The much-rumored Microsoft Office for iPad may never see the light of day, but the company's less-heralded OneNote application scores some serious points for taking notes, staying organized and general tablet productivity. (Rating: 4 out of 5 stars)
In an age where note-takers are a dime a dozen, OneNote has often been forced to play second fiddle in the App Store.
Evernote appears to dominate when it comes down to features, useful app plug-ins and quite possibly user numbers too (Evernote was at “around 60 million” at last check; Microsoft doesn’t publish user figures on OneNote). The introduction of a business version for improved collaboration also gives it a slight edge.
That’s not to say, however, that there is a lack of alternatives. More creative folk may prefer Paper or the Evernote-owned Penultimate while NoteSuite, Notability and the now-canned Catch Notes have all been credible and versatile rivals for mobile and tablet users.
Microsoft’s OneNote has always been in that chasing pack of contenders, but the product's maturation has seen it emerge as the most obvious alternative to Evernote.
OneNote: Now untethered from your PC
Microsoft recently upgraded the app to version 2.1, a change which brought about new tools for creating and editing notebooks, as well as deleting note sections, straight from your iPad. That might not sound like a must-have feature but it really is when you consider this was previously only do-able on the PC.
The app also lets you sync notes to the cloud to use across different devices and share notes with friends and colleagues. iPhone users will be pleased to learn too that the app update is now around half the download size of the previous version.
If you haven’t used OneNote before, the start-up process is very simple. A brief tutorial details how to create, edit and file notes in notebooks, and users are then asked to sign in with their Microsoft account (that's the ID you use for Windows Live, Hotmail, SkyDrive, Outlook, MSN or Xbox Live).
After logging in, there is a briefing document front and center, a small notebook icon in the top left corner and all notes within the opened folder are listed vertically down the right-hand side. At the top, the toolbar splits the layout by Home, Insert and View.
There’s a search bar in the top right to search by title or text (results are displayed by title and what’s on the page) and icons to add a ‘remember later’, a to-do item or include a question mark within the text.
As you’d expect given Microsoft’s heritage with Office, there’s an excellent word processor toolbar with options to tweak the font, font size and color, adjust the page layout and more. There are also options to sync to the cloud as well as undo and redo any work.
The new feature which lets you create notebooks on the iPad is very easy to get a handle on. It's as painless as tapping ‘Create notebook’ and then entering a name on the Notebook list.
You can also easily add new pages to your notes by tapping the plus button on the sections bar, or rename a section altogether by typing over the existing section title.
Some of the less prominent features impressed me too, like the opportunity to view a document in full-screen mode, the on-page search results (handily, you can narrow down search by one notebook or just a notebook section) and the chance to see the time and date of when a document was first edited.
[If I was being greedy, I’d ask for an edit log on the next version, a feature already in use on Quip’s iPad app].
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Office editing tools
When you jump onto the Insert icon, you'll find options for inserting tables, pictures, hyperlinks, even calendar dates or new pictures from your camera at the top toolbar, while the View option lets you adjust a page as you would on Microsoft Word.
It's a pretty seamless experience and lets you get things done in a matter of seconds. For example, via the View page, I could adjust the page zoom, the page width and color, and toggle the spelling button to track any obvious typos.
You can easily navigate around the app and back to the home page or to your profile (available in the left-hand bar at the top), but one thing you're likely to pick-up on is the lack of cloud storage options. You can however add a new SkyDrive or Office 365 SharePoint account.
Why go with OneNote?
So, where does this all leave Microsoft's OneNote for iPad app? Well, simply put, it is an excellent note-taking app and certainly worth considering if you own a lot of Microsoft devices.
That's not to say that improvement is impossible; the app is somewhat simple, the text editing boxes are a little cumbersome and there isn't too much in the way of cloud storage support (it's SkyDrive or bust).
But OneNote is a versatile, cross-platform note-taking solution with an uncluttered user interface, Microsoft Office tools and an independence from the PC which makes it ideal for the travelling professional. The fact that it regularly syncs via SkyDrive is icing on the cake.