Microsoft veteran Raymond Chen has a great developer blog, The Old New Thing, which inspired the subject line for this week’s Tip, coming as it does, hot on the heels of the Build developer conference. There is also timely news around refreshment of old productivity applications.
OneNote has featured plenty in ToW previously, including a mention in the recent Journaling tip, with a nod in SteveSi’s ongoing historical missive which described members of the development team unhappy with the change of name from its code-name “Scribbler”, referring to the new “OneNote” app as “Onay-No-Tay”.
A few years ago, OneNote was dropped from the Office suite and was due to be replaced by the new “modern” version in the Windows (now Microsoft …) Store. For a while at least, that shiny new one got all the innovation, even if its brand-new architecture meant it missed a lot of the old app’s functionality. In a somewhat surprising but welcome turn-around, old OneNote was reprieved, and both apps are going to converge at some later point – ie the desktop one will pick up features that only exist in the Store app, and eventually that version will cease to be.
Pending an eventual confluence of the two OneNote Windows apps, the desktop one is gradually getting new functionality and a visual refresh. The graphics bring it into line with Windows 11’s theme of rounded corners, subtle animations and a gentle 3D feel. To some, blink and you’ll miss them, but it does make the app look quite a bit smarter.
There’s a more prominent “Add Page” button, with the page sort function that was added back in February 2022 alongside. There are a few other tweaks in the refresh that has started to roll out, like some new Ink functionality with Ink-to-shape and handwriting-to-text like in other Office apps.
More is to come, including improved sharing capabilities and a neat dictation functionality that would allow you to record a spoken explanation for something while using Ink to highlight or illustrate; when another user plays back your monologue, the ink will be synchronised too. For more info on what’s coming, see here.
One handy feature that has been in desktop OneNote for years but never made it into the Store version, is the ability to use OCR magic to extract text from images. Try pasting an image into a notebook, then right-click on it to Copy Text from Picture into the clipboard. It does a surprisingly good job, even when the pic is not very clear and if the text on it is really small.
Copying screen-grabs when someone is doing a demo in a browser, so you can get the long and complex URL for the thing they’re showing is a particularly useful way of using this feature.
Memoirs and autobiographies are the top selling non-fiction books for good reason, as people like to recall past events through the words and thoughts of someone who was there, in the room or even in the driving seat. World leaders who write their tell-all book on what happened 20+ years ago, better have great memories or perhaps a trove of notes and diary entries from the time. If they are fans of journaling, they would have of-the-moment musings, written down to help clear their minds at the time – on committing thoughts to her diary, Anne Frank wrote, “I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.”
Turning to technology and looking back to relatively near-term history brings up all kinds of product that was ahead of its time or was ultimately overtaken by other developments that nobody saw coming. Sometimes, the perfect blend of genius, timing, execution and luck combines and creates a durable and wildly successful category – like the Smartphone and the plethora of services and apps that were created.
Inversely, one of those tech innovations that was just a bit ahead of its time was the Tablet PC; a fully-functional Windows PC that was blessed with a pen and touch screen so you could take notes by hand just like on paper, yet by flipping it around it could be used to run Office apps and all the other stuff you’d need a PC for, 20 years ago.
In hindsight, the idea of the Tablet PC was 10-15 years ahead of the technology that was needed to really make it work – the pen and screen digitizer were a bit too low-res; the processing power and memory was not up to the mark of providing the kind of user experience that the vision hoped for. The battery life was too poor while the whole thing was too heavy. Nowadays, with devices like the Surface Go and the iPad Pro, the reality is much closer – even if the dream of writing meeting notes by hand has been made somewhat obsolete by transcription and the fact that fewer people use a pen to write any more.
One new app that was built for the Tablet PC to take advantage of its pen, was Windows Journal, a relatively simple yet effective note-taking app, with surprisingly good handwriting recognition built in.
To read more from someone who was in the room – figuratively and, at times, literally – around the time of Tablet PC, the Journal software and the Office app originally called Scribbler which went on to become OneNote, check out Steven Sinofsky’s Hardcore Software post. It’s a fairly long but fascinating read.
Using pen and paper for taking meeting notes might be less popular now, but many of us will still jot down reminders or lists on Post-it notes, perhaps doodling on paper to help creativity and flow. If you have a pen-capable computer now, the newly released Microsoft Journal app is worth a look.
Billed as an app for digital ink enthusiasts, this new Journal presents a modern take on the original Windows Journal idea – an infinitely scrollable canvas for jotting down anything, though with AI capabilities in the app providing quiet yet powerful functionality. Journal started as a research project (from the “Garage”), but has now graduated into a fully-fledged, supported app. Read more about it here.
