OneNote for iPhone Review: Overly Simple Note Taking

Yesterday, Microsoft launched its first Office app for iOS, a mobile version of the digital notebook application OneNote. If you’ve never heard of it, it may be because you’re using the Mac (s aapl) version of Office(s msft), which lacks OneNote, greatly reducing the usability of the iOS app.

Microsoft asserts that “78 million PCs in the U.S. have OneNote,” which, while not the same thing as having 78 million users, is still impressive. But the pool of potential overall Microsoft Office users from Mac and PC is more impressive still. Having tried OneNote, I’d suggest it may be the “practice” Office iOS app for Microsoft, before the team attempts to bring in that larger user base through Word, Excel, and PowerPoint apps. But unfortunately that “practice” feel doesn’t help the OneNote succeed as an app in and of itself.

OneNote requires an active Windows Live account to work at all. A Windows Live account allows automatic syncing between OneNote on an iOS device and Windows Live SkyDrive, which then can be synced with OneNote in Office (which, remember, is only available in the Windows version). There are no other way (like email) by which to send notes from an iOS device to a Mac or PC, so cross easy syncing off your list with OneNote.

After logging in once to Windows Live, the admittedly gorgeous OneNote Home screen appears, but looks can be deceiving. On the left, the Home screen shows a list of “notebooks,” which act as directories for your notes. Unfortunately, you can’t create notebooks in OneNote for iOS. You must use OneNote in Office, or use the OneNote web app at On the left are the contents of the Day-to-Day notebook broken down into sections. Think of sections as those little colored tabs on pages you might divide a physical notebook with. You can’t create or modify these in OneNote for iOS, either.

OneNote does perform well when it comes to actually taking notes, though. While OneNote can be used in landscape mode, you won’t have much screen real estate to keep track of what you’re doing. OneNote works much better, and looks just great, in portrait mode. As seen above, OneNote has options for both bullet lists and checkbox lists, as well as integration with the iPhone camera. The camera option is especially nice, as you can take a picture and have that be the subject of its own note. Apple needs to “borrow” that feature for Notes in iOS 5.

Unfortunately, even note taking in OneNote can at times be frustrating. Wouldn’t it be great if those ring binders on the left of the note indicated a potential action, like turning a page for the next or previous note? Instead, the only way you can get to different notes is by forever going back and forth through lists.

OneNote for iOS is free, for now, but Microsoft makes no promises about the future. If you want to be help encourage Microsoft to develop Office apps for iOS, get it now. If you want a full-featured notes app that really works, there’s Evernote. It’s free, but the premium service at $45 per year significantly increases what the app can do. For Mac users with limited needs, especially those with MobileMe, Apple’s Notes remains the best basic note-taking app. As for OneNote, for now it’s little more than an extension of the Windows application, better for viewing notes than actually creating, organizing, and sharing thoughts.

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