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Among the many options for storing information digitally, the biggest players in the note-taking software market are OneNote and Evernote. These applications come in handy for taking notes, making lists, managing projects, storing and organizing information, and sharing it with others.
OneNote has been part of Microsoft’s Office suite since 2003. It emulates the way a traditional binder works, with pages of notes organized into sections and stored in notebooks. OneNote is unique in that it allows you to add content anywhere on the page. Sadly, it is not included in the Mac version of Office, but Microsoft has released mobile apps for iPhone and iPad.
Evernote opened to the public in final form in 2008, and it has since grown quickly to 20 million users. Evernote can store all kinds of information in notes, including Web clippings and attached files as well as audio and video notes. With desktop apps for Windows and OSX, full-featured mobile apps for Android, iOS, Blackberry, and WebOS, and a strong Web app, Evernote’s best feature may be its cross-platform compatibility. It’s also free, with extra features for users who sign up for a $45/year Premium account.
Both Evernote and OneNote cover the basics of organizing and storing information, but each goes about it in a different way. I have both programs installed on my desktop, laptop, Windows tablet, iPad, and Android phone (I do have to use a third-party program to access OneNote on the Android phone), and both applications play an active role in my writing and teaching.
Basic Text Notes
Text notes are the most basic form of note-taking, and the format you’re most likely to use if you carry a laptop to meetings. Both programs handle text as a basic word processor does, with rich text editing options.
Evernote's text editing interface is clean and easy to navigate, with options similar to what you would find in a Web editor like Google Docs. When you start a new text note in Evernote, you’ll just get a blank space to write in, but rather than being divided into pages like a Word document, the text appears as one giant block.
OneNote's options are very similar to Microsoft's Word, including the ribbon interface. If you're used to Word, finding options in OneNote should be similar, but the look is more cluttered than Evernote's interface. One major difference with OneNote’s layout is that text is contained in boxes, which you can move anywhere on the page. You can drag and reorganize your thoughts around the page without having to cut and paste.
Winner: Evernote is the better tool for basic text notes due to its cleaner interface. If you need more complex formatting, OneNote would be the better choice.
Sometimes you need to add more to your notes than words alone--a chart or an image, say, or even an audio recording of the meeting. Both OneNote and Evernote let you add images, audio, video, and files including Word documents or PDFs to your notes.
In Evernote, files, audio, and video are added as attachments to notes, while images are added inline. You can add images from your computer, or take a new snapshot with your webcam. Audio attachments are limited to 2 hours in length if you’re a free user, and 4 hours for Premium users. Video is limited to Premium users only.
With OneNote, you can add multimedia items anywhere within a note. Starting an audio or video recording will create an icon for the file in the note, and selecting that icon will bring up playback controls. Images also appear in line with your notes, and you can resize and reposition them. When you drag a file into your note, you choose between inserting a link to the original file, inserting a copy of the file onto the page, or inserting the file as a printout so you can read it directly from within OneNote and even add notes on top. All of these elements are independent on the page and can be moved around separately.
Winner: Evernote is great for grabbing quick audio recordings if you just have your phone with you, but OneNote syncs your notes to the audio or video playback and can even index spoken words for later search, making it a better reference tool for longer recordings.
Sometimes handwriting notes as if you had pen and paper is the most comfortable way to store information. It can be especially handy in a meeting to have a tablet flat on the desk and write with a pen, rather than having a laptop open, creating a barrier between you and the other attendees. Unlike pen and paper, "ink notes" in either Evernote or OneNote are indexed and searchable just like notes you’ve typed in.
With Evernote, you can choose to create an ink note to take handwritten notes, but that's all you'll be able to do with it. Ink cannot be mixed with any other type of content using the desktop application, and you cancreate ink notes only with the Windows desktop application. You’ll be able to view your ink notes on other platforms, but not create new ones. Some mobile apps that sync with Evernote also support ink notes, like the Notes app on the HTC Flyer tablet, but those are third-party.
OneNote has a far more robust inking system thanks to Microsoft's years of work with tablet PCs and handwriting input. You can place ink anywhere in a note, including on top of documents you have printed in. The ink is contained in a box like text, and can be selected and moved anywhere on the page. You can leave your ink as ink, or have it converted to text. OneNote also has more color and pen-size options including highlighters and shapes. One of my favorite tools in OneNote is the ability to add blank space between things you've already written--you don't have to try cramming some added thought in between two lines, you can just create more space.
Winner: OneNote wins hands down on handling ink. If you like writing by hand or need to mark up documents, OneNote is the clear choice.
Templates are great for a variety of situations. Meeting notes, calendars, to-do lists, charts, forms, and reports are all much easier to create if you already have a template in place. OneNote comes with a variety of templates, and you can also make new templates from any existing page. You can also choose from a variety of lined and ruled backgrounds for taking handwritten notes. Evernote will give you a blank page for typed notes, or lined yellow paper for ink notes. It offers no other options.
Winner: OneNote wins this one by default. The best you can do with Evernote is creating lists with checkboxes for To-Do items.
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