5 power user tips for Microsoft OneNote

Try out these little-known features of OneNote, the note-taking component of Microsoft’s Office suite, and watch the app really shine.

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Rob Schultz/IDG

While Evernote is the undisputed king of the computer note-taking world, there is another player in the market that deserves some attention, and that’s Microsoft OneNote.

Although it’s not well known, OneNote has been around since 2003 and a member of the Office suite since 2007.  Now in its fifth edition and with a Universal Windows Platform (UWP) “companion” app available from the Windows Store, OneNote has become a mature, full-featured tool for taking notes, transcribing ideas, organizing thoughts, and in general acting as a place to store the results of a “brain dump.”

In what scenarios would using OneNote make more sense than using Evernote? We have published a comparison of the two tools here on Computerworld.com, and as you will see checking out that piece, there are many points in favor of both tools. However, right off the bat I can think of three reasons OneNote might make sense for you:

  • If your organization uses Microsoft Office, particularly if it subscribes to Office 365, there are many useful integrations between OneNote and the rest of the suite, including some interesting cloud options and the ability to have your notes everywhere on your work computer, your home computer, your smartphone, and your tablet. Some companies prohibit the installation of Evernote, but OneNote generally is allowed as part of Office.
  • If you make heavy use of the pen and the ink support on Windows tablets like the Surface Pro or the Lenovo X1 Yoga, then OneNote is unquestionably superior to Evernote, as it will read your handwriting, accept your drawings, clean things up for you, and generally give you the best hybrid experience between pen and typing.
  • Evernote is a paid app when you grow past a couple of devices, so if you have five or six pieces of electronics and want your notes synced on all of them, OneNote becomes the cost-effective choice for anyone who uses Microsoft Office.

Since OneNote is a “stealth” member of the Office suite, I wanted to give a deep-down look into some of OneNote’s best, and littlest known, features — the ones that really make it shine.

OneNote 2016 vs. OneNote for Windows 10: Understanding the difference

Before we dive into the tips, a quick word about using OneNote in Windows: Earlier this year, Microsoft announced that the current desktop version of OneNote, OneNote 2016, would be the last desktop edition for Windows. Work on the desktop version of OneNote for Mac will continue, but the main feature development on the Windows side will happen with the OneNote for Windows 10 UWP app, downloadable from the Microsoft Store.

onenote for windows 10 Jonathan Hassell / IDG

The OneNote for Windows 10 Universal Windows Platform app, where all future OneNote development for Windows will take place. (Click the image to enlarge it.)

Unfortunately, the UWP app is not currently at a state where every feature from desktop OneNote is available or fully supported, which means that for some advanced scenarios like in-depth audio recording and transcribing, OneNote 2016 — the desktop application — is still necessary. But you can have both versions installed on your Windows 10 PC, and the notebooks and notes sync back and forth between each edition, so you won’t lose any data switching on the fly to the app that meets your needs. In this story I’ll note when tips require OneNote 2016 for Windows. (In some cases, similar features are available in OneNote for Mac and/or OneNote Online.)

Looking ahead, one would assume that the OneNote development team is actively working to achieve feature parity in the UWP app now that they’ve shed the added development workload of the OneNote 2016 Windows app.

1. Take a quick note

One key tenet of most productivity systems is to have users touch things as few times as possible. If you have a thought twice, that’s too many times, unless it’s a particularly pleasant thought. You want to make sure that you can easily capture a thought and worry about where to process and file it later.

If you have OneNote 2016 installed, you can quickly start a new note from the desktop (without launching the full app) just by hitting the Windows key + N. This will bring up a window that looks like a Post-It sticky note. Type your thought into there and close it; it saves automatically into a section of your default OneNote notebook called, appropriately enough, Quick Notes.

onenote quick notes Jonathan Hassell / IDG

The Quick Notes window, a simple place to jot down a quick thought for developing later.

Later, once you load the full OneNote application, you can retrieve the note, expound on it, delete it, or file it, but for those three-second “oh, yeah, I oughta” thoughts as you head out the door, Windows + N plus a sentence can mean the difference between capturing a significant idea and losing it to the hectic nature of your short-term memory.

2. Present from within OneNote

If you’re running an informal meeting or a small group session, perhaps you want a visual aid — but you don’t want to have to prepare a slide deck in PowerPoint. Why not project your OneNote notebook pages onto a large screen?

To get rid of the “chrome,” or UI elements, within OneNote 2016, enter Full Page View (also known as “presentation mode”) by clicking the Full Page View button in the Ribbon’s View tab or clicking the diagonal arrows at the top right of the notebook page. Then project your screen as you normally would.

A couple things to note:

  • If you share your notebook page using the controls in the upper right of the window, multiple people can access your notebook page at one time if you share it, so during the meeting, everyone can have OneNote pulled up and enter their own thoughts as well. OneNote will mark everyone’s discrete additions by highlighting them in different colors and adding each person’s initials.
  • You can use the pen and pointer features either by clicking the Draw button or by going to the Draw tab and using the tools that appear there to highlight different parts of your notebook and pages and to make your presentation more interactive.
onenote full page view Jonathan Hassell / IDG

Full Page View, without the UI elements of OneNote but still with drawing tools. (Click the image to enlarge it.)

