I didn’t have much time this year to follow TED (In fact, when I first sat down to write this, it was still going on). To be honest, I usually watch the videos a few months afterward, once they’re all finally uploaded and the hype has died down. It’s easy to get caught up in how much certain talks are plugged compared to others, especially with how much live information leaks out over twitter.

But I did break that trend this year a bit. I noticed an intriguing project by Robert Scoble on a blog post of his involving taking photos of notes by the attendees and posting them to flickr. Intrigued, I expected to be wowed by the different creative and thoughtful methods employed which I could use myself for note-taking.

Imagine my disappointment, then, when what I saw that most attendees were either using their iPhones or BlackBerries, scraps of paper, nonstandard spiral bound notebooks, or just generally chaotic methods for taking notes. I mean, aside from the now-famous mind-mapping note girl (photo here; I can’t look at it again because it makes my brain hurt and my teeth start gnashing), there really wasn’t anything TED-level-inspiring.

Numerical Breakdown

Let’s just break it down for a second:

  • 34 pictures in the set
    • Mobile devices: 9 – 26.5%
      • iPhones: 7 – 20.6%
      • BlackBerry: 2 – 5.9%
    • Paper: 25 – 73.5%
      • Notebooks (spiral or bound): 14 – 41.2%
      • Mini Notebooks (or similarly sized): 6 – 17.6%
      • Program/Scraps: 4 – 14.7%
      • PowerPoint Handouts (Bill Gates): 1 – 2.9%

Generally, I abhor excel plots, but this does a good job communicating my point:

Notes Breakdown

But that’s not all; of the iPhone note photos, virtually every single one used the built-in notes application. Yeah, the notes application that ships with the iPhone which lacks just about everything imaginable.

A typical AT&T "Mark The Spot" report

No Evernote love? No Google Documents love? That’s certainly surprising. Yet these attendees consider themselves shakers and movers? Definitely avant-garde? Perhaps ahead of the curve at adoption of new tech? Sorry, virtually every one of you was thoroughly beaten by mind-map girl entirely by default, entirely because of her uniqueness factor. Even more surprising, the journalists in the photo set aren’t even using Steno pads.

With the exception of Bill Gates (who obviously is using PowerPoint handouts for his presentation), there’s really no excuse.

Granted, this could entirely just be bad sampling on Scoble’s part. Whatever the case, it’s a unique opportunity to segue into how much I love the way I take notes.

OneNote – The best kept secret for organizing everything

Ok, those words aren’t entirely my own, but they’re the truth. Microsoft OneNote 2007 (and its predecessor) aren’t just about notes, they’re about collecting, organizing, searching, and making accessible just about anything and everything. You don’t need a tablet, and it isn’t just about text. I think it’s pretty fair to say that OneNote is almost the best kept secret and most undiscovered part of Office 2007.

Relatively Typical Notes View

My freshman year of college, I decided that I wanted to try using it for all of my notes. At the time, I was intrigued by the notion of using a Samsung Q1 Ultra V, a UMPC, due to its tiny form factor and long battery life. That worked, but I’ve since moved on to a Latitude XT in favor of its active digitizer and capacitive multitouch screen. Regardless, I’ve used OneNote for virtually all my notes since, and it has numerous advantages over paper:

Search Results

Search Results

  1. My notes are searchable, entirely. Not just text in its native form either, but handwritten text from the tablet, images (it searches the images), and audio.
  2. I don’t have to carry around spiral bound notebooks that are heavy, or waste money on dead trees (hey, this is one aspect of my life that actually is green).
  3. I can annotate and take notes directly atop PDFs, PowerPoints, or whatever materials are being studied without having to print them beforehand. This is extremely useful as I can get anything into notes by printing it to OneNote.
  4. My notes can be (and are) backed up regularly. That’s something you can’t really do with paper notes, short of making copies or scanning every day.
  5. I can keep every year’s worth of notes in one place. Obviously, that’s a ton of stuff 3 years in. I think you’d be hard pressed to carry around your spiral bound notebooks every day.
  6. I can organize with sections, tabs, notebooks, and pages. The analogues to a notebook are obvious, but there are other things as well that make a lot more sense in the context of digital notes.
  7. Something which always comes in handy is being able to instantly send my notes to other people; I can make PDFs of pages, sections, or entire notebooks.
  8. Everything lives in one place: text notes, powerpoints, images, clips of webpages, even file.

I honestly can’t see how it’d be possible to take notes electronically without OneNote at this point. Granted, there are a lot of other alternatives, but I find that they either have gamestopping flaws or are otherwise unwieldy:

  • Microsoft Word
    • I see this one a lot in classes, and don’t even know where to start. Word is great as a word processing tool, but that’s about all. Sure, you can take notes, but they won’t be searchable (which is a huge drawback for me), and ultimately you’re constrained by this page-by-page model that lies at its core. Combining graphics with notes is possible, but hard. OneNote is almost like Word without pages.
    • How the heck are you supposed to take equations down quickly in Word? If you’ve used the equation editor, you know what a lesson in frustration it is.
  • Google Docs
    • I think using google documents makes a lot of sense, especially given the online nature, but it seems just as difficult to manage with lots of media. Of course, the fact that you can access it anywhere is a huge plus.
  • \LaTeXe/LyX
    • A while back on Slashdot I read a great article I could relate to about taking notes in class for science and engineering. It discussed/asked what the optimal computerized note-taking suite was given an emphasis on entering equations. Of course, \LaTeXe came up, along with its GUI-wrapped similar cousin LyX. I’m a big big fan of \LaTeXe, especially for documents and other things, but I can’t see it being practical or fast enough for taking notes every day. Granted, there are people out there (like some of my crazier friends) that are faster at typing the equations than writing them, but I find myself being able to write faster.
    • You run into the same problems that Word has here; you’re stuck managing files for each set of notes.

I’ve been meaning to try Evernote, and have heard great things about integration across virtually every platform. It seems like the way to go, and if I’d definitely like to try it out.

I guess the point that I’m trying to make is that there are so many better solutions than just using pen and paper or the default notes application that ships with most smartphones. Even though those are what you might grab for at first, you’re setting yourself up to be locked into two methods that leave much to be desired.