Microsoft OneNote for beginners: Everything you need to know

OneNote is the best Microsoft program from you're probably not using. If you've ignored the digital note-taking app because, well, it's Microsoft, or because you thought "the last thing I need is more software," then it's time to reconsider.

Microsoft has liberated its digital notebook from Office and put it just about everywhere: Mac, iOS, Android, Chrome, and of course Windows. Read on to discover everything you need to know to start creating a paperless life with OneNote.

Who should use OneNote 

If you do a lot of notetaking, attend multiple meetings during the week, and collaborate with others on projects, then OneNote can keep that flood of info neat and tidy. All your notes--even words in pictures--are searchable inside OneNote, and they're stored in the cloud and immediately accessible via the OneNote apps for any platform. 

Plenty of folks point to Evernote as the go-to note-taking app. Evernote does many things well, but I've found its best use is as a digital file cabinet for saving web clips, screenshots, receipts, or other random items you want to be able to search for later. (All tools OneNote also offers, it should be noted.)

OneNote, on the other hand, is better as a productivity aide, with its focus on typing and hand-writing notes, audio recording and search tools, and smart integration with the rest of Office. 

To get started, grab OneNote for your various devices and sign in using a free Microsoft account. You likely already have one if you use email, subscribe to Office 365, or have a Windows 8 device. If you need to create one, be sure to check out the introductory note, which has useful tips for newcomers. 

OneNote's design and basics

OneNote has a clearly delineated organizational structure that mimics physical note-taking, revolving around notebooks, tabs, and pages. 

You can have multiple notebooks. Across the top of each notebook are tabs, each one representing what it calls a section. The sections hold the individual notes, which are listed down the right side. You can also nest a note under another note, which keeps related items organized or breaks up a long list.

The structure works well for dividing up work tasks--I previously used it for lesson plans when I was a teacher. I could just touch the Lesson Plans tab and then find the proper week among the list of notes. 

There's a default tab called QuickNotes. This is where new notes go. Using the Windows + N command sends a clipping of your screen to OneNote, or perhaps you've save an article with OneNote's Chrome or Internet Explorer web clipping tool.

You can share a notebook with others: Head to File > Share > Invite People  in the notebook you wish to share.

Got it Good. Now let's explore the differences between the various versions of OneNote.

Want the full OneNote Get it on Windows

While OneNote apps are all slick and supported on numerous platforms, the most full-featured version of Microsoft's note-taking app is--naturally--found on Windows, where all once-premium features are now free in OneNote 2013.

Likewise, OneNote's closest physical companion is Microsoft's own Surface Pro 3. You can click the top button on the tablet's bundled digital stylus to wake the device, automatically fire up a new note, and start inking away. Users with touchscreen devices can write notes with a stylus or finger. An entire tab in OneNote's Ribbon menu is devoted toward inking tools, including highlight, circle, or digitize options.

For example, I've clipped map screenshots and used OneNote to draw specific instructions on them. 

Other little tricks that set OneNote apart from the other tools in Office. For example, there's a clever Ink to Math tool that lets you hand-write an equation, and OneNote will convert it to text. You can also record a lecture or meeting--throw it in a shared note for friends who slept through it.

Another interesting feature is the ability to embed other Office files within OneNote. You could, for example, create a miniature Excel spreadsheet and edit it directly within OneNote. It's probably not a use case you'll need every day, but hey, it's there if you need it.

You can also quickly toggle between personal and enterprise accounts. OneNote will keep both synced up, yet separate. It's pretty useful for grabbing something from your personal account while on a work machine.

If you're one of the few and proud rocking a Windows Phone, OneNote comes pre-installed. Windows Phone users can also grab the sublime Office Lens, OneNote's sister app. Office Lens lets you take a picture of that whiteboard session, business card, or anything else and save it directly to OneNote. Text inside the pictures can even be automatically converted to editable Word or Powerpoint files. (The iOS and Windows Store OneNote apps have similar functionality baked into their camera capabilities.)

A less robust version for Mac

Earlier this year Microsoft released OneNote for Mac, bringing it to the OS X desktop for the first time. The interface is extremely similar to the Windows version's, but there are fewer tabs in the ribbon across the top--which unfortunately means fewer features.

The deeper integration with Office and the ability to sign in with multiple accounts, for instance, is found only on the Windows variant. IA web app for Chromebooks

Yes, even Chromebooks can use OneNote via the service's slick web interface. Just like with the Mac version, the web app isn't as powerful as the desktop software, but it does a decent job. 

I'm most happy to see you have visibility of who's signed in to a shared file. It's great for knowing who is pulling their weight on a group project. There's an "Open in OneNote" button if you're using Windows or OS X, which lets you view the note in the desktop software instead of the web app.

OneNote apps on iOS

Now that the massive iPhone 6 Plus is available, OneNote may be the perfect app for writing notes on the run or scribbling quick sketches with your finger or a stylus.

Like the Windows version, the iOS app connects to both consumer and enterprise accounts, so it's perfect for capturing those important meeting notes and saving hilarious Buzzfeed listicles.

Microsoft also built in support for the new Share extension for iOS 8. Use it to send items from Safari, email, or other apps right to OneNote. 

It's even on Android

Yes, Microsoft even supports OneNote on arch-rival Google's Android platform.

Microsoft took advantage of a key Android strength by creating numerous useful widgets. You can access a list of notes or open a specific command--like drawing or taking a picture--right from the Android home screen.

Beyond mere smartphone support, OneNote has even embraced Android Wear, so you can take notes by shouting them into your smartwatch, if that's your thing.

Where OneNote needs to improve

There's still some growing room for OneNote, especially if it wants to be more competitive with Evernote.

For one, it doesn't format web clips very well. If you like to save articles for offline or later use, Evernote does it better. OneNote doesn't have any options for stripping out ads or giving you a choice of where to save it, defaulting to the Quick Notes section.

I've also found the Android app is still rather buggy. Pen input and moving between sections in particular feel a little janky. Evernote is by no means bug-free, but Microsoft needs to apply more polish if it wants to win over Android users.

OneNote's future

OneNote has deep potential as a powerful, cross-platform tool if Microsoft can connect all the pieces. The surge of people migrating to phablets, tablets, and touchscreen laptops could only play to OneNote's favor.

But if Microsoft is truly to rule productivity, it needs OneNote to feel at home on every platform. That's no small task, but Microsoft's almost there--and it already rocks for everyday note-taking needs. Try it out!


Derek Walter

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