The Microsoft Robot and the Evernote Elephant

Part 1 – Basic Overview and Similarities

Whether you run a business, are planning a trip, hosting a party, or writing an article, you need to collect and keep track of a lot of information. Two popular tools to store your personal data are Microsoft’s OneNote and Evernote. They are similar in what they do, but they do them differently. Both have avid proponents, and Evernote / OneNote debates can even descend to the level of the contentious Macintosh / PC debates in the days of yore.

On Frugal Guidance 2, we’ve shared comparisons of the two before, but there have been changes to both fairly recently. To do a in-depth comparison, we’ll be looking at different aspects of the program in different posts. Today, let’s examine the look and feel and what the two tools have in common.

Comparing Metaphors

OneNote, the Big Looseleaf Notebook

OneNote was originally designed specifically for note-taking, for business or for classroom. So it was natural to use the metaphor of a loose-leaf notebook. Looking at the OneNote screen, you have a list of notebooks, tabbed indexes for each notebook, and different pages inside each tab. The software tabs go on top instead of on the side of the notebook, but the metaphor is clear, clean and easy to understand, even for the novice user.

Evernote, the Magic File Cabinet

Evernote uses a different metaphor: that of the file cabinet. Or a room full of file cabinets. Or maybe a desktop full of stacked folders (I’m remembering a certain accountant who had an amazing number of piles of folders during tax season). Evernote also uses notebooks (and stacks of notebooks) and pages. It has a tagging system (think, maybe, Post-It notes) to help organize everything. What makes Evernote stand out is its ease in finding information again. Evernote’s tools to collect web info and to search that info go way beyond OneNote’s. From the beginning, Evernote’s motto was “Remember Everything!” It could have just as easily have been, “Find Everything Again.”

Although Evernote doesn’t have tight integration with Microsoft Office, it does have partnerships with many web tools. Evernote’s family of partnered apps and plugins are designed to collect, sort and tag info wherever you find it. Evernote also has Evernote for Business (way beyond the scope of this review), which provides tools for group collecting and sharing of data for small businesses, too.

Different Histories

OneNote logo

OneNote was a groundbreaker in this type of software, but Microsoft didn’t seem to know what to do with it for some time. It was part of Office, but only for Windows. Recently, Microsoft decided to compete with Evernote more seriously and started making it cross-platform across many devices, and free.

Evernote came a couple of years after OneNote, but quickly grew into a cross-platform tool usable on PCs, Macs, phones and tablets. It developed fierce adherents and lots of partners who developed new ways of using the application for personal use, for business, and for creativity. Unless you needed to store large quantities of info, the free version was enough.

In the past year or so, the Evernote corporation has restructured its own business and turned its focus on its core mission and building subscriptions and away, somewhat, from its ancillary programs (like Evernote Food and Clearly). Many of the services it offers are no longer free – going in the opposite direction from Microsoft.

What OneNote and Evernote have in common

In their zeal to prove one is better than another, many proponents of either program forget that they serve similar missions. The way they do it, however, differs.


Before we start describing how OneNote and Evernote are different, it’s important to see how they are similar.

Both OneNote and Evernote are free-form databases for organizing information. They both create digital notebooks and pages for storing info the way you like.

They both handle text, graphics, photos, screen clips, web clips, audio files, video files, PDFs and more. Both can scan stored graphics files and PDFs and search for text.

The two work on Windows, Macs, iOS, Android and Windows phones. Evernote used to clearly have an advantage here, but OneNote has been catching up significantly in the past few years. Oddly, neither have Linux versions.

Both can be used as writing tools, each with a distinctive writing environment.

Both collaborate with other applications (and their hardware) to make it easier to save info to their notebooks. They both have add-ons or plug-ins to expand the capabilities of the program. (They both work with business card scanners, for example.) In general, Evernote works better with third-party tools (their survival depends on it), while OneNote integrates much more closely with the rest of Microsoft Office and Windows.

Both work with various web-reading and social tools (including RSS readers) to make it easier to collect info.

Both allow you to email notes to store in your notebooks. OneNote forwards the email to a designated notebook. Evernote allows you to choose a notebook and page in your email’s subject line. (You need the paid version of Evernote to do this, today.)

