Is OneNote for iPad now usable?

Microsoft's note-taking app for the iPad has undoubtedly improved for the iPad, but it still leaves out a couple basic features that limit its appeal. Learn how to use its new features and what's still missing.

Matt Elliott Senior Editor
Matt Elliott is a senior editor at CNET with a focus on laptops and streaming services. Matt has more than 20 years of experience testing and reviewing laptops. He has worked for CNET in New York and San Francisco and now lives in New Hampshire. When he's not writing about laptops, Matt likes to play and watch sports. He loves to play tennis and hates the number of streaming services he has to subscribe to in order to watch the various sports he wants to watch.
Expertise Laptops | Desktops | All-in-one PCs | Streaming devices | Streaming platforms
Matt Elliott
3 min read

When we last saw OneNote for the iPad, we felt that as though Microsoft released its venerable note-taking app for its chief rival's device against its own will. The OneNote iPad app was so severely limited that only the most ardent OneNote users could find it useful. The updated app offers a boatload of improvements, though it still holds onto one limitation that makes the iPad users feel like second-class citizens to their Windows brethren.

And what is this egregious limitation to which I refer? Why, it's the simple task of creating a new notebook or even a new section. You can edit OneNote notebooks that you've created on a Windows PC or tablet until your heart's content, but you can't create new notebooks with the iPad app. And on existing notebooks, you can't even add a new section; you can only add new pages to an existing section in an existing notebook. Until this basic functionality is offered in OneNote, iPad users are better off paying for the $14.99 Outline+ app.

Screenshot by Matt Elliott/CNET

With the bad news out of the way, allow me to walk you through some of the improvements this update offers. For starters, the app is free (for a "limited time") and removes the previous limit of 500 notes before it hit you up with a $14.99 in-app charge.

Also, OneNote now boasts a consistent design across all devices (well, minus create new notebook and section buttons on the iPad app). The previous skeuomorphic design that mimicked a spiral notebook has been replaced. Now, the page you are working on is given more room on the screen, with the navigation panel more narrow and moved to the right edge of the screen. Need more room to operate? Then tap the arrows in the upper-right corner to go full-screen. Also, Microsoft Office users will find a familiar ribbon across the top of the screen, which offers a host of rich-formatting options. The previous version was plain text only.

Next to the full-screen button is a search button that searches for your keyword in the title or anywhere on the page, though you have to be viewing a notebook in order to see the search bar to search all notebooks. Wouldn't it make more sense for the search bar to be accessible from OneNote's home screen?

The app lets you view inking for handwritten notes or diagrams you may have made using the full Windows app -- or Outline+ -- but the app doesn't support inking should you feel the sudden need to scribble something on your iPad using OneNote.

Screenshot by Matt Elliott/CNET

You have two options to sync your notebooks across your various devices running OneNote: SharePoint and SkyDrive. You can sign into each by tapping on your account in the upper-left corner of the home screen and choosing Add a Service from the Connected Services section. Multiple users can edit a synced notebook simultaneously. Also from the home screen, a new Recent button sits along the left edge, which conveniently lets you access notebooks you've been working on recently.

One last note before you update OneNote on your iPad: Microsoft states, "Upgrading users should sync their existing application data before upgrading."