Are there alternatives to OneNote?

Are there alternatives to OneNote?

Summary: There are a lot of applications that work well across browsers or in the cloud for taking notes. Here's my list of applications that are either free and/or open source and will do the trick in many settings.


After I destroyed what credibility I had left with the Open Source community last week, gushing over Office 2010 and, in particular, OneNote, a Mac user emailed me and asked if I knew of any cross-platform tools that were similar to OneNote. I figured it was worth taking a step back from my love of OneNote and poking around to see what I could find.

As it turns out, there are a lot of applications that work well across browsers or in the cloud for taking notes. Although none, in my opinion, work as well or as intuitively as OneNote, all of the applications listed below are either free and/or open source and will do the trick in many settings. In fact, if you're looking for a note-taking App, they're all worth a look. Just because OneNote works best with my little brain, others may find software devoted to mind-mapping or that follows more of a wiki format works better for their particular brains.

Type Name OS Summary
Text/Freestyle Jarnal Windows, Mac, Linux (it works and looks best on Windows and Linux)

  • Supports mouse and touch pen input/hand drawings
  • Supports multiple pages
  • Looks and feels like a "notebook", lined paper and all

The Note Taking Tool Windows, Mac, Linux

  • Still in alpha
  • Mac application would not open

Evernote Windows, Mac, and iPad/iPod

  • Cloud sync
  • Rich, notebook-style interface
  • Easy integration with web browsers to clip links and pages
  • Check boxes, to-dos, etc.
  • Easy attachments of images (even from a webcam) and PDFs

Mind-Mapping FreeMind Windows, Mac OS X, Linux

  • Cross-platform
  • Relatively easy to learn
  • Powerful graphic organizer, but must have a file for every idea (i.e., no tabs or subdivisions)
  • No cloud sync

Compendium Windows, Mac OS X, Linux Based upon Freemind, but with significantly expanded collaboration capabilities and a steeper learning curve
Freeplane Windows, Mac OS X, Linux A fork of Freemind that can run from a USB stick
XMind Windows, Mac OS X, Linux

  • Allows audio nodes in its maps
  • Social brainstorming via XMind online account and mind map uploads
  • Integrated web browser
  • Workbook with multiple sheets and outline view
  • If I had to pick a free OneNote replacement, this would be the one

VUE Windows, Mac OS X, Linux

  • Powerful graphical interface
  • Developed by Tufts University to support teaching and learning
  • Tabbed interface
  • Relatively steep learning curve

Wiki-style Wikidpad (this is a link to the Windows installer as other links appear to be broken) Cross-platform, but requires extensive setup outside Windows

  • Familiar wiki-style interface
  • A lot of embedded functionality
  • Steep learning curve

ZuluPad Windows and Mac OS X

  • Cloud sync
  • Very simple, easy to navigate interface
  • Missing many features of the other products here
  • This is just notes, typed into what amounts to a well-organized, pretty Notepad

OneNote will remain my notetaking/life organization/brainstorming/thought-catcher application of choice, but I can get cheap academic licenses. Would I feel the same if I had to pay full retail? That might be a little tougher sell since the applications above, particularly Evernote and XMind, have a lot of value and achieve many of the same functions (as well as some new functions). However, I think that for most cases where I wasn't actively looking at a specific mind-mapping tool, OneNote, even at full retail, would still be the one for me. Evernote is a close second and I'll spend some more time with it for a more thorough comparison. Let me know if I've missed any important pieces of free software that should be included in the list.

Topics: Apple, Collaboration, Hardware, Linux, Microsoft, Open Source, Operating Systems, Software

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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  • Why is your credibility destroyed?

    Is the OpenSource community so biased and filled with hatred for any software that is "paid for" that they cannot see that companies like Microsoft make good software that some people and businesses/schools find value in purchasing that software.<br><br>There is nothing wrong with OpenSource software and Operating systems. If they fulfill your computing needs then by all means use them. The thing is that some people do not understand the difference of what each offers and their benefits and limitations. If you approach technology with the mindset that you are going to do your best to choose the best tool for the job then you are doing a good job. If you approach it with a closed mind and say stupid things I will not use that because it is made by Microsoft or I have to pay for it or Linux sucks or MacOS Sucks etc.. Then you should not be in technology.
    • That's exactly it


      Most vocal OSS users consider themselves high and mighty because they're not playing into "Big Brother" software companies (Even thought they're falling into Google's trap). Which is just plain stupid. You're paying either way, either for support (Linux desktop support) or for the developer's time.

      In my experience, they saying "you get what you pay for" holds true for software.
      The one and only, Cylon Centurion
      • RE: Are there alternatives to OneNote?


