UPDATE July 2008: Since writing this post in October 2007, some important things have changed on the EverNote side. I’m currently evaluating the EverNote 3 beta and will let you know how things turn out. The original post is below…

Okay, let’s have it out! What tool is best for capturing and organizing notes? For a long time I used nothing but Notepad, plus some hand-crafted AutoHotkey scripts. As I got further into my GTD implementation, I wanted something that fit that methodology better and also integrated well with Microsoft Outlook. By the way, this post probably reeks of Procrastivity, but let’s indulge for a bit.

I canvassed the field multiple multiple times. I installed and uninstalled many a tool on my poor tired laptop, probably making a mess of my registry. There were two tools that I kept coming back to: EverNote and OneNote. Eventually those were the only tools left. For several months I used both tools simultaneously, going back and forth between the two trying to find that one reason that would tip the scales. That one reason never came. Both tools had some great features, and each tool also had several painful shortcomings. To help force the decision, I did what any self-respecting anal-retentive manager would do: I made a list!

The list below represents those features that were important to me for my system along with Low/Medium/High priorities. Where there were major shortcomings, I tried my best to find a work-around as if I had already decided to select that tool and make it work.


Feature

Pri

EverNote 2.1

OneNote 2007

Text Recognition

H

Yes, but doesn’t allow you to copy/select text Yes, and text can be easily extracted
Handwriting Recognition (image, not digital ink)

H

Yes, but uses a “shotgun” word approach and doesn’t allow you to copy/extract text. No.
Auto Import

H

Very nice import of text and images just by dropping to folder. No. I wish OneNote had this. I even tried some of the currently available “PowerToys” and no such luck. There are some command line tricks you can do, but these are very awkward.
PDF Import/ Export

M

No, EverNote basically doesn’t handle PDFs. You have to just add a link to the file (as an icon). I got around this somewhat with a Ghostscript command file I wrote to extract JPEGs from the PDF and automatically send them to EverNote. Yes. You have to install the iFilter from Adobe, but after that you have options to import, export, email, etc.
Web Clipping from IE and Firefox

H

Yes – fast and accurate with links to original; clip and forget. Poor – Formats somewhat mangled, Firefox is via 3rd party extension, slow & distracting (you have to watch OneNote open, splash screen and all)
Easily create Outlook tasks from Notes

H

No, manual process Yes, very easy to create. Some issues where tasks get out of sync (if you move task to another folder)
Send note via email

L

Yes, although notes are more of a screen shot (not editable) format Yes, but included function is weak (sends as OneNote attachment). Can get add-on that sends via PDF.
On-Screen editing of notes

H

Very limited. Cannot draw or float text over images. When inserting something everything else moves around. Yes, excellent capability here. Also includes a lot of the standard editing & drawing tools ala Microsoft Word.
Easy to learn & use GUI

M

I know that scroll tape is their “thing”, but it’s awkward. The notes list is nice for quickly jumping to notes. You can only view one note at a time in full screen, and usually the link/source info is not available in that view. Editor and layout is very easy if you’re familiar with Office products. The layers of notebooks and sections and tabs and pages feel a bit cluttered.
Tagging/ Categories

M

Yes, Excellent – ability to tag notes, define rules for automatic tags, and search via tag intersection panel Very weak and poorly implemented. Only manual tags, no good tag hierarchy. The search function doesn’t filter, instead creates awkward page with copy of tagged items not linked back to original items.
Cost

H

FREE! As long as you don’t want handwriting recognition (which isn’t ready for primetime anyway) or sync multiple databases. Fairly expensive… $75 (standard license) on Amazon.com. I saw some better deals on eBay ($55-60) if you’re willing to deal with smaller companies or individuals. Microsoft does, however, offer a free 60-day trial.
Built in Search

H

Yes, also like the fact that it starts to filter as soon as you type Yes
Support for Desktop Search

H

No. Big minus here. No way to quickly get to all that useful data. I think they are adding Google Desktop Search capability in v2.2 however. Yes – Works well with Windows Desktop Search. Should support Google Desktop Search too but I haven’t tested it.
Ability to link to notes from other places

M

Yes Yes
Speed

H

Generally not an issue – fairly lightweight and fast. Occasional hangs, but pretty rare. This was a big problem on my Dell Latitude D610. By the time it opened and loaded the page, I almost forgot what I was going to jot down. Not really an issue on my shiny new D630.


So which one did I finally pick? Well, I broke down and bought a copy of OneNote 2007. One of the biggest reasons was desktop search capability. Even though EverNote has some very nice tagging capability, which trumps filing, search trumps tagging. It’s like rock-paper-scissors but without the circular relationship.

I also started to realize that I wasn’t going to get anything (short of buying a tablet PC) that did highly reliable hand-writing recognition. I was occasionally impressed by that function in EverNote, and I have to give them credit since they are the only ones to have something like this in product, but it’s just not good enough yet to be useful. You can’t extract the text, and if you peek at the XML content, you’ll see what I meant by “shotgun” approach above. For a given hand-written word, any word that is reasonably close gets entered into the database as a match. It’s a one-to-many relationship, so you think it’s working because you get positive hits. When you search on what you expect to match, it matches fairly often. What’s not so obvious at first is that lots of other stuff (incorrect words) will match too. This one-to-many structure is probably why EverNote doesn’t let you copy the recognized text from a hand-written paragraph. There is no cohesive translation per se.

The final nails in the coffin were the editing capability (GUI) and the ability to make synchronized tasks in Outlook with a single click. There are some short-comings to this feature which I will discuss in a future post, but still pretty handy.

So that’s where I am today. It would be great to hear from you as to what tools you prefer and what you think of my assessments. Please post your comments below!