Much digital ink has been spilled over OneNote on ToW previously. The original OneNote application shipped with Office 2003, then it was made available for free download before being supposedly superseded by a new-look Modern app version which was developed to share user experiences with the more recent online web version. OneNote apps were geared for offline use, synchronized to a private OneDrive (via your Microsoft Account) and/or a work SharePoint/OneDrive on Office 365.
The plan was to ditch the original Office app version in favour of the shiny new world of the cleaner but substantially less functional Modern app, but that decision was later unwound and instead the better bits of the Store version (still called OneNote for Windows 10) will migrate to the desktop app during 2022 or thereabouts.
While the OneNote offerings continue to evolve ahead of the quickening, we’re seeing some small improvements to both the offline client and the online experience. A simple example is the ability to sort pages in the desktop OneNote app – i.e., not the store app, which already had that capability. See the latest features added to the OneNote for Windows 10 store app, here.
It is possible to use both clients at the same time – perhaps partition work stuff in the more capable OneNote for desktop, and then keep your home notebooks in the store version. Doing so makes it easy when searching, so you don’t end up with shopping list items mixed up with your meeting notes. The icons are very similar, though – you might find it easier to differentiate the apps by changing the icon of the desktop one (since you can’t edit the icon of the Store app).
Try pinning the desktop icon to your Taskbar and right-click on the icon; on the pop-up menu, right-click on the OneNote label, choose Properties and then click the Change Icon button to select a different one.
The web UI has evolved considerably too – go to onenote.com and sign-in with either your Microsoft Account, for your own personal notebooks, or your work/school M365 account, for the content associated with your job or school. The same web application is also the view that you see when accessing OneNote from within Teams.
The recently improved web client includes some new capabilities like having a Read Only / Edit mode, akin to other Office web apps, as well as some improvements in handling embedded content, inking and more. There’s a short video showing the new capabilities in both desktop and online versions.
If you’re a fan of desktop OneNote, make sure you get OneTastic, a suite of addins and macros to make OneNote more productive. Some of the macros plug gaps in OneNote functionality that have somewhat been filled – like sorting pages – but there are still many useful ones, like creating a table of contents for a large notebook.
OneTastic also includes OneCalendar, which shows you all the pages – across any of your notebooks – which you have edited, on a calendar view. It sounds simple, but try it out and you’ll realise how useful it is to find notes based on the day you took them…
“The years go by so fast, let’s hope the next beats the last”– a sentiment that rings so true over the last couple of new year celebrations. Whether setting resolutions to do new things, read more, lose weight, be a better human etc, we all tend to reflect, even if just trying to do the same things as before but a bit better. Steve Clayton’s Friday Thing for the end of December had some great tips on things to do and try in the coming year.
If we can’t reduce volume of professional communications (be that emails, Teams messages, whatever – just look at Steve cleaning his mailbox and removing >100,000 Sent Items from a single year), then maybe we could do a better job of managing the stuff that we have to deal with. Much ink has been spilled on how to be more effective and how to get things done, but one useful time/focus management principle to revisit is sometimes known as Eisenhower’s Matrix, of which a variety of depictions exist:
The premise is that any task has separate degrees of importance and urgency; we tend to prioritize urgent and overdue things versus things that are actually important. Discipline in task management can give us the clarity to not worry about seemingly urgent yet non-important tasks, and to stay focussed on things which are important, regardless of their urgency.
Carve out 75 minutes if you can – because this stuff is important – to watch Randy Pausch’s lecture on Time Management, with the context that when it was recorded, he knew he only had weeks left to live: talk about prioritizing important vs urgent.
How you put time and focus management into practice will differ depending on your own style and what tools you want to use. For the Windows / Microsoft 365 user, there are a few quick wins to consider:
Following last week’s missive on Notepad, including the obscure tip on how to create a log file, the topic of inserting and handling dates in other applications is worth a (re-)visit. Each individual app may choose to offer different methods and formats, but for common Office applications there are a handful of memorable tricks and shortcuts.
In Word, there are plenty of ways to insert and manage dates – perhaps the most useful way to remind the reader when the document was last updated (manually showing when a document was last reviewed or published). On the Insert tab, you’ll find Date & Time on the right-hand side, letting you add appropriate info in the format of your choice. You can also tick a box to update the field automatically, though that simply means every time the document is opened, it will show today’s date… which feels a bit pointless.
