Andre's Blog
Perfection is when there is nothing left to take away
OneNote, too many cooks

I always favored pen and paper for initial technical designs and when first devices that enabled handwriting recognition emerged, I enthusiastically tried them out. Some of those original applications were quite good, but worked only on one device, like the Samsung's SNote, and some worked on several platforms, but captured only pixel images instead of pen strokes.

Eventually, I ended up using OneNote, which works on many devices and has all the features I need, but many of those features are implemented inconsistently across various devices and I can't help but wonder if OneNote is being developed by multiple independent teams with limited communication channels between them.

OneNote flavors

OneNote notebooks may be edited in a browser app, which is very good at capturing text notes and presenting drawings in online meetings, and via a Windows application called OneNote for Windows 10, which works well with Windows inking and is very good at capturing and indexing handwritten notes and diagrams.

OneNote for Windows 10 works only with notebooks stored on One Drive and provides no functionality to save notebooks locally. This has been my worry for quite some time because not only this solution relies completely on how safely Microsoft manages my data, but also exposes my entire notebook library to a potential One Drive hacking event, which statistically will happen at some point in time, despite Microsoft's most diligent security measures.

The former is based on a couple of scares I went through. Once a few sections of my notebooks just disappeared and for a while I didn't know whether they will be back or not and there was no way to contact Microsoft to figure out what is going on. A few more times OneNote would get confused with note updates and dump a bunch of text merge conflicts and I ended up sorting them out to see which one should be retained, which is error-prone.

The latter is statistically inevitable, but fortunately is something that I haven't experienced yet. However, I see constant probing of my One Drive account from various parts of the world and also the Solar Winds hack comes to mind, which got quite deep into many cloud environments, including Microsoft's.

I researched for a while various ways to store some of the notebooks offline and all solutions were quite awkward. For example, printing notebooks as PDF or XPS files in OneNote for Windows 10 saved all text in some weird Unicode range that was not searchable and while I was prepared that inking would be gone, not being able to search through text was a non-starter for me.

This is where I came across of this page that suggested that I can export and import OneNote notebooks, so I could remove them temporarily and restore back when I needed them.

https://support.microsoft.com/en-us/office/export-and-import-onenote-notebooks

The export link from the instructions on this page worked quite well and while working with exported files, I stumbled on one more flavor of OneNote that is hidden from plain view, but actually solves all of my problems.

OneNote vs. OneNote for Windows 10

One of the files in the exported OneNote archive had the extension .onetoc2 and looked like the name of the notebook, while other files in the same export were named after notebook sections and had .one extension. There was no application associated with this file extension, so I assumed that it was just some exported format that was good only for a subsequent import described on the support page above.

Trying out the import, I ended up with browser errors for all major browsers and it appeared to be just another failed experiment, but by sheer luck I tried to open this file on another computer and it opened it in an app with the same icon as OneNote for Windows 10, but with the name OneNote.

The opened notebook could not be edited, showing text "This section can't be edited because it's in archive format" at the top and suggesting to click it to enable editing, but doing so didn't give any usable options to make the notebook editable.

Researching this text message brought back only hacks to move the notebook back online, which was not what I was looking for and eventually I figured out that the OneNote app allows one to export archived notebooks as .onepkg files and these files could be imported back to make these notebooks editable again. It did lose the notebook's recycle bin in the process, however.

Looking a bit more into this, I realized how it all worked and that the export above is not necessary at all because OneNote is an application that is installed along with MS Office 360 and it can do more than OneNote for Windows 10 can.

What I learned is that OneNote was an actual desktop app and at some point Microsoft removed it from the MS Office 360 installer. This is when I installed Office on one of my computers that couldn't open .onetoc2 files. Later on, Microsoft re-added OneNote as an Office app into the installer, so when I ran the same MS Office 360 installer again, OneNote appeared on my computer along with OneNote for Windows 10 app that seems to be installed with Windows. Both have the same icon and only one typically comes up in a Start menu search.

OneNote workflow

It took me a while to figure out how each application operated, but in the end I got exactly what I wanted.

OneNote for Windows 10 works only with remote notebooks stored on One Drive. It has a simplified UI with limited configuration options and in many cases is more suitable for everyday handwriting and diagramming needs.

OneNote can open local and remote notebooks and allows sections and pages moved and copied between these notebooks without restrictions. It has more convoluted UI and using pen in this application is more complicated in the way that pens and other elements are being managed in the typical MS Office ribbon. Other than that, it is a OneNote application with more features than any other OneNote flavors.

Make sure to configure the desktop OneNote app to backup notebooks via Options > Save & Backup > Backup Folder or configure your computer to be backed up at regular intervals. Without the One Drive safety net, you need to make sure your data is being backed up regularly. The default backup folder is in AppData on the same drive and a better option is to set up backup to point to another drive.

I moved some of the older notebooks completely to my local storage and for those that I needed to use online, I created a local notebook with the same name as the online notebook. This allows me to move sections and pages between remote and local notebooks as needed.

I would caution against copying sections and pages because it will create multiple copies of the copied content, which will be hard to reconcile because there is no easy way to compare handwritten notes and drawings.

Conclusion

OneNote drives me crazy sometimes - there is no common color palette between OneNote flavors, auto-correction in OneNote for Windows 10 cannot be disabled fully (it still replaces triple dots with a single character ), it does work in the browser UI, but only until you refresh a page, and the list goes on, but even with all these shortcomings, this is the only application that works for all of my note taking needs, ranging from technical designs to shopping lists.

I do use other devices and for quick whiteboard-style notes I would more likely use an always-ready BoogieBoard or a ReMarkable tablet rather than to fire up a Windows tablet, but for any notes that need to persist for a while and allow searching through handwritten text, OneNote is one of the best tools.

My only hope is that Microsoft assigns a single Product Owner to all of those disjointed teams, so the common functionality between different OneNote flavors would behave the same way across all supported devices. I just want a blue pen to be the same shade of blue on all devices - is this too much to ask?

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