OneNote for Windows 8 – What’s Changed?

OneNote for Windows 8 has just been released, and it’s quite different from previous versions. The only application in the Office suite to make the jump to a Windows 8 app, OneNote is an entirely different beast from the rest of the Office family.

Its features have made it one of the best productivity applications out there for some time. Does OneNote for Windows 8 maintain the best features of its desktop-based predecessors?


The main screen of OneNote for Windows 8

The main screen of OneNote for Windows 8

OneNote looks beautiful when you first open it up. True to Microsoft’s Modern UI, there is little on the screen except a list of your notes and a content area to the right. I can’t get enough of this Modern UI – the emphasis and focus it puts on your content is great, and really helps you to focus on your work. This UI will likely serve as a model for future Office programs to be released as Windows 8 apps.

The entire application seems polished and smooth, a lot like Windows 8 in general. I’ve experienced no errors or problems of any kinds after using the app daily for nearly a month. It’s one of my absolute favorite programs to use on Windows 8 because of how well everything just works, while being a joy to look at simultaneously.

Getting Around

The section and notebook menu for OneNote.

The section and notebook menu for OneNote.

The ‘Quick Notes’ header in the top left is the name of the currently open notebook. Click it, and a list of your sections and notebooks will fluidly slide in from the left. Yes, just like the old OneNote you know and love, there are still sections and notebooks — and they’re still just as useful as they were in OneNote 2010.

Upon first opening the app, there are no controls visible, and especially no controversial ribbon. This can be a little confusing at first, but everything is within easy reach — don’t worry. On the right of the active textbook is a small purple action menu. Click this, and you can do nearly anything you wish to your notebook, all within a circular menu that is quick and easy to navigate.

The Radial Menu in OneNote

The Radial Menu in OneNote

Highlight some text, and the action menu changes to the font menu. This menu can seem confusing at first, but it’s actually quite intuitive and easy to pick up. It’s the first circle menu I’ve seen done right. A few minutes with it, and you’ll be perfectly comfortable. And, it’s much less intrusive than the Ribbon in OneNote 2010 – I don’t doubt that this circular action menu will soon become a standard for Windows 8 apps, or at least will pop up in future Office apps for Windows 8.

Automatic Syncing

All of the converging that Microsoft has done to create a coherent ecosystem around Windows 8 has really paid off here. This syncing is a really convenient feature: it’s entirely possible for me to get at all of my notes and to-do lists from anyone’s computer, as long as I’ve got my Microsoft account to log in to. Everything is automatically synced with SkyDrive.

I’m leery about the cloud, and don’t necessarily like the control that it gives Microsoft over my files, but I’ve got to admit that it’s very convenient. There is no save button in OneNote. Whereas in OneNote 2010 the program would automatically save documents to a misty location on your hard drive (somewhere deep in My Documents), OneNote for Windows 8 saves everything to your SkyDrive. It’s accessible on the web and in the SkyDrive app for Windows 8.

Power Features

Though OneNote for Windows 8 will be more than adequate for your daily needs – I’ve been using it daily since Windows 8 came out – there are some features that it lacks when compared side-to-side with OneNote 2010.

One of the biggest tablet-friendly features of previous OneNote versions was the ability to draw directly on the page, allowing users with touchscreens (or even mice) to draw and create quick graphics and charts, or even take notes directly with a stylus or other touch device. The omission of this feature, especially on a version geared towards tablets, seems baffling.

OneNote 2010 also allows pages to be manipulated with far greater control. Files may be attached directly to pages, and video and audio can even be inserted straight into the page. Also lacking is the screen clipping feature, which is perhaps the only feature I miss from OneNote 2010.

Still, given that this is a free app, it’s not surprising. Keeping these features out keeps the program simpler and easier to use, and also leaves incentive for users to buy the desktop OneNote app, which will continue to be updated along with the rest of the Office suite.

Wrapping Up

Microsoft is looking to pull you a little bit further into their proprietary ecosystem, and OneNote accomplishes this very well. Everything works seamlessly together: Windows 8, OneNote, and SkyDrive are all working together in a way we’ve not seen in past Windows versions. It’s great to see this amount of attention to detail coming out of Microsoft.

At the same time, OneNote for Windows 8 is a lot simpler than its predecessor. This is by design, though. Microsoft will be releasing another version in their new Office suite, called OneNote 2013 – this will likely look a lot like the OneNote 2010 you know and love.

OneNote for Windows 8 introduces a simpler approach towards productive note-taking than its predecessors: and for a note-taking app that’s full-featured and free, OneNote blows the competition out of the water. While power users might want to cling to their desktop version, OneNote for Windows 8 is definitely enough for everyday use, and even basic word-processing.


This OneNote is the newest version of Microsoft's productivity application, specifically optimized for Windows 8.