More useful could be to tell the reader when the document was created or last saved, by referencing the actual properties of the document (though be careful; auto-save might mean someone opened an old document, realised it was irrelevant, but had inadvertently saved it back).
On the Insert tab / Quick Parts, look under Field, then pick the doc property and format you’d like to show.
It is worth pointing out that showing a date as 10/1/21 (or similar) is ambiguous given that a few hundred million people will expect it be month-day-year while many of the remaining 7 billion will assume the day comes first, with a couple of billion presuming the format should normally start with the year, such as yyyy-mm-dd (which is arguably the most sensible of all; and it sorts properly, too).
A more daily usable short format like dd-mmm-yy (ie 13-Aug-21) should perhaps be the norm, especially when the date is appearing as text in a document. Pressing SHIFT+ALT+D in Word will insert the current Date as a field (so you can edit the format to remove ambiguity) and SHIFT+ALT+T inserts the current time too. In PowerPoint, both of these combos bring up the “Date & Time” dialogue to add the chosen content and format as plain text.
When formatting dates, incidentally, the convention is that two letters refer to the short number (eg dd = 13), whereas 3 d’s or m’s will use the short form of spelling the day or month, with 4 meaning the whole thing (ie Friday, August). Try formatting a cell in Excel as Custom, and you can preview what the format would be, by typing in a variety of letters.
While in Excel, it’s worth learning the short cut key to insert the date and time – CTRL+; and SHIFT+CTRL+; respectively (no doubt there’s a reason why Excel has a different shortcut to other Office apps – some legacy of Lotus 1-2-3 perhaps?).
OneNote fans will want to remember that SHIFT+ALT+D / T combo as it inserts the date/time into the notebook; really handy when taking notes of a phone call or similar. SHIFT+ALT+F puts both day and time, something that Word doesn’t offer. In both Desktop OneNote and users of the Windows Store version, it’s just plain text that gets added, so you’re on your own when it comes to formatting.
OneNote pages will typically have a date & time showing under their title – on the Desktop version, it’s possible to change that so as to mark a page as having been recently updated. No such luck on the lame duck Store version.
At least when stalwarts insist on writing – or worse, saying – a short-form date as something like “ten one”, there’s more than half of each month where one number in the date could only mean “day” – starting with the thirteenth (as in, 8/13 can never by the 8th of a month, but 8/12 could be a few days before Christmas to Europeans, or the date when tweedy Americans start looking for grouse in the Yorkshire moors and Scottish Highlands).
Even fans of OneNote – either the full-fat Windows x86 version or the versions targeted at other platforms, mobiles and the Microsoft Store, both of which have been covered extensively in ToW passim – will likely use only a fraction of its total functionality. Did you know, for example, that pressing SHIFT+CTRL+> or SHIFT+CTRL+< increases or decreases the font size of the selected text? Or holding CTRL while pressing DEL or BACKSPACE in a block of text deletes the word either side of the cursor, and not just a single character? (Actually, these are true of other Office apps as well, though not Excel, presumably because using Excel for text formatting is considered deviant and weird).
There are many useful features hidden in plain sight, like the tagging functionality which sits on the Home tab. In OneNote for Windows, if you have the ribbon expanded, you’ll see a series of icons to mark selected text with a Tag, and for the top 9 you can tag the text by pressing CTRL+n, where n is the number in the list.
The idea with tags is that you can quickly reference back to the specific text that you’ve highlighted and tagged, via a hyperlink. As well as the variety of in-the-box tags, it’s easy to add custom ones: click on the down arrow at the bottom of the list and choose Customize Tags… then you can supply your own description and choose the icon and colours.
Finding previously-tagged text uses the seriously powerful but sometimes obtuse search function in the sidebar; if you use OneNote to take notes from Outlook meetings, by default you might see hundreds of links that appear to be tagged.
Try using the Search filters at the bottom to restrict the results set, so you only show tags within a given notebook location or across all your notebooks, but for a specific time.
The “OneNote for Windows 10”, Mac and mobile versions of OneNote handle tags slightly differently; while more-or-less compatible the degree of functionality does vary between the clients. Generally speaking, you can find tags across them all, though you may be restricted in editing or creating them. The OneNote mobile app supports a “To Do” tag, for example. The web clients don’t offer custom tags at all, and don’t allow tag-specific search (other than just text indexing).
In the OneNote for Windows 10 store app, you can search for Tags but custom ones created in the desktop app don’t appear in the Tags list when editing a page. Only a handful of tags are initially offered in the store version, and if you add a custom one it’s still possible to press CTRL+n to use it, but you need to count where your tag is in the list as it doesn’t show you the shortcut.
