transitioning from evernote to onenote

As part of my tech cleanup for the new year, I spent most of the day yesterday migrating all of my notes and documents from Evernote to OneNote. (tl;dr version: It was not nearly as smooth a process as I’d hoped, but now that it’s done I’m pretty happy with the new setup.)

Evernote has been one of my major organizational and productivity tools for a very long time–one of my oldest active notes (a list of my frequent traveler numbers) was created in 2008–and have had a paid account with them since it became an option. My primary uses of it are for notetaking in meetings (the ability to take pictures of whiteboards and napkin notes and have the text be searchable was the killer feature for me from the beginning), clipping of web pages for future reading/use, storing scanned documents and receipts (also with searchable text), and quick access on mobile devices to critical pieces of information like insurance ID cards and frequent flyer numbers. I paid $45/year for my premium account, and I felt that what I got for that made the cost worthwhile.

Over the past several years, however, the Evernote interface has gotten increasingly cluttered, and it felt as though I was constantly being badgered to use it to collaborate, or being prompted to view “related content” that wasn’t really relevant to what I was doing. When they bought the Mac screenshot program Skitch, which I was a heavy user of, it was annoying that *every single screenshot* got saved to Evernote, cluttering my notes and searches. Overall, I just felt like there was more and more friction in what had previously been a really clean and easy to use tool. By last year, I’d started to read reviews of Microsoft’s OneNote that indicated it might be a worthy competitor to Evernote, but the hassle of moving eight years of notes to a new system had me hesitating. When Evernote pulled their boneheaded privacy move last month, however, I figured it was a good time to get serious about switching. (It helped that I recently switched from a Mac to a Win10 laptop for my primary work machine, so I was already in the mode of switching tools and workflow.)

I started the process by weeding out old notes and notebooks from Evernote, so that I wasn’t dealing with importing and reorganizing unnecessary content. Once that was done, I downloaded Microsoft’s Evernote importer, and started it up. Given the number of notes I had, I figured it would take a while, so I left it running overnight and started the real work of transitioning the next morning.

The first challenge I ran into was that there are apparently two different OneNote applications on my Win10 machine. One is called OneNote, and it’s an app that appears to be optimized for touch/tablet computing. The other is called OneNote 2016. It took me a while to figure out the difference between them, and I ended up settling on OneNote 2016 because I don’t need the touch/ink features, and it gave me better options for organizing and customizing.

The importer put all of the converted notebooks in my cloud-based OneDrive account, and didn’t cache local versions of anything. To get local copies cached on my machine, I had to open them from the server. That wouldn’t have been an issue if it weren’t for the fact that every time I tried to open a new notebook from the server, OneNote would crash. This happened dozens of times while I was working on re-organzing things in the OneNote interface. (I had about 40 different Evernote notebooks that got converted.) I could open one remote notebook, have it sync to the desktop (which took a painfully long time), but the next time I went to open a remote notebook the program would crash, hard. I tried deleting settings files and cache files, but the problem kept recurring. I finally resigned myself to the fact that it would crash and have to be restarted multiple times during the process. The *only* reason I kept going at this point was that I found I really liked the OneNote interface better than the Evernote interface, and I was hopeful that the crashes would be a one-time startup problem.

Why did I prefer the UI? One of the biggest reasons is that OneNote allows you to create separate tabs within a Notebook, allowing for more granularity in organization. This worked a lot better for me in terms of how I organize my information. For instance, I’ve always had an Evernote notebook for medical information, but it’s gotten hard to navigate since I’ve got general stuff (insurance cards and info, for instance) as well as specific articles and notes related to both my own and my family members’ medical issues. (2016 was quite the year for doctor’s visits…) In OneNote, I was able to create a general tab, as well as tabs for each individual person, making it a lot easier to access the content efficiently. I also had separate notebooks for material for each of the classes I teach, but was able to turn those into individual tabs in a “Teaching” notebook. OneNote also has the ability to create “subpages,” which I haven’t played with much yet, but which I can see adding another level of organizational usefulness. (Keep in mind that my graduate work was in library science, so well-structured organizational systems make me really happy.) Similarly, my catch-all “Receipts” notebook now has tabs for house, car, appliances, software, hardware, etc.

The tab-based organization allowed me to greatly reduce the number of notebooks I had, since many individual notebooks made more sense as tabs in a single notebook. But that made the process of getting things set up that much more painful, since I had to deal with the crashes, as well as the very slow initial sync (even on relatively small notebooks with mostly text notes). I also discovered that once I’d moved the content out of a notebook into a tab elsewhere, deleting the unnecessary empty notebook from the server was seriously awkward. There’s no way to do this in the OneNote client, it turns out. You need to go to your OneDrive cloud storage account, find the directory in which the OneNote files are stored, and delete it from the online file system. Then you have to make sure the notebook gets manually “closed” in the local client, or it will create problematic sync issues. That’s very user-unfriendly. (Even worse, once I’d deleted all the unnecessary notebooks and cleared them from the Win10 client cache, I found that OneNote on my mobile devices still suggested all the deleted notebooks at the top of the list for opening, since they had been “recently opened.” I would have expected that it wouldn’t suggest notebooks that no longer existed on the server.)

Similarly, you can’t rename a notebook without going into the online file system, either. You can change the display name in the local client, but that won’t be reflected when you open the notebook from another device. And given the sync problems I’ve had, I’m a little reluctant now to change the notebook names on the server for fear that it will cause new crashes/sync issues.

The good news is, the problems described above are all, for the most part, only issues if you’re migrating a lot of content from Evernote to OneNote. And now that I’ve got my notes moved and organized, and all of the new consolidated notebooks cached locally, everything seems to be running really smoothly. I’ve successfully used OfficeLens, the camera capture app for mobile, to capture a whiteboard and create a searchable note. I’ve accessed documents that I needed on my phone without difficulty. I’ve captured web pages and screen shots on my computer and stored them in the notebook tabs I wanted them in. Searching across notes is faster and the results are presented more cleanly than in Evernote, which is a big plus. Overall, as annoying as the issues with crashes and deleting/renaming notebooks were yesterday, I feel like OneNote is not just an adequate replacement for Evernote, but actually an improvement. And the fact that there’s no annual fee for the same functionality I had in Evernote is a nice bonus, as well.

The only thing it’s missing for me at this point (and to be fair, Evernote was missing it, too) is the ability to convert handwritten notes to text on my iPad Pro. I can take the handwritten notes on the iPad, but converting them to editable, copyable text has to be done on Windows. As a result, OneNote will not become my primary notetaking tool on the iPad–instead, I’ll keeping using NotesPlus, the only iPad program I’ve found so far that allows for easy conversion of handwritten notes to digital text. Honestly, if OneNote supported that on the iPad, it would make it a complete no-brainer for anyone with an iPad to switch to it as their primary organizational tool cross-platform.