In our previous post, we discussed how OneNote and Evernote share many of the same purposes. Today we’ll look at the main differences between the programs, their user interfaces, and the strengths of each program.

Recent Changes to Evernote

In the past year, Evernote made changes to its free and paid plans, particularly, limiting some features of its free plans. For example, Evernote no longer lets you email articles or other info to your account on the free plan. (Members who use IFTTT reportedly can work around this.) Emailing info to Evernote was a very popular option and one I often used.

Along with incentives to upgrade, Evernote introduced a less expensive option, called Evernote Plus for $25 / year (down from $45 / year), plus a more expensive Premium plan ($70 / year). The Premium plan offers a huge 10GB of new uploads per month, scans PDF and Office files for search, scans and digitizes business cards, creates presentations, and lets you view your edit history (and revert to an earlier version of the note, if you want).

Evernote also took its online, web-only interface out of beta and made it the standard version for using Evernote with your browser. It’s a nice, clean interface, but appears to have fewer features than the desktop version. Evernote online is also the central area for coordinating all your files between PC, Mac, Android, iOS and other versions of the program. The Mac version of Evernote also recently got some updates, including improved note editing.

Other changes at Evernote included killing Evernote Food and stopping support for the web plugin Clearly (a favorite of mine) and the drawing tool, Skitch. (Many of Skitch’s features do live on in Evernote’s clipping tool, though.)

The company lost its co-founder, Phil Libin, in the summer of 2015, and the corporation has been restructuring. Since September, Evernote has been moving its data from its own servers to the Google Cloud Platform. That transition appears to have been smooth so far and should be completed this month. (Moving the data for 200 million users, and the data about the data, is not trivial!)

Hopefully, with the new subscription options, Evernote can thrive as a leaner and better-focused business.

For some, the best improvement is to the Evernote web clipper. So if you use Evernote for collecting info from the web (as opposed to taking notes or just writing), this is a major improvement (and more flexible than the OneNote web clipper). We’ll compare web clipping for Evernote and OneNote later.

Recent Changes to OneNote

Meanwhile, Microsoft has made a number of changes to OneNote in the past two years.

The biggest news was that Microsoft made OneNote free to use and free to download. There is still a paid version, which adds a few features, but nothing really important for most users.

In the past few years Microsoft has done a lot to bring its Mac, Android, iOS and Windows versions up to date (including supporting Windows Phones). There’s a new web clipper to use while browsing, and an updated Send to OneNote app for desktop users.

That Send to OneNote tool offers a useful clipping and quick note tool right in the Windows taskbar. No need to boot up OneNote. (Since Microsoft makes Windows, I suppose that makes sense.)

The Evernote Interface

Evernote, out of the box, uses three columns.

The Evernote Design - OneNote and Evernote

Evernote has a three -column design for storing notes

The left column shows expandable lists for Shortcuts, all your Notebooks and stacks of notebooks, all of your tags and a list of saved searches. This makes this column very busy. If you have a lot of notebooks and a lot of tags, right-click on the sections and you have alternate ways to select items.

The middle column shows your note page titles. You can sort these pages in several ways (alphabetically and chronologically, mainly, but also by the “creating app” and even by the location where you made the note, useful if you use Evernote on the road). The second column is where you search and open your notes.

You can also change your Note View from a column to a horizontal view where you can sort the list by title, date created, date changed, by notebook title, by tag and by size. Alternately, you can view the notes list in a Snippets view, a Card view, and a Thumbnail view. (In contrast, OneNote offers only one way to view your notes and no sorting.)

Select a note and the right (and widest) column shows your note content in that column. Alternately, you can select the page with a click and hit Control-Return (or right-click) to open the note in a separate window that can expand to fill the entire screen.

To finish the Evernote experience there is a basic menu bar on top, and a shortcuts and sync bar below that. Most of that bar is blank, so it’s not particularly efficient. The overall look is mostly white with a few light blue-gray highlights and black text – basically a monochrome look. (The left column offers “day” and “night” versions.) All the menus, titles, shortcuts, tags and such use the same font, formatted similarly, in a fairly small font size.

You can hide any of the three columns

For writing and editing, each note has its own editing tools (rather than a unified edit ribbon, as in OneNote). Because they are scrunched together in a narrower space, the icons are tiny and, for older eyes, difficult to tell apart or discern what each icon does without squinting. One gets the impression that Evernote’s software designers all have 20-20 vision and little allowance is made for the vision-impaired. If you zoom into a note, the note text grows in size (making it easier to read), but the icons stay the same size.

The top of the note has a variety of larger icons for a variety of tasks, including: reminders, printing, sharing, an info button (about the note), presentation creation, and delete. You can show and hide icons, but their order seems a bit haphazard.

In spite of the tiny fonts and icons, the overall look is a bit cluttered, in my opinion. Evernote has limited options for changing to look of notes compared to OneNote.

Building your Notes

The way you build notes is different between the programs.

