Are There Any Alternatives to OneNote?

Been fielding a good number of private questions as of late regarding tablet options and alternatives to OneNote, specifically Android- and iPad-based ones. Trend seems to be growing, so I thought I should address it publicly. Beats turning it into my email signature.

(Note: the point of this post is not to explain what OneNote is. Maybe I’ll explore that in another post, but it’s been covered plenty by GBM over the years. This is for folks who already use it and are looking for alternatives. Besides, Microsoft already has their own people for that job.

Short answer

Sorry, there are no comparable alternatives to OneNote.

Less short answer

If you’re using OneNote and like the inking and searchability and handwriting conversion and integration of ink and other media (photos, screen grabs, audio, video, any file on your computer), you are out of luck. There are no perfect alternatives to OneNote. Microsoft is literally years and millions of dollars ahead of what little competition there is. No one else can match the experience. At least not yet.

Hope on the horizon

OneNote is a unique entity at the moment, but there are parties to watch for the future. They don’t match OneNote now and maybe they will later. For now at least, they offer lesser alternatives, and if OneNote is too much power for you, maybe one of these will suffice.

HTC Scribe

First on my list is HTC and their Scribe technology for Android tablets. This is the system I tested and demonstrated on the HTC Flyer. Right now, it’s a rough and dirty system that captures handwriting as image files and kicks them to Evernote for storage and OCR. There’s a great write-up on the Evernote Blogcast about this integration.

The huge advantage of this system is ease of use. Touch that pen to the screen and it goes directly into markup mode. Touch the pen to the dedicated button and the pen-based options pop-up. It also allows time- stamped audio capture.

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But again, the handwriting, either as notes or screen markup, is captured as image files. No matter how editable, these simply aren’t going to be as accurately searchable as ink in OneNote, nor is screen markup the same as the integration of ink, screen grabs, text, and other media. There’s also no handwriting to text conversion and no line smoothing (which is a big deal to me). I see great potential for Scribe, but it’s not close to OneNote yet.

iPad options

Warner has covered several note-taking apps for the iPad, such as Pen Ultimate, but these are all essentially drawing apps that are formatted for handwriting. There are also PDF annotation apps, like PDF Expert and iAnnotate, that allow a user to markup digital documents as they might do with paper copies in a meeting. Some can shoot notes to Evernote for storage and OCR, much as HTC Scribe does, or at least do so via email.

These apps are fine for their limited purposes, but again, they come up short to the full power of OneNote. Worst of all, the iPad, unlike HTC tablets with Scribe, does not offer active pen input. That is to say, it treats a stylus no differently than a finger, while HTC Scribe tablets can detect their special pens and react differently than they would to a finger, such as triggering screen markup when the pen is touched to the screen. Doesn’t matter how good the stylus is, and we’ve reviewed plenty of great (and not so great) ones, it won’t be as accurate or useful as active pen input.

eReaders

I thoroughly believe pen input is the next logical step in the evolution of eReaders. These devices are supposed to replace paper books, then they should replicate the full experience, right down to being marked up by pen. Where do people typically write notes? On loose sheets of paper? No, in notebooks.

Unfortunately, this idea has yet to take off. Devices like the BeBook Neo are designed primarily for annotating books. The dual-screen enTourage eDGe with pen input on its e-ink side is ended. eReaders have yet to fully embrace pen input, let alone offer OneNote-level searchability and media integration. The future of pen input on eReaders is bleak.

Windows-based alternatives

On Windows-based tablets, the competition for OneNote has narrowed down to Evernote and it is no longer the inking powerhouse it once was. The company has refocused the product into a catch-all, a “memory drawer”. Its big strengths now are storage, search, accessibility and versatility (all of which OneNote matches quite solidly). Ink notes are available in the Windows desktop application, but these are akin to writing on yellow notepads, not like the infinite notebook metaphor of OneNote. (And I don’t really care for how the Evernote inking works.)

There is also Windows Journal, the “Wordpad to MS Word” equivalent to OneNote. This is my personal note-taking app of choice. It’s neither as powerful nor as versatile as OneNote, but I enjoy its simplicity (and never cared for paper notebooks, so that metaphor in OneNote does not appeal to me). It also has the advantage of using Microsoft’s inking system, same as OneNote.

Summary

So while there are plenty of ways to write and annotate on nearly any tablet computer, the power of OneNote is currently unmatched. I have great hope for HTC Scribe, but that system is still in its infancy. The iPad has plenty of software options but is hampered by its lack of active pen input. eReaders seem to be fizzling out before they can grow into true book replacements. Alternative applications for Windows tablets are fewer and further between. Not saying you can’t find a good note-taking experience on other tablets with other apps or that it you won’t enjoy them better than OneNote. I don’t need all that power for my notes either. But for that OneNote experience, nothing I’ve seen comes close.

Of course, “Tablet Computing 2.0″ is still in its early years. Touch input is on top, but pen input, I believe, will eventually emerge as an important differentiator. Microsoft has a lot invested in this and HTC is chasing behind them. It may never be “the next big thing” but true pen input can definitely be that one tipping point feature that the other guy doesn’t have

BTW, just because I can, I went ahead and handwrote this last part in OneNote, publishing it all through Word. Unfortunately, it automatically converts ink to text in the send to Word unless I specify ink be treated as image (see below).


