Apple Notes vs. Microsoft OneNote: Which is best for business?

OneNote enjoys smooth integration with other Microsoft 365 apps, but Apple Notes provides a clean and reliable alternative for Apple users who need to capture and share business notes.

Apple and Microsoft logos

Illustration/Lisa Hornung/TechRepublic

It didn't always used to be this way. Today's workplace is, of course, ever evolving. Analog telephones and mechanical typewriters are no longer popular office equipment. Contemporary professionals, instead, require tools capable of providing utility quickly, just as workers must shift attention rapidly between tasks while managing increasingly frenetic schedules. Consequently, taking notes has become a critical daily activity.

The sooner discoveries, ideas, strategic thoughts, sales data, industry statistics, product updates and other news can be captured and even shared with colleagues, the quicker the organization and its representatives can put that information to work. Note-taking is among the leading ways professionals collect information, whether the corresponding data is gathered during an in-person conference or Teams meeting, from a webinar or podcast or thanks to a presentation or vendor's website.

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Just reviewing the sheer number of note-taking apps should convince any skeptics of the popularity and necessity of such tools. And, as one might expect, two apps that have risen to the top are from the leading Goliaths: Apple and Microsoft.

Apple's Notes (Figure A) is built into macOS, iPadOS and iOS. Buy one of those devices and you'll find Notes already loaded. Just open the app and start typing, or, if you're using an iPad with an Apple Pencil, begin writing or drawing.

Figure A

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Apple Notes permits collecting notes within separate lists, applying a variety of formatting features and importing elements from other applications.

Microsoft OneNote, meanwhile, must be downloaded separately to Apple devices. To be fair, OneNote is free for users, regardless of whether a Microsoft 365 plan is in play, and the program provides a feature-packed interface (Figure B) that encourages writing, diagramming and outlining.

Figure B

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Microsoft OneNote is a free note-taking application that boasts a variety of features and tight integration with other Microsoft 365 programs.

If the user or organization does have a 365 subscription, OneNote further benefits from tight integration and the subsequent ease with which Microsoft 365 users can create notes using text, graphics and other elements from sister products, such as Word, PowerPoint, Excel, Outlook, Microsoft BI and SharePoint. It's a powerful combination, especially as OneNote permits organizing notes into multiple categories: notebooks, sections, pages and even section groups.

While offering comprehensive formatting, editing, collaboration, pagination and cloud-service abilities, OneNote shares another common trait with its bigger office productivity brethren: The app offers so many capabilities it can be difficult to use efficiently.

Apple Notes emphasizes the basics.  While permitting a range of formatting and collaboration options, as well as matching OneNote's abilities to import elements from other sources and use  dictation to input text, you can also create tasks or reminders from directly within Notes, which is easier to operate, especially for novices. And in a day and age when simply capturing thoughts and data is paramount, the ability to quickly and easily collect that information in a meaningful way that also permits speedily sharing that information with others or exporting it to a document, spreadsheet or presentation, well, that's as good as gold.

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All told, the more easily and efficiently an application performs its most important functions, the more likely you are to use it, and that's the goal. As 37signals' founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier, the authors of the best-selling business book Rework observed, "Small, simple, basic needs are constant. There's an endless supply of customers who need exactly that."

Make something too complex and you run the risk of trying to be everything to everyone, which Rework emphasizes cannot be done. That's how one ends up with complex toolbars and an unconventional data entry space and containers within OneNote that complicate the note-taking interface, sometimes making it more difficult to print a note or use the app on a mobile device or tablet with smaller displays. Notes on an iPhone or iPad (Figure C) doesn't really experience that problem.

Figure C

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The simple Notes interface, which moves the app's more advanced capabilities out of the way, works as well on mobile displays as it does for laptops and desktops.

Notes excels due to its simplicity, which belies some of the more advanced functions waiting backstage, should you really need them. As Rework's authors note, "making a few vocal customers happy isn't worth it if it ruins the product for everyone else."

Now, that's not to claim OneNote is a ruined product. It's not. OneNote's a fabulous tool for harried professionals married to the Microsoft 365 platform, especially users willing to invest the time and energy learning the app's unique nuances.

But that's where Apple Notes shines. The program stresses capturing information quickly and easily and lets you focus on working intuitively with the material important to you. Better yet, advanced collaboration and editing features are readily available but remain unobtrusive. Capturing, formatting and sharing information is simply easier using Notes, and I believe that's the winning option for today's Mac, iPad and iPhone professionals.

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