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A largely unresolved problem with any computer is how best to save and store information conveniently and then subsequently find it again.

This is what OneNote does better than any other program.

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Microsoft OneNote 2010 part 1 - An Introduction

A great tool for travel planning and everything else

Microsoft OneNote Screen Shot
Click the Image to Open a full screen shot in a new window

Microsoft OneNote allows you to collect information in a very visually attractive manner.

If you click the tiny image on the left, a larger screen shot will open showing you parts of a sample OneNote file about planning a trip to Thailand.

Part One of a two part review of Microsoft OneNote - please see part two for the rest of this review.



If a tree falls in a forest and no-one hears it, does it make a sound?

More to the point, if you have information stored on your computer which you can't subsequently find, do you really have the data?

These are zen-like questions we seldom consider.  But the problem of how to collect and collate all sorts of different information on your computer is a very real one, and has been, until recently, one of the greatest overlooked aspects of computer functionality.

Microsoft's OneNote software makes it easy for us to save data of all types (from voice to video, images to emails, and much else too) and to subsequently find the information again in the future.

It is a great program of great value to almost every computer user.  Best of all, there is a 60 day free trial available so you can try it for yourself before deciding if you want to purchase it.

Note Taking Software in General

One of the great things about a computer - at least in theory - is its ability to store and retrieve a great deal of data.  We all have computers of what was, only a decade or two ago, unthinkable power and with extraordinary amounts of hard disk capacity.

But how to conveniently store - and even more importantly, subsequently find and retrieve - all the information our computers are capable of holding?  Most computer programs are tyrannically narrow minded in terms of what type of data they will store, and in what format, and in terms of how they will subsequently retrieve and return it to you.

Even relational database programs are full of limitations.  To get best use from one, you need a professional programmer to spend hundreds of hours designing (and more time subsequently managing them), and they still require an orderly hierarchy of information.

Our lives - and the many types information we come across - are not as orderly and hierarchical as the computers we employ to help us, and therein lies the big problem and limitation of computers.

We need some type of easy to understand and use program where we can simply 'store' any sort of information, ranging from newspaper clippings to voice notes, from cut and paste web page excerpts to pictures and video clips, from emails (or parts of them) to faxes, and so on and so on.  And, having easily/conveniently stored that information, we then need some way of being able to find it again.

Providing the capability to both store and subsequently retrieve unordered information of many different types and formats has been a largely neglected aspect of computer software development, although there have been brief flashes of partial brilliance in the past.

Years ago, there were programs which did a moderately good job of collecting together different pieces of information of all types from your computer.  But all the various such programs I've formerly used seem to have faded away over the years - indeed, I can't even remember the names of the programs, and for the last while, I've not used any such program.

Instead I've been forced to make do with various ways of trying to manage data from multiple sources.  Paperport has been a good program to store PDF images of data - either 'printed' to it from other electronic sources or scanned and saved via a scanner.

I've also done low tech things like cutting and pasting content from web pages and elsewhere into Word documents, and have experimented some with programs such as Evernote (an interesting program, but its monthly use fees can quickly add up).

Essentially, this has been - at least until recently - a software category without any clear champion, and as such, perhaps one of the few remaining aspects of computer solutions that have been massively underserved.

A Solution at Last - Microsoft OneNote

Which brings me to Microsoft's note taking solution, the program they call OneNote.

This first appeared in their Office 2003 suite of programs.  I had a quick look at it then, and meant to return to it, but forgot all about it.

For sure, the updated version offered in Office 2007 was improved, but it still didn't cause me to take the time and trouble to learn how it works and to integrate it into my work flow.

But, as you probably already know, we're now in the realm of Office 2010, and OneNote, like the rest of Office, has undergone a further transformation and enhancement, and is - I believe - now finally ready for the big time.  Hence this article now.

A Free 60 Day Trial of OneNote and Sample Files

We're mentioning the free trial near the start rather than near the end of this article, so you understand this software is something you can try for yourself without needing to first commit to buying it and paying for it up front.

That does indeed make for a 'heads you win, tail's you don't lose' type situation.  If there's no downside or cost, you'd probably be well advised to try it out.

