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Microsoft Office OneNote 2003 Preview

As you might imagine, I spend a lot of time taking notes, be it on the phone or in live meetings with representatives of Microsoft and other companies. In fact, from a pure time percentage, I probably spend more time taking and managing notes, and turning those notes into finished articles, than I do on any other work-related task, including email. Note-taking is, quite literally, at the heart of what I do on a professional basis.

Naturally, I've primarily used Microsoft Word for my note-taking tasks, and I have thousands of Word documents, full of notes, covering the various meetings I've had over the years, stored on my hard drive. A copy of these notes goes with me every time I travel, giving me reasonably quick access to whatever information I may need. People I've interviewed, or others who have been present while I'm taking notes, often express amazement at the amount of information I type while taking notes: I try to record everything that's said, as accurately as possible, and frankly I've been kind of amazed to watch as contemporaries at other publications sit at the same industry events, listening but not taking notes. This is bread and butter stuff, and I'm surprised how many tech journalists don't understand that.

My original plans to switch entirely to this application happened far more slowly than I had originally planned. That's because OneNote, unlike other Office applications, doesn't support the notion of true documents: You don't save or open OneNote "documents," but rather close OneNote when you're done taking notes and start it back up again when you're ready to take more notes: As with pen and paper notes, OneNote stores what you've written automatically, without requiring you to "save" it, and it returns you to the place in your notes where you were when you last shut down the application (I discuss this process in more detail in the section titled Note backup and portability, below). This style of operation is so different from Word and other Office applications that it gave me pause and it took a while for me to warm up to OneNote (and, honestly, to trust it with my data). However, once I started using OneNote regularly around August 2003, there was no turning back, and I'm now a fan and regular user of OneNote. So here are the features of OneNote that make this application indispensable to me, along with a few 1.0 quibbles that I'd like to see fixed in the next version.

Note taking and organization

OneNote, as its name suggests, is devoted to note-taking and to note management. Today, people tend to fall into one of two groups when it comes to note-taking: There are those who use software applications like Word, and those who use pen and paper. Each approach has its problems: Word and other similar applications simply aren't designed to take notes; they're designed to construct well-formatted documents. Pen and paper are even less suitable to the task, because you'll need to later transcribe those notes into electronic form to use them in a document.

Unlike Word, notes taken in OneNote can be placed anywhere on a virtual page, horizontally or vertically, in the same way that you might set the pen down on a pad of paper at any place on the page. Using a standard Windows-based PC, you can take standard typewritten notes, as per Word, and add handwritten notes if you've got a Tablet PC. OneNote also supports audio notes on all installations; see below for more information. Finally, OneNote also supports all of the standard Tablet PC drawing styles, in a manner similar to Journal; this means you can easily add drawings to your notes as you would on paper.

From a presentation perspective, OneNote presents a tabbed interface that resembles a notebook (figure). A row of section tabs runs along the top, each of which can hold one or more pages; these pages can optionally contain one or more sub-pages. But the way you organize your notes is up to you, Microsoft says: You can create any scheme of sections, pages, and sub-pages you want, making the application highly customizable. This is largely true, though I have some issues with the limitations of this design, which I discuss below. But OneNote is a very usable and structured application that excels at its primary task of note-taking and organization, and the pages you create support a variety of stationary styles and other distinctive design elements you can use to visually differentiate note pages.

Here's how I organize my notes. I create a new section for each month ("2003-09," "2003-10," and so on) and then organize all of my notes with individual pages for each event. If an event requires me to take different sets of notes--such as at a trade show or product launch, where I might meet with representatives from several different companies--I use sub-pages to segregate the notes further on a per-meeting basis (figure). This organizational approach matches the way I store work-related files on my system, and is likely tied to some low-level, anal-retentive behavior that's not really worthy of further discussion. That means it's easy for me to jump into OneNote and find what I want. But the beauty of OneNote's organizational structure is that you can tailor it to the way you take notes and organize data: With the few caveats discussed below, OneNote is almost infinitely malleable and can be made to work the way you want it to. I can't really think of any other Office application that is so agreeable in this way.

Note backup and portability

Given that OneNote doesn't create--or even allow you to create--traditional documents, ala Word or Excel, many Office users are going to be a bit uncomfortable trusting their valuable notes to this application. I was one such user, and it took me a few months of testing before I started using OneNote full-time. I shouldn't have worried. With the exception of an early beta release I was able to test, OneNote has been extremely reliable. Still, I have a need to backup and copy my OneNote notes to different machines; for example, when I travel, I need my notes on the laptop.

Fortunately, this is extremely easy to do. OneNote stores each notebook section as an individual file in a new folder called My Notebook (or My if you have filename extensions turned on), which can be found inside My Documents (figure). The size of these files will vary wildly depending on what kinds of notes you take: For example, handwritten notes will take up more space then typewritten notes. But this simple file structure makes your notes extremely portable: Simply copy them to the My Notebook folder on a different system, and you're good to go: The sections and their related pages and sub-pages will appear automatically when you open OneNote on the other system.

