Microsoft’s development for the iPad has, in my opinion, been a little sketchy in recent times. Although there has been chatter of the entire Microsoft Office suite being released for the iPad (thanks to a job posting on Microsoft’s website), nothing much concrete has emerged apart from two components of the Office bundle, OneNote and Lync.
Yet, even Microsoft’s development of OneNote for iPad has been a little lacking as well — the current version hasn’t seen an update since December 2011, over 8 months ago — and even searching for the keyword “Microsoft” in the App Store on the iPad brings up the alternative query, “Did you mean mochasoft?” Of course, there are apps out there that offer full Microsoft Office compatibility and try to emulate some of the features seen in the popular office suite, such as CloudOn and QuickOffice Pro HD, however up till recently there has been no decent alternative to Microsoft OneNote.
That has changed, however, with the release of Outline+ which offers intuitive note-making as well as full OneNote support and a whole host of other features. I managed to download the app and give it a whirl. Here’s what I thought of it.
Outline+ is designed to offer a complete iPad note taking solution for almost every situation, yet still offer compatibility with Microsoft OneNote, available in the Windows version of Microsoft Office (though oddly enough not in the Mac version, something which has puzzled me for quite some time). The app comes in two permutations, a free version which allows you to access, create and edit up to 500 notes, and a paid version which gives you unlimited editing as well as Dropbox integration so that you can synchronise your notebooks with OneNote (or any other note taking program) on your computer.
When you create a notebook in Outline+ you give it a name, choose a cover that you like the best (there are plenty of different ones to pick from) and then define its sharing options. Notebooks can either be stored locally on your iPad or shared via Dropbox, meaning that they are accessible on all your devices that support OneNote notebooks.
To alter any of the options for a notebook, simply tap and hold where a list of options should pop up. The interface is simple and elegant and creating and editing notebooks is really quick and simple. The app also appears optimised for the Retina display on the new iPad, despite there being no mention of it in the description on the App Store.
Working with Notebooks
Working with notebooks in Outline+ is incredibly easy, and in most cases far easier than working with them on the computer. To start typing anywhere, simply tap on an area of your notebook, where a little outline pops up (now you know one of the origins of the app’s name!). Outlines can be moved around, edited and deleted as necessary.
Outline+ does try to replicate OneNote functionality-wise and, as a consequence, most features and functions that are available in OneNote are duplicated (in one way or another) in Outline+. Formatting text is a breeze as all OneNote standard styles (including those for headings, quotes and code snippets) are present and Outline+ also supports different font sizes, coloured/highlighted text, markered and numbered lists, and text alignment.
You can also quickly add images to your notebook from your iPad’s built-in photo library. If you’ve got either a second- or third-generation iPad then you can take pictures using the camera and insert them directly into your notebook. Any images inserted can be resized and deleted directly from the notebook.
Working with Pages and Sections
Just like in OneNote on the computer, Outline+ will let you manipulate pages and sections directly on your iPad. You can add new pages, rename existing ones, insert subpages (by simply creating a new page then dragging it to the right under an existing one), reorder, change their colour and delete them. With different sections (which appear as multiple tabs across the top of the screen) you can add new ones, rename and change the colour of existing ones and reorder and delete them.
The four icons on the far left-hand side of the screenshot above help you sort through your pages and sections a bit easier. The first icon brings up a list of all pages and sections in the notebook that is currently open. The second star icon brings up any favourite pages that you have defined (which you can do so by hitting the star on the right-hand side of the page), making it easier to pick out any particular pages. The third icon (which looks like a clock face) lists all your recently viewed pages down the left-hand side and the fourth searches through all your notebooks in Outline+ for specific keywords.
Despite the fact I (mostly) use a Mac, I still use OneNote on my Windows PC and compatibility for me in a note-taking client is extremely important. Outline+ is the only app out there on the App Store that can read OneNote binary format on iOS and (according to the developers’ own claim), Outline+ provides the most accurate rendering of OneNote 2010 content on iOS.
Having said that, Outline+ provides quite limited support for notebooks created in OneNote 2007 (see the table above) and absolutely no support for OneNote 2003. If you’ve recently upgraded on your computer then you convert older notebooks into the new 2010 format, however if you are running an older copy of OneNote on your computer, then if you want full support, the notes will have to stay on your iPad within Outline+.
The OneNote support that Outline+ does provide is fantastic. I did a couple of quick tests whereby I opened up a notebook in OneNote on the computer and in Outline+ on my iPad. The notepads often had plenty of images, text boxes and custom formatting that might not have translated exactly right on the iPad, however both tests were absolutely flawless — apart from a different font used on the iPad to render the notebooks, the two looked absolutely identical. Compare the PC version of the notebook:
to the Outline+ version:
The two are virtually identical, bar a few minute changes in font formatting.
For me, Outline+ really does tick most of the boxes when it comes to a good iPad application. It’s simple to use, has an absolutely beautiful interface and really does put your iPad to a greater use. The built-in Dropbox synchronisation is really easy to set up (if you’ve got Dropbox already set up on your iPad then you don’t even have to enter your password) and if you create a folder on your Dropbox folder, like I did, then synchronisation between Outline+ and OneNote on your PC is smooth and trouble-free.
Yet one thing really does put a spanner in the works for me with Outline+, and that’s the price. $15 is a lot of money to pay for an iPad application and I feel that the developers are pricing themselves slightly out of the market. Sure, it matches Microsoft’s offering of OneNote for iPad (and, it seems, receives a little more TLC) but call me a miser here – $15 is, in my mind, a little too much to pay for a simple notetaking app.
Sure it does look the part and that complete OneNote support is a real plus but I feel that it is precisely this support that you are paying for. So my final word on Outline+: if you really need OneNote support then by all means, go ahead and buy it. But if you just want a simple app to scribble some notes down, then go for one of the many other (and far more favourably priced) alternatives out there on the App Store.