I really like the kind of product Evernote is: It's basically a very smart cloud account. And the thing that makes Evernote very smart is its pretty face, i.e. the application that you use to create notes, drag-and-drop files, or organize your digital assets by keyword tag or by "notebook" (i.e. file folder). Evernote's got a desktop app which can easily double as your text editor by default, it's got a web-based interface, and it's got a mobile app. It's a great tool for creating and maintaining a portable computing environment.
Evernote is my de facto workspace, my vade mecum, my backup brain. It's also a product with an uncertain future.
Granted, a company that's slid from being a billion-dollar concern to merely a multimillion-dollar one is hardly at risk of going out of business tomorrow. But it is a company that is under pressure to make money for their investors, and to do that, they might shut down parts of the business, monkey with the core product line, or raise the pricing.
If I don't think about my information hoard proactively, I could find myself in a position later where I can't get to it or can't afford to get to it.
So I decided to see if OneNote — which is beautifully integrated with Microsoft Office 365 — could turn my head from Evernote.
To compare how these two work, I picked ten tasks that a typical user would require of an information-management system, then ran each app through its paces. In the interest of full disclosure: I have an Evernote Premium account ($50/year) and a Microsoft Office 365 Business subscription ($99/year). I used both of my personal accounts to run the tests.
And -- this is key -- I'm using both programs on a MacBook Pro running OS 10.11.
Today, we'll look at the first three tasks and see how each program performs.
TASK #1: HOW TO TAKE A NOTE WITHIN THE APP
The note is the most basic unit in both these information-management systems. So which one allows for better note-taking in the app?
How you take notes in Evernote
It's really basic: Each note is basically the equivalent of opening a text document and beginning to type. There are a number of ways you can format your note, but you're basically stuck in the type-until-you're done mode, with the ability to create tables or drop-and-drag images as needed.
Evernote's courted the write-with-a-stylus crowd with its Penultimate note-taking app, but you do have to set all that up and get a stylus that integrates with the system too. It's a little extra work.
How you take notes in OneNote
There's no question: OneNote rules this category. The entire app works on a notebook metaphor (more on that in task #2), and treating each note like it's a piece of scratch paper is a genius approach: You can have a page devoted to, say, "What I do today," and have three separate chunks of text to handle different lists.
Here, I turned different to-do lists into different sections on the same page. This is great for items that are related but not necessarily linear in organization.
You can easily drop in images and rearrange a layout so it looks more attractive. And what I really loved about OneNote was how easy it was to drop in data that had been formatted as a table elsewhere, and to continue editing that as a table. Sure, Evernote lets you create or drop in tables, but monkeying with the table with regards to how it affects the whole page layout is much easier in OneNote.
Also, if you're someone who relies on a stylus to draw in your notes, OneNote is much easier to manage out of the box.
TASK #2: HOW TO TAG AND ORGANIZE NOTES
To me, this is the most significant factor for any information-organization system, because unless the tool works in a way that makes sense to the user, it's not going to be a very effective tool. Evernote and OneNote offer sharply differing ways of looking at information and how it's organized.
How do I organize things in Evernote?
The short answer is "Any way I want."
The longer answer is this: Individual notes can be tagged with keywords you choose, and you can group your notes into notebooks. You can group the notebooks into stacks if that works for you. Evernote's the most effective when you think of it as a database, one which you use by tagging each item and adding an additional notebook "filter" for future searches. Combine the keyword tags, the notebooks and the search tool, and you've got multiple ways of finding and aggregating collections of information.
Evernote tip: I switch to the "View by keyword" screen from time to time, rearrange my keywords alphabetically, then see if I've inadvertently duplicated a general idea by giving it related names (I once caught "working dads" and "working fathers" this way) or capitalizing one but not the other. This helps keep my tags useful.
Where Evernote could frustrate people is in its fluidity. For people who are not naturally hierarchy-minded or orderly with information, Evernote's "whatever works for you" structure could lead to digital disorganization. But it remains a very powerful database for people who are good about assigning tags to their notes.
How do I organize things in OneNote?
If Evernote's prevailing organizational ethos is "stick a tag on it and let search sort it out," OneNote's is more tightly hierarchical. Each notebook has a section; each section has notes. You can also craft section groups within each notebook, or page groups within a sector. I found this strict organizational hierarchy useful when pulling together an editorial guide for future projects.