Update: Reader Manacap points out that the Lenovo ThinkPad tablet also includes active pen input. Not only does this allow inking but also handwriting recognition through the MyScript Notes Mobile app. Definitely should have listed it. Hands-on video here.

Comments

  1. jmb codewriter says

    Sumocat, just a thought you might be interested in…

    Yes, I am also a OneNote user and yes, I also, have not found another application to match OneNote. However, being determined to be productive, of sorts, on my Galaxy Tab 7 – wifi, I have been using Note Everything and SwiftKey Tablet X. This combo works fine for short and limited notes. It IS NOT OneNote. 

    The thought, SwiftKey uses predictive text and it is very fast, most useful and I am almost a convert.

    What is your experience with predictive text on-screen keyboards?

    Just really waiting for Win 8 and the next iteration of 10″ and 7″ tablets…

    • Sumocat says

      Predictive text is an area where using a pen-based Tablet PC has ingrained some strong habits. I’m used to looking at one prediction at a time, as is how it works when writing in the TIP. Thus, using the iPhone keyboard with single predictions works well for me, but I never got the hang of looking at multiple options as is usually the case with Android. Can’t use Swype either thanks to years of tapping single keys on the TIP keyboard. I’m really only good with inking, typing on a full keyboard, and single-thumb typing. Hmm, seems to explain my general dislike for touch-only tablets.

  2. Steve S says

    If there is any real competitor to OneNote, I haven’t seen it.

    Since Agilix pulled the plug on GoBinder in late 2009, OneNote has pretty much had the field to itself.  A shame, really, since as good as OneNote is, it could still benefit if it had some real competition.

    EverNote is also a good app, but it’s just not in the same class…

    • Sumocat says

      I looked up GoBinder for this. Expected a placeholder, but the site has not changed at all. Haven’t even pulled the download and purchase pages.

      • Steve S says

        Sumo:  You’re right.  My understanding is that the site is unresponsive, however… Just another “ghost town” website on the Internet prairie…

  3. Joe O'Laughlin says

    On an old MacBook Pro Growley Notes lets me keep the temperature 30 degrees cooler by NOT running Fusion/Windows just to get OneNote.

    No inking (beyond USB stylus freehand) or OCR, but hyperlinks, highlights, draggable note windows, and arrows/boxes allows visual rhetoric. 

  4. Brettg says

    Onenote all the way for me. Well summed up sumocat.

    Onenote is the killer app for pen tablets. Has been for many years. People are catching on…

  5. Manacap says

    The Lenovo Thinkpad (Android 3.1 product, http://shop.lenovo.com/SEUILibrary/controller/e/web/LenovoPortal/en_US/catalog.workflow:item.detail?GroupID=37&Code=TABLET_16GWIFI) looks like it may have some promise.  From the reviews, the writing experience is nicer than the HTC Scribe, and better integrated with Android 3.1 (i.e., you can use the pen for menu choice as well).  I think it uses Evernote though, so it is still lacking compared to a OneNote solution.  Obviously, you could use win7, as I do (and have OneNote), but the lack of true instant on, short battery life (my tablet gets me 6 hours w/o wifi), tablet unfriendly UI, too thick, and too heavy are still negative elements.

  6. Dennisvjames says

    I put OneNote up there with Excel – truly a game changer. Hopefully Microsoft will get behind it big time with the release of new tablets and convertables.

  7. Anonymous says

    What about the new Samsung Galaxy Note? I guess since it’s new, it’s a major unknown, but I was really impressed that Samsung seems to be taking pen input seriously, even allowing you to crop things by drawing around it, similar to the clipping tool on Tablet PCs… And Samsung is planning to open up their pen-input SDK to 3rd-parties. I’m SO EXCITED for the Galaxy Note. :D

  8. Anonymous says

    What’s so hard about an iPad size and weight device with a ten hour battery, Wacom digitizer, and OneNote – LOL! But that should be the holy grail for Microsoft and the new era of Windows 8. We have long passed the need to eliminate the yellowpad and paper based forms. OneNote’s shared notebook feature should be Microsoft’s gold standard. Thanks to pervasive connectivity with WiFi and 3g variants, we should have instant access to our notes, forms, and any other form of WRITTEN content. Why shouldn’t I be able to cruise around the office, client/competitor offices, our homes, wherever – with my 10″ screen being my window on my data and communication central. Above all, OneNote gives me the options to take purely handwritten notes; convert to text; scrapbook data; organizational tools – almost its own environment.

    Dennisvjames is absolutely right – OneNote is a game changer – unfortunately, the game players don’t really know it exists and teh coach (Microsoft) is clueless on how to market it. I have yet to meet a SINGLE college student among my children’s peers who isn’t amazed at the notetaking/study/paper writing marvel that is OneNote – BUT – they do not want to carry convertibles like my HP 2740p. I am convinced if you deliver my dream tablet above, you WILL put a dent into the iPad juggernaut.

  9. Tim says

    I agree, One Note is the best but………..on my android Galaxy Tab 2 7 the app insists on using skydrive….and I want to use Dropbox. So, for me at least android and One Note are a non starter, does anyone konw of a relatively simple note taker with cut and paste and right click note encryption? That would be my “holy grail”?

  10. creepingdeathv2 says

    The whole office suite man! I have nothing but respect for MS! They know how to make incredibly user friendly products. They just dont know how to market themselves as well as their competition… MS is the bomb!

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