Just over a year ago Microsoft dropped a bombshell that it was replacing OneNote 2016 with OneNote for Windows. The title of the article was “The best version of OneNote on Windows” which was met with (and continues to this day) with considerable pushback.

Before I go further, I’ll clarify that this blog post is both my personal opinion, as well as a collection of opinions from IT pros and as end users I work with. Let’s get started with a number of links that explain the differences between the two applications:

https://support.office.com/en-us/article/what-s-the-difference-between-onenote-and-onenote-2016-a624e692-b78b-4c09-b07f-46181958118f?ui=en-US&rs=en-AU&ad=AU

https://blogs.msdn.microsoft.com/teachers/?p=14935

https://gallery.technet.microsoft.com/office/OneNote-2016-to-OneNote-6f250e24

The argument for the new OneNote was that had a new sync engine, and so I guess we have to assume that requires a completely new app? Microsoft did similar with OneDrive for Business when it replaced the Groove-based sync engine; however they are quite comparable in terms of use cases and features.

I’ve tried a number of times to take on OneNote for Windows, but every time I last about 10 minutes (usually less) and then have to switch back to OneNote 2016.

One of the challenges for IT pros is that OneNote for Windows is not included in the Office installer which means deployment, management and updates are applied differently from the rest of Office. It also has a different user interface which can be confusing for end users, as visual settings don’t travel between them (ie. colour & theme schemes). In a time and platform where users are struggling between the “what to use when” situation (ie. SharePoint vs. OneDrive, SharePoint vs. Microsoft Teams, Yammer vs. Microsoft Teams, Skype for Business vs. Microsoft Teams), it seems strange that a product which is “part of the Office family” appears to be developed and run so far out of the rest of the platform.

My comparison between OneNote for Windows and OneNote 2016

Over my numerous attempts at using OneNote for Windows, here’s what I’ve gathered are the good and bad differences (again, my perspective – but also including those of others I speak to).

What’s good about OneNote for Windows that OneNote 2016 doesn’t have:

  • Dark mode is actually dark – meaning that the page is dark as well, not just the navigation areas

Ok, that’s that.

Moving on…

What’s missing in OneNote for Windows that OneNote 2016 does have:

This is a bit bigger, so grab a coffee.

Notebooks

You can’t pin the notebook listing open. This is particularly annoying to people who work on multiple notebooks throughout the day (ie. their own, their team, projects, etc.). Yes you can pin a notebook to the Start menu, and yes it’s just an extra click to get to the notebook, but it’s just downright annoying.

Sections

In OneNote 2016 the sections are in the top navigation, in OneNote for Windows they are on the left.

While the sections can be hidden to preserve screen space, that prevents the ability for users to quickly and easily switch between sections. The reality is that on a normal monitor, having the sections visible on the left consumes an extra inch or so. The whole area (sections + pages) takes up about 1/5 on the monitor, but about 1/3 on a notebook screen. One can argue that OneNote 2016 also takes up space by having pages listed as well – but those can be on the right so are not as obvious. Speaking of…

Pages

Pages appear only on the left side of the navigation and are shown when a user browses sections as well. The default view of OneNote 2016 has pages on the right. This works well for right-handed people because it means those who use pen on a tablet are less likely to accidentally press on a section/page while they write. For those who don’t use a pen, many have become accustomed to notebooks on the left, sections at the top, pages on the right. While notebook and pages can be changed from side to side (which is good for left-handers), myself and many people I’ve spoken to prefer the separation because they know what is what. Having them all bunched together on the left makes it look more like folders in Outlook or File Explorer. This may appear logical but requires a behavioural change (muscle memory) for where the eyes navigate to. (FYI, while Microsoft Teams has channels underneath Team names, tabs are shown at the top – because it makes sense that your context is changing.)

Meeting Attendance

While you can insert meeting details into OneNote for Windows pages, it doesn’t bring along the attendance checkboxes. You can search for attendance checkboxes, but unfortunately there is no way to manually insert attendance checkboxes from the tags menu. Speaking of…

Tags

I get it, OneNote 2016 had way too many tag options (29 in total), but OneNote for Windows has too few (5). One that I know a lot of people use was the Idea tag type. This is gone. Sure you can create custom tags, but that’s not exactly readily available for the average end user. One of the tag types I know a lot of people I spoke to used (including myself) were…

Outlook tasks

One of the great things about To-Do is that it uses Outlook tasks. A way of working I’ve been showing people is to create an Outlook task in OneNote as part of an action register from a meeting, the task shows up in To-Do, then you can add steps or whatever else you like to it. When you check it off in To-Do, that will show up as checked off in OneNote.

“To Do” tags are there, but they are the same as in OneNote 2016 and largely for show. But no, the ability to create Outlook tasks from OneNote is completely gone. Speaking of another type of content you can’t insert…

Spreadsheets

A feature I know that was used in some cases but not many was the ability to insert an Excel spreadsheet. The benefit of having an Excel spreadsheet inside a notebook was that it was more powerful than a table. You could have calculations and graphs and show these embedded in the OneNote page. While technically you can insert a spreadsheet as an attachment or a printout (or even a link to a file on SharePoint or OneDrive), this was a nifty feature that I’m a bit disappointed to see go – although I suspect it won’t be greatly missed by most users.

