If, like me, keeping notes dominates your life -- be it as comprehensive as lecture note-taking, or as casual as jotting down day-to-day notes when making those telephone calls to customer care centres -- OneNote comes as the most valuable tool and makes a huge difference to personal information management. I could be wrong but this tool looks one of those least known tools and not appreciated as much for what it is capable of doing.
I recall when OneNote was in its infancy (with Office 2003, I think) and then I was using PhatNotes from PhatWare Corp. which at the time was miles ahead of the then infant OneNote. I kept an eye on OneNote's development over the years and decided to switch from PhatNotes to OneNote (primarily because PhatNotes didn't handle graphics with notes) when it came out as OneNote 2007; now it has gone even a step further as OneNote 2010 and I never looked back. The latest Microsoft ad (came my way via email) goes with the subject line:
"Warning: The use of Microsoft OneNote can be highly addictive."
This is not far from the truth once you get into using OneNote. If you want to jot down something quickly while at your computer, you just reach for (WindowsKey + N) on PC (sorry, don't know the equivalent quick access key on other platforms) and you don't even have to save it; OneNote notes are saved automatically. Of course, organising into Notebooks and Sections (and Section Groups, and even Page Groups) is at the heart of OneNote's function, and those quick notes that end up under 'Unfiled Notes' can be organised at a later stage as desired (much akin to the traditional paperwork being filed away from work desk into file cabinets and respective folders).
OneNote has very close integration with Windows operating system: Windows Search works seamlessly for OneNote (i.e., individual note pages show in Windows Search results); OneNote can act as a printout destination; and you can capture whatever is on screen with OneNote' own 'Screen Clipping' tool -- much like a camera snapshot and by default readily available in the taskbar notification area to call it into action. Screen Clipping doesn't end there -- you can extract any embedded text with OneNote's own OCR (Optical Character Recognition - simply right-click on the captured image) -- just some of the things you cannot do with other applications but with OneNote. Of course, you can also do without the keyboard (or mix and match!) by instead using a stylus for normal handwriting and sketching if you're using a tablet PC (or using an external graphics tablet interface to your PC). I am not even going into audio and video recordings you can easily embed in you notes which, of course, with other features not mentioned here you can explore elsewhere.
The good news is that if you have Microsoft Office 2010 which comes in different badges (as home & student, business, professional, etc.), then OneNote 2010 will be there as a bundle. You also have the option of buying this valuable personal organiser as a standalone, and this Review is for such product although everything in this Review applies to OneNote 2010 regardless of being a bundle or a standalone.
Like most software tools OneNote 2010 is not without criticisms or wish-list to make it even a better tool. For me what stands out as #1 criticism is that a lot more can be done in 'Searching and Sorting' of notes accumulated over time. Microsoft needs to invest a lot in improving Search and Sorting and in the most intuitive way so that ordinary users don't have to be on a course to learn how to locate their notes. Yes, it works brilliantly if you type in keywords (including AND and OR conjunctions of multiple words) but we often want more than specific keywords. Say, you want to list all the notes created in the last 15 days, or audio recordings in the month of March, or something as general as that with some criteria. Keyword is great if you remember what you wrote in your notes, but what if instead you remember roughly how long ago it was but don't remember the exact words say if the note-taking was rushed (believe me this happens under pressure and/or distractions!). In such instances, you can easily narrow down if you can easily list entries based on some search criteria (such as days since created, etc.). In any case, it pays to get into the habit of writing down important keywords (say, as Note title), for example: 'Telephone call to British Gas about such and such ...", or "Anna's birthday party booking at ...' so that the obvious keywords will lead to a desired note entry. In addition to the specific keyword searching (which exists already), general search based on some useful criteria (as for Windows Search and more) and sorting utilities can enhance the usability of this powerful tool. (If I remember right, OneNote 2007 had a better search syntax such as listing recent entries??, and this seems gone from OneNote 2010??).
It is also good to know that the Windows Search can get into the guts of OneNote and find the notes for you (in fact, better than OneNote's own search!) and the integration is therefore helpful. For instance, I could type in Windows Search as 'datemodified:last week type:one' and I am able to list the notes I created over last week, but this approach also has its own niggles. The following should work but doesn't: 'datemodified:last week kind:note' and the following works 'datemodified:last week kind:doc' but includes other doument files such as Word. OneNote really deserves its own search and sort that can be used with great ease.
One major criticism of OneNote 2010 is the removal (i.e., retrograde) of Live Sharing Sessions that exits in OneNote 2007 which is useful for people who wish to collaborate by sharing notes over the network. With this move, it appears as if Microsoft is trying to lure people into the Cloud technology (Windows Live SkyDrive) as an alternative solution.
If I have to add some items of a wish-list (in addition to the Search and Sort mentioned above) the following points come to mind.
1) Being able to set the background colour for note container boxes within a page:- This would provide a colour scheme that can enhance information organisation within a page. With this approach you can even devise your own colour code to differentiate pieces of notes on the page, such as more conspicuous colours for notes that need to be flagged as more important. You can highlight the text background with different colours but this is not as satisfactory (and pleasant!) as highlighting the background of the text window that contains a note.
2) Scaling the whole text in a Note Container:- If a Note Container has different font sizes, then scaling the whole text in the container (of different font sizes) provides an easy way of adjusting text as required while maintaining the relative font sizes. Such text scaling already exists with web browsers.
3) Side Notes Title area visibility thru OneNote Options:- Side Notes do not get Title area on opening a note page although you can toggle this on with View -> Hide Page Title (check this out with WindowsKey + N) after the page is opened. It would be nice if showing Title area is an option to be selected by the user in OneNote Options (such that you have a checkbox as to whether the Title area is to be shown or not.
Bottom-line: If note-taking is important to you and never used this tool, I bet your reaction would be "... where were you all my life?".Read more ›