Looking for best OneNote "Surface" for College Student


My daughter has gotten used to taking notes on her HP Envy 13 with a Wacom Bamboo pen but with “remote” learning it is easier to leave laptop on desk connected to a second monitor but makes it difficult to take notes with the laptop. We thought a “cheaper” Surface tablet with a pen would be a good fit for a “OneNote” option but trying to help her choose between a Surface Go / Go 2 or an older Pro 3/4 from eBay or even a Surface 3 might fit. Don’t need a type cover but do need a pen if the Bamboo can’t do double duty (wasn’t sure if that would work). iPad is also an option I suppose – she has had a series of iPhone’s so wouldn’t be a problem to use. Thoughts?

Comments (30)

30 responses to “Looking for best OneNote "Surface" for College Student”

  1. darkgrayknight

    You could go with something like this (a graphic tablet that has a screen and stylus that connects to a computer/laptop):


    If all you want is a way to take notes that doesn't require moving the laptop.

    Any of the older Surface tablets would be fine.

  2. fpalmieri

    Surface Go 2 (m3/8GB/128GB),pen & Microsoft "Complete" totals $797 right now - don't need a type cover. Both prices are well above where I was hoping to come in at but...

  3. dstrauss

    It's quite an eye-opener to see that nearly no one is willing to recommend a Surface device. If she didn't have a laptop/desktop for the dorm, I'd recommend the business SKU Surface Go 2 (8gb/256gb/LTE/type cover/pen) for a good tablet with PC chops on her desk (with a monitor, keyboard, and mouse). The downsides would be battery life (5-6 hours tops, which could make for a difficult day of note taking) and Photoshop/AutoCad users need not apply.

    Since she already has the dorm covered, I'd agree with the vast majority here BUT would insist you go iPad Air 4 and Pencil 2. As the long time user of both iPads and pencils, the original Pencil 1 is vastly inferior to the Pencil 2 - it slips and vectors on the screen, and charging is a major PITA. Air 4 with Pencil 2 is a note taking dream that has better grip on screen and is always charged because it magnetically attaches to the edge of the Air 4. Better still, the Air 4 has a Touch ID power button, a real convenience in this continuing mask era. Best of all, I bet she has an iPhone, so you could go WiFi only and tether easily, along with other conveniences of Continuity between the two devices.

    • gregorylbrannon

      In reply to dstrauss:

      I'm a big One Note and Inking fan. I have a gen 1 Surface Book. I use to detach the screen to use my Surface Pen for One Note. Last fall the battery died in the screen so it will no longer detach. I debated buying a Surface Go so that I could have a Surface device to still use One Note for inking. I thought long and hard before jumping on an after Christmas sale on the new iPad Gen 8. It was on sale at $299 from the $329 price. Then I bought the gen 1 Apple Pencil. I don't regret going with the iPad over the Surface Go. However after reading Paul's review on the iPad Air; I'm contemplating trading it in for the Air and Amazon has had the Magic Keyboard with built in trackpad for $99 lately.

      The bottom line for me is that purchasing the iPad provided more apps than the Surface Go. And due to the Surface Go size; I didn't see myself ever using the Surface Go for it's desktop abilities and ever since Windows 8; it seems that Windows 10 has gotten worse for tablets. Maybe that'll change with the Sun Valley update or Windows 10X devices. The only knock with using One Note on the iPad over a Surface device is that the Surface Pen eraser is convenient where as the Apple Pen and One Note requires that you click on the eraser icon to erase and then click back on one of the pen or pencil icons to resume inking. Overall I don't regret my purchase of the iPad; well maybe regret not going for the iPad Air

    • anoldamigauser

      In reply to dstrauss:

      "It's quite an eye-opener to see that nearly no one is willing to recommend a Surface device."

      Perhaps Microsoft should pay attention then, as most people on this site are Microsoft enthusiasts, and even here the recommendation is overwhelmingly to use an iPad.

    • earlster

      Turns out here in CO Apple stores are only open by appointment, and one needs an AppleID to make an appointment, which I don't have and really don't want

      Best Buy or Costco then

    • earlster

      In reply to dstrauss:

      Good points, especially about the pencil charging. It might be time to head to an apple store and compare, if they are even open.

  4. earlster

    My daughter is in the exact same position. She has a 2in1 convertible with a pen attached to a 2nd monitor, but really wants a tablet for note taking. All her friends have iPads, so now she really wants an iPad, too. I'm just trying to figure out if a regular iPad will do, or if an iPad Air, or Pro will be worth the $$$$$ extra expense.

    • fpalmieri

      In reply to earlster:

      If your daughter just needs to take notes for class, I'd got with the iPad 8th gen and Pencil 1 - we got the Air for my older daughter partly for the Pencil 2 but also for the bigger storage working with larger drawings and she also had a need for portability for site visits that my other daughter didn't have.