Screen clipping

This is a must-have feature in OneNote to be honest. Yes you can use the Snipping Tool in Windows 10, or it’s replacement Snip & Sketch – but you then need to copy the image (or share from Snip & Skitch) into OneNote for Windows. This is again an extra few clicks to get it going, and what we’re losing is the seamless experience we’ve enjoyed in OneNote 2016.

Page templates

Probably a relatively under-utilised feature in OneNote 2016 is the ability to use existing page templates, or even create your own. I know a number of people that have utilised this feature in shared notebooks as it allows them to create a structure that they and others can follow. Personally I don’t use it, but it was especially useful for people who had moved away from using Word for meeting agendas and minutes.

Miscellaneous navigation items

In OneNote for Windows some items only show up when you right-click a section, page or within the page itself (eg. page versions, creating links to sections/pages, making a page a sub-page). In OneNote 2016 these exist in the top menu for easy access, as well as in the right-click menu.

What about OneDrive and To-Do? They’ve done similar things.

OneDrive and To-Do are both part of Office, and are also deployed/managed/updated separately – so why treat them differently than OneNote? Fair question.

OneDrive is somewhat a part of Windows, and while OneDrive provides a considerable amount of Office integration and functionality, it also provides a fair bit of functionality outside of Office; several-hundred file type viewers, and synchronisation of any file type for Windows and Mac.

To-Do comes from the Wunderlist acquisition, and realistically is an app version of Outlook tasks. And while To-Do doesn’t offer the same functionality as Outlook tasks, the difference is that most of this functionality is rarely used. In fact, most customers and users I speak to don’t even know that Outlook has a tasks function. What To-Do offers for those users is the ability to start fresh with personal productivity; there is no baggage from Outlook tasks so they are not missing anything. For those who do use Outlook tasks and the functionality of To-Do isn’t enough for them, well, they can keep using Outlook tasks in the desktop client as that is not going anywhere for now.

The fact that both apps are deployed, managed and updated separately from the rest of Office is annoying just like it is for OneNote for Windows, but I would argue that they do more for people without having to rely on Office.

What does Microsoft Teams have to do with this?

Good question, I led with the “mistake” in the title of the piece and have waited until the end to address it.

In August last year, Microsoft made the claim that Teams was at feature parity with Skype for Business. The terms “product parity” and “feature parity” have been used at the Microsoft Inspire and Ignite conferences, but have subsequently been removed from the vernacular when it was pointed out the amount of features and functions from Skype for Business did not exist in Microsoft Teams (and a few still don’t). It’s a bruise that the product marketing team still feels to this day.

A key difference between Microsoft Teams and OneNote for Windows is that Teams straddles across most of the Office 365 platform by either being hosted in it, interacting with it, or surfacing it. Most recently it was made part of the Office installation: Microsoft Teams is now part of the Office 365 ProPlus installation. Yes, technically Microsoft Teams can work without Office if you use the Freemium version, but the paid version lights up and, as mentioned previously, the best experience comes from using the rest of the Office 365 platform features.

In fact when Microsoft Teams was launched, OneNote was actually one of the default tabs. This is no longer the case for any default Team creations – you get the Wiki feature instead, not OneNote (this can be changed however by using other provisioning models). You can add OneNote tabs but the experience is a bit clunky. Because of my NDA I unfortunately can’t go into detail about why this is the case or the discussions that I’ve been part of around this.

The issue here is that Microsoft says that OneNote for Windows is the best experience – but it’s simply missing too many features for many existing users to switch over. Microsoft Teams made the mistake of claiming that against Skype for Business, which has left a sour taste in IT pros and customers mouths. Even to this day I have customers telling me they want to deploy Skype for Business because they feel Microsoft Teams is not mature enough (I mean c’mon, it’s over 2 years old now – how do you define maturity in the SaaS world?). I have to re-educate them on why their perspective is potentially misguided and why they should be deploying Microsoft Teams instead of Skype for Business.

On a regular basis I have education institutions and commercial organisations asking me how they can be expected to deploy OneNote for Windows when they have to enable preview features to get some of what they use in OneNote 2016.

Please Microsoft, either give us more features quickly in OneNote for Windows – or give us OneNote 2019 until you do.


Also published on Medium.

8 comments

  1. Reply

    And only in onenote 2016 oneone install macros, adding features such as Search & Replace, Sort table contents, create a Table of Contents from headers, Insert a Monthly Calendar, change to uppercase/lowercase, etc

  2. Matt

    Reply

    Only OneNote 2016 can you click icon from outlook to insert email into Notebook page or be able to email a page via outlook.

  3. Rachel Flowers

    Reply

    They need to catch up on OneNote for Mac as well. I am an avid user, but the features are absolutely lacking.

  4. Chris

    Reply

    I agree with everything mentioned in this article, and I wish both versions featured the same tools. Here are a few OneNote for Windows features that I wish I had in OneNote 2026: the pencil drawing tool, more page background colors. And the Dictate tool. If I’ve missed these in OneNote 2016, please let me know.

  5. Reply

    You can’t use Onetastic in the Windows app, so no Macros, table of contents, breadcrumb navigation or the ability to pull up a calendar of all the onenote pages edited on a certain day/week/month. That’s the killer feature for me (plus offline access)
    The one good thing with the app is the intelligent processing of drawing – so a triangle or square actually has straight lines – not something easily done with the main app.

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