There are two types of notetakers: The first searches far and wide for the tool best suited to their individual needs.
The second type uses whatever is most convenient—whether that means a native app like Apple’s Stickies or a nearby notepad.
Many people who use OneNote fall into the second camp. They use Microsoft’s notetaking offering mostly because it’s free. But is it the best notetaking solution for their actual use case?
To help you decide, this article highlights five free OneNote alternatives worth considering.
Why OneNote falls short of expectations
OneNote has many things working in its favor. As a free standalone notetaking app, OneNote allows users to add multimedia elements like audio, video, and images to their notes.
It also boasts an impressive folder-based organization system that will feel familiar to anyone who’s ever used a Microsoft product.
Unfortunately, this is also where OneNote starts to falter: Finicky drag and drop functionality means you’re likely to put things where they don’t belong.
Organizational hierarchies aside, here are the most glaring limitations to notetaking in OneNote:
You can’t save local files with the free version
OneNote’s primary pitfall is that it’s mostly a cloud-based service.
While cloud-based tools are great for knowledge sharing and retrievability, they can create challenges for people and organizations who need to store files—in this case, notebooks—on devices they own and control.
For people who use OneNote extensively, either at home or at work, you could find yourself in a situation where you have hundreds of pages of information without a way to back it up.
That is unless you pay for it. At present, the only way to save files locally is to upgrade to the paid desktop version of OneNote by either:
- Buying a Microsoft Office 2019 or Microsoft 365 subscription
- Making a one-time purchase of Microsoft Office (Note: Your license is only good for one machine, so the cost for multiple machines may be prohibitive).
- Upgrading your OneDrive plan for additional cloud storage space
You might lose your notebooks
If you change Microsoft products, such as switching from Office 365 Home to Office 365 Business, your notebooks won’t transfer over. Worse, there’s no efficient way to transfer the notebook data from one Microsoft account to another.
It’s hard to find your notes
Poor searchability is another common complaint about OneNote. It’s difficult to guarantee your files will land where you want them, and despite a cross-notebook search feature, it’s also challenging to find and retrieve information.
Some bugs have been around forever
Like many huge companies with legacy software, Microsoft neglects to fix bugs that impact the user experience. According to some users, certain bugs have gone unaddressed for years.
1. Simplenote - The all-purpose notetaking app
Compatibility: Desktop (Mac, Windows, Linux), iOs, iPadOS, Android
Brought to you by the owners of WordPress, Simplenote is a free service with all the functionality needed for an organized notetaking system without the heaviness of other apps.
With Simplenote, you can:
- Access anywhere: Your notes automatically sync across all devices.
- Stay organized: With a native tagging system, you can set categories to easily group like-minded notes.
- Collaborate: Share notes with other Simplenote uses or publish your notes to the web. In either case, the recipient can view and edit shared notes.
- Search and retrieve: Search functionality is available on all devices. You can even search while offline.
- Save locally: You can export your data, including notes and tags, from the web, Android, and desktop apps. You can also save notes to your cloud service of choice via apps like Google Drive.
- Style your notes: Simplenote supports markup, including internal linking to other notes.
- Go back in time: Every edit triggers a back up so you can view old entries if you’ve overwritten something important.
- Import: Upload your notes from other services.
- Free plan: Yes
- Paid plan: No
2. Flexcil - The notetaking app for annotations
Whether you’re a student, teacher, or avid PDF reader, Flexcil is a free stylus-driven annotation app worth exploring if you own an iPad.
With Flexcil, you can:
- Use different annotation styles: Choose from different pen options, like switching colors, stroke widths, or toggling from pen to marker.
- Combine notetaking with annotations: While working with PDFs, you can open a notebook for handwritten memos that sits "on top" as an on-screen overlay.
- Search PDFs: While Flexcil can’t read handwritten notes, you can search PDFs by keyword.
- Save time with shortcuts: With the Apple pencil (and Gesture mode), you can mark full sections of text or copy-paste figures or text sections into notebooks.
- Import: You can't import notebooks, but you can import PDFs —whether you’re using Google Drive, iCloud, OneDrive, or Dropbox.
- Export: Export PDFs (albeit with watermarks). Notebook export requires the paid version.
- Free plan: Yes
- Paid plan: $8.99
3. Checkvist - The list builder’s notetaking app
Compatibility: iOs, Android, web
For keyboard aficionados, Checkvist is an intuitive notetaking tool that enables users to build robust checklists and outlines with simple shortcuts.
With Checkvist, you can:
- Skip the download: Checkvist is a web-based tool optimized for mobile. Pin the mobile site to your homepage and log in to build and sync lists.
- Work offline: The “mobile app” supports offline syncing so you can add items while offline or on the go.
- Collaborate: You can share unlimited links to lists with a free account, but you’ll need a paid account to password protect or set links to expire.
- Import/Export: Import lists from other services and download lists as needed.
- Search and filter: Retrieve and organize lists and outlines with live filtering and tagging.
- Free plan: Yes
- Paid plan: $39 or $69/year
4. Workflowy - The project management notetaking app
Compatibility: Desktop (Mac, Windows, Linux), iOs, Android
Workflowy is a free notetaking app that doubles as a project management tool through its infinite nesting design built around bullet points.
With Workflowy, you can:
- Keep detailed notes in a clean interface: Infinite nesting means you can brainstorm ideas and action items in an ultra tidy, collapsible format that helps you maintain focus.
- Duplicate bullets in real-time: A “mirror bullets” feature enables information to exist in more than one place. Edits reflect in real-time.
- Turn lists into kanbans: Turn nested lists into project management boards with a few clicks.
- Collaborate: Share as much or as little as you need to—even if it’s just one bullet point from a list. Tag people in lists and kanbans to ask questions and assign action items.
- Free plan: Yes
- Paid plan: $4.99/month or $49/year
5. Hugo - The notetaking app for meetings
Compatibility: iOS and web (Android, iPadOS, and macOS on the horizon)
Many notetaking apps will get the job done, but they won’t enable your team to collaborate on meetings from end-to-end. For that, we recommend purpose-built for taking meeting notes at work.
With Hugo, you can:
- Stay in sync: Hugo works with the meetings on your calendar. Link meeting notes and tasks directly to meeting entries in G Suite or Office 365 calendars.
- Get a head start with templates: An extensive library of customizable meeting note templates helps lend structure to notetaking and assigning tasks.
- Connect to your favorite apps: With more than 20 integrations—including Slack, Jira, and Zoom—Hugo can push notes and tasks into the apps you already use.
- Collaborate in real-time: Multi-user editing functionality means anyone can contribute ideas or action items to a shared document during a meeting.
- Get answers fast: Centralized meeting notes and search functionality enable you to reference information and decisions from previous meetings quickly.
- Take notes from any browser page: With the Chrome browser extension, you can take notes without dedicating your entire screen to the process.
- Share meeting notes with everyone: Invite clients and colleagues to view meeting notes even if they don’t have a Hugo account.
- Free plan: Yes (up to 10 users)
- Paid plan: $6 monthly per user