3. Record audio and video along with meeting notes

You can record audio and video right within the OneNote 2016 app (but not the OneNote for Windows 10 UWP app). Click the Insert tab in the Ribbon. When you click Record Audio, the audio immediately records. You can see the timer incrementing. When you click stop, an audio file is created and embedded into the page. It’s a Windows Media audio file, which is a fairly common format, and the date and time is appended to the page as well.

When you click Record Video, typically your camera turns on and OneNote automatically creates a video file in the background. When you click Stop, the Windows Media video file is appended to the page, as well as the date and time of the recording. This is really useful for journalists, transcriptionists, or anyone who wants to remember exactly what was said in a meeting — you can just record the audio right within your tool and then go back to it later.

onenote meeting notes recording Jonathan Hassell / IDG

Taking meeting notes and recording audio and video using OneNote 2016 for Windows. (Click the image to enlarge it.)

What is really, really nice about using OneNote while recording is that the text you type into the page is inextricably linked with the recording, and your typed text is synchronized with the time code in the recording when you originally typed that text. So if you have three paragraphs of text in your meeting notes, you can hit play, and then click into the third paragraph, for example, and the recording will skip to what was being said at the time you typed that third paragraph. This is really useful for long interviews, classes, seminars, or any place where you’re taking a lot of notes.

Bonus tip: For meeting notes, click the Meeting Details button in the Home tab and find your meeting to have the demographic details set up in a new page. You’ll get the meeting date, location, a link to the Outlook item, the dial-in details (if any), and a list of all participants. When you’re finished taking notes, you can go to File > Share to invite people in the meeting to have access to your shared notes, or to get a sharing link that will work for anyone, even those not originally in the meeting. You can also choose whether the folks you are sharing with can edit your notes or only view them.

You can also click the Email Page button on the Home tab of the Ribbon, and a draft email will be created with all of your text, which is very useful if the standard in your organization is to send around notes after a meeting.

4. Do quick back-of-your-hand math

OneNote is aware of what you type, so much so that it’s able to detect when you’re doing math and will help you figure out what your answer is. Say, for example, you are in a meeting taking notes, and someone says that your budget is $1,000,000 per year and you need to figure out what your monthly run rate is. Just typing 1000000 / 12 = into OneNote will generate the answer automatically in line with your current text. (This works in both OneNote UWP and OneNote 2016.)

onenote math Jonathan Hassell / IDG

Doing some quick math. (Click the image to enlarge it.)

5. Extend OneNote with Onetastic

The makers of Onetastic describe it as a “multi-purpose add-in” for Microsoft’s OneNote. It adds a lot of really useful little utilities and tweaks to OneNote that make it simple to use quickly and efficiently. Unfortunately, the tool works only with OneNote 2016, as the OneNote UWP version does not support the plug-in module architecture that Onetastic relies on to work.

Perhaps the most useful element of Onetastic is the calendar view. Not to be confused with Outlook’s calendar view, the Onetastic OneCalendar is a list of all the OneNote pages you created and edited, organized by when that creation or editing took place. Now you can find that note you remember taking but cannot locate – “Gosh, Hugo told me about that hotel when we were at dinner on the 24th” – or you can catch up on what your fellow teammates are doing each day – “Looks like that shared Roberts project is moving right along.”

onetastic onecalendar for onenote Jonathan Hassell / IDG

The Onetastic OneCalendar, showing which days certain pages in my notebook have been edited. (Click the image to enlarge it.)

But there are also a ton of useful macros that let you do things like search and replace, create a table of contents, automatically sort pages, insert a calendar of any given month and year, set up a daily or weekly planner, and much more. You can also use the developer’s edition to build your own OneNote macros.

Onetastic also lets you do cool things:

  • You can rotate, adjust, crop, and copy text from images you paste into your notes, which is really useful for grabbing information from a chart on a website or uploading a picture of a PowerPoint slide delivered during a presentation.
  • You can create custom styles just like Microsoft Word allows you to do, instead of limiting yourself to the very few rigid styles OneNote has built in.
  • You can create shortcuts to often-used pages and pin them to either a menu within OneNote or on your desktop for very easy access.

There is a free version of Onetastic that lets you download up to 20 macros and runs forever, plus paid versions that let you download a bunch of macros as well as any new macros that the developers post for a year after your purchase.

The last word

OneNote is an exceptionally useful tool. Your choice of note-taking apps need not be exclusive, either. For some people Evernote makes a lot of sense, but for interviews, transcriptions, seminars, and long meetings, the somewhat hidden features of OneNote I have revealed here are too compelling to ignore. For plenty of people who already spend all day in Microsoft Office, here’s another great arrow in your quiver.

Copyright © 2018 IDG Communications, Inc.

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