-Only. If you want to change that file, you must re-save to an alternate location and then re-add to OneNote. Functionally this was a huge learning curve and for me, forced me to re-think my file storage strategy. The one nice thing about OneNote is when you drag a PDF into the note, it will ask you, to insert the file or a printout. If you choose the latter, it will display the PDF in-line as well as adding an icon for the file. Evernote has similar functionality but the interface is not as intuitive.
There are implications as well on the file storage side. Evernote limits it's users in the file storage amount, based on the type of account you have. At the time of this post an Evernote premium account ($49.99/year) offers 10GB of new storage each month. For a majority of users, this threshold is more than enough. OneNote's platform (based in OneDrive) offers 5GB of space (total) at the free tier and then up from there. I'm using a Office365 Business account so I get 1TB of storage with that package, along with subscriptions for Word, Excel etc.
Both OneNote and Evernote offer the ability to secure notes within the systems. Evernote's system allows users to encrypt text within a note. By highlighting specific text and then adding encryption to the text, the user can protect it's content. Evernote uses a 128-bit AES key to encrypt the text you select. OneNote's approach is broader. In OneNote only a Section of a Notebook can be encrypted (tabs at the top). The nice part of this is it then protects every page or sub-page within that Section. OneNote also uses a 128-bit AES key for encryption at this level. I've found the OneNote version of this to be easier to implement and use specifically when crossing over to a mobile device. OneNote also offers the ability to use TouchID to authenticate a secure note on IOS once you've authenticated once with the password.
So you've got 8 years of notes in one system. Now you need something you did 5 years ago. This is a great test of how well a service's search capabilities work. Both Evernote and OneNote offer search and they both work pretty well. Evernote offers the ability to search within everything, the current Notebook or just "my notes". This is often nice to have this level of granularity but sometimes just becomes over-complex. OneNote searches everything. It will break out the items that are in Notebooks, not currently open on the Mac which is nice.
On this: bonus points for Evernote as they have a Google pairing. When you install the clipper extension in your web browser, it can bring up searches of your Evernote system right in a Google search. These are private results but still, a nice search system. This is dependent on having the clipper installed and being logged in to the clipper. I've found that the more notes you have in Evernote, the less productive the clipper/Google search feature is.
Both OneNote and Evernote have web-based versions of themselves that make sharing notes and Notebooks easier. In this regard, both apps are very similar in how they share. You can share the Notebook (in both apps) with another user on the system (i.e. Evernote or OneDrive). This makes the most sense when collaborating with others on your team. Evernote's business subscription offers significantly more control of shared Notebooks. OneDrive does not have any program, similar to Evernote Business, at this point. Both systems can also generate a link where a user can access the Notebook via the web, without logging in. In Evernote, it will generate a link that is at the note level. In OneNote that link is at the Notebook level. OneNote's public link can be set to either view only or view/edit. Evernote allows for fast sharing of links to social media platforms such as LinkedIn and Facebook. OneNote does not have this inert capability.
I actually discovered Evernote many years ago when I went looking for a solution to clip things I'd found on the web. Evernote has this down to a science. The clipper can be installed in any major browser and permits you to choose what part of the page to clip (article, full page, bookmark, screenshot) and then asks you what to do with it such as what Notebook or tag. When you go into Evernote to view the clipping, for 98% of my experience, it clips the text exactly as it looks on the web (excluding any Flash or Java components). It also adds a link to the original website in the note header. OneNote also has a clipper which you can choose either a full page, region or article version and then what Notebook, and Section to put it in. It does not let you drill down to the page level so each new clipping must be added as a new page. The nice part of the clipping in OneNote is it saves it as an object that can be copied/pasted into another page if you would like. I've found OneNote's clipping system to be just slightly less reliable than Evernote at this point. Incidentally, the share sheet version of OneNote in Safari is still extremely buggy as of March 2016 and I would not recommend it. That said, Microsoft has developed clipping extensions for all the major web browsers, including Safari and Chrome.
Both systems offer collaboration options. In OneNote collaboration is done through the OneDrive system. Multiple users can be working in the same note at the same time. In fact, OneNote offers the ability to turn on edit highlighting to show which user's initials have made changes or additions. OneNote's deployment of collaboration is very similar to Google's online office products such as GoogleDocs. Evernote does offer collaboration through the inert service. That said it does not allow more than one user in a note at the time. If your a Evernote Business subscriber, this becomes more integrated.
This is an exciting time for web services, such as IFTTT and Zapier. With these basically free services, we can have the internet automate tasks that used to be done by hand. Both Evernote and OneNote are supported in both IFTTT and Zapier as services. In fact, one of the Zaps that's published on the OneNote service page in Zapier is the ability to copy Evernote notes to OneDrive. Through creative programming, both of these services offer a great platform for web service automation into either Evernote or OneNote.
