OneNote 2003 Beta 2

  • Editors' rating
    7.7 Very good

Pros

  • Works effectively with a Tablet PC's pen input to place text, digital ink, graphics and drawings anywhere on a page
  • organises work by pages and sections to provide an effective and usable electronic notebook.

Cons

  • It takes a while to find the most efficient way of using OneNote's many features.

Remember those personal organisers that were all the rage before Palms and Pocket PCs took over -- the leather-bound affairs in which you could write with a real pen, organise your notes into sections separated with dividers and move pages between sections? Microsoft's new OneNote application does a similar job for the PC, although it sticks to being a notebook and doesn't try to compete with Outlook's calendars and task schedulers. OneNote, which will form part of the Office 2003 family, provides a single place for creating and organising all your notes, lists, doodles, sketches and diagrams -- the sort of material that's always difficult to find and organise.

The difference between OneNote and a host of unsuccessful previous attempts is that now the time is right: the technology exists to make this sort of application work effectively. With a Tablet PC, you can carry OneNote around to meetings, lectures and the coffee shop. Faster processors now support the high sampling rates required for decent handwriting recognition. But most of all, the technology that makes OneNote really work to give you the notebook experience is Microsoft's 'digital ink'. When you write with a Tablet PC's pen, OneNote lets you display your input as cursive script (handwriting) or in a conventional screen font. Even if you display your input as handwriting, the Tablet PC's recognition engine processes it in the background. This means that as well as being able to mix handwriting and text on a page, you can also search on individual words in your 'handwriting' and carry out operations like selecting lines and moving them around. You can also bullet-point or number your lines of handwriting.

You can write anywhere on the OneNote page, just as you would on a sheet of paper. The pen can also be used as a drawing tool, allowing you to mix diagrams, doodles, arrows and other marks on a page along with regions of text and handwriting. Your OneNote notes can therefore be as rich as their paper-based counterparts, which makes this program extremely useful for almost anything that you currently do with pen and paper – sketching out ideas, drafting documents, creating lists, reviewing and annotating documents and so on.

The advantage of OneNote's pages over paper is that they are already filed in a known place and can be located quickly using full-text searches. Pages can be as long as you like -- you'll never run out of paper or ink. You can also print copies of your notes complete with your idiosyncratic page structure -- discussion points, ideas, comments, sketches and doodles -- reproduced exactly as you positioned them. Another feature that enhances the notebook experience is that, as with paper, you just write: you don't have to remember to save your work, as OneNote takes care of that automatically.

OneNote's workspace is rich and initially overpowering. There are tools to select pen thickness, pen colour and pen function (pen, drawing tool, highlighter, eraser, selection tool). Flags can be assigned to notes, and there conventional formatting tools including bulleting, numbering and indenting, plus the ability to embolden, italicise and underline. To help you out when revising or commenting, you can drag additional white space within existing text or handwriting to provide room for more information. With all of the various toolbars open, OneNote's workspace has a cluttered feel, but you soon learn which ones need to be open for the job in hand.

In OneNote you work on 'pages' stored within 'sections'. The names of your sections are displayed at the top of the workspaces as tabs, giving it the feel of a book or binder. Individual pages can be given meaningful titles, and when a section tab is selected, the titles of the constituent pages are displayed as another set of tabs down the right-hand side of the workspace, with the last page you worked on open in the workspace. Pages can easily be moved between sections. If you can't immediately locate the page you want, you can do a full-text search or pop up a page list. The latter appears as a panel on the right-hand side of the workspace and displays pages alphabetically or in chronological order.

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As with any Tablet PC application, you enter text either by writing directly onto the OneNote page or via an input panel at the bottom of the workspace. When you write directly on the page your input is displayed as digital ink. The input panel provides a blank writing area or a soft keyboard, both methods creating text in the currently selected font at the insertion point. You don't have to train OneNote to recognise your handwriting: as long as you avoid individual characters in a word running into each other, recognition is remarkably good, and you soon learn to adapt your writing style to minimise recognition errors.

Using OneNote on a slate-style Tablet PC in portrait orientation feels very natural. Surprisingly, it doesn't let you directly import Word documents, but you can cut and paste from Word and other sources and retain the original structure and formatting. When you cut and paste from a Web page, OneNote automatically adds the URL of the host page. If you copy and paste information into a new page, the time and date are also recorded.

In meetings, OneNote's killer feature is the ability to add an audio recording to a page. You can place an audio note in a page using the Tablet PC's built-in microphone or use a more sensitive external mic. Until you stop recording, whenever you make a pen entry the audio file is 'indexed' at the time you make the entry. Later, by selecting that entry, the audio recording is quickly 'rewound' back to that time in the discussion and replayed. OneNote uses a very efficient compression algorithm that's matched to 'good-enough' speech recording: several hours of recording make no real demands on storage space, rendering OneNote invaluable for tracking and minuting discussions.

OneNote isn't perfect: it doesn't yet do speech to text recognition, for example. Its 'write anywhere' capability also takes time to master -- each time you write on a page you create a new 'ink box' to hold your input, and until you get used to writing in this way these boxes can become confusingly overlapped. Even so, you can write, draw, annotate, highlight and edit anywhere on a page just as you would on paper. When used with a Tablet PC, it really can replace paper -- with the bonus that all your information remains in one organised and searchable 'place'.

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