Custom tags added in the store version don’t appear in the tags list of any other client though do sync across other devices, to some degree.
Given the slight rough edges between the versions if you routinely open the same notebook in mobile, web and store/desktop apps, then Tags may not prove so useful – but if you tend to stick to a single UI – especially if it’s the older desktop one – then it’s worth exploring how custom tags could help you organize your stuff.
OneNote has been part of the Office suite since 2003, and has been freely downloadable for much of that time; it’s an invaluable tool for note taking or just capturing information that you’ll want to recall at some point. There have been a few sideways turns in the roadmap, though – as well as the Office application (on Windows and Mac), there is OneNote for mobile devices, OneNote the web experience and OneNote the “Modern” Windows app.
To try to simplify the roadmap somewhat, the app formerly known as OneNote 2016 is now just “OneNote”, and the Store app that shares more of its UX with the mobile and web versions, is OneNote for Windows 10. For more detail on the differences between all the versions, see here.
At one point, the plan was to discontinue the more functional desktop app, and shift development to the simpler Store version, however that plan was rowed back and OneNote (the Office app) will continue to be part of Office, even though it wasn’t installed by default in 2019. The perpetual version of Office (as opposed to the subscription service that is Microsoft 365) will be updated later this year, and OneNote will still be part of that. Probably.
There’s not a lot being published on the Roadmap for OneNote, though, so it may not be getting hosts of new features… See here for a list of some recent updates to OneNote for Windows 10. You can jump to the latest What’s New from the Help menu in the Store version.
As has been covered on ToW passim (here, here), you can start OneNote from the Run command, by pressing WindowsKey+R then onenote <enter> for the desktop version, or onenote: for the modern Windows 10 version. In the latter, you can also pin particular pages to the Start menu, handy if you want to jump to a particular page of quick notes or ideas.
Any version of OneNote is just great at noting down lists – perhaps by using your pen (though if you’re a big inker, you might want to also check out Journal by Microsoft Garage – it’s a notebook intended for “ink first”).
Or maybe by typing a quick few lines at first, and formatting as a list once you’ve got some text. There are some shortcuts to help that formatting; in both OneNote and OneNote for Windows 10, to quickly select what you’ve just typed, hold the shift key and press the up arrow to grab a row at a time.
To create a table, just press TAB to turn whatever you’ve just typed into the first column, and keep pressing TAB to create new columns, or CTRL+ENTER to accept the column layout and start adding extra rows, or to insert a new row into an existing table. Once have content in your table, you can easily move rows around by simply putting your cursor in the row you want to shift, and hold ALT+SHIFT then use the up / down arrow keys to move that row. Much simpler than faffing about with copy & paste.
On the full-fat version of OneNote, you could also select your list and by using the somewhat obscure-sounding menu option “Link to Pages”, OneNote will create a new page for each item in your list and then make a hot-link to it. Hover the mouse over to see the link.
You can manually create links to any page by selecting the text you want to hot-link from, and press CTRL+K; then either select the destination in the dialog box, or paste the link to the page (or paragraph) if you’ve already copied that link to the clipboard.
If you’re going to be doing much with tables, it’s probably better to use the OneNote app rather than the Store one; the older tool has much richer table formatting capabilities, and it also has an Addin architecture which is completely absent from the OneNote for Windows 10 version.
The fantastic OneCalendar addin shows you all the notebook pages you’ve worked on by date, so if you spread your note-taking across a variety of sections or even shared notebooks, then it can be invaluable to jump right to the notes in question.
Its big brother, OneTastic, also allows using pre-written Macros to automate tasks like custom sorting of sections and loads more.
It was announced a couple of years ago that the old Snipping Tool that was part of Windows was to be retired – in fact, it’s still there (following lots of user feedback, akin to the Save the Blibbet campaign) but its successor – the Snip & Sketch app – offers more functionality and is included with current versions of Windows 10. Invoking it with the WindowsKey+SHIFT+S is the quickest and simplest way to grab some or all of the screen, and if necessary, draw or annotate on it, save it as an image file and so on.
There are other screen capturing tools, of course – OneNote had a precursor feature which could be used to do much the same as Snip & Sketch, and even used the same shortcut key. OneNote makes such a great destination for screen grabs that the Clipping option is still there in the trad. version, and of course both variants can be the destination for something that’s been grabbed to the clipboard using Snip & Sketch.
