OneNote — Powerful Notes for the Power User

OneNote — Powerful Notes for the Power User

By Ethan Pitts

Disclaimer: I use a Surface Book running Windows 10 Pro, so the content of this article might not fully apply if you are using Windows 10 S or macOS.

Microsoft Office is the staple productivity software suite for professionals and students alike. OneNote is the ultimate powerhouse for taking notes during lectures, labs, and meetings. A slick design coupled with an insane amount of customizability makes OneNote an obvious choice for the savviest of university students.

Microsoft supports two versions of OneNote: OneNote 2016, which is the version that ships with Microsoft Office 2016 and Office 365, and the OneNote Windows 10 app. OneNote 2016 and the Windows 10 app are similar, but there are a few minor differences. Regardless of which application you choose to use, your notes are available in both.

Wait, there’re two?

Correct! There are currently two options for using OneNote. Office 2016 came with OneNote 2016 included, and it is also available as an Office 365 download. OneNote for Windows 10 comes preinstalled on most Windows 10 PCs and is a free download from the Microsoft Store.

Though there are two versions of OneNote and Microsoft has emphasized OneNote for Windows 10 over OneNote 2016, I’ll focus on the former.

OneNote for Windows 10 is beginning to include many of its predecessor’s power and capability, making it a strong choice for the notetaker who needs to go that extra mile.

OneNote for Windows 10:

OneNote for Windows 10 is different from OneNote 2016 in that the former is a now a Universal Windows App.

Aesthetically, OneNote for Windows 10 is clean and fresh. The app follows Microsoft’s theme of using a specific color for each of the Office apps, with purple being OneNote’s dominant color.

OneNote follows Microsoft’s new Fluent Design language, with there being slick sliding animations when opening layers and formatting tabs. OneNote has many little design elements that make it stand out and makes the notetaking experience feel a little nicer.

Using the app

The Home tab reveals a ribbon menu of formatting options and dictation controls. You can quickly switch between paragraph styles, subheading (the provided styles go down to the sixth-level subheading), quote, citation, and code font options. These options enable you to easily make your notes as clear as possible.

The Insert tab has all the features I’d expect from any application that has one these days. Buttons with icons and text show that I can insert tables, files, pictures, videos, links, audio clips, meeting details (more on this later), special symbols, math equations, stickers, research, and forms. The math ability is one of OneNote’s shining talents. Since I use the Surface Pen, I can write out an equation directly in the note page, click the math button, which has me circle what I’ve written out, then converts it into text and solves it automatically. Now, being a Middle Eastern Studies major, I don’t have a lot of experience with the math tool in OneNote, but from the limited use I’ve had with it, OneNote can handle statistics reasonably well, assuming your handwriting is legible. This brings me to another point. As great as the math tool is, it is limited by how well you write.

Stickers are more than just your average emoji. They mimic actual stickers that someone might put in their notebook. I don’t use them, but they’re there, which is helpful for some.

OneNote’s Research tool is a neat feature. I’ve recently started using Researcher more often in Microsoft Word, but it’s the same here in OneNote. Researcher finds everything from documents, websites, and images and allows you to insert quotes and citations directly into your notes pages. I can refine my searches down to specific categories, which is useful when looking specifically for, let’s say, journal articles. Once I find what I need, inserting a rudimentary citation is as easy as clicking the plus button in the upper right.

The Draw tab is limited if you don’t have access to a Surface Pen or another stylus option. If I want to draw without a pen, I can enable Mouse/Touch drawing, but I’d suggest this only if you have a touchscreen device. I don’t like to draw with my fingers, so if I don’t have my Surface Pen, I don’t draw. There are three pen options: Pencil, Pen, and Highlighter. The Pencil has a textured appearance, the Pen tool lays down an unbroken line of color or pattern, and the Highlighter, well, highlights. The Highlighter does have positional input, meaning the angle of approach changes the stroke of the highlight, which is a nice aesthetic touch.

The OneNote Mobile App:

Making OneNote more useful is the mobile app. The app does a great job of syncing all your notes and information between devices, meaning you’ll always have your notes whether you’re on your phone, computer, or tablet. The OneNote mobile app is available on both iOS and Android devices. Coupled with the desktop availability extended to both macOS and Windows, OneNote bridges the gap between the most popular personal computing platforms.

Viewing notes is not the only ability the mobile app features. Creating new notes and editing existing notes, whether they were built in the app or on a desktop, is simple and straightforward.

OneNote as Your Default Choice

Using OneNote as your main notetaking platform won’t leave you disappointed. There are all the features needed for advanced notetaking, such as precise formatting options, paragraph styles, and attention tags. Using OneNote is an absolute dream. Having a powerful app to go along with the desktop application makes your notes mobile as well as detailed. Reviewing notes is as easy as pulling out a phone or tablet and scrolling through them. OneNote will make your school or work life that much simpler and refreshing.


Jake HarrisEthan Pitts