A tale of two OneNotes: Metro version a no-go

A tale of two OneNotes: Metro version a no-go

Summary: I just spent big bucks to buy a Windows 8 hybrid with a pen for taking notes. Research conducted while waiting for it to arrive shows the two versions of OneNote in stores are very different in capability.


I have been a tablet note taker for over a decade, and the desire to get back in the practice of doing that again led me to plop down $1000 for a Windows 8 tablet with a pen that can run OneNote. The ability to take notes on the run using a pen and tablet is worth the expense to me. Plus, there's not just one version of Microsoft's great note app, OneNote, but two of them. One is free, and the other is part of the Office 2013 package.

Office 2013 buy page
OneNote 2013 in the store
(Image: Screenshot by James Kendrick/ZDNet)

I have played briefly with both versions of OneNote, and figured that when my tablet arrives, I would give the Metro version a try first. It's free in the Windows Store and has a really nice interface for working in the Metro side of Windows 8. It can share note files with the OneNote 2013 version, should I decide at some point to go for the full version.

Unfortunately, research I've done online has led me to understand that the Metro version of OneNote is missing one key feature of OneNote 2013 that kills it for my use: The ability to search ink notes. Everything I find online tells me that the free Metro version of OneNote can handle ink just fine, but you can't search them. It seems that the handwriting recognizer that sets OneNote (and Windows) apart from every other solution available is only on the desktop version of OneNote (OneNote 2013).

So that means using OneNote 2013 on the desktop, and leaving the Metro version behind. So I either get a subscription to Office to license OneNote 2013, which I don't need, or buy OneNote outright. That will cost another $70, which I am going to pay, for the ability to get the same features in OneNote that I have been using for almost a decade. It also means Microsoft is forcing me to work in the legacy desktop, rather than in its shiny new Metro interface.

I am on record stating that OneNote's ink searching ability is one of the most important technologies to come along for years. It is absolutely amazing how well even terrible handwriting is recognized in the background to make it searchable. It is a game changer for those who take a lot of notes and want to find that nugget of information in a flash, especially the enterprise crowd.

I have a real-world example of the usefulness of ink searching in OneNote. In my previous career as a geophysicist, I took tens of thousands of pages of handwritten notes about projects I was overseeing. I used the search function multiple times daily to find particular notes about my projects.

Over four years after I left the geophysical world behind and started my technology coverage gig full time, I got a call from an oil company representative who apologetically needed to know why a particular decision was taken on one of his projects that I managed. This decision was being questioned years later, and his butt was on the chopping block. He didn't think I would still have my notes, or be able to find them if I did have them.

I ran a search on my old notes in OneNote, and in less than 10 seconds, found the pertinent one that discussed the decision in question. My notes explained why it was taken, why it was the correct decision at the time, and every person at the meeting who signed off on the decision.

I thought this guy was going to cry when I called him back in five minutes and told him I'd just emailed him an image of my notes. He was amazed that I could find this so quickly.

This ability to search notes, especially ink notes, is one of the best features of OneNote. Or OneNote 2013, I should say, since OneNote can't do it based on information online.

So there's OneNote and then there's OneNote 2013. One runs in Metro, and one runs on the desktop. One searches ink, and the other doesn't. It's easy to see how customers, both enterprise and consumer, have a hard time figuring out this new Windows 8 beast.

Topics: Mobility, Tablets, Bring Your Own Device, Windows 8

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  • Another concrete example

    of Windows 8 Metro/Modern shortcomings. Yes, one's 3-year old can find it easy. No, I'm afraid there are new limitations.
    D.J. 43
    • Nope

      It's just a great example of the fact that the current Metro apps are in their infancy. The only things holding Microsoft back from adding, for example, the ability to search ink is the will to do so.

      I think this will be a very different conversation this time next year.
      • or perhaps

        An illustration how Microsoft's own programmers, cannot port Microsoft's own software to Microsoft's own runtime aka "the future of Windows".

        Also an illustration how pathetic and non-modular Microsoft software is.
        • It's not the technicality

          ...but the will. How hard do you think it is to add a "jump to page" feature to the Metro reader app? Don't they know how hard it is to navigate a 1000+ page ebook on a tablet without the ability to jump to a specific page?
          It is ridiculous to even imagine the idea of an ebook reader without this, but MS being MS pulled it off.

          Has nothing to do with modules of code, but lack of will combined with bad management.
          Ehsan Irani
  • Metro is pretty much always worse than the desktop equivalents

    All the metro equivalent apps are inferior to the desktop versions. Mail and the PDF reader come to mind. Mail has to be the worst mail client I've ever seen. The other thing I'm noticing is the amount of ads being shoved in our faces now when we just want to listen to our music and load up the Metro music or video player.If Microsoft can't write decent Metro apps with their resources, then what chance does anyone else have? 6 months laters and the Metro apps still are very poor. This does not appear to be a situation that will be resolved anytime soon.
    • Metro is the "green" version of Windows!

      Just had this revelation!

