I May Have Found What I’m Looking For (Note Taking with Less Friction)

This is a follow-up to my first post, wherein I detailed the increasing friction and my growing complaints with Evernote, after about a decade of use.

When I left off, I confessed switching to Microsoft OneNote, in part due to being free without restriction (except storage) and its integration with Microsoft 365 (née Office) for even more storage and interoperability. Also, after reading countless reviews and comparisons with Evernote, the consensus seemed to be that they’re pretty equivalent in terms of overall functionality, though each with its own workflow differences.

Migrating from Evernote to OneNote: When Is a Notebook Not a Notebook?

Upon starting a OneNote test drive, my first task was to migrate my Evernote archive. Turns out, that was less straightforward than I’d have liked. In fact, there is no import capability built into either the MacOS or web apps. However, I did find a Microsoft OneNote Importer app that will still run under Monterey. It appears to be a preview or beta app. While it does work, it’s a touch wonky. The primary issue is that it’s supposed to be able to connect directly to your local Evernote notebooks, but in practice I couldn’t make that function. Instead, I exported notebooks from Evernote and successfully uploaded those files. This can take a while if you have a lot of notebooks, and big ones might fail or time out. So it was a process that was eventually successful after a few days.

Here’s where a big organizational difference between Evernote and OneNote became all too apparent. “Notebook” means something different in each. I learned this the hard way because OneNote only lets you work in one notebook at a time, with notebooks divided into sections, pages and subpages. Switching between notebooks takes more steps than it does in Evernote. Instead of having all your notebooks in front of you, OneNote only gives you quick access to recents, and opening others is more like opening a file directly from your OneDrive. On the other hand, Evernote always has all your notebooks available to you, but they’re not as cleanly broken up into sections.

In my view there’s no right or wrong between these two schemas. At the same time, to make it easier to navigate all my imported notes, I had to move the contents from most of my imported Evernote notebooks into one main notebook. Again, depending on how big the notebook was this could take a little while – but it never failed. 

In the end, I’ve come around to the OneNote approach to Notebooks. For instance, I like to keep work-related notes quite separate from my personal notes. Having the work notebook just one step less accessible while I’m working in my personal notebook actually helps to keep these worlds more separate. 

Web Clipper

The Evernote web clipper was critical to how I work. I used Evernote like a scrapbook, filing away things like interesting articles, instructions and, especially, recipes. For work it means I can easily review the last few week’s worth of articles in the podcast industry to find ideas for blog or social media posts, or quickly locate a research report from earlier in the year. The Evernote clipper mostly never let me down, but that’s less useful if the platform itself is failing you. So, OneNote’s web clipper would be a vital test.

The verdict is a split judgement. OneNote’s Chrome plug-in clipper is a pretty close facsimile of Evernote’s, letting you clip a full page, article or section. The section functionality, however, is poorer. In Evernote you highlight everything you want to clip, then start the plug-in to capture your selection. It doesn’t work that way in OneNote. Instead you start the plug-in, and then click “Region,” which gives you a selection box like in Photoshop. More annoying, you can only select what’s currently on the screen – you can’t scroll down to capture more. This wasn’t a frequent function I used with Evernote, but I still miss it.

As a Mac user it’s unfortunate that there is no OneNote plug-in for Safari. You can use the share function in the browser and select OneNote, but it’s variable how the content shows up in the note. Often it’s as a PDF rather than having all the text and graphics right in the note itself. The Chrome experience is preferable. 

There’s also a Firefox add-on clipper that functions identically to the Chrome one.

Finding What I’m Looking For

The real test, of course, is if I can find what I’m looking for. This was a place where Evernote was becoming very frustrating. I’m pleased that OneNote has passed this test, for me. More often than I was experiencing with Evernote as of late, I’m finding things quickly, without a spinning wheel or multiple versions of mis-synched notes. 

As I noted at the outset, I’m not Microsoft fanboy, and OneNote was nowhere near the top candidate when I first started searching for an Evernote replacement. Switching platforms is almost never straightforward, and I’m not certain any other replacement would have been smoother. Yet, as I adjust to OneNote’s quirks and begin enjoying it’s features more – for instance, the styling and markup is definitely easier and more powerful to use than Evernote’s – it’s turned out to be a good choice for me.

Conclusion: No One-Size Fits All

Would I recommend OneNote, either on its own or as an Evernote replacement? The answers is a very definitive, “it depends.” If you’re in the Mac and iOS ecosystem, the basic Apple Notes app might do the trick. It lacks much in the way of organization and markup features, but it syncs across devices and starts up and is ready for note taking almost immediately.

If you’re less Apple-centric or need more than basic notes, it’s worth pointing out that OneNote offers more functionality for free than Evernote. In particular, there’s no limitation on the number of devices that can sync your notes – Evernote limits you to just two unless you have a paid account. OneNote does have a storage limit on free accounts, but adding a few hundred gigs is cheaper than even Evernote’s cheapest plan. 

If you’re a Microsoft 365 (Office) and/or OneDrive user, then OneNote may make a lot more sense, since your OneDrive space is integrated with OneNote. And here’s the thing: you can buy a full year of personal Microsoft 365 for less than a year subscription to Evernote – along with 2 TB of storage, you also get Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Excel, in particular, has become the app which doesn’t have an easy alternative. So the total math makes a lot of sense for me.

Of course, there are other alternatives like Notion and Zoho Notebook. I didn’t have the time nor patience to really test them out. So if someone says that either of these is superior to OneNote, I have no reason to doubt it.

Ultimately, a note-taking and keeping platform is a tool, and it either works for you or not. It takes a lot of pressure and friction to force me to change tools. Some people enjoy trying out new things, trying to optimize or discover the best possible app. I don’t. I find it painful.

That’s a frustration I’ve often had with project management – those who are really into it are often on the hunt for the next best platform, dragging teams from Basecamp to Airtable to Clickup to Monday.com, as they try to optimize little things that most other users find less important than having a stable platform. All that said, there’s nothing wrong with being peripatetic with your notes platform if it’s only affecting you. Me? I’m only going to try out another notes platform if I’m forced to.

In my awkward embrace of Microsoft, after years of avoidance, I’m making OneNote work for me. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it (I hope).