You can download a fully functional copy of OneNote and use it for 60 days before needing to pay for it.  Better still, they also allow you to download a marvelous sample OneNote file to show how it works and what it can do.

So you can have a play with OneNote yourself, and for free.  There's a link on this page to the free 60 day trial of the OneNote program.  You can then download their showpiece file, about a notional trip to Thailand.

What OneNote Does


Well, okay, suggesting that OneNote does everything is both an over-simplification and an exaggeration.  But in describing what OneNote does, I am reminded of earlier difficulties in trying to describe what a spreadsheet does, when such things were first being developed and deployed.

Just as how a spreadsheet can be adapted for many different purposes, so too can OneNote be used for very many different things.  Its potential uses, and its capabilities, are in large part limited by your imagination and your willingness to deploy it in different ways for different tasks.

Part One - Storing Information

Basically, you create OneNote files, perhaps one per specific project or subject you want to keep information on.

Then within the file, you can do a bit of organization by dividing it into main subjects and then into sub-subjects (is that a word?) and sub-sub-subjects.  Think of it a bit like a filing cabinet - You might have a drawer for each major project or subject, and within the drawer, you have hanging files for the various parts of the project, and within the hanging files you have separate folders for each smaller aspect of each project part.  In total, you can have five layers of hierarchy.

Okay, so far so good.  There's more to how you can store information, however.  You don't have to retype anything.  You just simply cut and paste from other programs on your computer.  That makes it tremendously simple to collect the data you want to keep.

You can also add pictures, audio files and video clips.  And if you're collecting a 'picture' of some text rather than the text itself (for example, a jpg file or a pdf) you can use OneNote's OCR feature to automatically 'read' the image and to keep a copy of the words on the image for when you subsequently try and search for the content of the image.

Adding information into OneNote is tremendously simple and easy.  If you want to, you can make it look very pretty and lovely and neatly laid out, but if you prefer, you can just dump data in, all jumbled in order and layout, and that will work just as well.

There's another great feature of storing data in OneNote.  Everything goes into one single computer file.  You don't have to keep track of separate image files, spreadsheets, emails, word processing documents, scans, pdfs, video files, and so on.  Everything is stored in the one file, making it harder to lose something or to get mismatched pieces of data.

Think of OneNote perhaps as a digital scrapbook.

Part Two - Finding Information

So far, so good.  You've used OneNote to amass a huge collection of information on some topic or another.

But that information is useless to you if you can't conveniently find it again later.

Now, for sure, some of the information can be found by simply working through the structure of where you chose to put it.  But what say something was 'misfiled' - or what say something could be validly considered as belonging to several different information categories?

This would be a huge problem in a traditional filing cabinet system.  If what you are looking for is not where it should be, you've absolutely no idea where else it might be instead.  Happily, it isn't a problem with OneNote.  Simply type into the search box for some text and OneNote will instantly tell you all the pages in the file which have that text.

You can ask OneNote to search just the file you are working on, or even to search every OneNote file you have (if you're getting really desperate to find something!).

In the preceding section we mentioned how OneNote can also search for text in image files.  But how about searching for words in audio and video files?  Yes - it will use speech recognition technology to search for words or phrases in audio and video files too.  This is far from a 100% accurate aspect of its searching, of course, because not all speech will be clear, but even if only partially successful it massively increases the program's ability to find information you have previously stored.

Part Three - Using the Information

OneNote can do more than just simply and passively accept information to store, and subsequently allow you to search and find the information again.

For example, it has some simple spreadsheet functionality enabling you to do some arithmetical calculations on the data you are entering.

It also has checklist type functionality, so you can use it as a 'To Do' list.  And, talking about to do type lists, it can also integrate into Outlook if you want to set 'bring up dates' on your notes, or associate tasks with your notes.

You can also send and share information with other people, either by email or by sharing the entire OneNote file.

In addition to passive sharing, you can also invite other people to collaborate with you in maintaining the OneNote file.

Continued in part 2

Please click on to the second part of this article for commentary on our actual use experiences with OneNote and some potential applications it can be used for.

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Originally published 15 Jul 2011, last update 21 Jul 2020

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.



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