Microsoft OneNote for Mac — is it an Evernote contender?

OneNote is Microsoft's answer to Evernote and other note-taking software. It's available for iOS and OS X (along with Android and Windows Phone), but I'm going to focus my attention on the Mac version. Is it a viable alternative to Evernote? Let's take a look.

OneNote requires you to use a (free) Microsoft account to create and maintain your notes. The notes are stored online, which makes synchronization and collaboration easy, as long as you (and anyone else you're working with) are connected. The notebooks themselves are stored on your OneDrive account — both good and bad, depending on how much you need to work offline.

OneNote is free to download and use, provided you have a Microsoft account. You get a free 15 GB repository on your Microsoft OneDrive to hold your OneNote contents (this is up from 7 GB when OneNote debuted for the Mac in 2014). You can buy more storage either a la carte as a monthly fee or by subscribing to Office 365, which includes 1 terabyte of OneDrive storage (and nets you the latest copies of Microsoft Office for Mac, still the now-ancient 2011 version as of this writing). For $9.99 a month, Office 365 for Home isn't a bad deal, especially considering you can install the complete suite of Office apps on up to five computers (Macs or Windows PCs).

OneNote's interface is modern and clean, evocative of the Metro user interface that Microsoft has employed in Windows 8 and newer applications. Microsoft's a very active iOS app developer, and OneNote for Mac follows many of the user interface conventions employed in its iOS counterpart. That creates a consistent look and feel that, while not entirely native to OS X Yosemite, isn't too far off the mark either.

OneNote distinguishes collections of notes using the familiar notebook paradigm. You can create an unlimited number of notebooks, and each notebook can have an unlimited number of pages associated with it.

Creating a note in OneNote is as simple as just positioning the cursor and clicking, then beginning to type. OneNote takes a freestyle approach to page layout: Wherever you click the cursor is where OneNote creates a text field that you can begin to populate. OneNote doesn't take a rigid, linear page-based approach to note taking, so you can get pretty wild and wooly with the placement of text and images on your notes if you want to.

You can create subpages and sub-sections, reorganizing your notes however you'd like. OneNote sports myriad formatting features to make your text look however you'd like it to, as well. You can embed images and you can also create tables that can include some basic calculations. It's no replacement for Excel, but it's good enough to get some basic tabulation work done if you need to.

Unlike Evernote, OneNote doesn't have any easy way of embedding web pages into your notes, which makes it a less-than-ideal tool for collecting info off the web for later collation and digestion. You can embed PDFs after a fashion, as "printouts" that can then be annotated. Files can be attached as well. Late last year, Microsoft added the ability to open notebooks stored on SharePoint Servers, as well. You can share notes with users outside your workflow by embedding the note in an email or by sending links; Microsoft offers the option of a read-only link or an editable link as well.

I don't have any experience with the Windows version of OneNote, but I've read numerous complaints from users of both versions that suggest the Mac version comes up a bit short, especially in areas like saving text formatting options, document and file importing and attachment and more. As in all things, your mileage may vary in this regard.

It's weird to think of Microsoft as underdog, but they really are when it comes to this kind of app. The 800 pound gorilla of the note taking app market is Evernote. To that end, Evernote has a better fleshed-out ecosystem of apps, accessories and tools to help you get the most out of it.

OneNote is a good start as a Mac app from Microsoft. If you're invested in the ever-growing constellation of Microsoft cloud services, or if you use a Microsoft-heavy workflow at work or school, OneNote is certainly worth exploring — especially for the price.

  • Microsoft OneNote for Mac - Free
Peter Cohen