Last week, in part one of this review, I highlighted the various features and technical capabilities of Evernote and OneNote; this installment is more about the usability difference between the applications. I’ve used both in a work setting, where I’m frequently attending meetings and interacting with clients and colleagues. Both applications attempt to replace the traditional paper notebook and promise easy sharing and synchronization of notes across devices.

Interface and organization

Love it or hate it, OneNote presents a surprisingly consistent user interface across devices, versus Evernote’s seemingly unique UI for each device.

Open OneNote on the Mac, and it feels similar to the Windows version, which in turn seems surprisingly similar to the iPad version. Contrast this with Evernote where, despite three years of use, I often find myself lost when trying to perform a simple function like creating a new note. While OneNote provides admirable consistency, it uses Microsoft’s “ribbon” interface, which conceals several common functions behind a series of ribbons that may be hidden or difficult to locate.

In terms of note taking, OneNote offers a lot more formatting and free-form entry capability. You can easily drop an image or block of text anywhere on the virtual page and add icons and extensive formatting. OneNote suffers on two major fronts, however. First and foremost, the application is slower to load than Evernote on most platforms. My aging iPad 2 has a dozen-second delay while opening the app, versus Evernote’s near-instantaneous load. This is similar on my relatively current MacBook Air and iOS and Android phones. On my PC desktop and Windows 8 tablet, the difference is less noticeable. Secondly, OneNote is organized almost exclusively around Notebooks, sections, and individual notes, while Evernote offers a more multi-dimensional organizational approach. Evernote notes can be grouped by notebook, but also by tag and geographical location where the note was created.

In a work setting, I loved that Evernote appeared nearly instantly on all platforms–an asset when sitting with a client who launches into a list of actions that need to be captured quickly, lest one “slip” from memory while OneNote loads. When brainstorming or creating a more organized note, for application design ideas for instance, I preferred OneNote’s extensive formatting and large workspace.

Pen versus keyboard

A unique aspect of OneNote on the Windows platform is support for pen input. I’ve used OneNote in the past with the previous generation of pre-iPad Tablet PCs, and more recently with a Dell Venue Pro 8 and its active stylus.

I find stylus input more natural in a meeting setting than pecking away on a keyboard with a screen propped between my client and me, yet stylus input on most current Windows tablets just isn’t fully usable, with a variety of glitches. Evernote recently acquired the Penultimate application, promising iPad-based stylus note taking. While I haven’t used the platform, I have taken notes on an iPad using a capacitive stylus, a process I’ve mentioned in a past article.

Sync and third party support

Like any application that promises to sync complex information between multiple devices, sync wasn’t perfect for either Evernote or OneNote, although Evernote seemed to do a better job. The only flaw I’ve experienced with Evernote is that sync sometimes seems irregular, so I’ll open Evernote on my smartphone only to find a note from my laptop never synced to the cloud. OneNote seems to sync more regularly (as evidenced by constant sync icons), but it has repeatedly notified me of sync errors on one of my notebooks, which seems impossible to resolve.

Evernote also dominates the third party scene, with a variety of applications and plugins that do everything from sending content to an Evernote notebook, to integrating with all major web browsers, to quickly “clipping” pages into an Evernote notebook. Evernote is very much a major cloud platform, and support is nearly as common as with other major cloud apps like DropBox and Twitter. While OneNote does have some integration capabilities, they are nowhere near Evernote’s.

Where will my notes stay?

The fundamental functions of both applications are largely similar. Each will readily store and organize notes using a familiar notebook metaphor, and both let you sync and share notes across a variety of platforms. In my mind, OneNote is closer to a word processor like Microsoft Word, while Evernote is closer to the old “Notepad” application that came with Windows. If your notes are richly formatted and more “document” than collection of text, OneNote will probably suit you. If you need a repository for quickly capturing unformatted text, or want to leverage easy web clipping or third party functionality, Evernote seems like a more logical choice.

Despite an initial sense that I’d return wholeheartedly to OneNote and migrate my existing notes away from Evernote, I’m still not convinced that OneNote outside the Windows platform is ready for primetime. I’m also not ready to fully trust its synchronization mechanism with critical business notes. The good news is that either application is very capable at its core function, and with each offering what amounts to a free version, it’s easy to try both and draw your own conclusion.