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Mobile App Pick: Note-Taking in the Cloud

Microsoft OneNote 2010
App type: Productivity
Platform(s): Windows (PC), Windows Phone 7, iPhone
Publisher: Microsoft
Price (PC): $69.99 (Home and Student), $79, or with various Office suites
Download OneNote for iPhone

App type: Productivity
Platform(s): Windows, Mac, iPhone, iPod touch, iPad, Android, Blackberry, webOS, Windows Mobile
Publisher: Evernote
Price: FREE (Premium is $45 per year)
Download Evernote

As a Microsoft guy and a long-time user and advocate of Office in particular, I latched onto the company's note-taking solution, OneNote, as soon as I first heard about it in late 2002. Here was an app that seemed custom-tailored to my daily routine, much of which involves me taking notes which are later turned into the finished articles that are published on this site and elsewhere. But "note-taking" is a fairly simplistic way of describing what's actually happening. What OneNote is really about is idea processing and information gathering of all kinds. Not just notes but images, audio and video, web pages, and more. It's the starting point for a finished product.

Over the years, OneNote has matured and improved as you'd expect. In the 2007 edition of the product, Microsoft enhanced note management, made Tablet PC usage more seamless, added note hyperlinking, made it possible to "print" PowerPoint presentations to the application so that you could put notes alongside the actual slide you were watching at the time, and more. And in OneNote 2010, Microsoft finally made this application part of every mainstream version of the suite, pushing it out to more users. It also added excellent note sharing and collaboration features, features that in many ways inspired this week's mobile app pick.

Despite its usefulness, however, my own once-regular OneNote usage dropped off over the years for reasons that are almost too complicated to explain. Long story short, by the time OneNote 2010 had debuted, I had long since gone back to simple Word documents for notes. But since this latest version has emerged, I've often wondered about the utility of syncing PC-based notes with the cloud and, increasingly, accessing them on mobile devices.

Of course, OneNote isn't the only such solution: Evernote is one of the most popular online productivity services available today, and many--including some friends of mine--swear by it. After evaluating Evernote head to head with OneNote, I can say that both are excellent and that the two are roughly comparable. But in keeping with the theme of these mobile picks--which are designed to help you better integrate a mobile device of some kind, be it an iPhone, iPad, Android handset, or whatever--with your Windows desktop--the solution you go with will be determined, in large part, with the device(s) you use.

Well, that and the price. While OneNote is a retail application that costs $69.99 and up depending on how you acquire it (standalone or as part of an Office suite), Evernote comes in both free and paid (premium) versions. For many people, the free version of Evernote will be enough, though premium users get more monthly uploading capacity, concurrent collaboration, support, and other features. This version costs $45 per year.

From a compatibility standpoint, OneNote works with Windows PCs of course (XP, Vista, and Windows 7), and there's a free web-based version of the product called OneNote Web App that's available via the Office Web Apps in Windows Live SkyDrive. (OneNote Web App, and the other OWAs, are also available in SharePoint and via SharePoint Online.) And you can very easily integrate OneNote on Windows with your SkyDrive- or SharePoint-based notebooks too, letting you mix and match between the web and native clients if needed. This capability is what sets OneNote 2010 apart from its predecessors, and when you first start up the application, it asks if you'd like to sync the default notebook to SkyDrive.

OneNote 2010

Same notebook opened in OneNote Web App

Mobile versions are a bit sparse: There's a high quality client for Windows Phone 7 called OneNote Mobile (which also works with the same web-based notebooks in OneNote and/or SharePoint) and a very nice iPhone app too, though this works only with SkyDrive, and not SharePoint.

If you're primarily a Windows guy, especially one that's using Windows Phone, OneNote is kind of a no brainer. It's what I'll be using going forward, especially in an interesting collaborative way with Rafael Rivera on our next book, Windows 8 Secrets. (We're utilizing SharePoint Online, part of Office 365, for this.) But I'd like to integrate OneNote into my daily work routine as well, and plan to do so.

If your mobile needs are a bit more diverse, you should check out Evernote. By default, all Evernote notebooks are synced to the web, and there are Windows and Mac clients for traditional computers, a nice web interface, and a wide range of mobile clients, including iPhone and iPod touch, iPad, Android, Blackberry, Palm Pre/Pixi, and Windows Mobile. (No Windows Phone, at least not yet.)  There's also a handy Web Clipper web browser plug-in for Internet Explorer, Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, and Safari (Mac only) that lets you easily save information from the web to your notes.

Evernote for Windows

Evernote's web interface

Evernote makes the most sense, then, in a mixed environment where you need to move between a traditional PC and one or more mobile devices, none of which are Windows Phone. This is a lot of people, of course. And if you are already using OneNote and are curious about the Evernote side of the fence, fear not: There's a OneNote importer so you can take your existing notes with you.

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