Both work with IFTTT (If This Then That) and some other automation programs.

Both have portable apps that allow you to take photos and store them automatically. You can scan documents. You can also record audio notes.

Both OneNote and Evernote allow you to share selected notebooks with other users. You can set up workgroups or family groups. You can share files publicly, as a simple online publishing system.

Both programs have web clipping tools that you use from the browser to collect pages, articles, portions of a web page and screen shots. Evernote has more options and allows you to add tags while clipping. OneNote allows you to preview how your clipping will look (when it works) and you can add a note before clipping. Although Evernote no longer officially supports it, you can still use the web tool Clearly to read and then clip webpages, too.

Both OneNote and Evernote synchronize data through their respective online apps. So a file you saved on your phone will show up on your desktop and other devices, too. Synchronization is generally very smooth and accurate and can be initiated automatically or on-demand from the desktop or other apps.

So, as you can see from their commonalities, both are mature programs for taking notes on the fly, general research and writing, formatting your text, collecting info from the web, and organizing and sharing data.

The main differences are in the user interface and how the various features are implemented. Each program has its strengths and weaknesses. We’ll examine the different features to help you decide which application is best for you.

Ultimately, you can use either application or both. The only problems with using both are:

  1. Each has its distinctive way of doing things. So if you want to become a power user, it’s easier if you select one or the other.
  2. If you keep info in both, it’s hard to remember which notebook you used to keep which information. Going back and forth, searching in each program to see where you stored that small but essential bit of data can be frustrating.


One other thing to keep in mind is trust in the product.

Evernote has built a high degree of trust in the past decade as a continuing start-up and has a large user base. It has fanatic users around the world. Evernote as a business is transitioning from a startup to a mature tech product. Its recent switch to using Amazon Web Services Google Cloud Platform to take care of its online storage (one of its core functions) instead of hosting its own servers, should allow the company to expand and meet demand more quickly. By narrowing its focus, Evernote’s staff should be able to concentrate more on the design of its product and introducing new features – as long as it can stay stable financially. To be financially independent, it need to encourage free users to become subscribers.

Microsoft, in contrast, is a mature company and one of the largest tech companies in the world. They won’t be going away anytime soon. OneNote is well-integrated into Microsoft Office so, as long as Office continues to exist, OneNote probably will, too. Microsoft has apparently also made a long-term decision to compete better with Evernote by upgrading its products in Windows, Macs, and devices, including touch-screen devices. They also made OneNote free to all users, even if you don’t subscribe to (or purchase) Office. Microsoft recently released a tool to make it much easier to import Evernote files into OneNote. (Evernote, likewise, can import OneNote files.)

Microsoft is the more aggressive company and continues to take over other tech companies. (Microsoft’s reputation for buying out and closing competitors has also made it unpopular with many people, too.) Microsoft has historically updated its Macintosh products in spurts, sometimes making Mac users feel like second class citizens – again making it unpopular.

Evernote has had a more collaborative relationship with its partners. It has one main product. To be successful, it will have to earn money from that product. There is no way to subsidize it by sales of other things. (They tried branded T-shirts, socks, and other merchandise. I don’t think that brought in much income.)

So, if you were required to make a bet over which note-taking app will still exist 30-50 years from now, the odds would still seem to be slightly in OneNote’s favor. Maybe. Microsoft, however, doesn’t need OneNote in order to survive, so it’s commitment to the product could waiver.

Evernote is tied to the success of its single product. There are fewer distractions to its business model, which may give it an edge over time, too.

For casual users, longevity might not be a factor. But for people storing large amounts of personal information, training materials, writings and work data for a career or a life-time, it is an important decision.

My crystal ball is cloudy, but if Evernote can attract more paying subscribers (in the face of a free OneNote), that may be the key to its survival and its longevity.

Next post – Recent Changes and Examining the Interfaces


The elephant image is by the author, Andrew Brandt.

The Robot image is from Microsoft.

The OneNote logo is a trademark of Microsoft. The Evernote logo is a trademark of the Evernote Corporation.

Frugal Guidance 2 -