Note-taking apps are not all created equal. In fact, the deeper you dig into them, the more you realize how different they all are in terms of what they offer in both concept and abilities. While a solid note-taking app is a necessary piece of any suite of productivity apps, figuring out what to do with it in the first place is half the challenge. To find a good note-taking app is as much about finding one that clicks with you as it is about the nitty-gritty details of the service. In general, however, a reliable note-taking app lets you jot down all the things you want to remember quickly, easily, no matter where you are, and likewise lets you refer to all those notes anytime and anywhere.
The giants in the space, namely Editors' Choice Evernote and runner up Microsoft OneNote, aim to do it all, offering rich features, support for multimedia notes, and tools that blur the lines between apps for personal use and those intended for work.
Evernote has caused quite a ruckus this year (and last for that matter) among its paying users for hiking the price and slashing the lower tiers of service. While many people are thinking about leaving Evernote, the sad state of affairs at the moment is that nothing lives up to Evernote. If you use the full gamut of Evernote's features and functionality, there simply isn't a good Evernote alternative just yet. OneNote is a close second, but transitioning to it from Evernote is tough. The two services have structural differences that make it difficult to map one set of notes into the other app.
There are alternatives, of course, and hopefully some of them will get better in time. Zoho Notebook is a fine example. Right now it scores low in our testing because it only offers mobile apps, but the company formerly had a full range of apps for a very similar product by the same name that's been retired. With the rebirth of Zoho Notebook, we should soon see more apps and additional functionality in this rookie service.
Pricing and Plans
A huge part of the reason people got miffed at Evernote was its recent price hike. It costs more than any other note-taking and syncing app. While it does have a free version, nonpaying Evernote members are limited to syncing their notes among only two devices and the Web app. That's painfully limiting.
Evernote accounts come in four tiers of service: Basic (free), Plus ($34.99 per year or $3.99 per month), Premium ($69.99 per year or $7.99 per month), and Evernote Business. The free tier lets you upload only 60MB of data each month, but the data you use is yours to keep. So technically speaking, the total storage is unlimited because you get more every month . Plus and Premium members can upload more and get a whole host of features that aren't included for free.
Google Keep is free with no upsells or special plans. All it requires is a Google account. The amount of storage space you get in Keep is dependent on your Google Drive storage, which is 15GB by default. You can pay $1.99 per month for 1TB of storage, which will be shared across all Google apps. There is an upload limit for images of 10MB and 25MP.
Microsoft OneNote handles storage similarly to Google Keep, using OneDrive for storage the same way Keep uses Google Drive. OneNote is also free with no special upgrades for extra features. The max file upload size is 100MB. Free users get 5GB of space, whereas Office 365 account holders get 1TB all told, shared among other Office Online apps. An Office 365 Personal account costs $6.99 per month or $69.99 per year.
Zoho Notebook is a wholly free app, but as mentioned, it only has mobile apps at the moment, and they're pretty lightweight. Desktop apps and a Web app are reportedly in the works, but they're not available at the time of this writing. With Zoho Notebook, you get unlimited storage with a max file upload size of 50MB.
Simplenote is another free service with no upgrades or in-app purchases. It has a variety of apps for all major platforms, and there is no limit on storage, so long as you don't abuse it, according to the company's terms. Simplenote doesn't support uploads, multimedia, or even formatting—just text. It's worth noting that you'd have a hard time abusing limitless storage with plain text.
Features Worth Having
A few features worth having in a note taking and syncing app are optical character recognition (OCR), a good Web clipper, and organizational tools that work for you.
OCR comes in handy when snapping pictures of text. Google Keep can actually transcribe text that's in an image into typed text that you can then copy and paste or edit at will. Evernote Premium can run OCR on all text in images, including handwriting, when you look for words in a search. Microsoft OneNote can also read OCR text from photos. It also has a useful Digital Ink feature that turns your own handwriting into typed text when you use a tablet. It's handy for students writing equations that are otherwise difficult to type with a keyboard.
A Web clipper is another great feature for your note-taking app if you often find things on the Web that you want to save. For example, I clip a lot of recipes that I find online into my note-taking apps. Evernote and OneNote have Web clippers, and both give you options for saving the entire page or just core elements. Google Keep has a Web clipper, but it only saves the URL and a title, not the actual contents.
In terms of organizational tools, every app is different, but the important thing is you have an interface that makes sense to you and that helps you find what you need when you need it. Evernote uses notes, notebooks, stacks of notebooks, and tags, whereas OneNote has pages, sections, and notebooks. Both Simplenote and Google Keep only use tags, so if you prefer to not think about where you're putting your notes, those tools might be better options.
Take Notes, Sync, and Go
While Evernote remains PCMag's Editors' Choice for note-taking and syncing apps, we did lower its overall rating to reflect its drop in value after the changes in its pricing and services. Hopefully, the uproar caused by Evernote will light a fire under competitors to hurry up and improve their apps. There are a lot of promising apps, but most of them need more time to mature. The read the capsule reviews below, and, if one of them sounds interesting, please be sure to click through to the full review for more details.