  5. fpalmieri

    Went with new iPad Air for my architect daughter - she just demoed her setup to her coworkers last week after being asked how she was doing some of the things - others in her group also used iPad's so that made it easier for her but now more of her coworkers likely are going to lobby the boss for a iPad in addition to a high end laptop - she's happy and sharing her OneNote back with her PC easily (kudos to Microsoft for that). Using something to markup up drawings with the pen on iPad - I hadn't seen a similar tablet app for Windows at the time but saw ads for one recently that looked good.

    My college daughter got an iPad 8th gen and she's also happy - her laptop for zoom classes and the iPad for note taking is working well for her with OneNote. The weirdness with the two different generation "pencils" for the two iPad models is odd (partly why I went for the Air to get the better pen but not sure it's that much better) but I couldn't justify two Surface Pro's with Pens and I couldn't be sure that the Surface Go would do the trick as it seems so underpowered until you get to the high-end model which almost costs the same as a baseline Surface Pro.

    We wanted to buy Microsoft but between the weirdness with Windows 10 on a tablet and the cost / benefit, we couldn't and seems like the correct decision. If a laptop had been needed, then maybe a different story but primary use case was consumption / note taking - like Paul's discussion in the article on the iPad Air the other day. They have work to do in Redmond to even match Apple.

  6. harmjr

    Buy extra pens -used on ebay is fine- for your Surface at least my SP4 I have several of them configured to the device. I am always leaving them somewhere around the house. I try to keep a spare in my bag with me at all times.

    I found I like the SP4 since its thin and light but the comment below from MattHewitt is spot on it the iPad will load quicker.

    In class work I am taking Pre-Cal I have found I like using the OneNote Windows 10 version when I write. But use the OneNote classic or office 365 version when I want to search or pull down documents or take screen shots. Also the OCR in ON Classic is on the machine vs ON W10 is in the cloud.

    I should add I have an SP4 and a HP Laptop. I tend to watch my lessons on the laptop and take notes on the Surface. For class the surface is primary used for OneNote note taking and games.

  7. bhikkhupesala

    I have a smaller XP-PEN Star G640 drawing tablet and it works great. Using a drawing tablet and looking at the screen feels awkward at the beginning. After some practice your brain figures out how it works and it becomes natural. 

  8. jchampeau

    There's no question that for the use case you describe, an iPad will be a better note-taking device than a Surface Go. The instant-on behavior of an iPad compared to the slow(er) boot time of anything running Windows sets it apart. Especially so when compared to the relatively low-powered Surface Go/Go 2. I have a Paperlike screen protector for my iPad which makes it feel, well, somewhat paper-like. I haven't tried the Surface Go or Go 2 myself but I have tried a multitude of Windows devices including Surface Pro 5, several Dell XPS machines, Surface Laptop 3, and a touch-enabled Dell Latitude. iPad beats them all in that "Crap, I should be writing this down" moment.

  9. BigM72

    I am equally invested in Microsoft and Apple - I have a Surface Book, Surface Precision Mouse, Surface Headphones, Surface Keyboard and I have tried out the Surface Pro and Go.

    Apple I have iPhones XR and 7, iPad Mini 4, Airpods, Apple Watch Series 3, and an iPad Air 4 on the way. (I will be consolidating out of some of my devices).

    I strongly urge you go to for the iPad in this use case over the Surface Go - it is a dead-end machine that is way overpriced. The base model iPad and gen 1 pencil of Apple will provide a plenty great experience for your daughter (and definitely better than the Surface Go). It's not the nicest version of what Apple sells but it is still plenty nice.

  10. fpalmieri

    So I have an iPhone XR as do my daughters but we all have only briefly held an iPad in my hands. I discussed with them and they were not super excited about the iPad even though friends have them and are happy. While looking into this some and trying to learn more to make a good purchase, it seems to me that the new iPad Air and the Pencil 2 are the "sweet spot" right now on the Apple side - the Pencil 1 has mixed reviews / issues of some kind that I can't quite put my finger on and the base iPad is pretty long in the tooth at this point - I understand that the iPad's last and Apple has a great support policy but I've always felt the best value / longest lasting tech purchase is being at the "plus mid-range" if you will. So iPad Air (64 GB/ WiFi), Pencil 2 and Apple Care gets you to $850 - does that change anyone's recommendation or am I over analyzing this.

    • txag

      In reply to fpalmieri:

      I have a Pencil 1st gen with my older iPad Pro. Works perfectly.

    • interloper

      "Pencil 1 has mixed reviews / issues of some kind that I can't quite put my finger on and the base iPad is pretty long in the tooth at this point"

      Nope. Base iPad has just been updated to the A12 Bionic chip (same as your XR) and will be plenty fast for years. The only issue with the Pencil 1 is that it doesn't attach magnetically to charge like the Pencil 2. That comes in at $528 for the 128Gb model with Pencil or $597 including AppleCare.