Both services offer a method of emailing into them. Evernote offers a unique email address to the user when it's added to an email (in cc or bcc) the contents of that email will be added to Evernote. OneNote is similar but its not a unique email address. OneNote requires you to register the email addresses you'll use with the system and then any email sent to firstname.lastname@example.org will automatically be added to the Notebook and Section you choose. Evernote gives you the ability to add @Notebook and #tag in the subject line for faster organization. OneNote doesn't have the same capability. Also depending on how you use the system, the registration of the emails may be a problem, specifically if you've given others permission to add to your system.
So you want to leave, it's a good idea to have a plan of attack before you get too far in on how you plan to export from a system. Evernote makes this fairly easy. By selecting all notes you can export either into an XML file (.enex) or to HTML files that can be located anywhere. Note that if you choose the XML option, it preserves the folder structure and exports a single file. If you choose HTML, it will export each note as a separate file. If files are embedded in the note, it will export them separately into a subfolder. On the Mac this isn't as easy for OneNote. You can export individual notes into PDF's and store wherever you want. Depending on the number of notes you have, this could take some time. If you're brave enough to explore the Windows version of OneNote, this becomes exponentially easier.
This is a good news/bad news area. Good news for Evernote users is Evernote is fully scriptable and can be scripted easily with AppleScript, Automator, Keybord Meistro and thus Hazel. I've used Katie Floyd's model for paperless for several years with Evernote to keep my bills and financial correspondence together. This is one of the ways that Evernote stands out. Now to the bad news. I'm not an expert at AppleScript however can hold my own. I've not been able to find any way to make AppleScript work with OneNote... ...yet. A quick search of the internet bears me out on this as it looks like there hasn't been anything developed for this using AppleScript. Microsoft and Apple seem to be getting closer to a productive partnership in 2016 so I'm hopeful that this eventually opens up.
Both Evernote and OneNote have mobile apps on iOS supporting iPhone and iPad. Both apps are very functional and bug free (currently) and have a good reflection of features available on the desktop. OneNote's iPad app is built for handwriting. Either with a stylus or a Apple Pencil (on the iPad Pro) it's exceptional at replicating handwriting. Additionally you can add text alongside handwriting on the infinite canvas. Evernote's app does offer a similar feature however I find it to be not as accurate and the handwriting portion to not replicate my actual handwriting.
I tend to do a lot of note-taking on paper and then sending to a note service. Both OneNote and Evernote have in-app ability to snap a photo of a page and create a note around it. Evernote's service will actually OCR my handwriting (on a premium plan). OneNote does not have this feature. Mobile could actually be an entire comparison blog post.
There are some wildcards that I want to throw on the table. Evernote offers a couple unique features that can be used in the right circumstances. Presentation mode allows the user to create a series of notes and turn them into a very rudimentary presentation "deck". I've used this in the past and in a pinch, it works just fine. I don't think I would use this for a polished presentation but for a staff or board meeting this works well to turn notes into a visual component. Evernote also offers a location based "atlas" for notes. You can view notes by the location where they were entered. This is nice but I've never really taken advantage of this. OneNote does not offer either of these services natively.
For me, there's a place in my life for both Evernote and OneNote. I will continue to use Evernote for web clippings and research as well as my automated paperless workflow. I've moved all my meeting notes and work brainstorming over to OneNote. Each user will have to make the decision how they want to use each system. Neither system is equal and there are good and bad things about both. I'm hopeful that OneNote will continue to develop and allow me to utilize a single system. For me, the infinite canvas was a life changing feature once I wrapped my head around it. I will most likely downgrade from Evernote Premium to Evernote Plus later this year.
For Geeks Only:
I work in a PC based company. There are two mac users in the entire enterprise, myself being one of them. This causes me to be slightly more aware of the PC side of computing than most Mac users, to allow me to survive with a Mac in the office. I run a Macbook Air (late 2014) running El Capitan. There are a couple of apps that I run through Windows 10 on Parallels and OneNote is one of them (but not all the time). If you're in a similar situation, read on.
There is a huge delta between the OneNote version on Windows and Mac. Although Mac seems to be catching up, they are very different apps on the two different platforms. On Windows, OneNote is deeply embedded in the office programs which I see as adding significant features. For example: there's a button in MS Outlook that can add any email right into OneNote. OneNote creates a new page with a nifty little header containing the email header info. Also if you're in Outlook and have an appointment open, there is a button to add meeting notes right into OneNote. Pretty slick.
Remember earlier I mentioned that you couldn't have formulas compile in a OneNote table on Mac? On the Windows version you can embed a working Excel spreadsheet right into the note with full excel functionality (pivot tables and all). The windows version also has features for adding screen clipping, internet video and video recording from your webcam right into the app. Windows also allows for you to use page templates. Similar to stationary, it lets you have pre-populated fields such as project overview and meeting notes.
On the Mac OneNote must be used in conjunction with OneDrive or Sharepoint Online. On the windows version, a OneNote Notebook can be viewed as a single file and moved around. For example, I have a couple of notes that are stored on our servers at work (due to security of the data). We have them running on our server and can open right within OneNote for Windows. This also gives you greater export features. In OneNote for Windows you have the capability of exporting at the Notebook level to either PDF, XPS or HTML.
If you're already running windows on a virtual machine, I highly recommend checking out OneNote on the PC side.