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OneNote: Notebooks, Sections, and Pages August 3, 2011

Posted by shwaldman in Technology, Work.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

I have been looking for a good solution to keeping my thoughts in a place where I am not always wondering what I am forgetting. Before computers, people carried around these books called day timers or planners. It was a place to see your calendar and take notes. Now, many people carry around computers and don’t want another book to carry. But the computer is too big to pull out every time you have something to jot down. So, we (the collective we here does not included me, yet, though I do sometimes count my iPod touch) have smart phones that have computer capabilities in a small form factor. But there are still obvious space/size limitations of their screens.

On my iPod, I have tried using simple list programs, but they are often too simple. I have also heard lots of people talk about EverNote and I tried it but found it too complex and it requires an Internet connection to view or update content (which I do not always have with my iPod). I also could not find an easy way to integrate it into my desktop computing. I am looking for something that is JUST RIGHT. I finally think I have found something that meets MANY of my needs. So, I want to talk a little about OneNote.

It is a Microsoft “add-on” to the Office Suite (I am using Office 2010 now at work). It is integrated into all the main products, Outlook, Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. It has the same menu ribbon and common icons which are important when looking for how to do things, especially in a new product.

I am still getting used to this application, but I have some tips for anyone just starting out, especially if you want to use the full integration like I do. Essentially, this application allows you to maintain notebooks with sections (tabs across the top) and pages within each section. OneNote lets you attach multimedia to your heart’s connect, such pictures, videos, and other types of documents (like Word or Excel). As someone who likes to manage documents at the file level (in Windows Explorer or command prompt), I find it very interesting that Microsoft only creates a different directory using the notebook’s name. Within that directory, there is always a file named “Open Notebook.onetoc2” as well as a “.one” file for each section. If you want to rename a Notebook, expect to have to do some manually file management. This is reason number one that using this product requires some forethought.

When using OneNote, it is very easy to add content. You can send messages from Outlook with the dedicate icon in the ribbon (but the section must exist first). OneNote also installs a “Printer” that allows you to send a file to a notebook through the print function in ANY application. And with Windows 7 at least, you can drag and drop anything (text, images, etc) right into a notebook/page.

So, what do you do if you don’t have access to your computer all the time? (for now, let’s skip the smartphone). Microsoft recently rolled their versions of the Office Suite products into online applications. Much like the Google Docs that came out first, you can now manage Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote files through a web browser. The way this works is that you need a MS Live account, which includes Hotmail, MSN, Xbox, or Live mail accounts online. You can store all kinds of files in these accounts and now have access to these files from anywhere you have a computer. This service is called “SkyDrive”.

You can sync (or share) your desktop OneNote notebooks through your SkyDrive. Once this is done, the desktop application will try to Sync these files to the web, although I have found it to be buggy and that is required some time to manually sync at times. However, once you have these files are “in the cloud” you can manage your notebooks through the web applications which have the same interface as the desktop application. Unfortunately, the web apps do not have all the same functionality, but the core functionality appears to be there to create, update and format your notebooks. This will work well for me, when I am working on my OS X laptop that does not have the Microsoft Office application installed.

Now, what about when you don’t have a computer in front of you. If you have an iPhone or Windows Phone (6.5 or 7), you can also utilize the OneNote app on the go. As of August 1, 2011, there was still no release of Android or Blackberry versions, but I am sure someone is working on it. However, for those of you on Android or Blackberry don’t fret too badly, because you are not missing much. I can only speak to the iOS version, and I can say for certainly it is lacking majorly. I would certainly hope the Window Phone version is much better.

You can not Create notebooks in the iOS version. You can also not create Sections. This is the second reason you need to plan ahad before you start getting too far into using this application. I suggest setting up your primary structure tree (notebooks and sections) on your desktop application before using the iOS app too much. You can go back and add sections using the desktop or web apps if you need to do so. You can create Pages, however you have to be very careful, since it is very easy to create something that is not categorized and therefore goes into an “Unfiled” notebook that you will need to sort out later in the web or desktop version. The icon at the bottom right (page with folded corner and plus sign) only creates “unfiled” items. I recommend using the large plus sign within the section you want to create the new pages. And this is the only real functionality too. You can view recently viewed items and you can search items. If you created a page or when editing an existing page, you can add check boxes or bulleted lists. You can also pull in photo from your iOS photo album, but that is it. Oh, you can delete a page, too. I was happy to find that the syncing back to SkyDrive seems to work flawlessly and quickly.

All in all, I am hoping that the version 1.2 of the iOS app that I downloaded has some much needed improvements coming. But I think it is a good start and I am going to continue to try using it. I will allow me to access my notes from different places without too much planning. Of course, if I continue to have problems with the desktop application syncing to SkyDrive and I have to manually do this, I will walk-away and look for something else again. If you have any experience with OneNote, EverNote or something else, please add your thoughts to this post. Thanks for readiing.



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