OneNote 2016 for Mac review: Intuitive and versatile, but still not up to par with Windows version

It's been about a year since Microsoft released (and I reviewed) OneNote for Mac, which was, at that time, available only from the Mac App Store. Over the past 14 or so months Microsoft has made numerous incremental changes to the app, adding or updating features and making the app more versatile and, perhaps, making it a better note taking choice than the everpresent Evernote.

Whether OneNote is suitable as an Evernote replacement for you will depend largely on what you use Evernote for. For me, as I've used OneNote over the past year, I find it to be the tool that best suits my needs. And I say this after attempting to use Evernote (in stops and starts) many times since I first reviewed the original iOS version of the app several years ago.

But, mind you, I have very specific note taking needs. I'm using it to create large text documents with disparate but linked bits of information that I want to be easily shared and simple to navigate. I don't use many media files and I'm not "collecting" information, which is something Evernote excels at. For me, OneNote, while imperfect, is a perfect solution.

OneNote is still free, so, while it comes as a part of Office 2016, you don't need Office 2016 or an Office 365 subscription to use the app. But you do need a OneDrive account in order to save documents, as there is still no way to use a file saved locally on your Mac. Fortunately, Microsoft still offers free OneDrive accounts with 25GB of storage.

Documents created using OneNote can be shared with and edited by anyone, whether they have the app or not, as it offers not only apps for Mac and iOS, but a perfectly serviceable web app that supports most everything you can do with your Mac.

Looks the same, but it's different

The app doesn't look any different than did last year's version, but there have been some tweaks to the way it works. Each OneNote document consists of a series of tabs, referred to as sections, and each section can have an unlimited number of pages. Pages within a section are what you use to organize your information. And each page allows you to enter information a freeform fashion, which is to say that you can click anywhere and just start typing. Your freeform typing is added to a text box that, once you enter text, can be rearranged, formatted, and organized on a page.

An update to the app now allows you to drag files from the Finder to add them to the document, with some limitations. PDF files, Office documents, text files, and images can all be added to OneNote pages with a drag and drop.

One of the things that makes OneNote excellent is the option it offers for linking to both internal and external references. As you might expect it's easy to add links to web sites by adding a hyperlink to a page, but what I find most beneficial is how you can link other pages within any current Notebooks or to Pages that are part of completely different Notebooks. This kind of Notebook linking capability allows you to create highly sophisticated documents that have both internal and external references

OneNote is not perfect. It still lags behind the Windows versions with relation to features and capabilities. For example, in the Windows version of OneNote you can add an Excel document to a page, open the document, make changes to the spreadsheet, save it, and see those changes reflected in OneNote. If you open the same Notebook in OneNote for Mac you can see the same information, but you can only open a read-only copy of the Excel document. Likewise, I can add an Excel document to a OneNote Mac Notebook by dragging it from the Finder, but once it's part of OneNote it's not editable. Furthermore, if I update that document outside of OneNote my changes aren't reflected in the document I dragged to OneNote.

There have been improvements to linked web pages, although they also remain imperfect. You can add a web page to OneNote using the OneNote Clipper, which gives you the option of adding a whole web page or an individual article to OneNote. Clipped articles retain links and images while web pages appear as images in OneNote. (As an aside, OneNote is does a great job of extracting text from images you add to a Notebook.) But there was no way to add video from a web page to a OneNote document. The only option was to add a link to a page with video in it and view that video in your browser. Notably, you can record and playback audio created from within the app.

Bottom line

OneNote remains a powerful tool for capturing notes. While it still lacks features I'd like to see in a note taking app, it remains the most intuitive and versatile app of this sort I've used and my one go-to app for creating sophisticated, multi-layered notes. It lacks all the capabilities of its Windows counterpart and it doesn't offer the the kind of "capture-it-all" versatility you'll find in Evernote, but it provides tools for organizing your notes you're unlikely to find anywhere else.


Jeffery Battersby

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