According to Microsoft, more than 90 percent of all American adults take notes regularly. Of course, most of those note-takers simply scribble thoughts on Post-its and have no real need for digital assistance. But journalists, personal assistants, attorneys, students, and researchers could probably use a hearty note-taking application to make the process faster, more accurate, and better organized. Also, the cursively challenged would welcome a way to transcribe and share tidy, organized, legible notes.
Enter OneNote, one of the first programs we've seen that lets you write, record, and edit notes in a single interface. Sound like a dream app? If you'd like to find out for yourself, you can. Microsoft just released the second beta of this new, standalone app along with its beta of Microsoft Office 2003. Even if you're not an authorized beta tester, you can pay a few shipping fees to get a beta kit. (Before you do, however, remember that CNET doesn't recommend installing beta software, particularly without backing up your system. Do so at your own risk.) We've taken OneNote out for a test-run already, and based on our limited experience, OneNote gets and A for concept, and a C for execution. Microsoft needs to greatly simplify this app for the final release, so OneNote has a chance to be as indispensable to note-takers as Microsoft Word is to just about everyone.
A cool concept
The main screen has a familiar look; it sports many of the same menus and keyboard shortcuts as Microsoft Office apps. Unlike any of Microsoft's other apps, however, OneNote feels more like a word processor mixed with a design program--imagine an older version of Photoshop mated with Microsoft Word. Clicking anywhere on the screen, for instance, creates a blue box (similar to a text or picture box in a design program) wherein you can type, draw a chart, or scrawl a note. As you write, and afterwards, you can edit and format your work to your heart's content. To take handwritten notes, just use a pen or a mouse or a Wacom tablet and stylus. Tablet PC users don't need any extra equipment; OneNote is optimized for that platform.
OneNote gives tablet PC users the ability to convert handwriting to text. In our casual beta trial tests, this neat little feature translated bad handwriting pretty well. But since many people now type faster than they write, desktop and notebook users probably won't miss this option. We do wonder, however, why Microsoft would tailor this application primarily for tablet PCs. Until tablets get cheap and are graceful enough to build a dedicated consumer audience, why not optimize OneNote for the larger, more solid notebook market?
Keep it simple
We had high hopes for OneNote--still do. After all, this is merely a beta, and the final release is months away. That's why we're putting OneNote through the wringer, no-holds-barred, on the chance that some of our suggestions find their way into the gold code.
For the most part, OneNote's navigation and implementation are so awkward, even tablet PC users may steer clear. For instance, unless you've seen lots of OneNote demonstrations, we doubt that even the most accomplished software user could head into a lecture and use OneNote with skill and speed. Even after one or two tries, taking notes with OneNote felt counterintuitive. Typing came naturally, of course, but some of OneNote's clumsy extras broke our typing flow and concentration. For example, those blue boxes are often hard to select, either with mouse or pen. (This may be an issue with the calibration of our test tablet PC, but we had the same problem with a touchpad.) We consider this a mild inconvenience.
Here's a biggie, though: most writing applications automatically create new pages when you run out of space, right? Not so with OneNote. You have to stop what you're doing and click the New Page icon or hit Ctrl+N. Thankfully, you do get a keystroke option here. You'll miss having shortcuts elsewhere in the program. Nearly all of Office XP's apps let you create custom keyboard shortcuts--and even automatically share established shortcuts among apps. OneNote does neither; it's as awkward as version 2000's applications in this respect. Perhaps you can get used to jumping about from buttons to menu options as you type. We're not so sure we'd want to bother.
Tools are hard to find
It's a good thing, then, that OneNote can record lectures while you try to jot down notes. Overall, the recording function is a great idea. Imagine a student sitting through a fast-paced, info-packed lecture. Naturally, most students can't possibly jot down every important bit of data. That's why many record lectures in addition to taking notes. OneNote lets you record and write in the same place: on your PC. What's more, you can time-stamp portions of your notes to correspond to parts of the lecture. The process doesn't feel smooth as silk, though. You're forced to grab your mouse and reach up to a toolbar to start recording. This process must be more accessible. You should at least be able to create a keyboard shortcut or right-click to activate the recorder.
Worse, the audio toolbar doesn't display by default. In fact, it's a chore to locate many functions we consider fundamental, such as Start Recording. Oftentimes, you must scour the menu options to locate the appropriate toolbar. You can also select Tools > Customize and hunt through every menu title for the appropriate button to place on open toolbars. But talk about awkward!
Being cruel to be kind
OneNote shows a lot of potential. But a program designed to simplify tasks should be simple to operate. A good help system may take some of the pressure off, and naturally, this beta doesn't yet have a comprehensive tutorial and extensive help. But that's not all that needs improvement. We're being hard on this program because we think it could do a great service to note-takers like us. Our final word: Microsoft must simplify the final version and automate more processes. If OneNote really wants to impress the public, it'll need to make note-taking more fluid and less distracting. Stay tuned for our full review of the gold code. We'll tell you if OneNote gets up to speed.