In this era of information overload, note-taking apps like Evernote, Google Keep and Microsoft OneNote can be extremely useful tools. Which one should you choose?
For years, software makers have tried to create the perfect personal information manager. Some were very good, but the problem was that these applications were tethered to computers and, as a result, we still largely relied on paper-based diaries, newspapers and notebooks.
Electronic organisers such as the Palm Pilot allowed us to take our schedules and other snippets with us, but it wasn’t until the rise of the smartphone – followed by cloud services and tablet computers – that we were able to access the information we need from anywhere.
That, however, has led to another problem: information overload. How do we sort through and act on all the emails, online articles, documents and other scraps of information we come across?
A new breed of information managers has emerged to help keep our data organised. They’re more commonly known as note-taking apps, but they’ve evolved well beyond that.
Leading the charge is the popular Evernote, but Microsoft and Google have come to the party with OneNote and Keep respectively.
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All provide the flexibility of accessing (and creating) information from anywhere via a cloud service and mobile apps, while Evernote and OneNote are available as desktop apps, too.
They’re not designed to replace organisers such as Outlook, but rather to supplement them by providing a more flexible, richer information repository that’s synchronised across your devices. They offer an increasing array of tools to help you do this, ranging from clipping web pages in your browser to taking audio notes on your smartphone.
Importantly, they also provide ways to file away and find information and take action with to-do lists, reminders and collaboration tools.
However, there are significant differences between them – see our comparison table, on the opposite page, for a detailed run-down, but here are the highlights.
Evernote revolutionised note-taking software by building its app into a powerful, cross-platform information management tool. It’s the most mature of these apps and, as our comparison table shows, offers the richest set of features. It does some things a little better, too.
While the others have mobile apps that scan and digitise business cards, Evernote goes further by grabbing details from the person’s LinkedIn profile before creating a new contact. It’s also generally more consistent. For example, it can clip web pages from both desktop and mobile apps, while OneNote only captures links on its mobile app.
There’s a huge library of supporting third-party apps that enables Evernote to work with other tools, ranging from the Feedly newsreader to the IFTTT automation app.
Just be aware that there are some key differences between Evernote’s free and paid editions – see www.evernote.com/pricing
If Evernote and OneNote are like electronic versions of paper notebooks, Keep is more akin to Post-it notes. As such, it’s much more basic than the other two. It does not allow formatted text or file attachments; it only snips web links, not web pages, and there’s surprisingly little integration with Gmail.
However, that simplicity has its attractions, and Keep has an increasing array of useful tools, such as the mobile app’s ability to scan and digitise such things as business cards via the phone’s camera – albeit into plain text rather than into a structured contact like the other two.
Microsoft might have given Evernote a head start, but it’s catching up quickly. The 2016 edition offers a number of new tools that, for example, allow you to forward emails to your OneNote account. OneNote’s library of third-party apps is growing, although it’s still not as comprehensive as Evernote’s.
One problem is that OneNote’s improvements are somewhat uneven among its different apps. For example, most versions allow audio recordings, but not the Android app (at the time of writing). The full Windows application, on the other hand, allows you to take audio recordings that intelligently align with your written (or typed) notes of meetings. Clicking a small play button next to a line of text takes you straight to that part of the recording.
This feature alone might be enough to sway you to OneNote. Just make sure you’re using the right version. The Windows 10 “Universal” app lacks this and several other features that are included in the full Windows version.
Can any note-taking app claim to be the perfect information manager? Evernote probably comes closest overall, but OneNote’s note-taking capabilities and Google Keep’s simplicity will have their fans. In truth, “perfection” largely depends on how you work and what information you need to manage.
All are free or offer a free version, so you can try them for yourself. If none of them suit you, there are plenty more to choose from, including Apple Notes (included with iOS), Quip and Simplenote, just to name a few.
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