There’s also the super-handy OneNote Web Clipper browser extension, which lets you grab web pages to add to your notebook with a couple of clicks.
Now the Edge browser is going to add some web capture capabilities natively – currently in testing and rolling out to a subset of Insiders, there will be a new menu option to grab a section of a page, including the ability to scroll down the page while capturing (rather than just grabbing what’s on the screen).
Eventually, the new Edge will adopt some of the functionality that legacy Edge had when it comes to annotating web pages with ink, adding notes to pages etc – but the forthcoming web capture is a first step. Note – if you use Mouse Without Borders, it already has the CTRL+SHIFT+S keyboard combo in use, so you’ll need to change that…
Optical Character Recognition is one of those technologies which has gone from being just-about-possible at great expense and hassle, to so mainstream that people just assume it will work flawlessly, all in a relatively few years. Numerous companies offer OCR services or addins to line-of-business systems which help to prepare printed data for easier consumption – scanning invoices for example.
Consumers tend to use OCR in other ways; combined with language translation, you can point your phone at a foreign menu or sign and it may be able to help you understand. In OneNote, if you have captured an image (maybe through the clipper addin from your browser), then it can extract the text from that picture – not always perfectly, and not necessarily well-formatted, but it’s probably quicker than re-typing everything.
A recent addition to the iOS version of Excel is the ability to scan a table of printed data and use OCR plus a bit of tweaking, to import the data into the spreadsheet. See more here. The same functionality was first made available on Android a couple of months earlier …
Start with the grid capture icon on the toolbar of a new spreadsheet, and then use the camera to highlight the area of a document that you’re interested in – the UI will be familiar to anyone who uses Office Lens, as the same anti-skewing technology is used to prepare the “document” for importing.
Then the OCR goes to work and tries to lay out the data as closely as possible to its source – obviously, your accuracy will be improved by having a well-lit and clear original document, and you’ll get to tweak the contents in context of seeing the OCR’d data and the scan at the same time, before committing to insert it.
|Here’s a quick tip in OneNote – both the full-fat desktop client and the modern app version – which was inspired either through PEBKAC type unexpected clickery or maybe an Office update that inadvertently switched something off. A common feature stopped working, and it caused a serious dent in productivity…
Despite the two parallel PC versions of OneNote – which have been covered previously in ToWs #441, #427, #386, #320, et al – offering a good chunk of similar functionality to each other, there are still quite a few areas where the old desktop x86 version wins through.
Add-in support is available in the 2016 variant, for example, so you can run OneTastic (and in particular, OneCalendar, which is immensely helpful if you use many notebooks and take a lot of notes throughout your week).
A simpler and more useful feature for many is the ability to grab the contents and context of a meeting request from your Outlook calendar – so you can take notes during a phone call or a meeting, with all the text in the invite, names and email addresses of attendees etc. Can’t do that with
Search in the desktop OneNote is more powerful, too – CTRL-F takes you to the search box, CTRL-E expands your search, but the most powerful and probably least used is to press ALT-O when you have search results from the CTRL-E dialog; it will order them by the date of the page update… helping to filter out current vs obsolete info.
Bullet lists & indentations (sounds like a Muse song)
Did you know that, in both OneNote versions, if you’re typing notes and press the asterisk or dash key at the start of a new line, and then the space bar, it automatically turns your text into a bulleted list? Asterisks in the middle of a text block are ignored; it’s only seen as an auto-correct function if on a new line.
Just hit enter after you’ve started typing to add another new bullet or hit enter at the beginning of new bullet to finish the list. TAB and SHIFT-TAB lets you indent and un-indent a bulleted line. It doesn’t sound all that revolutionary, but if you’re typing notes during a phone call, it can make all the difference between keeping up or missing discussion points as you fish around with the mouse looking to click the toolbar. If you’re used to it and it gets switched off, it’s a real pain.
The same kind of functionality exists in Word and Outlook too, but now and again it does get in the way – if you’re marking a block of text* that you then want to expand on later without auto-bulleting, for example.
* The simplest way to get an asterisk or dash at the start of a new line is to quickly press Undo – CTRL-Z – as soon as the indentation with the bullet happens, and you’ll be reverted to simply having the character at the start of the line.
To enable or disable the automatic list features on desktop OneNote, go into Options and look under Advanced…
There doesn’t appear to be any way of disabling the feature on the Modern App (which you can start by running onenote-cmd: at the Win+R box, if you read ToW #445 and #443) – maybe that’s a good thing, preventing the user from harming their own productivity…