Microsoft's cross-platform notebook tool OneNote has long been a hidden gem in Office. In the last few years its success in the education market has prompted Microsoft to invest more in the application. As well as adding specific Learning Tools, Microsoft is bringing the Mac and web versions closer to parity with the desktop Windows version of OneNote, improving the iOS and Android mobile applications and building a brand-new Windows Store OneNote app that will soon replace OneNote 2016. It's also making OneNote notebooks part of every SharePoint team site and Teams team. But what can you actually do with OneNote and how do you make it useful?
OneNote is ideal for storing unstructured information — not just the notes you take in lectures or meetings, or digital versions of Post It notes, but also photos, videos, receipts, emails (and attachments), web pages, PDFs, presentations, your optical prescription in case you break your glasses, the frequency for your favourite radio stations in cities to which you travel. In short, anything you can print, write down or photograph and might need to refer to one day.
Individual notes live in the sections of a notebook; you can have multiple sections in multiple notebooks that you keep private or share with colleagues and sync across devices. You can open a notebook that someone else has shared with you and have it fully synced on your own device, making it easy to collaborate. As you can rename and move all of these, you don't need to get the perfect structure straight away. Instead, the first step of making OneNote useful is to put as much information that you might need later as possible in there, so that you can search for it.
Send everything to OneNote
You can type, handwrite, record audio and video, and paste in text, images, video and other content in OneNote. You can even do simple maths in OneNote; just type in the equation, followed by '=' and OneNote will work it out for you. You can also share and print from other applications straight into OneNote, but the different tools give you slightly different results.
OneNote 2016 has a snipping tool (trigger it from the toolbar, the Windows system tray or make a keyboard shortcut for it) that lets you drag to select an area and choose the notebook section or even individual page where you want to save an image of what you snip. You can find the section or page by searching for the title, so you don't have to scroll through long lists of sections and pages.
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In the Windows 10 OneNote app, you can use the Windows snipping tool, then either find the note you want and paste in by hand or open the Screen Sketch tool then use the Share charm (which can only target the current page or notebook section).
You can print from any application using the OneNote printer drivers. The OneNote 2016 printer driver is automatically installed and can print into any page or notebook section, which you choose in the same snipping dialog. The OneNote Store printer driver you have to install yourself from the Store, and can only print a new page into notebook sections, which you have to painstakingly navigate to rather than being able to search for. Both drivers save images of the individual pages you print. You can also import files into the current page in OneNote 2016 as printouts or attachments. Outlook on Windows (and Mac for Office 365 users) has a Send to OneNote button that copies email text and attachments, or the details of meeting attendees, into OneNote. You can also grab the details of an Outlook meeting that you want to take notes on from inside OneNote 2016 and OneNote 10, to get the list of everyone who's there quickly.
If you use the OneNote Web Clipper extensions for Edge, Chrome and Firefox, you get the editable text and images (you can choose whether to clip the whole page or just the main content); you can clip into any notebook section that's stored in OneDrive or OneDrive for Business (even ones that are shared with you) if you don't have the notebook open on your device, but again not into existing pages. If you have a lot of notebooks and sections, having to scroll through the alphabetical list is much slower than the OneNote 2016 word wheel search. You can't clip PDFs, so if you're viewing them in a web browser, print them to OneNote instead.
OneNote is also a share target in the iOS and Android browsers, although that saves a printout rather than the editable text of the web page.
Microsoft's Office Lens app on iOS and Android (and Windows Phone) can save images directly into OneNote sections, which is a good way of capturing whiteboards, presentations, business cards and documents. (The Office Lens feature is also built into OneNote on iOS and Android, so you can snap photos on your phone and have them show up in the right place in a note you're editing on your Mac or PC).
OneNote is also an IFTTT target so you can do things like archiving tweets, RSS feeds, Reddit posts, DropBox files, starred Gmail messages or articles from Pocket, Feedly or Instapaper into OneNote. This isn't always reliable and high-volume archiving will quickly hit the size limit of OneNote sections, but it's very convenient when it does work.
If you record audio or video into OneNote (on Windows or Mac), any notes you take while recording or playing back the recording are time synced, so you can easily jump to the most important section of a meeting or lecture. (OneNote can also record unlimited audio on iOS, but you can't take notes at the same time.) The audio is also searchable in OneNote 2016, but as it's just matching the sounds of words it's not very accurate.
Searching in OneNote
OneNote 2016 has one search box and two keyboard shortcuts for searching: Ctrl-E searches across all your notes (or a subset that you choose), while Ctrl-F searches within the current note. OneNote for Windows 10 has the same keyboard shortcuts, although they select from a unified search dropdown. Either way, that makes it easy to find the right note and then the right sentence. Both versions of OneNote use the same Ctrl-M shortcut to open a new window, so you have multiple notes open at once.
You can also see a list of recently edited notes, as a way of getting back to what you were working on recently. In OneNote 2016 you can pick multi-time periods (from 'today' to the last six months or even a chronological view of all notes in the section) or search for changes by specific people.
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If you have a digital pen, or a touchscreen PC or iPad, you can draw and handwrite notes, and OneNote uses handwriting recognition to make them searchable even if you don't convert them to text. If you want to draw with your finger, turn that on in the Draw toolbar — and then turn it off again when you want to go back to using your finger for scrolling. If you want more space for drawing, both OneNote 2016 and OneNote 10 have a full-screen mode that hides all the toolbars and other controls.
Images in OneNote are automatically OCR'd, so you can search for text shown in an image or a printout. You can also right-click on them to copy the recognised text to use elsewhere, making this a quick way of scanning paper documents.
Image OCR and handwriting recognition work locally in OneNote 2016, which also gives you the widest choice of where to store notebooks — in OneDrive, on your local PC or on a network file share. Notebooks stored in OneDrive can sync automatically to your other devices and you can share them with colleagues for live co-editing. Content syncs right into the page, marked by the initials of the person adding it. Notebooks stored on a network file share can sync onto other PCs that have access to the network, including over a VPN, but you can't open them on other devices.
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- Microsoft's OneNote for Windows 10 to become the default Windows version later this year (ZDNet)
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Mary Branscombe is a freelance tech journalist. Mary has been a technology writer for nearly two decades, covering everything from early versions of Windows and Office to the first smartphones, the arrival of the web and most things inbetween.