      Just as "green" products are usually inferior - light bulbs, cars, asthma inhalers, dishwasher liquid, etc. etc. - so are Metro apps to regular Windows!
  • OneNote is worth the grief

    I completely agree with Kendrick's assessment of OneNote. It's been a game changer for me and I've been using it for years -- which makes the search on my handwriting even more important over time. What I *don't* care about, is having OneNote in Metro. I don't have Win8 on my tablet, but once I'm inside OneNote, I don't think it will matter if I got there via Metro or the desktop.
  • Metro is more touch friendly

    What makes the Metro version of OneNote so compelling on a tablet is the nice touch interface. OneNote desktop with its tiny controls almost requires a pen to operate, and that's not ideal.
    • Requires a pen to operate?

      You mean the one you are holding in your hand because that's why you got this tablet : to use OneNote with a pen?

      You just can't make this stuff up.
    • And a PS for you

      Yet another reason why the ribbon is one of the most innovative UI advances ever. The ribbon is extremely easy to use in touch mode. You'd know this if you didn't have ulterior motives for writing these posts.
      • Nothing wrong with the ribbon either...

        ... if you could customize it to put functions where you expected to find them.
  • Palm rejection...

    Let us know how well the palm rejection works on your new hybrid. I owned an HTC Flyer. Bought it for the pen capability. It came with a decent note app except that for some idiotic reason it would often bring up the soft keyboard when I was trying to take notes. Pretty much made it unusable for me, and I largely gave up on the pen.
    • Good

      On the ATIV, which uses the same digitizer, it is excellent.

      I actually wrote several pages of a Word document with the stylus, just to test it. No palm problems and about 98% accuracy. It had problems with some pronouns that I was using, which I would have to go back and type in one character at a time, but otherwise it was very impressive.

      Likewise in OneNote in Metro and Desktop modes, it is very nice with a pen for inking. I get looks of envy from iPad users in meetings, where their "pens" with rubber nipples make fat blobs on their screens, in comparison to the fine print and accuracy of the WACOM digitizer.
  • OneNote for Android

    Having been a OneNote 2007 user, when I saw OneNote was available for Android, I installed it on my Samsung GS3 and I was gutted. It was an extremely poor note app with almost none of the functionality of the Office 2007 version. I immediately uninstalled it; I wasn't going to waste RAM space on such a worthless app when there are far better notepad apps available on the Android platform.

    Why Microsoft produces a range of products ranging from absolutely brilliant to utter garbage all with the same name, "OneNote", beats me. Anyone experiencing the rubbish incarnations of "OneNote" without ever using the excellent versions aren't likely to buy the excellent versions as the natural conclusion is that all programs with the same name are nearly identical, and I certainly wouldn't shell out any money for the Android version.
  • MX

    That's why they should keep the name OneNote MX (Missing extra features). I only hope that when they start charging for it, they include things like ink search, referencing multiple SkyDrive accounts, etc.

    Just a thought: both versions of OneNote can open the same files. Can't the desktop version search the MX-authored ink?
    • Of course it can

      "Can't the desktop version search the MX-authored ink?"

      James does no research before writing his smear posts. He stated as fact that you couldn't log in to a Surface tablet if you didn't have an Internet connection (a lie). ZDNet editors recently had to pull one of his Nokia articles because of blatant lies in it, presumably under fear of lawsuit from Nokia.
  • Metro etc

    I have tried to use the Metro interface and am completely frustrated by it. Start8 and MetroMix have been installed. It's kind of like windows with no windows.

    On OneNote though... I have been using Evernote (paid Premium Account) and am able to search handwriting notes, but... it appears that they are in the phasing out of handwriting and "drawing" for the future using their newly acquired Penultimate, Skitch etc apps. Which means I'm going to have to switch at some time. Haven't had the time to "learn" the OneNote use, but it looks like that is in the future.

    Most of the Metro apps I have used, while they work ok (not great ok) just don't seem connected to the UI. No close button, no minimize, no arrange etc. And while there are keystrokes to do some of those things, with a tablet, you don't have a keyboard to do the keystrokes!?!?!?

    I sure hope the Windows Blue remembers windows.
  • Hit the Porbm with Windows 8 Metro

    I was excited about the free metro One note for windows 8 until I downloaded it.
    I found the interface crippling and the inability to save a local copy frustrating. Limited functionality can be sad about my experiences with Sky Drive and Outlook.com metro apps. I prefer to use my PC and the web version of both
  • The difference between Free and Paid

    They have improved the free Windows Store App version of OneNote over time and I expect it will continue to be improved. Other lacking items are printing to OneNote requires the desktop version, and you can do more with organizing in the desktop version. However, if you are going to be really using OneNote on a tablet, you want both versions. It is much easier to use the metro version for taking notes with the pen. Then, when you need to search the notes, use the desktop version. I use OneNote daily on multiple PCs, tablets, and my HTC 8X. One of my tablets is an Android tablet from China that I had to find an apk file for OneNote. For the Android tablet I only use it to view notes, rather than write them. The phone works for quick edits of text. But the desktop computer is where I can make more serious edits (I like Onetastic for cropping images in OneNote).
  • Split Personality

    I agree James. In my case I use a Surface Pro with a USB dock for my desktop and just grab and go for meetings in tablet mode. I use both One Note clients depending on which mode I am in as I have really come to appreciate the simplicity and layout of the Metro style One Note for taking handwritten notes in meetings. Since I sync everything via SkyDrive I haven't had any issues switching back and forth. I've also had surprisingly good success with the Windows Phone 8 One Note and managed to take all my notes from a two day conference on the phone. Wrapping my brain around the One Note metaphor was a bit of an investment but was well worth it to me.