OneNote MX: First Take

One of the most useful, and often-overlooked, components of Microsoft's Office suite is the first to get Windows 8's new touch-friendly user interface.
Written by Simon Bisson, Contributor

Microsoft's OneNote was the first member of the Office family to arrive on tablets, with iOS and Android versions. Now it becomes the first part of Office to move from the desktop to the Windows 8 Metro world, with the arrival of OneNote MX in the Windows Store — bringing with it a new touch-friendly radial menu. The name isn't final, and we've heard Microsoft refer to it as OneNote for Windows 8.


OneNote MX is designed for touch.

Like its desktop equivalent, OneNote MX is one of those applications that does one thing, and does it well. It's a powerful tool for notetaking, and for organising information. Designed to work with SkyDrive, OneNote MX will only work with local files or synchronise data with Microsoft's cloud service. The first time you run OneNote it will connect to your SkyDrive, and get a list of available notebooks — which you can then choose whether to synchronise or not. Synchronising large notebooks from SkyDrive can take some time, so you'll want to make any initial synchronisations over a broadband connection.

The user interface is crisp and clear, built around Microsoft's Metro design principles. A collapsing set of sidebars on the left of the screen handle notebooks, sections and pages respectively. Once you've chosen a notebook and a section, these collapse down to a list of pages. You can return to the notebook list by tapping or clicking on the section title, which opens the navigation bars with a smooth animation that slides the current note partially off the screen.

Windows 8's Metro UI has minimal chrome, which means that OneNoteMX's note-taking workspace is a plain white surface. Sliding up the app bar gives you a set of basic navigation tools and a button for creating a new page, as well as an option to hide the navigation bar. Tap and hold a notebook name, and you get an additional app bar, with tools for managing notebooks. You can manually synchronise, as well as copying links for sharing. Similarly there are tools for managing sections, including renaming and deleting.


OneNote MX's radial menu: just tap and slide.

It's the radial menu that really sets OneNote MX apart from the rest of the Metro pack. This is a surprisingly logical, and contextual way of working, and very easy to learn. It's not the first time Microsoft has experimented with radically different ways of navigating applications for touch and pen. Way back when, there was a Microsoft Research electronic notebook project called InkSeine, that pioneered many of the features found in OneNote today, which used a pen-based radial menu. OneNoteMX's menus appear to be the direct descendent of InkSeine's, designed to give quick access to notetaking and annotation.

The menus are easy to use. They're contextual, so the first one you'll see is the document menu. It's the highest-level tool, and tapping on it reveals tools for creating tables, tags and bullet lists, using cut and paste (and undo), and working with a camera and pictures. Some options have arrows, and tapping them open new menus — letting you choose a bullet menu type, and then the bullet style, for example. Tapping in the centre always returns you to the next level up. The camera tool works with Windows 8's native camera application to quickly drop images into your notes. There's also an option to insert pictures using the Windows 8 picker, which means you can work with any application that subscribes to the appropriate contracts.


Select some text to get the a radial menu full of formatting tools.

Other radial menus appear when you select certain page elements — including a table menu, additional formatting tools and a slightly confusing pen action menu. The latter looks as though it should handle inking options, and can only be accessed when using the lasso tool to select inked text. The lack of ink options is even more confusing , as when selecting typed text, the text properties radial menu gives you the option of changing font size, colour and format.


If you lasso some ink, you'll see the pen radial menu.

If you want to use OneNote MX alongside other Metro applications (or even the desktop), it takes full advantage of Windows 8's snap view. Just drag it to one side, and you get a simple notetaking surface with full support for radial menus, along with a simplified app bar that lets you navigate through a notebook and create new pages. Sadly there's still no support for some of the more useful Windows 8 features, like the Share charm (although Microsoft has told us that it intends to support all of the platform's features in future releases).


Use OneNote MX in snap mode to take notes while you work with other Windows 8 applications.

We did have some issues with the Metro version of OneNote. Two notable omissions in this first beta are audio and video. One of the desktop version's most useful features is the ability to record audio or use a webcam for video, and to timestamp those recordings against your notes. While you can drop still images into a note, the Metro OneNote can only playback audio and video that's been recorded elsewhere. It's an odd omission as there's audio recording capability in the Windows Phone release. Another oddity is the use of separate storage for OneNote MX and OneNote 2013, even when they use the same notebook. That means that you'll need to sync everything twice when setting up your notebooks from SkyDrive if you're using both OneNote 2013 and MX on the same device.

Screenshot (3)

OneNoteMX is certainly tablet friendly, with both pen and touch keyboard support.

With Windows RT devices around the corner, the touch options work well, with the Windows 8 touch keyboard as a workable alternative — especially when using the landscape thumb board option. Even so, it's also good to see that Microsoft hasn’t forgotten OneNote's roots as a Tablet PC application, and tablet users will find the pen options useful.

Despite lacking feature parity with its desktop sibling, OneNote MX has almost everything you need to take notes on the go — and SkyDrive synchronisation means you'll be able to edit and use your notes on a PC or a phone (or even Android and iOS). It's easy to forget that OneNote MX is beta code, and that its name is only a codename, but as the first major Microsoft application to take advantage of Windows 8's new programming models, there's another string to OneNote MX's bow. It's also an example of just what a Windows 8 Metro-style application can be, and of how developers can take advantage of the new programming tools.

Editorial standards