Laptop users take heed: Noteworthy programs abound

I grew up taking traditional, handwritten notes, most often in outline form. I wrote in cursive and rarely every referred back to these notes, mainly because they were often not as well organized as the textbook, and cursive is hard to scan if you are looking for specific information rather than reading a page of notes in its entirety.

So I switched to taking notes on my laptop a year ago, which has many advantages — but also several downfalls. I am not a terribly disciplined person, and while I almost never surf online during class or section, my method of absorbing a lecture or presentation (especially if I haven’t done the reading) is not tremendously aided by the use of a laptop in class, even if my notes are suddenly a breeze to read or search.

For chemistry and economics, I have found a tablet to be helpful, especially for graphs and their equations: Drawing these on the screen is simply less time-consuming than attempting to be a mouse artist. While I thought my tablet would prove very useful in art history, I found it a bit cumbersome to lug through the gallery. However, in lecture classes with seats, a larger, higher-resolution screen is definitely a plus: I am able to read documents and take notes side by side as a result. For a tight deadline when writing an article or laying out a long presentation, I find a second monitor — perhaps attached at a computer cluster — to be invaluable.

Some of the greatest hurdles, however, come on the software side of the note taker’s experience. While I am coming to appreciate Vista’s improved tablet functionality, I still find errors in OneNote, even in its latest Office 2007 version. Microsoft may refer to OneNote as revolutionary, but I believe one has to look to other products such as MindJet MindManager to find something truly extraordinary. However, I think I would be uncomfortable solely using MindManager to take notes, as the hierarchical “mind-mapping” format is a bit constraining when you don’t know how your professor will structure the remainder of a lecture. Still, it works wonders for brainstorming or outlining a paper’s thesis.

My complaints with OneNote include the inability to properly copy and scale all visual objects, including images, drawings and PDFs. Inevitably, parts of your drawn images or diagrams will detach. While the problem was worse in 2003, and the ability to “add space” to your page helps a great deal, it is still frustrating not to have total control over drawn entities. Perhaps a “grouping” function, as found in Word and the venerable Google SketchUp 3D modeling program, would solve these problems substantially. Because Word already has this feature, my eyes stray toward the MacBooks in class who take notes in Word using the note-taking template. Even though this template may lack some of OneNote’s features, it maintains the more powerful capability of table formatting from Word. For those eager to upgrade to the just-released Office 2008 for Mac, be warned: it still will not include OneNote.

In a more general sense, it seems that the more progressive applications — SketchUp and the latest 2007 incarnation of Office come to mind — include more intuitive user interfaces than in the past. Despite its complexity, SketchUp only has a handful of buttons. The “ribbon” toolbar interface in Office 2007 is obviously an attempt at simplification. The iPod user interface is a perfect example of the ideal these companies are attempting to imitate. Still, they have a long way to go.

The day when users will be able to do a plethora of very advanced tasks on their laptops and cell phones with very little technical knowledge is close at hand; it is also a day I await with great anticipation.

Barrett Williams is a sophomore in Trumbull College. His column appears Wednesdays.