OneNote – the sysadmin’s new best friend

Before I start I’ve got a confession to make, the “new” bit in the title is slightly misleading as OneNote has been part of my top tools for a while now but in this case I’m writing retrospectively so bear with me 😉

onenoteI thought I’d spare a few minutes to pay homage to a tool that’s really made a difference to my way of working this year… OneNote.

Previously it was one of those programs that I always knew was there as part of Office but never really felt compelled to go out of my way to use but that all changed once we got our Office 365 subscription. The idea of syncing notes across devices seamlessly via OneDrive for Business seemed to have potential so I installed it on all the devices I use day to day:

  • Windows 7 desktop PC (day-to-day machine in the office)
  • Lenovo T430s laptop (Windows 8.1)
  • Surface RT tablet  (Windows RT 8.1)
  • Nokia Lumia 625 (Windows Phone)

Desktop client

As I fired up the desktop client the first thing that struck me was the little toolbar that pops up in the taskbar. OK its basically a OneNote-enabled version of the Windows snipping tool but having the feature always there, one click away makes taking screen captures that bit quicker and slicker (more on that later).  I also liked the way I didn’t need to consciously think about file names and document locations for quick information capture, just click and type.


Surface RT

This was the one that really surprised me, I’d adopted our trial Surface RT that we got in on the Microsoft clearance offer last year. Although the design of the device was spot on the limited OS didn’t really hit the spot and as a result I was initially struggling to find where it could add value to my work.

Around the same time Microsoft released the Metro Modern version of OneNote with a UI that seemed to be a bit different to anything they’d done before. Out of curiosity I gave it a try and for the first (and as it stands, last) time found a native Windows 8.x app I preferred over the desktop equivalent.

Where I used to take pen and a paper pad into meetings I replaced it with the Surface and the notebook started filling up. Using a capacitative pen with the touch interface felt natural very quickly and the full-screen, uncluttered Metro view allows plenty of space to work in.

Interestingly I find that I rarely use the touch controls without the stylus when sitting at a desk. I find the stylus gives that extra bit of reach, thus avoiding uncomfortable RSI-inducing stretches to interact with the touchscreen. After a short time working this way it feels odd going back to the laptop where I have to use the touchpad for everything!

Some reviews say the Metro app is quite limited in comparison to the desktop version; that might be true (handwriting, text recognition and so on) but for meetings and technical notes I find text is mainly what I work worth and the Metro version is great for this. The radial menu is particularly good, only appearing as and when I want it (usually to mark key points \ to-do items).

Having read a few other opinions on both OneNote modes I think the reason my experience is a bit different to others is that I believe Windows 8 tablets are best with a light, cover-type keyboard so handwriting hasn’t been that high on my feature priority list. Unfortunately outside of the Surface range and Dell Venue Pro other manufacturers haven’t quite nailed the thin, light yet full-size key layout that doubles up as the tablet cover.

Unfortunately many seem to only offer the touch style keyboards that have no key feedback at all or a big heavy netbook-esque version. The Surface “Type” cover is the perfect middle-ground and would like to see Lenovo & co. offer something similar.

Windows Phone

After ditching our BlackBerries I expected OneNote to work seamlessly on mobile and it basically does. Having access to my notes on a mobile device has proved incredibly useful for quick reference at any time.

That said I haven’t used the app to create anything as I find typing on the Windows Phone keyboard a bit clunky at times due to the system menus using up screen space I’d rather have for the keyboard. Surprised this hasn’t been sorted yet as it seems a really inefficient use of screen estate.

Screenshot_2014-11-17-21-27-30   wp_ss_20141117_0001
that little bit of extra width on the Android keyboard makes all the difference in terms of speed and accuracy

Adding value

So with the experiences outlined above what’s actually changed? For me it’s the ease with which I can capture (and therefore create) detailed documentation of basically every keystroke, click and configuration step I make during server builds, upgrades etc.

Using the quick clipping tool outlined above I keep everything for reference, noting down key points underneath, copying command line outputs and so on (running a dual screen setup is key for this).

Once done I then write up the notes in a more complete form that then goes into our documentation system. Previously I used to do this in Word documents and although the output ends up basically the same I can do it a lot quicker with OneNote, capturing additional detail along the way as there’s always an area ready and waiting to drop information into.

Meeting notes also gain more prominence now they’re in an interactive format. It’s much easier to refer back to previous items and create to-do lists, as well as the added bonus of searching back for older items. The only downside is making sure the tablet is charged beforehand!


Being a Microsoft product nothing is ever completely smooth sailing and OneNote is no exception. The main frustration (as usual) is creating files straight into Office 365, specifically that you can’t actually do it! The first time I tried to create an Office365-based OneNote file I thought I was going mad as the UI only gives the option to open an existing file but not create a new one!

newnotebookThis once again comes back to Microsoft’s maddening insistence that consumer accounts take precedence over Office 365 ones. Hopefully this balance might level out once Windows 10 arrives as there have been some promising murmurs about authentication that are long overdue.

As it stands the workaround is to create the file using the OneDrive for Business web interface then click “Open in OneNote” when the OneNote Web App opens the new blank file.

Seems a bit backwards to me but fortunately something you only need to do once (which is just as well really).


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