Microsoft OneNote is a Note-Taking Power Tool

Although being a student isn't a requirement for using Microsoft's note-taking application OneNote, the software's robust data capture and collaboration components lend themselves well to an academic environment. OneNote can replace multiple physical notebooks, binders, and collections of paper notes with a single streamlined, search indexed, tabbed and subdivided master notebook. Whether you're a student taking notes in class or an employee taking notes in company meetings, check out just how useful OneNote can be.

First, a confession. I had Microsoft OneNote on my computer for years without ever launching it. I had this vision of OneNote as some sort of ridiculous Microsoft bloatware, a fusion of the stupid paper clip and Microsoft Bob or some equal monstrosity. It wasn't until Adam's Best Note-Taking Tools Hive Five that I saw how much Lifehacker readers loved it. Some of my best software finds have been at the behest of savvy readers so I couldn't resist checking it out after reading reviews like the following:

I started using OneNote in law school and it saved my life. I started out school with pen and paper, but there was just too much info in each class to make the use of paper notes useful. -jonny6pak

I love OneNote for project organisation and note taking—I liked EverNote at first but could never really get into it. While I love everything else Google, Notebook just pales in comparison to OneNote—I got MS Office almost entirely because of it. -koagem<

I've used OneNote since the second year in college, and continue to use it today for my job. The ability to search handwritten notes was such a relief when your trying to find that right equation. During one of the hardest engineering courses my friend and I would do shared session everyday. I would write notes, and he would do diagrams, it was the best of both worlds. -cospan

As Gina can attest, the reason I'm the one writing up OneNote is because for a solid week after that particular Hive Five I kept interrupting meetings saying, "Hey! Look what OneNote can do!"

The Basics of OneNote

If you were to use OneNote at its most basic level without leveraging any of the more robust features, you would still have a really nice note taking package on your hands. OneNote's interface is set up like a hyper-tabbed physical notebook. There are tabs along the left hand side of the screen for each notebook and then tabs across the top of the note taking space for subdivisions of that notebook. Finally on the right hand side of the screen there are narrower tabs for pages of the notebook subdivisions. It sounds complicated in writing, but in practice movement through the notebooks is faster and more fluid than searching for tabs in a physical notebook.

The OneNote interface for text manipulation and other basic functions is standardised to the Office conventions you're most likely already familiar with. If you can manipulate text in Word, create a table in Excel, and slide objects around in PowerPoint, all the simple functions in the Office suite are mirrored in OneNote. For a casual word processor user the learning curve for the basic functions is nearly zero.

A common frustration when taking physical paper notes is the realisation that something you wrote down at the beginning of a lecture or meeting would make much more sense somewhere else in your notes. None but the most obsessive note takers would ever write all their notes over again just to put that stray piece of data back where it belongs. OneNote was designed to treat the note taking space as a manipulative two dimensional space. You can slide, enlarge, shrink, cut and paste items from one part of a page and one part of a notebook to another to your heart's content.

Taking Advantage Of Advanced Features

In the advanced features arena is where OneNote really shines. There are dozens of small considerations in the construction of OneNote that make using it more efficient and pleasant. Users can tag their notes with a large list of included tags or customise the tags to better suit their own needs and style. OneNote also supports Outlook cross-compatibility. You can zip appointments, tasks, and contacts over to Outlook with a single mouse click. While reviewing lecture notes, if you notice that something in your notes is actually a task you need to get taken care of you can flag it as a task both in OneNote and Outlook with no hassle.

OneNote has built in OCR (optical character recognition) which means that you can scan documents or take photographs of text and OneNote will automatically index the text in the photographs and allow you to copy and search it. I tested the OCR with business cards, literature handouts, and even the back of a toothbrush package. OneNote grabbed the text off all of them with minimal recognition errors.

Handwriting recognition is one of OneNote's strong points, but there is a caveat. There is a glaring gap in the handwriting recognition for non-tablet PCs in Office 2007. There is support for handwriting recognition in Office 2003 on non-tablet PCs running Windows XP and for non-tablet PCs running Office 2007 under Windows Vista. There is, disappointingly, no support for handwriting recognition under Office 2007 under Windows XP. If you aren't running OneNote on a tablet PC and you can't live without the handwriting recognition you'll want to use OneNote 2003 SP3 instead of OneNote 2007 to be able to install the handwriting engine under XP. That caveat aside, the handwriting recognition is excellent under XP and even better under Vista.

One of the biggest concerns for anyone in our hyper mediated and connected age is how all their note taking in OneNote will interact with their other computers, peers, mobile devices and so on. If you have a Windows Mobile device, you can install OneNote Mobile right from OneNote onto the device. The syncing is lightning fast. I noticed that if I had my Windows Mobile phone tethered to my computer while I was using OneNote on either the phone or the desktop it would update in nearly real time. A note or photo captured on the phone would appear in the Mobile tab of OneNote almost instantly.

Even if you don't have a Windows Mobile device, you can still take advantage of OneNote's connectivity. OneNote has support for hosted notebooks, which means you can collaborate with your peers or simply host your own notebook as a type of wiki. Changes between different computers accessing the notebook are automatically synced and merged.

Given the wide range of features in OneNote what you do with it it is entirely up to you. Although I've transitioned from being a student to being an instructor I use OneNote for everything from clipping ideas for Lifehacker articles to lesson planning to saving random ideas for my garden to keeping a wish list so my wife doesn't exclaim come my next birthday "You are absolutely the most difficult person to shop for!" OneNote has, in my case, replaced the mass of .txt files and snippets of saved articles I had scattered about /My Documents/ and greatly increased my productivity. I wish I'd had a copy of OneNote when I was a student!


    I've used OneNote in a team enviornment for over 2 years now. Certainly is my fav. and most useful Microsoft app... I've also cut down on my 'repeat google searches' because now I paste the answers into my notebook and categorise them as I need. It's saved me huge amounts of time.

    OneNote 2007 really is a great hidden gem. I was just about to write a blog post for Dell's site about it soon. The electronic pen and tablet really makes it shine more.

Join the discussion!

Trending Stories Right Now