Taking note – a review of note taking apps

In recent months, there has been much discussion, in appropriate circles, about cross-platform note-taking software. Several vendors have seen the opportunity to provide tools for this purpose, but I want to focus on the three that I feel are most dominant:

  • Evernote
  • OneNote [Microsoft]
  • Notes [Apple]

Although I have been using Evernote for quite a while, I like to keep an eye on other options …

I am not overly interested in note-taking functionality as such, but the place in my life for this kind of app is as a sort of “file system on steroids” or freeform database in which I can keep lots of information conveniently. Specifically I seek the following functionality:

  • easily and quickly create a note containing text [formatted or not] or other information
  • attach other files to my notes
  • modify those attached files
  • organize my notes in a logical fashion [and easily reorganize]
  • access my notes from all my devices [Mac, iPad and iPhone, with an option on Windows and Web access]
  • search for a note easily
  • view multiple notes simultaneously

Let’s see how each of the apps fit the bill [for me]:

Evernote really does all those things [and more]. The note organization model is multiple notebooks, which can be grouped into “stacks”, each of which contains a number of notes. A tagging system, coupled with very powerful search tools, can ensure that finding a note is always easy. My only minor reservations with continuing to use Evernote are a history slight software instability [which does seem to mostly be in the past] and wondering about the long-term viability of the company – will they be there for me in the years to come?

OneNote is freely available and addresses many of my needs. It has quite an attractive user interface and features very free format notes, which is an interesting option. As it is part of the Office suite, it is conveniently compatible with other software. The note organization model is a number of notebooks [which can be opened individually and several kept open]. These contain “sections”, which are displayed as tabs and may be grouped together. Each section contains a number of notes. It was particularly noticeable to me, when testing OneNote, that synchronization with the cloud [OneDrive] is glacially slow and its status not always obvious.

Notes is freely available on Mac and iOS, but there is no Windows version or Web access. It has a very clean and simple user interface. The note organization model is a seemingly unlimited hierarchy of folders containing notes [and/or other folders]. Like with all software that uses iCloud, synchronization is automatic and invisible, which I find uncomfortable – I would prefer visibility of its status.

There are two key areas where [currently, at least] Evernote scores and the other apps fail. These are both “showstoppers” for me:

First, there is the question of seeing multiple notes at the same time. Evernote allows me to open more windows – one for each note. Although OneNote can do this on Windows [I believe], it does not support the functionality on Mac. Likewise, Notes has the same limitation.

Second, I make extensive use of attachments to notes. In many cases, I just want to view those files and all three apps can do that. Modification is another matter. Evernote allows me to open an attachment [using the appropriate program] and save my changes back to the attached file [i.e. editing in place]. Actually it can only do this on Mac and Windows, not iOS; that would be a welcome enhancement. OneNote and Notes, however, do not allow in-place editing on any platform. A modified attachment needs to be saved elsewhere and then re-attached to the note.

For many users, these two issues would be of no consequence. But I, for one, will be continuing to use Evernote, whilst keeping an eye on the other apps to see whether they are catching up.

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at https://blogs.sw.siemens.com/embedded-software/2016/04/21/taking-note-a-review-of-note-taking-apps/