Day 320 – Ode To OneNote

46 – 100+ Absolutely Essential Windows Apps

I grant there are many fine examples of great apps on that list.
The finest however, isn’t.

Microsoft OneNote is largely unknown, and often dismissed out-of-hand because “Microsoft“. And granted, at first it may seem on overly simple app that has already been done far better by third parties. But first glances are deceptive.

The simplicity of the concept is one of its key features. OneNote doesn’t have a “workflow” built-in, it doesn’t tell you how to use it, it is “nothing more” than an infinite stack of tab-divided spiral notebooks with as many pages as you need, on any kind of paper, with comprehensive search and annotation features across everything you ever write down.

Barely anything really.

Oh, and as of early 2014, it is also completely free.

You will feel immediately at home in the editor if you already use Word. Note though that if you are still using pop-up tool-bars and ribbon entries to do most of your editing, you are doing yourself a disservice.

You can do most of the formatting via handy keyboard short-cuts that only need a little practice to get even more out of your note-taking experience.

You are probably already familiar with the basic conventions; CTRL+C/CTRL+V for copy and paste, CTRL+B for bold, CTRL+I for italics. But have you tried CTRL+hyphen for strike-through? Have you tried CTRL+ALT+1/2/3/4/5/6 for heading styles? Have you tried CTRL+>/< to increase/decrease font size?

Did you know that if you start a line with “*”, then a space, then text, OneNote will automatically start a bulleted list? Did you know that if you hit TAB, it will start a table, and every next TAB will add a further column, until you hit enter which will start creating more rows?

With a bit of practice you’ll easily be able to capture the gist of a meeting as you go along.

Speaking of meetings.

Did you know that OneNote can record audio as well and store it embedded in the current page? Did you know that any text you type while recording audio is annotated with timestamps so that if afterwards you hover over the left-hand margin, playback buttons will appear? Did you know that pressing such a button will take playback of the audio to 10 seconds before you started typing the line so that you can easily find the context of the discussion that goes with a specific note?

Have you ever taken a note during a meeting that were too cryptic afterwards to remember what it was referring to? Now you can go back into the meeting audio and jog your memory. Note that you have to get consent before recording a meeting, so make sure you do before you hit “record“.

Tagging is another powerful feature of OneNote.

It can be used to create many different types of check-lists, markers, highlights, and reminders. You can use the built-in defaults or you can completely customise them including the icons to use. You can easily search all of your pages/sections/notebooks for all notes annotated with a specific tag.

I have created a customised set of tags at work that gets used for taking meeting minutes. It turns the search results over our minutes into a live action list for the attendees.

It means that when the meeting closes we immediately have all our minutes ready and annotated with who needs to follow-up an action, or who made what comment. It takes only a little practice, and it saves us loads of time every day.

And then there is the power of the built-in search feature. It is incredibly easy to find relevant notes in any of your virtual notebooks by using the full-text search.

You may shrug your shoulders; “Search, yeah, so what? Everyone has that!

This search also covers OCR results of any screenshots you might have pasted onto the page. If you screen-capture the contents of a console window, or a webpage, or a document, all the text inside the bitmap image will also be searchable.

This search also covers handwriting recognition; if you use the touch interface and/or a digital pen to take hand-written notes on your pages, those will also be full-text searchable. Even my crappy rushed non-standard handwriting passes the recognition test.

This search also covers your audio in any recordings you make; if you enable the audio search feature in the options, all audio tracks will run through voice-recognition and will also be full-text searchable.

Does yours do all that?

Oh, and then there are the little conveniences of page templates, ruled pages in many customisable formats, recognition and transcription of hand-written formulas, highlighter pens via touch interface, to name a few.

OneNote does very little for you, but it does it in-depth and extremely well.

2 thoughts on “Day 320 – Ode To OneNote”

  1. I agree with you. It’s a pretty impressive, and underrated application. Microsoft does some really good software, often in a different league to other mainstream players like Oracle or Apple.

    1. I think they do themselves a disservice by not pitching OneNote exactly for what it is though. Part of the reason it is an under-acknowledged tool is that pre-conceived notions about what it is may lead users down the wrong path. To use a tool effectively it is important to understand what exactly it is for.

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