The definition of "tag" is also very different from Evernote. In the former, a tag is the keyword you've assigned to a note. In OneNote, the tags are not meant to be keynotes. The tags are action-oriented; nearly all of them answer the question, "What do you want to do with this piece of information?" They include things like "To Do," "Discuss With Manager," "Remember for Later," "Send in Email."
In OneNote, "tag" is a synonym for "actions to take with a note," not for "keyword."
This makes OneNote a superior project-management system. You are able to attach intent to notes so that you can share the data or do something with it. And for people who want or crave more tightly hierarchical organization for their information, OneNote will be much more useful than Evernote.
TASK #3: HOW TO LINK NOTES TO ONE ANOTHER
Although "I just tag things and run really good searches" is fine for the information-recall portion of researching and referencing things, there comes a time when it's handy to link together related items, or even create a table of contents for a notebook where each item in the TOC links to a specific note. This way, you don't have to keep searching and scanning results; specific clusters of information are tidily grouped and ready to look through.
Here's how easy it is to link notes and set up a table of contents for a notebook.
How to link notes and set up a table of contents in Evernote
I have 658 saved recipes in my Cooking and Baking notebook, and while I've got them all tagged by ingredient, I never really bothered to craft one big table of contents. It was easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy: I selected all 658 notes, then clicked "Create Table of Contents Note." In less than 10 seconds, I had my one note to rule them all.
Seriously, it's a matter of clicking command-A, then clicking "Create Table of Contents Note."
I could easily click on a table-of-contents hyperlink to go to a specific note, but my immediate complaint was that I couldn't easily jump back to the table of contents note. I solved this by pinning the TOC note to the top of the notebook with the "reminder" feature. Still, it's a reminder that Evernote really isn't set up for linear and hierarchical organization like OneNote is.
Naturally, I then had to check to see if the table of contents was updated whenever I added a new note to the notebook. So I saved a new recipe, synced the notebook ... and discovered that no, the table of contents is not automatically-updating. This is a serious disappointment, because it would be super-handy to be able to create dynamically-updated tables of content based on both notebooks and tags.
The next thing I wanted to tackle: How to link notes within one bigger note. For example, we're big into hosting Thanksgiving in my family, and we rely on a handful of recipes every year. What if I wrote out a checklist of to-dos and linked to the recipes as needed?
You can see here that the notes are linked in green, and the text in the link is the linked note title.
Here are the steps I had to follow to make this post, replete with linked recipes, happen:
1. I wrote out each item I wanted to find.
2. I conducted a search for each item.
3. Once I found the specific note, I had to move up to the Note menu and select Copy Note Link.
4. Back in my link-ful post, I had to then paste the link next to the item.
5. Repeat as often as necessary.
If I wanted to get fancy, I could rewrite either the post or the headlines so things looked more fancy and hyperlinked.
How to link notes in OneNote
I wanted to create a table of contents for a notebook of pages I had pulled down from the Web. There is no easy and automatic way to do it. Instead, I followed these steps:
1. Create a page in a notebook and label it the Table of Contents.
2. While still in that page, mouse on over to the list of notebook tabs at the right.
3. Select the tab (the note will load) and the "Copy Link to Page" option.
4. Paste the link into the Table of Content page.
5. Repeat steps 1-4 as needed for each page.
Here's how you can copy the link in OneNote, shortly before pasting it in the TOC page you've created.
The "Copy Link to Page" option also works if you're typing in a note and you want to reference another one. I checked to see if you can link notes across notebooks, and while you can do so, clicking on the link is balkier, and you get taken out of the note and notebook which contain the link. Be prepared for a lot of Back button use.
Linking notes and trying to create a table of contents in either information-management system highlighted a key weakness of both apps: They don't allow for the dynamic generation of index pages or easy maintenance of those pages. This is a missed opportunity in OneNote, especially since the app hews so strongly to a linear notebook narrative. Give people the tools to easily create tables of content or flip through multiple notebooks!
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Okay -- we've covered how to create notes, organize them and cross-reference them in both Evernote and OneNote. Tune in tomorrow to see how Evernote and OneNote stack up when it comes to uploading new files, clipping articles from the World Wide Web, and emailing items into your info-hoard.