Microsoft OneNote 2010: Electronic Notebooks Done Right

Office 2010 and the New OneNote Note Organization Application

Microsoft OneNote is a brilliant addition to Microsoft Office. It was originally introduced in Office 2003, but really became a stand out application in Office 2007.

The idea behind Microsoft OneNote is to create an electronic version of a notebook, and potentially, replace them altogether.

And in Microsoft Office 2010, OneNote does a bang up job.

Disclaimer: The author of this article LOVES OneNote! His objectivity has been shattered by an application that can find sources he used a year ago in seconds, that records his voice notes on the same page as his written notes, and has made the 60 lbs. of notebooks threatening a home office shelf less necessary. Oh, yeah, it also catalogs his PAPER-BASED notebooks.

Whether or not OneNote could replace paper notebooks is open to debate. Most writers, for example, have an ongoing love affair with notebooks of all kinds, so replacing them electronically is not an option. However, OneNote provides many wonderful features for anyone who fills notebooks with notes, information, data, snippets, quotes, appointments, and anything else that can be scribbled down onto a piece of paper.

Microsoft OneNote 2010: Electronic Notebooks Done Right

What Is OneNote from Microsoft Office?

Let’s start at the beginning. Many users never tried OneNote, they may have never even installed it. The way Microsoft put together previous editions of Microsoft Office, you may have never seen the product before.

For example, in Office 2007, OneNote is included in the Office 2007 Home and Student and in Office 2007 Ultimate editions, but not in any of the more ubiquitous business editions. So, if you needed Outlook with your Office Suite (which is absent from Home & Office version), you have probably never seen OneNote before.

It looks like Microsoft has noticed that not just students take notes. According to the Microsoft Office 2010 website, OneNote 2010 is included not just in Office Home and Business 2010, but also in Office Professional 2010, and Office Professional Plus 2010.

So, what is OneNote?

The first question most people have when they see OneNote is why they shouldn’t just use something else for notes. Some people keep text files, others keep Word documents, some people (like me) send emails to themselves as a way to take and keep notes. While these solutions may work “good enough,” none of them is actually designed to keep and organize notes, which makes them clunky solutions at best, and electronic versions of the huge pile on the corner of the desk that has everything in it “somewhere.”

At first glance, OneNote can seem like a glorified word processor, but jump into the program’s features, and you’ll see that this isn’t just Microsoft Word with some extra buttons.


Using Microsoft Office OneNote to Organize, Store, and Create Notes

Perhaps no application benefitted more from the MS Office Ribbon Interface than Microsoft OneNote. OneNote 2007 was an example of what would happen if toolbars became self-aware and started replicating buttons without limit. While functions could still be accessed from the familiar nested menus, OneNote also offered a vast array of toolbars filled with tiny icons.

In fact, OneNote 2007 is an example of what Office applications might look like without the new ribbon design — tiny icons everywhere that only the most intrepid of users would ever find or fully understand.

Fortunately, OneNote 2010, like all the other Office 2010 applications, gets the full Ribbon style interface. The Ribbon provides easy access to some of the “little things” that makes OneNote such a powerful tool. The various drawing tools, as well as the audio and video tools, stay out of the way, but very accessible when the user needs them.

At its core, OneNote is a way to create and store words and text. In this way, it is a lot like Microsoft Word. However, what makes OneNote so powerful is its versatility. Freed from the constraints that the final output be able to occur as a paper printout, OneNote, like a paper notebook, can be kept as neat or as messy as the user desires.

Ignoring margins, inserting large graphics or hand-drawn doodles, and then resizing, moving, or erasing them is easy. Text can be kept neatly in rows and columns, or stuffed into the “margins” or even crammed between main elements. Users are given a free-form interface where there is no end of the page and individual items can be as big or as little as desired.

While this concept is not new, it has historically also not been easy to use. Typically, users had to create some sort of frame or box for whatever it was they wanted to input first. Clicking on an icon to create a text box, placing it in the right location, and then dragging around borders to what you hoped would be approximately the right size, all before typing in a single word, made such applications too cumbersome for all but the most dedicated to bother using for anything other than big important notes. The thing about notes, however, is that you never know which notes will end up being important.

OneNote solves this issue by just assuming that if you are typing, you want that text in a text box. It creates the frame on the fly on the current page. If you are pasting an image, the image is placed onto the page instantly. Any frame that is necessary is created automatically by OneNote. Providing a carte blanche interface like this usually leads to either a messy chaos, or a situation in which once something is created, it cannot be edited again. Neither is true with OneNote.

Each entry on a page gets an electronic box around it. This boundary disappears until the user activates it by moving the mouse over it, allowing for a clean look that duplicates the boxless layout of a real notebook with text written in or pictures drawn on the page.

Users can even choose to have ruled (lined) note pages or not. The boxes with information can be dragged and dropped anywhere on the page. They can be resized by a little or by a lot. If there is text inside, the text adjusts to the size of the box, word wrapping in new places with ease. Best of all, the box, or just some of its contents, can be selected for copying and pasting elsewhere.

While duplicating the ability to put stuff in a notebook is great, the real power of OneNote comes from all of the things it can do that a regular notebook cannot. The most obvious functionality in this regard is searching.

OneNote indexes every word of every note you take no matter how big or how small. That means that if you put the directions to Frank Smith’s house in your OneNote notebook and then don’t see him for four years, when you type frank smith house into a OneNote search, you’ll find those directions. Try that with a regular notebook, even if you are fastidious enough to organize them by date and subject matter.

Of course, almost everything can be searched these days thanks to Google Desktop Search and Windows 7 search and indexing features (unless you are one of those people that turns them off to save resources. Seriously, if you want to save RAM and disk space, uninstall Adobe Reader instead. You’ll come out ahead.). Fortunately, OneNote arrives with more power than just a search function.

Microsoft OneNote 2010: Electronic Notebooks Done Right

What if you have a screenshot, or a photograph, or a graphic from a website pasted into OneNote as an image? How about some free, fast, and reasonably accurate (assuming normal, legible, lettering) text recognition? This recent screenshot from a website was taken with Screenshot Captor, resized, and then saved as a JPG file. When pasted into OneNote, it takes its rightful place as an image file in a notebook.

However, right click on the same graphic and an option to Copy Text from Image appears. When pasted to the right of the image, you can see how well OneNote does at this. Sure, there are a couple of typos, and it chokes on the ads and navigation around the text, but it sure beats typing it back into Word or something to get the text.

All this, and we haven’t even scratched the surface of how much OneNote can do. Draw freehand with your mouse or tablet and pen right onto any notebook page, even to circle or annotate an image or graphic. OneNote will also gladly add audio or video files to your notebook pages. It can even record the same right into a page!

Put your meeting notes or class notes into OneNote, and then record those extras things that you remembered but didn’t get down in your written notes.

Give OneNote a try and you’ll find plenty to like. The first time you go back into the application thinking, “I’m pretty sure I saved something about that somewhere,” you’ll be hooked.


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