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

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.


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