Microsoft Office OneNote 2003 is one of Microsoft’s most interesting new products, introduced to the public with the Office System Beta Kit (also available as a stand-alone program in beta version). OneNote, as its name implies, is a note-taking system, but it goes far beyond earlier efforts such as the Notes feature in Outlook. With OneNote, you can capture notes in a variety of ways (including handwritten notes and drawings if you have the proper hardware), enhance them with bullets, bold face, etc., organize them in a user-friendly tabbed interface, and even record audio that can be synced with your written notes. Your notes also can be easily shared by publishing them in HTML format or by e-mailing them. OneNote does everything you always wished Outlook Notes would do—and more, particularly for Tablet PC users

What is OneNote?
On the OneNote Web site, Microsoft describes the program as providing “one place for all your notes, and the freedom to organize them the way you want.” The interface is set up like a notebook with several layers of tabs for organizing your information. Notes can be typed or handwritten—if you have a pen input device or Tablet PC—and you can insert pictures and diagrams, hyperlinked URLs, and the like.

Hardware requirements
To run OneNote, you’ll need a PC with a Pentium 133 or better. The minimum memory requirement is 64, but I recommend at least 128, and 256 is better. You’ll need to be running Windows 2000 (with SP3 installed), XP, or Windows 2003 Server, and you need a whopping 245 MB of free disk space—115 MB of which must be on the boot partition where the operating system is installed.

OneNoteis a good tool for organizing your notes on your desktop or notebook computer, but to really appreciate its functionality, you have to run it on a Tablet PC. This allows you to easily incorporate handwritten notes or hand drawings into your notebook. The handwritten notes can be left in their original graphical form or converted to text using the Windows XP Tablet Edition’s handwriting recognition capabilities. The Tablet supports all of the Digital Ink features, which include the ability to search through handwritten notes and use numbering and bullets in handwritten notes.

Where and when to get it
The final release of OneNote is expected to be sometime in mid-2003, and pricing hasn’t yet been announced. In the meantime, if you want to try it out, you can order the public OneNote 2003 Beta 2 kit from Microsoft. It’s shipped on CD, and you have to pay $7.95 for shipping and handling. Of course, the beta is intended only for evaluation, not for use in a production environment, and it expires on Nov. 30, 2003. The beta comes in English, French, German, and Japanese versions.

OneNoteis also included in the full Office System 2003 beta kit, which costs $19.95 for shipping. This shipping price is due to the fact that the kit consists of 17 CDs, which also include the 2003 versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, Outlook, FrontPage, InfoPath, Publisher, SharePoint Portal Server, SharePoint Services, Windows Server 2003, and Exchange Server 2003, along with the printed Getting Started Guide and other resources.

How OneNote works
The OneNote interface displays your “notebook.” Across the top are tabs that divide the notebook into sections. Along the side are tabs for each page within the selected section, as shown in Figure A.

Figure A
The OneNote interface looks like a tabbed notebook.

It’s easy to insert a new section, page, or subpage by selecting the Insert menu.

Working with folders
You can also create folders that can contain pages and subpages. I use OneNote to organize notes for my writing projects, with separate folders for articles, book projects, newsletters, and whitepapers, as shown in Figure B.

Figure B
You can create folders in which to organize your notes.

Within each folder, I’ve created sections. For example, within the book section, I have a section for each book project that I’m working on. Within the articles section, I’ve made a section for each forum for which I regularly write, and so forth. Figure C shows the tabs displayed when I click on the Articles folder tab.

Figure C
Section tabs within each folder help you to further organize your notes.

You can color-code sections by selecting Format | Section Color and choosing the desired color.

Working with note pages
Each note page can hold information that you put there in one of several ways:

  • Type directly into the note page.
  • Cut and paste text or graphics into the page.
  • Draw or handwrite notes, annotations, diagrams, etc., with pen input or mouse.
  • Record audio and link it to the page.

When you type notes in, you can choose the font style and size and use many of the same formatting features that are available in Word, such as boldface, italic, underline, bulleted list, numbered list, highlighter, and so forth.

To draw or handwrite, click the Pen button on the toolbar. You can set the behavior of the Pen by clicking Tools | Pen Acts As or by clicking the appropriate icon on the toolbar. The Pen can act as a pen (in which case you can choose the pen type—thin felt tip, thick felt tip, or highlighter—and the pen color), as an eraser, or as a selector.

To record audio notes, click the microphone icon to start recording (you will, of course, need a microphone attached to or built into your computer) or click Tools | Audio Recording | Start Recording. This will record an audio file and place a link to it in the note. You can remove this link using the Tools | Audio Recording menu. One really neat feature is OneNote’s ability to synchronize your written notes with the audio notes, according to the time. You can hover the cursor over your note (typed or handwritten), and a link will appear to the audio that was recorded at exactly the same time you wrote the note.

You can put different note elements in different areas of the page, and you can move or delete each element individually. You can also insert or remove space in a page. For example, you might insert space to make room so you can move a note element to a specific location near another related element.

