If there’s one thing that the iPad doesn’t have a shortage of, it’s note taking apps. And if there’s one thing I can’t get enough of, it’s note taking apps. I’m always interested in trying out the latest and greatest. It’s becoming a serious problem, because I don’t need a new note taking app. In fact, every time a new one pops up, I shake my head. Even though I’ve got a workflow I really like already, I’m compelled to try it.

When I had the opportunity to take a look at Microsoft OneNote’s 2.0 update, I instantly remembered how much I enjoyed the desktop app about two years ago. This was an app that singlehandedly got me through most of my second and third years of university. So even though I’m satisfied with my workflow, I had to check it out. What if OneNote could disrupt what I’ve already got? Read on to find out if it lives up to the hype.

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Getting Started

After logging in with my Windows Live account credentials — yes, you’ll need a Windows account and SkyDrive — I stared at the tutorial document for about ten minutes. In all honesty, I was confused. Why couldn’t I just set up a notebook and get going? So after digging around and tapping a lot of buttons in absolute futility, I finally found the Help — oddly tucked, for reference, in the Sync menu. As it turns out, you need to use a web browser or the desktop OneNote app to set up a new Notebook or Section.

I stared at this document forever. Nowhere in it does it provide advise on how to start organizing yourself in the app.

I stared at this document forever. Nowhere in it does it provide advise on how to start organizing yourself in the app.

At that point, I was just grateful there was support for notebooks and sections in the app somewhere. After spending another half hour trying to figure out where to go on the web, I finally got a new notebook and a couple of sections set up and managed to get to work. So far, I was not impressed.

What OneNote’s For

OneNote is basically for elaborate note taking. The app supports just about everything you could ever think about adding to a note, including tables, charts, images, checklists, bullet points and more. It’s got a sync feature that ensures the app cooperates with OneNote across all different platforms, and it’s meant to be perfectly integrated with the newest Office Suites.

As you can see in the Help menu, the iPad app isn't a one-stop shop for OneNote.

As you can see in the Help menu, the iPad app isn’t a one-stop shop for OneNote.

The app also has a unique organizational style. Once you set up a notebook and a few sections, you could make this a great way to take class notes. But again, you’d have to set up a notebook and sections before going to class (or a business meeting) with the iPad. So at the end of the day, you’re still better off bringing a laptop in case you need to make changes on the fly.

The app breaks down into notebooks, sections and pages though, each acting as a subfolder of sorts to the other. You can have multiple pages in each section and multiple sections in each notebook. So if you wanted to use OneNote to keep track of your clients, you could create a section for each client and then individual pages for each project — or go even more broadly than that and give each client a notebook with different sections for projects and pages for detailed notes and work. I actually like the organizational system, but I wish it was something I could change more on my iPad.

Technically speaking, the app does allow you to get relatively organized.

Technically speaking, the app does allow you to get relatively organized.

This weekend, I was on vacation. All I brought was my iPhone and my iPad mini. If I needed to create a new notebook or section, I would have had to resort to the SkyDrive web app. While it’s not impossible to do that, it’s definitely not enjoyable, and I would have felt cheated.

The Microsoft Touch

I wish the problems with the app ended there, though, because there’s some great concepts here that should make the app worth using and exploring. Instead, though, I found myself running up a huge list of major design flaws that I rarely have to worry about with other note-taking apps.

The menus are endless and seemingly buried beneath each other. It's not what I would call intuitive.

The menus are endless and seemingly buried beneath each other. It’s not what I would call intuitive.

A lot of buttons gave me pause. Maybe it’s because I stopped relying on Microsoft software back in the Leopard days of OS X, but I couldn’t figure out what many of them did without experimenting. For better or for worse, Microsoft’s jam-packed navigation bars haven’t changed in years, and they simply haven’t gotten easier to navigate with time. Unfortunately, even once I figured out what I was doing, I wasn’t happy with the app.

Questionable Design Decisions

Why is it that text seems to populate in text boxes? Why is that tables are set to be a pre-defined size that I can’t expand with my finger? Why can I zoom in and out of any note for no reason, and why can I tap almost anywhere and end up with the most ridiculous looking notes you’ve ever seen? What is the point of the mysterious question mark in the top right corner?

Why can I zoom out like this and add text and images anywhere? What is the point? Who is this helping?

Why can I zoom out like this and add text and images anywhere? What is the point? Who is this helping?

And when I started to piece together answers to some of those questions, I scratched my head a little more. The mysterious question mark is a searchable tag, but I can’t choose which tag I want quick and easy access to. Despite the fact that Microsoft’s app aspires to let users do anything they want within the context of a note, I have to wonder why I’m not able to customize or create my own tags. Why can’t I change the default font?

Most annoyingly, at least to me, is this question: why is Microsoft still designing their app like a word processor for print, like Word, instead of designing it like the digital note keeper it’s supposed to be?

For a 2.0 Product…

Everything new in 2.0, like tables, automatic sync with SkyDrive Pro and SharePoint, full page view and a supposedly updated UI should have been here in the 1.0 release — especially sync and full page view. In fact, I think calling this a 2.0 release is granting it too much merit in light of some of the other problems the app still has.

Some things are a bit of a chore. Take typing, for example.

Some things are a bit of a chore. Take typing, for example.

One is that the app lags on both my iPad mini and my third-generation iPad with Retina display. I’m bothered by the app’s font selections, which often look crummy on both my devices — even the spacing between words can vary. It’s amateur. There’s a discernable latency period between when I tap a key on the digital keyboard and when the character actually appears onscreen.

The app does have a relatively useful list feature, a la Evernote.

The app does have a relatively useful list feature, a la Evernote.

I will say this: The app is great for a student with a cheap laptop or desktop and an iPad. I had some friends in university who would bring just an iPad to class, and OneNote — with its easily bulleted lists — is very usable for that.

Final Thoughts

But I have to wonder why one would use OneNote at all in today’s app climate. It requires the use of a web app to set up what are basically glorified folders and documents. Its font rendering is hard to read and the lag I experienced when I was typing made it a less-than-desirable experience. It requires a SkyDrive account, which is free, but typically convoluted.

Finally, its design makes the app hard to use. It’s not an easy process to get around in your notes. I understand the dilemma many people face with note taking apps — frankly, that there are too many and it’s hard to find one that suits your needs — but I think most people who aren’t sworn into Microsoft’s ecosystem would be better served with something like Evernote, Notability or CourseNotes.

The thing about OneNote is that it doesn’t solve a problem for anybody outside of Microsoft’s ecosystem. And if you’re still so tied into it that you need OneNote, wouldn’t you be better served with a Surface than an iPad to begin with?


Summary

OneNote only really solves any problems you might have if you're locked into Microsoft's ecosystem or need it for school; otherwise, through poor design decisions and other bad choices on Microsoft's part, the app mostly creates confusion instead of organizing chaos.

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  • Gary Beck

    This is a disappointing review to read, but I appreciate the ‘heads up’ that some perifial MS products reall yneed work. I am committed to Windows 8 for 4 out of 5 my work PCS in my small design firm and I am planning to us MS LYNC for virtual meetings for a small committee I head. While I am accepting the lost start button (dumb move MS management…) I like the speed gain (good job back end code writing team!). So ONENOTE, which incidently does nothing at all after logging in to my MS account, other than show me a splash screen on my Ipad Mini with zero response to any swipe or touch, is clearly is a looser. I hope my decision to try LYNC was right,…but guess I can always change that later.