In Evernote, each note is a single-column mini-word-processing file. You can add graphics, files, sound files, video, PDFs, etc., but the single-column stacks everything vertically. There are no columns and no side notes.

Evernote has a basic table creator tool. It works OK, but there are few formatting options. There are no Spreadsheet-like tools. If you want to include a portion of a spreadsheet in your note, you have to cut and paste it into Evernote. There are no functions and no obvious math tools.

My biggest problem with the single column format is the way the note handles the left margin when cutting and pasting. Often, when pasting a web clipping, the left margin shifts right. But the tool to shift the margin back towards the left side doesn’t work in these instances. So if you clip a number of things into the same note, often the left margin keeps shifting right until it becomes unusable for writing and editing. I’ve hunted for ways to fix this, but I eventually decided to return to OneNote for easier clipping and editing. (More on this later.)

Evernote’s search tools are extensive, you can search by keyword, by notebook, by tag (or multiple tags), and search a single notebook or all of them. But you generally start with a single keyword search before you can narrow down the search by changing notebooks or adding tags. There are a large number of search conditions you can learn to use: date of creation, date of editing, location and other search terms. This makes Evernote search much more comprehensive than OneNote’s. But it would be much more useful if the Evernote programmers built these into an Advanced Search window rather than requiring the user to learn the actual search coding and type it into a small search window.

A year or two ago, Evernote moved the search bar from the top tool bar to the top of the Notebook list. This makes the search bar look cramped to my eye.

In Evernote, you can group various notebooks together by creating Stacks. In the left column, you see grouped notebooks indented under the stack’s name. (In OneNote, you can create tab groups for a similar function.)

Evernote has better tagging and search tools than OneNote, hands down. I would prefer a separate popup search window that made it easier to choose which notebooks to search (or search by stack), and add keywords and tags to the search more easily. Again, a larger font-size would be nice, too. Squinting is another reason I’m trying OneNote again.


Evernote Filing Strategies

With its search, Evernote can be a very flexible tool for filing and searching for information. There are two main ways for organizing your notes: with folders and with tags.

If you are used to paper folders, you can place your Evernote data into similar digital folders and simply click to drill down from stacks to notebooks to pages. This is also OneNote’s main organization system.

But in Evernote, you can also use tags. This allows you to reduce the number of folders you use (perhaps: Work, Home, Personal and Play) and use tags to search for information. Tags are more flexible, since one notebook page can be marked with several tags. You can also give a page a URL to make it easier to share with co-workers, a team, your family, or with the general public.

You can have local notebooks that are kept on your computer and not synced with other devices or computers. Recently Evernote restricted free users to syncing 2 devices, say your desktop/laptop computer and a phone or a tablet. If you want to share notes with family members or a work-group, though, you’ll need a paid account (or several).

A unique option is Evernote for Business, where each person in your business (or other workgroup) has their own pro account that allows them to keep both private personal notebooks and corporate notebooks. You can define permissions for who has access to any note or notebook, even allowing clients to view specific notebooks as part of a workgroup. This creates a sort of mini-SharePoint system for small businesses without having to install and maintain Microsoft SharePoint. I have not used Evernote for Business, but it could be attractive to those small businesses where the staff needs to share and update information quickly. I know of no equivalent in OneNote unless, of course, you actually install SharePoint.

The OneNote Interface

The OneNote Design

OneNote’s design is based on school notebooks

Like ’em or not, Microsoft has lots of experience with user interfaces. OneNote shares the same ribbon toolbar as the rest of Microsoft Office. This means that editing tools, design tools, drawing tools, review tools look very similar to their counterparts in other Microsoft Office apps. If you already use Microsoft Office, that makes OneNote feel very familiar.

For example, writers have many of the same editing tools in OneNote as Microsoft Word, even if you haven’t bought (or rented) Word or Office 365. If you are an Excel fan, you can click a button in the INSERT ribbon and embed an existing spreadsheet or create a new one in Excel. (you cannot actually CREATE a spreadsheet in OneNote, but you can create a table that looks a lot like a spreadsheet.) Charts can pop into OneNote, too. OneNote has many, many more table, charting and drawing tools than Evernote. What all this adds up to, if you are an experienced Microsoft Office user, you will probably feel more at home with OneNote than with Evernote. (If you use alternate office software with standard drop-down menus (such as LibreOffice, Google Drive or Softmaker Office) you might prefer Evernote’s menu and editing structure.)

I’ve been saying for years that OneNote is the best office tool that Microsoft has made. I’ve also called Microsoft Office the most comprehensive (and expensive) plugin for OneNote.

Interface-wise, when you first open OneNote, the ribbon interface extends across the top of the application window, just as in all Office applications. The icons are colored and it’s easier on the eyes to see which icons are for what than in Evernote. (Those standardized icons help, even if you are not a power Office user.)

You can have as many notebooks as you like. They are now available in a dropdown tab just below the toolbar ribbon on the left. Select a notebook and you can create colored tabs for different sections of your notebook (similar to a binder notebook, except the tabs are on top). If you start collecting a lot of tabs, you can group them together into Section Groups (similar to stacks in Evernote).

