Note taking application are probably second only to task management apps in the App Store now. I’ve used many of them, but keep coming back to the same few programs that best meet my needs. I would probably would count Evernote as my favorite cross platform version, but in truth my favorite note taking application isn’t on the Mac. It’s OneNote for Widnows. While most Office programs come in a Mac version, OneNote is a notable, and frustrating, exception.
While OneNote compatible programs aren’t unknown, there are few and most have fallen far short of replacing OneNote. Microsoft’s SkyDrive includes a web based version that functions for many basic editing tasks, but loses some of the powerful features that make OneNote so useful. Many Mac users find themselves resorting to keeping OneNote installed on a virtual machine to keep access to the program.
Outline is a new program in the Mac App Store that promises to bring OneNote to the Mac. Has OneNote finally arrived for the Mac? Let’s find out.
Outline for the Mac is a new application from Gorillized Corporation that compliments their existing app for the iPad to bring the power of OneNote to the Apple platform. It is available in the Mac App Store for $19.99. While more expensive than many apps on the App Store, it would easily be worth it if it fulfills the promise of bringing your notes to the Mac without resorting to Virtual Machines or other less convent solutions.
Outline has a comfortable Mac look and feel while also doing a very good job of rendering OneNote notebooks that match the the PC version. When first run, the blank screen invites you to open a OneNote notebook. You must have the notebook located somewhere you can access from your Mac. This will most commonly be through a synchronization service such as DropBox or Google Drive. Any system that places a local copy of files on the computer while syncing between computers seems to be the idea method for this app right now. Notably you unfortunately cannot use the current version of Outline to open notebooks being synced using Skydrive directly. You can download the synced notebook from your Skydrive account and then open it within Outline, but this would need to be repeated every time the source notebook changes or you would soon be viewing outdated data.
Once you open the notebook, Outline shines. Moving between and around notes feels fast and responsive. Notes render quickly and I noticed no lags or other delays while viewing and browsing through notes. I also found the rendering of notes extremely accurate compared to the original version. In fact the accuracy of the rendering of notes seems amazing. I opened a few complex notebooks and the rendering was pretty close to identical to what it looked like when fewer within OneNote 2010. It renders tabs, nested tabs, and sections very well. Images viewed well including hand drawn figures and diagrams included in some of my notes. Tables and formatting also came across well. As a viewer, Outline did a very good job of rendering all my notebooks. While my notebooks probably are not the most complex ones possible, I do think I would have seen any major problems.
Search marks another impressive and well done part of Outline. Searching works fast and accurately providing what appears to be the same results I saw in OneNote 2010. As you type in a term, Outline quickly filters to the notebooks containing the term in a dropdown list near the search box. Click one of the matched items and you’re instantly taken to the appropriate location.
Not Quite OneNote
All is not perfect though. Most notably Outline only allows you to view your notebooks right now. It cannot edit OneNote notebooks though edit support is promised to be coming as a free upgrade. That’s still a huge limitation and really reduces Outline’s ability to function as a OneNote replacement for the Mac. The only time frame given I could find was in a tweet from the company noting editing ability would arrive this year.
Adding to this limitation is the inability to directly open a notebook stored in SkyDrive. This would at least give you the ability to edit a notebook through the web app from a Mac. Since I imagine most users access notebooks from multiple computers moved to SkyDrive Sync, having to redo a workflow to only gain viewing access to notebooks feels like a lot of effort for minimal gain. Again the Mac App Store descritpion promises that support for SkyDrive Sync is coming very soon.
I also found some other limitations and bugs. Notes that have been protected with a password are currently not supported. The program will tell you the note is protected and cannot be accessed, but that still limits the ability if you like to keep protection on confidential or private information stored in your notebooks. I’ve read a few reports that sometimes the app will crash when you attempt to view a protected note, but for me this didn’t happen. The next update promises support for these protected notebooks.
I did notice a few other odd issues. You can open packaged notebooks and individual note files through the program through Finder, but cannot do so through the File -> Open menu which only allows selecting full notebooks. I had a few handwriting notes that looked a bit odd and the description on the Mac App Store acknowledges this.
I really want to recommend Outline, but I can’t do so without a few reservations today. While there are a few minor bugs, overall the program does a very good job of fulfilling its promise. Outline’s ability to accurately render my OneNote notebooks on my Mac impressed me, not being able to edit really prevents this from being the OneNote for the Mac I’d hoped for. The lack of SkyDrive Sync especially hurts here since I’d find the ability to view in Outline and go to the web to edit still inconvenient, but an improvement on my current workflow. As it is, I cannot quite get rid of my virtual machine running OneNote quite yet.
The price is very reasonable for an app to access OneNote notebooks from your Mac. If the promised SkyDrive Sync and editing ability arrives quickly, I’d recommend the application without reservation. The company already makes an existing application for the iPad that does allow editing so I’d hope those features will arrive soon.
As it stands though I think the app is not quite meeting the needs of most users searching for OneNote on the Mac. If you’re comfortable adapting your workflow to — or already — use DropBox or a similar syncing solution and can live without editing, Outline is a good choice. I think it’s worth the cost just for the ability to occasionally reference a notebook on my Mac without having to open up a virtual machine and don’t regret the purchase. If you’re looking for a full OneNote for the Mac, then it’s not here yet, but with a few updates Outline looks like it might just get here.
A very well done attempt to bring OneNote to the Mac. The lack of editing and limitations on sync keep me from recommending it fully, but with a few updates this program could potentially finally fill one of the biggest gaps in Mac software - OneNote on the Mac.7