After trying to ignore or repel the iPad for years, Microsoft has finally come around and released an Office app for Apple’s tablet with OneNote for iPad. The app is free but limited. For starters, it comes with a limit of 500 notes, after which you’ll need to make a $14.99 in-app purchase to continue taking notes. For another, it feels as if Microsoft was afraid to let iPad users go full-bore with OneNote, holding some key features back and forcing you to use the PC or Web app for seemingly basic tasks such as creating new notebooks and sections, organizing notes, and assigning tags.
For current OneNote users that have an Apple iPad, it’s worth checking out, which isn’t high praise for a free app. For all others, it’s unlikely you’ll find OneNote for iPad up to the note-taking challenge.
When you launch the app for the first time, you’ll need to log in using your Windows Live account or create a new one. Along with that, account comes 25GB of free online storage via Microsoft's SkyDrive service, which OneNote uses to sync files among your various devices.
OneNote for iPad has a simple design. In portrait mode, a page of a spiral notebook fills the screen, with a menu bar at the top that features but four buttons. The Home button sits on the left, while buttons to delete, email, and create notes sit to the right. In landscape mode, you get a two-column design with the home button turning into a thin column on the left where you can navigate your various notebooks, sections, and notes.
In OneNote’s scheme, a notebook is filled with sections, which are filled with notes. On the app itself, however, you can create only notes. OneNote for iPad starts you off with one default notebook, awkwardly named Personal (Web). To create a new notebook or a new section within a notebook, you need to use the PC or Web app. Also, the app doesn’t let you move notes from one notebook or section to another.
To create a note, tap the icon in the upper-right corner. This new note is placed in the Unfiled section of the Home menu. Again, to move these files into a notebook, you must use the PC or Web app. Perhaps you wouldn’t mind the inability to organize your notes on OneNote for iPad if the app allowed you to tag your notes. Sadly, a simple and effective tool like tagging isn’t supported. Again, you must scramble back to your PC or Mac to add tags to notes created on the iPad. Why the runaround, Microsoft?
If you have created notebooks with sections with the PC or Web app, you can then create a new note within a specific section with the app instead of to the Unfiled list. When you drill down to a section within a notebook, a "create" button appears in the upper-right corner of the Home menu. You can also swipe on a note from the list to delete it.
In addition to the Notebooks and Unfiled views on the Home menu, you can also view recent notes. Each item on this list has a grayed-out pin, which you can tap to pin the note to the top of the list. You can’t drag to reorder a list of notes, and the only way to see the date of a note is to open it (it’s listed in the upper-right corner). And while you can search by keyword, there is no way to search by date or even view notes by chronological order. OneNote doesn’t use the iPad’s location services, so neither can you search by location. Be sure you give your notes descriptive titles.
The app syncs automatically, but it’s not continual. It syncs when you move from one note to another note, but it doesn’t while you are busily typing away in a note. Changes you make to a note using the iPad app do not immediately show up in the note in the Web app, for example, and vice versa.
The keyboard appears when you tap on a note. It’s the standard iPad onscreen keyboard, with three additional buttons. One creates a checkbox next to a line of text, which you can then tap when that item is completed. The second button creates bulleted lists, and the third lets you embed a photos into a note, either by snapping one yourself right from the app or selected a shot from your library. If you work best with numbered lists, I’m sorry to report, you won’t find them here. Also, you can’t insert audio clips as you can with Evernote.
Oddly, there is not a way to remove a photo inserted in into a note, at least not one that I’ve found. Another annoyance is the inability to highlight more than one paragraph of text, which forces you to go line by line when creating a checklist or a bulleted list out of an existing free-form list.
And that’s it for additional controls. Formatting options such as font, font size, font style and color, are not offered. There is no inking support either, and given the large screen of the iPad, being able to quickly scribble a reminder or draw a rudimentary diagram or any number of things, it would have been a welcomed addition.
It’s never a good sign when you spend more time discussing what an app can’t do than what it can. Note-taking apps need not be feature packed, and in fact, they are best when they are as simple as possible. While OneNote for iPad boasts a streamlined design and is easy to get in and out of, it lacks too many basic features to offer true utility. If you aren’t already using OneNote, then this app isn’t about to get you to start.
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