The title area of the page, where the page name, date, and time are, stays in view no matter how far down the page you scroll. This area has its own separate vertical scroll bar. The date and time are automatically inserted when you create a new page. However, these are not updated when you add new information to the page.

You can also put related pages into collections called page groups. All pages in a group show the same title information as the first or primary page, and the additional pages are called subpages. If you need to reorder pages, you can just click their tabs and drag and drop them.

Automatic saves

You won’t see a Save button on the OneNote toolbar. That’s because everything that you put into a note page is saved automatically and immediately. If you want to save a note to a different location, however, you can use the File | Save As command. OneNote sections are saved with the .one extension.

Customizing page appearance
You can change the appearance of the plain blank pages. For example, if you prefer lines (helpful when using the Pen to make handwritten notes), you can select standard, narrow, college, or wide ruled pages or grid lines from the View | Rule Lines menu. You can also use designer stationery or lightweight forms (these include to-do lists, meeting minutes/agenda form, and class notes form).

There is currently no way to change the background colors of pages, but Microsoft representatives have indicated this may be possible in future versions.

Special features
OneNoteincludes a number of features that help you to format and organize your notes, such as the following:

  • Automated outlining: Lists, bulleted paragraphs, and number/letter structures are recognized as outlines. You can expand and contract outline levels and control the numbering/lettering behavior (for example, renumbering as a continuation of a previous list). You can even drag a list into another list and it will be incorporated automatically.
  • Note flags: You can mark notes or note elements with flags. As shown in Figure D, these allow you to place icons indicating To Do, Important, Question, Remember For Later, or Definition. You can also customize the preset flags and define your own flags for special purposes.

Figure D
You can mark notes and note elements with preset or custom-created flags.

These flags do much more than just mark a note. You can select View | Note Flags Summary and display a pane that will show links to all notes that you’ve marked with flags. You can select to view only those marked with a particular flag, such as the Question flag, and you can view the flags on a particular page, in a particular section, or throughout the entire notebook. When you click a flagged note in the Summary pane, this will immediately take you to that note. The Note Flags Summary pane is shown in Figure E. OneNote flags will also integrate Outlook 2003 flags.

Figure E
You can use the Note Flags Summary pane to find and go to flagged notes.

Search capabilities:  OneNote makes it easy to find the information you’ve recorded in your notebook, even if you don’t know when you recorded it or the name of the page, section, or folder it’s in. The search feature lets you look for keywords and notes the pages that contain those words. The search results are shown in a pane, with the titles of all matching pages hyperlinked to those pages so you can click and go there immediately. As shown in Figure F, you can search in the entire notebook, the current folder and its subfolders, the current folder only, or the current section.

Figure F
You can search sections, folders, or the entire notebook for keywords.

You can also search for information by going back and forth through the history record to the pages that you’ve opened during a session. When you close OneNote, the history will be cleared.

Need the definition or more information about a word or phrase in one of your notes? Right-click the word, click Look Up, and the Research pane opens, allowing you to search the dictionary, thesaurus, eLibrary, Factiva News Search, or other research, business, or financial sites, as shown in Figure G.

Figure G
You can use the Look Up feature to search reference books or research sites.

Quick notes: You can use the Quick Note interface to jot down short notes quickly. In the Window menu, select New Quick Note Window. This pops up a small window in which you can type or write a short note; you can then “pin” this little note anywhere on your monitor screen so it will be a visible reminder (similar to Outlook’s note feature). All of your quick notes are saved in the Quick Notes pane so that you can view them later.

Office integration:  OneNote is a part of the Office 2003 system and integrates with the other applications. Not only can you copy and paste from Word, but you can also insert slides from PowerPoint into your notes or insert parts of an Excel spreadsheet. One of the most useful integration features is the ability to easily turn a note into an Outlook task. Just click the Outlook Task icon on the Note Flags toolbar or select Format | Note Flags | Create Outlook Task. This will open a new task window and you can type in details, due/start dates, reminder schedules, and so forth.

You can also e-mail your notes easily—if you have Outlook 2003—by clicking the Mail icon on the OneNote toolbar. If you have handwritten or drawn elements in the note, they’ll be changed into graphics and will appear in the HTML format e-mail message. This can be read by any recipient whose e-mail client supports HTML messages. The note will also be attached as a .one file, so if the recipient also uses OneNote, the recipient can add it to his or her own notebook simply by double-clicking it. You can also save notes as HTML and publish them on the Web.

Taking note taking to the next level
Taking notes is a necessity in the business environment, in the classroom, and for professional and personal purposes. Microsoft Office users have found the Notes function in Outlook to be very limited in features and functionality, but the new OneNote program promises to take electronic note taking—and organization—to a new level. OneNote is still in beta testing at this time, and like all version 1 software incarnations, it isn’t perfect. It is, however, an extremely useful tool for capturing information, arranging it in a logical structure, and finding it later when you need it—especially if you’re using it in conjunction with Office 2003 applications and on a Tablet PC. I’m already looking forward to version 2.