        That is true. Many look at the Free when it comes to the software and do not look at the big picture of what support and the time spent with learning and setting up the product to be used they way you or your organization needs it to work. Sometimes a little research on ROI goes a long way.
      • Actually Nicholas....

        ...many of us aren't stupid enough to pay Micro$oft's fixed prices and would like to spend our hard-earned money on other things.<br><br>The fact is you & bobrok want everybody to use only OneNote and have to pay for it at the same time, while dismissing any alternatives (paid or otherwise) that might be out there.<br><br>There's some good free software out there and there's some good paid software out there. Fortunately buying OneNote (for me) isn't one of them.
        ubiquitous one
    • No Credibility with Open Source Community

      @bobiroc "Is the OpenSource community so biased and filled with hatred for any software that is "paid for" that they cannot see that companies like Microsoft make good software that some people and businesses/schools find value in purchasing that software."

      • RE: Are there alternatives to OneNote?

        @aureolin: Not all of it.
        I don't throw up because of Windows being proprietary, but the general suckiness of it sometimes cause some bad feelings.
    • RE: Are there alternatives to OneNote?

      Some factions {cough, cough, Stalhman, cough} believe it's a cardinal sin to pay for ANY software - regardless of how valuable it may be or how productive it actually makes you.

      Add to that the fact that OneNote is from Microsoft, the principle champion of paid for software, hence, considered to be the ultimate evil in the universe, outranking Satan by a country mile and making Hitler look like a choir boy - at least, in their eyes - and that's enough to destroy the cred of anyone who uses it and advocates it's use in a heartbeat.

      It's like selling your soul to the devil, only you're the one giving the devil the money.
      • RE: Are there alternatives to OneNote?

        @Wolfie2K3: "to pay for ANY software"
        No, selling and paying is OK. Restrictions is not.
      • RE: Are there alternatives to OneNote?


        [i]No, selling and paying is OK. Restrictions is not.[/i]

        Regardless of the GNU's philosophy, I'd also include price-fixing and locking the competition out.
        ubiquitous one
  • For Mac : Omnioutliner

    For Visio substitute Omnigraffle Pro. Both are excellent.
    Richard Flude
  • Microsoft Mesh & Ubuntu One

    Mesh, does the same thing which utilizes a virtual desktop on multiple computers with 5gigs of storage to play around with. The only reason it's still in Beta is due to the mobile applications still in development. Users can use the virtual desktop or login to a web-based app to manage their files.

    My personal favorite is Ubuntu One. 2gigs free 10gigs for monthly fee. It only works on Ubuntu distributions or through a web login. On the OS, the location acts as an active shared drive so you can access any files and make changes instantly. Web portal access requires a download of the file before any changes are made.
    • Um. Wrong idea


      OneNote isn't the same as Live Mesh and Ubuntu One.

      OneNote is a note taking application, not a file sharing application.
      The one and only, Cylon Centurion
      • Tomboy

        True, but the Tomboy notes app on Ubuntu (which isn't mentioned above and is the one I use) syncs with UbuntuOne. Perhaps thats where he was going.
  • Do any of these alternatives

    use handwriting recognition as well as onenote? The ability to scribble down almost anything using a tablet (or even with a wacom) and have it become instantly searchable was what blew me away with OneNote.
    • RE: Are there alternatives to OneNote?

      @honeymonster Evernote does handwriting regonition within images and in multiple languages. I use it all the time to take photos of whiteboard drawings in meetings and then search for key phrases within the images and evernote does a great job of finding what I am looking for later on.
      • RE: Are there alternatives to OneNote?


        OneNote does all of this and even searches audio. OneNote is simply unique and on a tablet PC is simply without equal.
  • And which of those alternatives can...

    And which of those alternatives can do a search for specific words <b>inside a recorded audio file</b>?

    When I go to meetings, I open OneNote and start the audio recorder, in addition to taking notes. Later, if I want to find a particular section within the audio, I can type in the word(s) and OneNote will create a list of all locations within the audio file where the word appears. Just double-click any of those and it starts playback from that point.

    I am not saying others can't do that, I am just saying it is a valuable feature to me and if an alternative doesn't offer that, it is not an alternative for <b>me</b> at least.
  • Too many choices.

    There are so many open source, or simply free web based options, it will drive you crazy to find one. I've found many more that I'd consider better than these. Most I've found I'd recommend at least spending a couple bucks on though. You just get a better experience by paying for support if nothing else.
  • I will try some of these but OneNote is awesome, one of the best personal

    KM tools out there. I will try one of the above on my Kubuntu laptop, because playing with Linux I really miss my OneNote...
  • Love OneNote

    Ever since I found it in a Home version of Office 07 I have found it extremely useful. I had planned a post about it on my own blog a few months back but never got around to it.

    It is quite a unique product and I have to say very useful. I think a lot of people are missing out on the possibilities of this software.