Yes, there are free open source options for productivity software for Windows PC, Mac, and Linux. Here we're comparing the task management and notetaking programs Zim (also known as Zim Notes or Zim wiki), NobleNote, and Osmo. All of these are offline software that are perfect as OneNote alternatives.
- Zim is the most fully featured of the three, and is available for Windows PC, Mac, and Linux. It integrates task management, notetaking and editing, and also has a very powerful search function. Tags and labels are also available in Zim.
- NobleNote on the other hand is focused more purely on notetaking and editing, as its name suggests. In addition to Windows PC, Mac and Linux, it's also available as an Android app.
- Osmo focuses on task management and notetaking, although it also has some editing capability. Unlike the other 2, it is available for Linux only.
You can use all of these three open source productivity software tools to organize your personal or business life.
Brief overview of how you would use the software, and its strengths
For sheer ease of use, Osmo is by far the easiest to get started intuitively in a meaningful and productive way. Without needing a tutorial or documentation, you're immediately guided into managing your life better. You can't really go wrong when using it - it's like bowling with bumper pads in the lanes: you'll be in a positive use case right away. For those who struggle with focus or attention, Osmo is better than Zim due to its get-started-immediately ability for task management. Unfortunately, Osmo falls down in its ability to search - it does this extremely poorly compared with Zim or NobleNote, so if search is a must-have for your use case, then Osmo is not the best option.
NobleNote is a little different from the other two in that it is designed more for note-taking than for task management. Despite lacking task management, it fulfills an extremely important niche in personal or business organization applications: the elimination of multiple Word-style or Google docs that you keep having to trawl through to find what you're after. After taking NobleNote on board, I almost never use word processing programs anymore, and I can find whatever I need at the drop of a hat.
Of course, NobleNote was never intended as a replacement for word processing - you would not write a book on NobleNote, for example, nor a product manual or anything else where formatting is critical. There is some basic formatting available, but less than what's available in Zim. So for sharable fully-formatted documents, you should definitely use a word processing program instead of NobleNote to create these. But for notes to yourself, or step by step descriptions of something you do once a year or so (which you would otherwise forget when you come to do it next) NobleNote is perfect because its search function means you can find anything almost instantly. You don't need to use the computer's file search, hoping that you remember what words you used in the title of the word processing document. Nor do you have to hunt through various folders point-and-click in the hope that you can track down that word processing document. In NobleNote, you can just search for a word or phrase you would have used inside the text of that item, and the relevant item(s) will show up right away. It's important to note though that Zim can fulfill this need too (although not Osmo due to its poor ability to search).
Zim is the best all-around of the 3 options if you need a fully featured application that can handle everything. But read on because there are some significant differences in how common features are handled between Zim and Osmo. These approaches may make the world of difference to you and your use case.
Let's take a look at which organizing software is best for which situation:
Best for task management with due dates
Zim and Osmo allow task handling with due dates; NobleNote does not as it's intended purely as a notetaking application. More detail on specifics of due dates is given further below.
Best when you need search functionality
The search options for NobleNote and Zim are so much better than Osmo. Osmo's search is very limited, so much as to be nearly useless. Zim allows labels and tags in addition to regular text, which further enhances searchability.
Zim vs Osmo - the task management programs go head-to-head
Since Zim and Osmo occupy the same niche, let's take a look at how they compare to each other.
Mashability of information
Zim allows you to mash as much stuff together as you want in one page: tasks, notes, tags, labels etc, and it will automatically "pull out" all your tasks from all pages and display them sorted according to due date. You can add info wherever and whenever you want in your text and still wind up with a clear task list. Likewise you can include labels and tags anywhere you like, and you can pull out all items with a particular tag no matter where they are located. I see this mashability as a very positive thing with a ton of advantages.
