Is OneNote Mobile the New Home for Your Thoughts?

To complement the heavy hitters like Word, Excel and Powerpoint, in 2003 Microsoft created an app for the Office Suite called OneNote. It was designed to help students make lecture notes, create class schedules and organize study material. The app was updated in 2007 and 2010 and got a ton of features added to it such as handwriting and sketching, screenshot capture and autosave, making it a solid notetaking tool for all kinds of users. Now it’s available for use on the go, as an Android app known as OneNote Mobile.

So how does the latest version look and feel? Can it compete with the mighty Evernote? And will it fit into your mobile workflow? Let’s find out by taking a closer look at Microsoft’s latest productivity app.

Overview

OneNote Mobile is a free notetaking app for Android 2.3 or higher that allows you to write notes with text and images and make checklists easily. The app syncs with Microsoft’s SkyDrive, which means you can view and edit them on a browser using the OneNote web app. OneNote Mobile allows you to create up to 500 notes for free and you can unlock the full licence via an in-app purchase for US$4.99.

A checklist in OneNote Mobile

A checklist in OneNote Mobile

Getting Started

To use OneNote Mobile, you’ll need a Windows Live ID (free – sign up over at SkyDrive) which also scores you 25GB of free cloud storage (which you’re currently better off accessing from a desktop browser as there’s no official Android app for it yet). Once you’ve snagged the app from the Android Market and logged in, you can start creating notes in a flash.

Notebooks, Sections and Pages

Every note you create in OneNote Mobile is called a page. Pages make up a section, and sections make up a notebook. Depending on your organizational style, this may be adequate or too much of a hierarchy to work with. It’s similar to Evernote, where you can have notes, notebooks and stacks of notebooks (stacks are optional) but the strange thing in OneNote Mobile is that you can’t create new notebooks or sections and you can’t sort, rename or reorder them.

Creating Pages

OneNote Mobile allows you to create pages with a title, text and images. You can also create a page starting with an image from your device’s camera and then add text to describe it.

Text and images in a page

Text and images in a page

There isn’t much by way of text formatting; besides paragraphs, you can only create lists using numbers, bullets or check boxes. So, in essence, all you can really do is type, make lists and add pictures from your device or camera. While it’s true that many users only use basic features in apps, the lack of control feels very limiting.

The Interface

There’s not much to OneNote Mobile’s interface, which is a good thing for when you’re making notes. There’s an action bar at the top of the screen that shows you the notebook/section you’re viewing, as well as buttons to see your recent pages, create a new page or take a picture for a new page. The buttons change when you’re typing to allow you to add bullets, check boxes and images.

Custom checklists with additional text and images

Custom checklists with additional text and images

Using OneNote Mobile

I used OneNote Mobile for a few days, creating grocery lists and to-do lists, as well as taking along a few articles for reading while commuting. One thing that’s nice about using this app for lists is that you can add descriptive text and images to supplement items on your list. Apart from that, it’s not ideal for those who use lists a lot as there’s no way to move, hide or archive completed lists except for deleting them. You can’t share or export pages either, which is quite the deal-breaker for me.

As I mentioned earlier, you can’t organize your pages on the Android app – you’ll have to log into SkyDrive and use the OneNote web app to do that. I found the user experience a bit flawed here, in that there were just a list of folders and options to create new Office documents (including a OneNote notebook). Also, there were two folders in my SkyDrive named Documents. It’s not obvious that you have to select the folder which has some files in it to see your notebooks and then delve deeper to view your sections and pages. Very confusing, all in all.

The web app doesn’t allow you to sort or reorder anything either, though you can create and rename your notebooks and sections. You can also create and edit pages with more formatting controls with the web app, which mimics the desktop app to some extent. Strangely, the Android app can display richly-formatted content but can’t create it.

OneNote Mobile can display rich formatting but can't apply it

OneNote Mobile can display rich formatting but can't apply it

You can also use the desktop app to sync your notes but for some reason I wasn’t able to login via OneNote 2010.

OneNote Mobile vs. the Competition

It’s disappointing that OneNote Mobile is capable of so much less than its web or desktop counterparts, and it doesn’t feel like that was the intended experience. All of its competition blows it out of the water.

Evernote allows you to create notes with rich text, annotated images, sketches, audio and even file attachments. It also lets you organize your notes and notebooks with almost as much flexibility as the desktop app. Plus it comes with a great home screen widget that not only lets you quickly create notes but also displays your last-viewed notes for easy reference.

Catch Notes and Springpad are two commmendable note-taking alternatives that sync to the web – the latter even fetches links and info for content you enter, such as the name of a film or book you might want to buy. OneNote Mobile doesn’t even match up to these, or to standalone to-do apps or offline notetaking apps like Wunderlist or Fluffy DelusionsExtensive Notes, which beat it in the ease-of-use and features departments respectively.

Conclusion

It’s not really clear as to what Microsoft was trying to achieve with this half-hearted effort in such a fiercely competitive market. OneNote Mobile is a serious letdown given the fact that it’s backed by SkyDrive’s massive 25GB of free storage and the legacy of a very well-crafted desktop app. I recommend you give this a miss and look for something else that suits your workflow – try some of the other apps mentioned in this review for starters.


Summary

OneNote Mobile is a free notetaking app that allows you to create notes with text, images and checklists, and sync them all to the cloud.

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