OneNote To Rule Them All

I recently decided to move to OneNote and have been meaning to write about the whys, the shortcomings and the hows – and here it is, at last, banged out in the shade while a relatively tepid Summer blunders through the countryside chased by a faint breeze.

This has been in the making for a while, really. I’ve kept tabs on OneNote‘s progress on the Mac and iOS for over a year, and after doing a little testing over the past couple of weeks I decided to stop faffing about and take the plunge: one evening I canceled the auto-renewal of my Evernote Premium account (still have most of a year remaining, actually) and started moving things across.


In a nutshell, I’m absolutely fed up with the way Evernote is turning into a bag of mixed nuts: all I see are squirrelly-like features that get in the way of writing or managing my notes, and it feels as if they’ve pretty much lost the plot.

OneNote now has native clients for almost every platform I use (OS X, Windows, iOS and Android) that have a consistent, stable user experience and is only missing Linux (where I’ve been running Evernote under WINE since 2008 or so), but that’s not a big deal.

It also has better support for rich text editing than Evernote (up to a point), which is a godsend even considering that most of my notes are written in a variety of Markdown-esque plain text.

Part of that is due to the way it handles freeform notes (even handwriting, although I never used it or have any real plans to do so), which, unsurprisingly, feels a lot like Word with the ancient Pen Services for Windows 95 (remember those? Well, I do…).

But mostly it’s because it has to interoperate nicely with Office, and has done so since the beginning.

Check, Please!

However, the one thing that made me switch over was its checklist features, which work really, really well for me – in particuar, they’re very easy to use on a phone1.

You see, over the years I’ve become a checklist guy. I have checklists for everything – for shopping, for individual projects, for household chores (some of which are best referred to as “procedures”, really), etc.

And there hasn’t really been any decent cross-platform To-Do/checklist management tool that fit my needs. Evernote sort of filled the gap, but the overall experience and bloat was getting on my nerves. OneNote just feels faster, regardless.

Every single day, first thing in the morning, I go through my weekly work checklist and see what I can tick off first, and every weekend I carry over open items and file away last week’s progress, making for a nice, compact journal.

At the last count, I’ve ticked off nearly four hundred checkboxes this year, so this is a big deal for me. Over the years, it dawned on me that checklists are not so much an indication of progress or a roadmap but an actual frame of reference when trying to tackle things.

When things are on a roll, checklists are a great way to do estimations. When things are bad (in the sense of stressful), they’re a way to make sure I don’t forget anything, and when they’re worse (in the sense of lack of motivation), they’re a sort of Jedi mind trick to force you to trudge on regardless.

But, again, the main reason for switching over it is that Evernote, despite its awesome integration and great feature set, just can’t make up its mind about what it wants to do as an app – every single upgrade has broken the UI in some way and/or added stuff that has very little (if any) bearing on actual note taking or improve note management.

OneNote is unlikely to suddenly sprout tentacles, content suggestions, work chat features and other sideshows or annoyances that I can’t get rid of, since its common feature set and overall focus is (at least for now) much clearer – you only have to look at the even simpler, dumber Modern version that ships with all editions of Windows 10 to realise it has to stay simple and focused.


In retrospect it’s amazing (and likely a measure of exactly how much Evernote has ticked me off) that this section is quite long, but yes, there are some shortcomings:

  • I find it a little annoying that OneNote is completely cloud-based these days (i.e., you don’t ever see a naked .one file, and the stubs it places on OneDrive are just that – stubs without any real data), but at least syncing works well, they support offline editing and caching on every platform for free and also have an API.
  • Despite their revamped clipping bookmarklet, web clipping is still a hit-and-miss affair, especially if (like me) you’re trying to clip technical articles – whitespace and code samples come out all wrong, and the alternative (storing bitmaps of web pages) is… just not practical. Pocket works well enough for me, so that’s not critical.
  • Ditto for cutting and pasting styled text. Anything that doesn’t fit OneNote‘s limited (but documented) formatting support is highly likely to suffer from “lost in translation” syndrome and require some tweaking.
  • The Android app currently doesn’t support password-protected sections (and, apparently, some other features I haven’t missed yet), and there seems to be a fair amount of complaining online about lack of feature parity – hasn’t been a big deal for me yet.
  • Font rendering on iOS is iffy. Calibri, in particular, is mis-kerned and mis-spaced six ways from Sunday, which makes it hard to read and irritating to write in, especially on my iPad.
  • I’ve had a some trouble with external keyboard support on the iPad – for instance, a recent version introduced a very annoying bug in cursor movement that makes the left and right cursor keys move two characters instead of one. I reported it as a bug, so hopefully that’ll get fixed soon.


It wasn’t too hard to move the important stuff across – it was just embarassingly manual, given that there are no import tools for OneNote and that what little I’ve seen done using their API didn’t do what I needed.

I also couldn’t spare the time to do the geeky thing and hack a migration tool, but this might be a nice niche business for someone else to tackle.

A couple of sittings of dragging and dropping sufficed for my main notebook, and as it turned out a lot of the stuff I had on Evernote was either outdated or not really relevant anymore (although I did find a few precious gems during the process).

Some notebooks I simply archived as PDFs, and a few – mostly composed of random web clippings – are still on Evernote until I see what’s worth keeping.

The biggest problem I had (besides the limited markup support I already alluded to) was that I can’t back-date notes – nor, as far as I can tell, tweak creation dates in any way via the UI. It might be doable via the API, but I simply haven’t bothered.

Next Steps

Well, I expect to spend some time playing with the API this summer, if only to see if I can back-date notes. I’d also like to tie specific checklists to GitHub projects, but that’s likely to be a bit overkill and, to be honest, I have a lot of stuff on my mind these days – and it’s not really the kind of stuff I can tackle with either code or checklists…

  1. Oddly, though, it’s more cumbersome to add an item to an existing list than to create an entirely new list on the iPhone – you have to tap a target near the top left of the screen instead of using the big, fat “plus” sign that hovers, Material-like, right next to your thumb… ↩︎