On the other hand Osmo does not have as much mashability - instead it uses tasks and notes with a sharp delineation; an item can be a task or a note but not both. Notes cannot get due dates in Osmo, only tasks. You can partially get around this by adding lots of text to tasks to keep all its related notes there - perfect for adding extra info - but you cannot go the other way and turn a note into a task (besides copy-pasting its content into a new task, which I sometimes do). Unfortunately, tasks do not have the editing and text formatting capabilities that notes do in Osmo.
Categories, tags, and labels
Osmo allows you to create your own pre-defined categories for your tasks and notes. This is incredibly helpful because when you create a new note or task, you can optionally select the category from a drop-down list of your categories. You can only pick one category though, not multiple. There are no tags or labels in Osmo.
On the other hand, Zim uses tags for a similar purpose as categories in Osmo, and in Zim you have the advantage of placing tags anywhere in a page that you want. Zim also allows you to put as many different tags as you want in a page (e.g. @home @budget ) which is helpful when something belongs to multiple categories. You can also use labels, which are different to tags but serve a somewhat similar purpose. The downside is that there isn't a dropdown menu of your commonly used labels that you can preselect from. You can get a list of all your tags as a tag cloud although you have to activate a plugin for this, it's not activated by default. The problem is that when typing in a page in Zim, you might forget what tags you used before for something and wind up accidentally using different tags for the same thing e.g. @garden vs @yard . The problem there is if you search for one of those tags you won't pick up the other.
Ultimately, Osmo and Zim handle categorization very differently, and there are pros and cons to each.
Osmo has due dates set up properly and intuitively from the get-go. As an added bonus, when selecting your date from the calendar picker, it has a couple of pre-defined buttons such as "today" and "tomorrow" which are extremely helpful for speedy use. Zim does not have those on its calendar picker, and also it's not as immediately obvious how to set up tasks with due dates, although it is easy to do once you know how - see our guide to Zim due dates here. Both Osmo and Zim will give you a list of tasks ordered by due date - perfect for most use cases for task management and organization software.
For Zim, the task list also shows how many days until a task is due (e.g. 4d) as well as its actual date, while Osmo just shows the due date. They both color-code the tasks based on how soon the due date is. I personally prefer Osmo's color-coding than Zim's (Zim only color-codes tasks due very soon), but that is purely a matter of personal taste.
The bottom line for all 3 organizational tools
Let's get to the bottom line for these free productivity tools.
If you want "one application to rule them all" I'd definitely recommend Zim since it's the most fully-featured of the 3 options and it can search helpfully, which is Osmo's major weak point. Zim is an awesome alternative to OneNote.
On the other hand, if you are concerned about getting more and more "notes creep" as your life grows busier, then I recommend using either Osmo or Zim for upcoming to-do tasks, and move archived info for future reference into NobleNote as a searchable archive of stuff. e.g. "things to do after a software update to my websites". The Osmo-NobleNote combo is what I've been using to handle all my organizational needs for the past year or so, and it's worked out beautifully. But I have now switched over to a Zim-NobleNote combo. I like using NobleNote as the archive since it looks cleaner, simpler and less intimidating than the other two options - perfect for notes that just need to be brought up as needed.
If you want to use just 1 application yet you still want to avoid "notes creep", you could use Zim and simply create another Zim notebook (or just a new page with sub-pages) called Archive for the stuff for future reference.
If focus and attention are an issue for you, go with Osmo as it's so intuitive and helpful from the get-go. Osmo may be all you need if "keeping on track" is more important than searchability and archiving of info. If searchability is a must-have (not a nice-to-have) then use Zim. If instead your problem is that you have dozens of Word-style or Google Docs files that you can never remember what folder they're in, then NobleNote is an ideal replacement for that.
Please note that none of these productivity programs have the built-in ability to sync between devices. But you could certainly use it that way by placing your software notebook in a folder you own in a syncing service such as syncthing or dropbox.
Ultimately, Zim is the best as the most fully-featured general use case of these organization apps. Yet Osmo and NobleNote are extremely strong contenders as well. Your use case is the most important determinant in deciding which of these 3 productivity tools to use.