Having used Trello, Notability, Google Drive/Docs, Evernote, iOS notes and countless other note taking apps and software products over recent years, I’d say I’m fairly well positioned to pass judgement on OneNote.
Made available freely by Microsoft (when?) there are different versions available as apps on iOS and android devices and Windows 10. The full version is available via Microsoft’s Office 365 subscription, or via older non-subscription installations of Microsoft Office – like the Office 2013 product I have.
So, what is OneNote? At its core, it’s a note-taking app, but it’s so much more powerful than that. It’s a collaboration platform; it’s a virtual, access-anywhere collection of notebooks; it’s a powerful, easily-searchable, online filing cabinet for thoughts, documents and ideas. And best of all for me, is the seamless way it integrates across devices.
A typical use-case for me will start with me capturing some ideas on my iPhone, writing out some bullet points. Then when I’m on my commuter train, I’ll pull out my iPad, connect to OneNote and continue expanding on those ideas, sketching out concepts or diagrams with my finger or stylus. Once in work, out comes the laptop and again, connecting to OneNote, my notebook will sync and I’ll pick up where I left off, refining the content I’ve been working on throughout my journey to work. There’s no complicated method of transferring files and thinking about file formats. It just works. Without any complications. And it’s all so very user friendly!
What does it look like? Take a look at this intro video from Microsoft…
There’s a simple but intuitive structure:
- You have notebooks, which I equate to the likes of a physical ring binder or folder.
- Within each notebook, you have sections. These are tabbed areas within the notebook. So again, continuing the physical metaphor, these would be the coloured dividers that are typically used in a ring binder.
- Each section can then have a series of pages and sub-pages.
Features I think are important:
- Not only editing the same document at the same time, but also version tracking and the ability to highlight changes made by others.
- Much more powerful than standard print-screens, especially with a dual monitor setup.
- Start online, continue offline, or vice versa. The system flexibly syncs with devices so your content is available wherever you want.
- Taking picture of a page of notes or a whiteboard discussion and converting that to OneNote text, which then, naturally becomes editable and searchable.
- You can import content, or simply attach files – which is great if you’ve got source documents, PDFs, spreadsheets, etc. so all your reference material is kept in one place.
Printing from Word to OneNote.
- If like me, you’ve got a lot of old Word Documents, you don’t have to convert these individually to be available in OneNote. You can simply print to OneNote (tip: change advanced options in OneNote so that it creates a single note, rather than individual pages for each page of the Word document!)
Print from OneNote.
- The other way around to the point above, but OneNote’s desktop version allows you to easily export to PDF and Word, or even as a OneNote file to send to someone else if they’re not on the same sharing network.
Password protection (in full/desktop version only)
- Lock individual pages or sections behind simple passwords.
- Add tags to documents to assist with searching. There are a range of tags available, from critical items, remember for blog, phone numbers, addresses, etc. then once the tag is added, simply “Find Tags” on the menu bar will show these tags in your documents. Very quick and very easy to use!
- Actually a kind of tag, but really easy to use. Highlight a list of content and press Ctrl+1 and the list is instantly converted to a checkbox list. Press Ctrl+1 again and the checkbox(es) will be ticked, to mark as complete. And press Ctrl+1 a final time to remove the checkbox. Again, all checkboxes show up in the “Find tags” menu option, showing in the To Do list – across all pages and sections in your notebook. There is the option of splitting this by section or notebook too, in case you have lots of lists.
- There are tons of keyboard shortcuts available in OneNote (as with most Microsoft product). The checkbox Ctrl+1 is just one of them. For a complete list, check out the Microsoft page here.
- As your OneNote use expands, you’ll find that some sections end up having a lot of pages. To help manage these, it’s possible to nest some pages as subpages, underneath others. And (see OneTastic comment later) there are also some powerful macros available to help with this too, like the very helpful automatic Table of Contents in current section, for example.
Powerful search (also integrates with Delve via Office 365)
- The search facility is quick, accurate and powerful – and if you’re a full Office 365 user, your OneNotes will start being indexed and presented through Delve too.
Cloud based, so is accessible anywhere
- This universal accessibility has to be one of the biggest selling points for OneNote. It just simply works. And although cloud based, syncs with devices so OneNotes can be edited offline too when you’re out of wifi range.
Integrates with personal OneDrive.
- Easily share content to/from OneDrive and with others. Your personal OneDrive has tons of free storage – as OneDrive comes with a very handy 15GB free for personal use. Which if you’re only using it for OneNote storage will take a very long time to fill up. If you’re using OneNote at work too, you can also easily switch from different OneDrive accounts, so you can (if you want) easily access your work-based OneNotes to continue that urgent writing when you’re out of the office – even on your iPhone/smartphone.
- And if you need more OneDrive space, you can secure an extra 0.5GB of space for every individual you refer to the service, up to a maximum of 10GB. Here’s my OneDrive referral so if you haven’t already signed up, please do use my link! Thanks.
I haven’t taken the plunge yet and opted for a personal Office 365 account. At £5.99 a month, it’s not exactly cheap… But that’s only for one personal computer. For a household (up to 5 computers + mobile devices), it’s £7.99 per month. As a Netflix and Amazon Prime household, that’s another subscription too far, especially with an older non-subscription version of Office working absolutely fine. The subscription model that Microsoft, Adobe and others are adopting is another story though…
There’s also a useful community around OneNote that has extended the platform with some very helpful macros and plugins. The very excellent OneTastic provides a very good selection of these that can easily be added to the desktop app (but as far as I’m aware, is restricted to the full desktop version (not the Windows 10, iOS or Android apps), but very helpfully creates some very useful shortcuts to make life even easier with OneNote.
So, to wrap up, I highly recommend getting to grips with OneNote.
Links to OneNote: