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The Best Microsoft Product, Like, Ever

It’s not Windows (who said that). And, of course, it’s not Bob ;-). It’s not Office either, at least not in its entirety. It is OneNote1. There, I said it. And I mean it. It is a great product that only has a few shortcomings.

Unlike a lot of Microsoft’s other stuff OneNote is very intuitive and it is definitely not standing in my way. I started using it recently and have already gained a lot of benefit from this product.

During my daily routine, I tend to be exposed to information, both trivial and complex, that are worth conserving for later use. For this purpose, some folks keep a journal written on the remnants of dead trees. And while this certainly works I believe you can do better.

For one thing, dead trees don’t get indexed for a full-text search. And search is a big thing, mind you. In my case, I feel that keeping a manually written Journal distracts me from the workflow because the effort for creating notes is higher, in many cases much higher2, than it is in the digital counterpart.

A note should be concise and readable. An ugly and confusingly written in bad script note wastes my time at least twice, at the time I write it down and then every time I come back to struggle with the meaning of it. That’s why I personally feel that note taking on a digital device in principle is a great relief.

And yet, there is a big difference in how you digitally take notes. Without going too much into details (the experience is certainly individual and, as always, YMMV) I recognize that OneNote supports me in taking notes, pasting snippets of code or screenshots for easy annotation and it even allows (although this is admittedly the weakest feature of the app) for sketching diagrams in a mostly unobtrusive way.

Surprisingly, I’m not alone concluding that OneNote is a great product. Just this week I was listening to episode 44 of the Mac Power User podcast and David Sparks as one of the hosts of this production also joined the praise.

So have many bloggers whose site I have been visiting in search for the best approximation of OneNote on the MacOS X platform. That said, I already use different tools for note taking on my Mac but with the background of using OneNote on windows I figured I’d better set off to create an improvement over the current status.

Unsurprisingly, there is a wide range of different products available that aim in the general direction of note taking on the Mac platform. I don’t think that I’ve managed to come even close to getting an overview of the market.

Here is a list of apps I have tried out. Of course, the usual disclaimer applies: this is a totally subjective description of my personal experience. Also, I’m not going to list every single feature of the discussed apps. Please proceed to the respective web sites for more (accurate) information.

Curio

Most of the reviews I have read described Curio primarily as a project management tool rather than the choice for note taking. And yet, it has plenty of capabilities for note taking. Curio is very posh and puts a lot of emphasis3 on presentation, almost like a real presentation tool.

One aspect I particularly like is the existence of index cards that contains short snippets of text and which can be linked from each others. There is a version in the Mac App Store at USD 40 that comes as Curio Core. The full-blown version retails at USD 170, which may be adequate for the value but for private use this is by far to much.

Journler

In contrast to Curio Journler is visually less polished and comes as a one-window app with docked controls for different purposes. It mainly focusses on textual notes but it is also possible and very easy to attach screen shots to notes.

As far as I could see Journler does not have any graphical features that I’d like to use for sketching. Also, I did not find a convincing support for outlining.

Circus Ponies Notebook

Notebook, like many of the recent Apple apps, closely mimics a physical note book. This metaphor at first appears a bit overstated. For example, it is possible to attach post-its to pages in the note book and these may even go beyond the notebook borders, pretty much the same way you would do this in a physical note book to mark a specific page as important and/or easy to find.

Working with Notebook is a nice experience, and after some time the initial irritation about the rather skeumorphic way the tool is designed is no longer existing. That said, it is beyond any doubts that the app would be of similar usefulness if did not try to closely mimic a physical note book.

A note book can have a so-called “multidex”, a generated part of the note book that acts as an index for words, highlighting, to-do items, etc. At first this does seem irrelevant but at a second glance it turns out quite useful.

Support for outlining is nicely implemented and for my personal stuff outlining works quite well. Also, the creation of simple graphics and diagrams is one of the highlights, especially in comparison to OneNote.

At around USD 50 it is anything but a bargain but the overall feature set is quite impressive. I tried a lot of note taking apps in that I described my experience with during the time I played around with different apps directly in the apps.

I figured that this was a great way of finding out which I liked best. Turns out that I gave up on many of the candidates pretty soon. The only app that I used from start to end was Notebook.

I guess this means that Notebook somehow won the competition but I’m still not set whether I’d be OK with spending the money for it. I think, USD 30 for a single-seat license would be OK, but the current price makes me think.

Some of the reviews in the Mac App Store claimed that Notebook was very unstable and would crash early and often. For the record, I did not experience any such behavior.

Voodoopad

My first impression was that this tool could be best described as a stand-alone Wiki. The Voodoopad web site makes a big deal of how Voodoopad supports scripts. OK, I don’t have any requirements to extend my note taking tool by extensive scripting so maybe this isn’t a selling feature for me.

From using the tool I did not get the impression that it was for me. It’s OK, mind you, but in comparison to others I believe I can get a better value for my personal use.

Growly Notes

Growly Notes is an open-source application for note taking. I admit that I initially set off to find the best approximation of OneNote on the Mac but as I found it by means of discovering Growly Notes I wasn’t very happy. Growly Notes seems a bit like a OneNote rip-off, and according to the web site this is intentional.

There is some support for outlining, but the result becomes plain text rather than a structured tree of text (as in Notebook). It is possible to sketch in Growly Notes but the current state of the graphics subsystem is a joke, and not even a good one.

As much as Growly Notes tries to approach OneNote, it doesn’t even come close in terms of functionality.

Day One

Day One is for textual notes only, but in this case this is a feature rather than a problem. That is, Day One is tailored for journal keeping rather than for note taking. and yet, I can see uses of Day One for collecting spontaneous ideas and thoughts because (as opposed to although) it is a very simplistic app.

There is also an iOS version which even supports the idea of using Day One for collection textual notes everywhere you go that could later be enriched in a dedicated app that supports outlining, annotations and, perhaps, graphics.


The bottom line of giving all these tools a try is that I think I’d go with Notebook as my primary choice for note taking. With respect to my initial goal, it seems sort of surprising that it does not resemble OneNote much. To be fair, I will say that in some ways it is even superior in terms of functionality.

In other words, I started my own little evaluation project to find something similar to OneNote and found something that I consider even superior to OneNote.

  1. Yes, OneNote is a part of Microsoft’s Office package but, again, I’d make a difference such that OneNote is great while the rest of it is somehow okay-ish.

  2. During the 90s, I used to print snippets of source code and glue them into my journal for annotation. Think of that …

  3. The polish is actually a bit over the top, if you want my opinion.

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