The Dreaded Notes, Part 1

There is nothing harder to make paperless than notes. The software vendors will tell you differently, but seriously, taking paperless notes is actually quite hard. Especially, when you have spent years crafting notes in real paper notebooks with real ink-filled pens.

I am a notebook guy. I love the texture of a physical notebook. I love the little red elastic that you wrap around the notebook to keep it closed. I love a fine pen on the paper. I love the freeform way to sketch ideas and capture thoughts. All this needed to be replicated in electronic notes for me in order to make it work. So I came to a few conclusions:

A few hard things about taking notes electronically

  1. You need an electronic device, and so far, everyone agrees that the device creates a barrier between you and the rest of the meeting participants.
  2. Especially if you choose a laptop as your device, you are moving from a freeform pen environment to a structured keyboard environment. Those are surprisingly different in a few ways. A keyboard can be noisy in the meeting and it feels like there is more looking down at the screen then there was with paper. Another blockage to meeting etiquette.
  3. What happens when your battery dies, or your internet goes down? You are screwed, and you will find yourself looking for paper and a pen.

A few great things about taking notes electronically:

  1. Getting notes organized is much easier. A physical notebook was a linear system – a new page every meeting. But an electronic notebook is multi-dimensional – with multiple books, tabs, pages, and tags. There are a million ways to organize your notes (this can be a curse as well, more on that later).
  2. Finding your notes is much easier. You either organize them well, or you can use the search function to find what you need in an instant.
  3. You can have your entire history at your fingertips. Physical notebooks have a capacity problem (and an archiving problem) that simply disappears with electronic notes. The near unlimited capacity of our devices and cloud services means that everything you ever noted can be accessed instantly.

So as I embarked on the quest to move my notes from my beloved notebook to digital, I came face to face with the tough decision: which platform?

onenote evernote

OneNote vs. Evernote

In software, I like to keep myself, my company, and my clients pretty mainstream. Weird fringe software is usually buggy, poorly supported, and lacking features. Most importantly, it doesn’t have an ecosystem of developers and users supporting it, evolving it, and making it better.

The two mainstream note-taking software platforms are OneNote and Evernote. I had both running in my company and had experimented with the two platforms over the years, but it was time to pick one and go with it.

OneNote is a Microsoft product developed around 2003 and had been an integral part of the Microsoft Office suite over the years. Evernote is a cloud-based solution that emerged in 2008 and has been adding millions of users each year.

The key comparisons for me:

Multiple Notebooks

  • OneNote: Yes
  • Evernote: Yes

Winner: Tie

Sub Tabs and Pages

  • OneNote: Lots of them
  • Evernote: None – uses tags and views to organize

Winner: OneNote

Web Clipping

  • OneNote: Barely
  • Evernote: Awesome

Winner: Evernote

Microsoft Office Integration

  • OneNote: Quite robust
  • Evernote: Limited

Winner: OneNote

Freeform Pen Input

  • OneNote: Awesome
  • Evernote: Recently added but limited

Winner: OneNote

Cloud storage for access anywhere

  • OneNote: Uses OneDrive – weak but improving
  • Evernote: Cloud is everything

Winner: Evernote

Mobile Apps

  • OneNote: Emerging with bugs
  • Evernote: Every platform – stable and well supported

Winner: Evernote

So, using the pure number of winning features for each product, it was a draw. No clear winner.

But when I prioritized the features that were critical to me, a clear winner emerged.

The features that were critical related back to the strengths of digital notes: organization, search, and history. Integration with my work platform (Microsoft Office) was important and I really wanted to be able to sketch on the notes using a digital pen.

So from that priority list, OneNote emerged as the winner for me.

Now that I have chosen a platform, I need to dig into a few things:

  1. How to structure my notes – OneNote has near unlimited options with notebooks, tabs, groups, pages, and subpages. Maybe too many options?
  2. How to get it onto the cloud – I need my notes everywhere, always.
  3. How to get it across my devices – I have multiple PC’s, an iPhone, and an android tablet.
  4. How to achieve my desire for freeform sketching – which devices would allow me to truly sketch my ideas into OneNote?
  5. How to capture data on the fly – web clipping, Microsoft Office integration, PDF files, etc.

So my journey with OneNote starts with those five key problems to solve.

Wait. Actually, there is a sixth problem.

All of my previous attempts at digital notes have been stored within Evernote. It was the easiest to use and had cloud capability out of the box, so I had started with that product years ago.

With some searching on the web, I find a little tool called Evernote2OneNote (yup, the name sums it up) that can be found on Stefan’s Sourceforge page.


So now I am ready to fire up OneNote, learn how to use it, load my old Evernote notes into the platform, and become a digital-note-capturing guru. Sounds easy. Looks hard.

Part 1 – Part 2Part 3

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