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Office 2013 Public Preview: Metro-Style OneNote

Microsoft will deliver two Metro-style apps for Windows 8 as part of its Office 2013 wave of solutions and one of them, OneNote, is now freely available in the Windows Store in Preview form.

While I’ve been using Office 2013 for quite some time and had a hands-on demo of OneNote Metro earlier this month, I wasn’t able to test the software on my own PCs until the public release this week. So this article represents an early look only, not a comprehensive review of this intriguing solution.

From a naming standpoint, OneNote was called OneNote MX (for “Metro eXperience”) during development, but I was told that the MX would be dropped and that the final name would be … wait for it … simply OneNote. This is confusing for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it’s still called OneNote MX in Windows Store. But I’ll refer to it as OneNote Metro here to differentiate it from the more full-featured desktop application, OneNote 2013. (Note: Some have claimed this app is called “OneNote for Windows 8.” Microsoft told me explicitly that this is not the case.)

“We’re releasing two immersive apps for Windows 8,” Microsoft’s Julia White told me in a June briefing. “We’re focusing on what makes the most sense for this environment.”

The key app, of course, is OneNote, since a simple looking but powerful note-taking solution makes sense for the mobile- and touch-based Metro environment. And not coincidentally, OneNote has been successfully ported to the iPhone, iPad, and Android for the same reason.

“There are almost no user interface elements in OneNote at all,” White said while demonstrating the app. “It’s purely paper-like, and using Inking as the primary experience.” She showed me how a stylus could be used very naturally in OneNote on a slate-type tablet, as you would use a pen and pad of paper. Long-time Tablet PC users, of course, are quite familiar with this activity, and many are actually using current OneNote versions to do something very similar. But the combination of the chrome-free and full-screen Metro environment with OneNote capabilities does in indeed add a new layer of paper-like realism to the experience.


What’s most amazing about OneNote Metro is that hidden under this initially basic looking app is the functional equivalence of the full desktop application. Microsoft is able to duplicate virtually all of the capabilities from OneNote 2013 in a way that could perhaps guide future developers seeking to bring professional applications to Metro (think: Photoshop). That is, rather than rely on the limited built-in Metro controls—like the app bar, which can only display a handful of commands—OneNote also uses a new context sensitive radial menu that presents choices in a circle that pops-up only when needed. In this way, OneNote Metro usually retains the simplicity of the Metro environment but then explodes with features when required.


It’s fricking cool, too.

The radial menu will work with a mouse, but of course it’s really designed for touch. (The theory here is that users of traditional PCs will simply use OneNote 2013, while those with Windows 8 or RT tablets will switch to OneNote Metro for a more intimate experience.) Here’s how it works. Normally, of course, OneNote Metro has a fairly Spartan UI. But when you need to insert something, or interact with something by selecting it, a radial menu will appear.

Consider the act of selecting text.


Tap that little Text icon and a cool circular menu flowers out from the middle with a jaunty animation, giving you choices related to the selected text. It does this in a fairly minimal space, and since it’s literally context-sensitive, one might even make the argument that such a menu is far more efficient than the ribbon UI, since it only displays what you need.


Looking at this menu, there are choices like Font Size, Color, and so on. So let’s change the font size. Select that, and the radial menu changes again, this time to a speedometer-like interface for changing the font size. Spin your finger around the edge of the dial and pick a size.


When you do—bam!—it’s applied. And of course the text is still selected so you can perform other operations as needed. Nice!


“This is a new paradigm for the touch experience,” White told me. This may just be the understatement of the year.

Beyond the radial menu, OneNote Metro works much as expected, though it hides your notebooks (and, optionally, your page list) off to the right. You can toggle these displays via a standard app bar.


If you’ve been following along with Office 2013’s move to cloud-centricity, you won’t be surprised to discover that all of your SkyDrive-based notebooks are picked up automatically.


OneNote Metro works with all Windows 8 versions, including the 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Windows and Windows RT, which is the ARM version of Windows 8.

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