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Microsoft OneNote 2007 Review

The reviews of many of the other applications in Office 2007 devote considerable time to comparing the new version to the previous one. With OneNote there's not much comparison. The new version is still a freeform note-taking and information organization program, but it has been so thoroughly reworked and extended that it might as well be brand new.


This second version of OneNote is expanded from a personal information manager to a lightweight collaboration tool, and it gains usefulness from new integration with Outlook, in particular. It takes better advantage of connectivity with a mobile client and support for synchronizing notebooks across multiple PCs. And . . . on and on and on. The list of new features is long, but the bottom line is that OneNote is a much more robust application than it was in its first version, released in 2003.

It is a challenge just to describe OneNote adequately, let alone accurately. It's something like the blind men and the elephant:

* If you're an individual user, you might perceive OneNote as a tool for collecting, organizing, and communicating information. All kinds of information. You can type notes into it (or handwrite them, if you have a tablet PC). You can paste in text, or embed whole documents. You can likewise paste in images, send Web pages to OneNote, or capture all or any part of the screen. And where OneNote 2003 was a boutique note-taker with only one notebook allowed, OneNote 2007 is industrial strength - it supports multiple notebooks, and allows you to share them across multiple computers on a network.


* If you're trying to manage multiple projects, you may find that OneNote is a great tool for letting you track tasks and dates and assignments. You can build to-do lists and then export events to your Outlook calendar. Send e-mails to team members from within OneNote. Sync status flags to Outlook. Use the OneNote Mobile application (if you've got a Windows Mobile smartphone or Pocket PC) to display your to-dos and collect notes to sync back to your PC.

* If you're working in a team, you might settle on OneNote as a collaboration tool that works both synchronously and asynchronously. Multiple users can share a notebook, and work in it simultaneously, with the results being saved and synced to all the copies. You can even do this in real time, in a conference room, for example, with multiple users editing a page to build notes and lists " and even use some new drawing tools. (OneNote has been significantly re-architected to support autosave and range locking within a file.) Disconnected users can edit pages, and their changes are automatically synced to other copies of the notebook when they reconnect to the network. The result, though I hate to use a buzzword, is very wiki-like. (It's also for groups that trust each other - OneNote is not like a wiki in its lack of editing and version controls.)

Multiple Ins, Multiple Outs
The common theme in these very different use models is a richness of functionality and file format that gives you plenty of headroom. In other words, you can use OneNote the way it works for you.

OneNote is a Swiss Army knife for clipping and snipping information. In addition to the usual typing or stylus input, you can cut-and-paste into OneNote: Unlike most applications, screenshots are a good way to get content into OneNote, because it uses OCR to extract searchable text from images. It also automatically includes the URL when you cut-and-paste from a Web site.

You can even print documents into OneNote: a "Send to OneNote 2007" function appears in the list of available printers. This may sound crazy, but it works great for things where the formatting is an essential part of the content's meaning, like math equations and complex desktop publishing projects.

Working with OneNote notebooks is equally flexible. You can create shared notebooks - either notebooks only you use that exist on more than one PC, or notebooks that several people use. OneNote manages communications among the copies to save and synchronize changes in the multiple copies.

Synchronization typically takes place across a network, but you can use the same notebook on two PCs that aren't connected. Create a notebook that is marked for shared use and offline use on a USB drive. Open it on multiple PCs. As long as you don't close it, it stays in the program's cache on each machine, and automatically syncs with the stored version when you reinsert the USB key in that PC.

OneNote offers amazing depth of functionality for personal and shared information management. This is both its greatest strength and its greatest problem. It has far too many functions and features to be called intuitive. You won't sit down in front of a PC running OneNote and do something useful with it immediately. It is one of those applications that take time to learn well, and reward that investment of time by allowing you to do new things in new ways.

A minor example: shortcut keys. OneNote allows you to assign shortcut key combinations to just about any function in the program. If you pay attention to what you're doing routinely in the program and assign those actions to shortcuts, you can increase your efficiency - and the value of OneNote.

Unfortunately, while the value of OneNote may be clear, Microsoft's marketing goals for the product is not: It is included in only three of the seven versions of Office 2007 (Home & Student, Ultimate, and Enterprise). According to Microsoft's Web site, it will continue to be available as a stand-alone (and at $99 rather pricey) package.

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