Within each tabbed section, you can add as many pages as you like, all available on the right side of the page. You can move and indent various pages to make it visually easier to find and organize your pages. (You can also move the page list and the scroll bar to the left side if that’s more comfortable for you.) Unlike Evernote, you cannot automatically sort notes alphabetically or by date.


The big difference in notes between Evernote and OneNote is that the latter allows you to create different “containers” in each note. A container can include anything that fits into OneNote and you can resize their dimensions. So you can create columns, if you like, add an index on top, put comments in the margins, even put notes on top of notes. If you have ever used Cornell notes – where you have notes in one wide column, comments on the side, and a summary on the bottom of the page – it’s easy to do that in OneNote (and impossible in Evernote). OneNote was built originally for classroom note taking, and it shows still, even if you use it in the boardroom. After creating these containers, you can move them around inside the note as well.

Note pages can have different designs and colors. There are oodles of built-in templates for taking minutes, creating lined pages, writing Math formulas, and much more. OneNote comes with a long list of templates for design, math and science pages, business meeting notes, and lots of colors and design choices. The templates are hidden away in a menu in the INSERT ribbon, so you have to hunt to find them.

OneNote does have tags, but they are very different than Evernote tags. Tags in OneNote are used mainly to signify action items within notes. You can create custom tags, but it’s harder to do so. You cannot search or file notes by tags in OneNote like you can in Evernote. Neither can you sort notes by the tags attached to them. Frankly, if you switch from Evernote to OneNote, you will be surprised at how un-useful OneNote tags are.

For writers, OneNote includes a spell-checker and thesaurus. (There’s no grammar checker as there is in Word, though.) There are options for choosing different languages and a translate tool as well. There is also a Research sidebar, so you can do a quick web search without exiting the program. (Evernote users can keep a browser window handy to do the same things, but it takes a little more effort.)

OneNote popup menu

OneNote’s popup formatting menu

When you select text with a mouse, you automatically get a mini-formatting toolbar. (You can shut this off, too, if you never edit or format.) Microsoft uses the same icon selection scheme it does in Word or Excel, making it more compact and, yet, more useful. You can also get the normal contextual menu by right-clicking.

You can also choose to show or hide menus, tool ribbons and tabs from a small icon next to the standard Windows close and hide icons. It’s tiny, so you have to know it’s there. If you want (almost) full-screen distraction-free writing, you click on another angled arrow icon (or hit F11) for a minimalist interface. (I believe OneNote is the only Microsoft Office application that allows you to hide its menus.) But even in distraction-free mode, you just have to select text to get the popup formatting commands. On the side of the screen, there is one non-distracting menu to change notebooks, tabs and pages without exiting the full-page mode, so you can do most of your writing this way. Use the menu to change pages; use the popup and contextual (right-click) menus for other features.

So, for writers who prefer a distraction-free, minimalist writing environment, you should definitely try out OneNote just for that feature. (There’s no real equivalent in Evernote.) Who would have thought that the makers of Microsoft Word would ever design a useful minimalist writing tool similar to the zenware writing tools we’ve reviewed elsewhere in this blog?

This is only a sampling of the customization you can do in OneNote. Although Evernote allows a lot of customization, OneNote has many, many more choices. If you are easily distracted by fiddling with settings and changing colors when you should be writing, though, you might prefer the more limited choices in Evernote. For beginners, unless you go into full-screen mode, writing in OneNote can feel like writing in a notebook while surrounded by bright, shiny objects and distracting new toys.

If you want to access OneNote online from your browser (say, you’re using a public computer or you’re working online in Office 365), you’ll find that the online OneNote has a very different look from the desktop version. Like Evernote online, Microsoft’s online version is also a stripped down version. To my eye, OneNote’s online layout is closer to Evernote than to the OneNote desktop application.

OneNote online feels slower than its Evernote equivalent, and when I changed the name of one of my notebooks on my desktop, the online version still showed the older name, even after syncing the files repeatedly. Worse, when installing OneNote on my new Android phone, the incorrect name shows there, too. Apparently, OneNote’s sync process is not as seamless as Evernote’s. Since this is an area where I would expect Microsoft to shine, this was surprising.(My eventual solution was to create a new notebook on my desktop, and then move all the tabs from the old notebook, one by one, to the new one – a thoroughly dissatisfying experience.)

In a Nutshell

So, both OneNote and Evernote make design choices appropriate to their basic function. As a part of Microsoft Office, OneNote shares much of the interface design of Office and has included many of the same tools as in Word. This is great for writers, in particular, and other creative web workers. Evernote, is a bit more Spartan in its writing and other creative features, but makes up for it with superior clipping, tagging and searching tools, which we’ll discuss further very soon.


Title composite image is by the author.

Screenshots are by the author, Andrew Brandt.

The Evernote logo is a trademark of the Evernote Corporation

The OneNote logo is a trademark of the Microsoft Corporation

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