Since I can store multiple notes in a single file, and those files are all found in a single directory structure, it's actually easier to find notes now than it was under my old system. In fact, I find myself dreading having to search for notes I took before August 2003 specifically for this reason.

Also, OneNote automatically backs up your notebook at specific intervals (it defaults to once a day), and you can manually backup your notebooks at any time, and configure how many backup copies it keeps. (figure)

Working with a Tablet PC

For users lucky enough to have a Tablet PC and more at home taking handwritten notes, OneNote is even more exciting because it supports the Tablet PC's Digital Ink features fully (figure). This means you can take notes in your normal handwriting, more closely emulating the way you take notes in a real notebook. You can move around the page at will, scribble diagrams and drawings, and utilize all the pen types of colors to which you're accustomed.

That said, I'm not a Tablet PC user. But I could see this OneNote being a killer application for that platform, even more so than it is on normal PCs. If you're a Tablet PC user, you really do need to check out OneNote.

Combining notes with an audio recording

At some point, I'm going to grab a decent quality microphone and start using OneNote's audio recording capabilities in the field; until then, I feel compelled to list this feature solely as a theoretical benefit, as it's just too cool to ignore. Here's how it works: You can link an audio recording with your typewritten or handwritten notes, allowing you to follow along with your notes as you listen to the recording, or vice versa. If you record audio from your PC's microphone as you take notes, OneNote will actually sync the recording with the notes. Nice.

OneNote uses high-quality, low-bandwidth Windows Media Audio (WMA) 9 format for audio recordings, so you can be sure you're not sucking up all the available space on your hard drive recording your meetings. You can configure the sound quality, of course: The default is 12 kbps mono (for tiny file sizes).

Quibbles and complaints

As a 1.0 product, OneNote isn't prefect, and now that I've been using it regularly for a few months, I've identified a few areas which I'd like to see Microsoft improve.

Notes linking

There needs to be a hyperlink-like way to link to notes from other notes. That is, if I'm taking notes at a meeting with a particular company, and would like to reference notes from an earlier, related meeting, I should be able to type text like "See previous notes" and make it a hyperlink that jumps OneNote to those other notes when clicked. Given this, OneNote will also need navigational buttons (Back, Forward, and so on), ala Internet Explorer. I suspect the reason OneNote doesn't have this feature is that Microsoft considers notes to be only the starting point for documents, and of course in Microsoft's view, Office is all about documents. But there are valid reasons for needing this kind of functionality, especially for the types of people that would use OneNote extensively: Lawyers, reporters, students, and the like.

Variable width page titles

There's a little arrow button in the bottom right corner of the OneNote UI that toggles the display of page titles. That's a nice feature, but a better feature let you expand or contract the width of the notebook page titles. For example, I have a page titled "XP Media Center 2004 Launch Event," which naturally contains my notes from that event. But because the page title are is so thin, that page reads as "XP Media Cent," as does a separate set of notes for "XP Media Center briefing." So I can't tell them apart within mousing over them (which reveals a yellow tooltip window). If I could resize the page title area, this wouldn't be a problem.

Subnote titles

The tabs on notebook sections have titles, as do the page tabs within notebooks. But subpage tabs don't display titles, even when you manually change the subpage's title to be different from the main page. That stinks, because I have a lot of blank subpages that I need to mouse over so I can ascertain what they're for. If subnote page tabs supported titles, even optionally, finding notes on subpages would be much easier.

Make it part of office

How is it that OneNote isn't included in any of the several Microsoft Office 2003 editions? That's just silly, especially when you consider the Student and Teacher edition is specifically targeting a market segment that takes notes regularly. OneNote needs to be an integral part of Office, and not some poor step-cousin that few people will hear about or understand. I'm sure Microsoft is doing what it can to promote OneNote on campuses, and I know that Toshiba is including the product on all of its Tablet PC devices. But surely more can be done to get the word out about this unique and excellent program.

Final thoughts

OneNote is one of those applications you don't think you need until you use it, and then you wonder how you lived without it. I was immediately excited by OneNote the first time I received a demo at COMDEX Fall 2002 (in fact, I came back the next day to spend another hour discussing OneNote), and now that I'm using the product regularly, it's exceeded my expectations, though I've discovered a few areas that need improvement. The only big problem with OneNote is the cost: As a standalone Office System member, potential customers will need to fork over almost $200 for OneNote at retail, though Microsoft is offering a $100 rebate for most users (owning just about any Office-related product qualifies you for the discount) for a limited time, lowering the price to $99. Volume licensors can also get OneNote for half price if they order the product before September 1, 2004, and students can obtain it for just $49, which makes it a must-have. Unless the price is barrier, anyone that regularly finds themselves taking notes will find OneNote an indispensable tool.

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