      Also, look around for deals on that new 8th Gen base iPad. They are ALWAYS being reduced at Amazon and other places, typically by around 8 to 10%.

  11. RossNWirth

    I'd agree, iPad is best option - hands down the best tablet, and a really great OneNote device - since they (basically) all support the pencil now you don't have to spring for the Pro - can pick whatever fits in the price range.

    If you're really strongly needing to go Surface - Surface Go 2 with m3 - but again iPad better option. Though I see the Surface Pro X is on sale for $699 - I really like mine - but of course it's ARM - so there are Win64 app compatibility issues.

  12. interloper

    I have owned the Surface Pro 3, 4, 5 (a.k.a. 2017) and 7. I've also owned the non-Pro Surface 3 and currently own and use a Surface Book 2.

    For what your daughter wants to do, the best choice is almost certainly an iPad and Apple Pencil.

    The Surface lineup is terrific for anyone that absolutely needs a single device that satisfies both tablet requirements and the need for specific desktop Windows apps. Where it falls short, however, is in consumption and using a single app such as OneNote that may be better served by the mobile version available elsewhere.

    For a start, the battery life is simply too poor to rely on and your daughter may find she is constantly charging up when doing something as simple as taking notes. The Surface 3 is old and woefully underpowered; the Surface Go requires spending silly money for something decent and used Pros are likely to have a shot battery (which has mediocre life to begin with).

    This type of activity also doesn't benefit from Windows in any meaningful way. She should not have to contend with battery watching and nagging Windows updates when performing such a simple task. Again, if she doesn't desperately need Windows on this device, it's the wrong choice. The Surface range is excellent for business users needing a "do it all" device, especially for Office and corporate Windows apps.

    The base model $329 iPad is absolutely perfect for this sort of activity and OneNote runs superbly on it, with the benefit of the device being instantly on when a thought comes to mind. She may even prefer using Apple Notes (which can be accessed via a web browser or shared to OneNote if needed) as all she will have to do to open a new note is tap the screen with the Apple Pencil.

    There are also excellent drawing apps available for the iPad should she ever wish to get into that (ProCreate etc) and best in class note apps that some people specifically buy the iPad for (Notability, GoodNotes). She may also want to invest in a "paperlike" screen protector that gives a feeling of the pencil writing on actual paper rather than smooth glass.

    Unlike many other Apple devices, the base iPad is excellent value, extremely fast and has superb battery life with a wide range of cases, covers and accessories both from Apple and third parties to choose from. It may be a boring choice but, in this case, it's probably the best one.

  13. jamie_webster

    If go for an ipad with pencil or surface pro 4 . If its just for notes I'm swinging ipad way

  14. fpalmieri

    So, I get the iPad suggestions and thanks for the graphic tablet idea - any "Surface" recommendation?

    • anoldamigauser

      In reply to fpalmieri:

      I bought a Wacom graphic tablet for the kids to use for sketching and note taking and none of them took to it. All of them are note takers and very good at sketching, and the graphic tablet just did not work for them, possibly the disconnect between using the stylus on a desk or lap while having to look at the monitor to see what was happening. All of them took to sketching on touch screens right away, as I have had a touchscreen laptop since they first came out.

      Your mileage may vary, but I would go with a screen and stylus option. The iPad is far and away the best value, at least as long as it will be a single user device. If you are looking to have multiple users on it, now or in the future, then a Surface device may make more sense, but the only way I have ever gotten a device back from a kid is if they did not like it, or they broke it.

    • thejoefin

      In reply to fpalmieri:

      Surface Go 2 Wi-Fi Core M3 8GB RAM, 128 Storage $630, Surface Pen $72 (sale), Type Cover $130 (Total $832)

      My Surface Go is painful with the Pentium Gold. Using the new Edge it has a hard time doing more than one thing at a time. I'd highly recommend the Core M3 variant.

  15. StevenLayton

    +1 for new iPad and Apple Pencil for the reasons given.

  16. anoldamigauser

    I hesitate to say that the best option might be the new iPad, with a less expensive pencil alternative. Performance will be excellent, price is reasonable, and the device is new. The Surface Go is more expensive and less performant. Used Surface Pros are, well, used; and may still cost about as much as the new iPad.

  17. thejoefin

    As a heavy OneNote user and Surface Go owner, I'd recommend an iPad. The basic 10" iPad starts at $329 and works with 1st Gen Apple pencil ($99). Great price, and it will be a great hand written note taking experience.

    If typing becomes more important there are many good Bluetooth keyboards which would work.

  18. matthewitt

    I use an iPad almost daily to take notes via OneNote with. Nothing beats being able to unlock it immediately with a thumb and having OneNote right there available to use. If it's just being used to take notes with, I think this is your best bet. A PC sounds like a lot of headache for a task like this.

  19. GretchenAcosta

    I have found some new platforms to use instead of OneNote