Using OneNote with the Surface Pro 3

Editor’s note: The following post was written by SharePoint MVP Corey Roth

The Microsoft Surface Pro 3 is an amazing device and OneNote works quite well on it.  When it comes to using OneNote with the Surface Pro 3, you have the option of using the OneNote 2013 (the desktop application) and the Windows 8.1 Store application.  By default, it will use the Windows Store app when you activate it with your stylus.  This can be changed though (read on).  The feature sets between these two applications vary. This article is going to cover note taking on the Surface Pro 3 as well as what the handwriting experience is like using both applications to help you decide which works best for your needs

OneNote Windows Store Application for Windows 8.1

The Windows Store application is designed with touch in mind.  It features the new radial menu that allows you to quickly select features such as copy / paste, tagging, tables, drawing, and the camera.  It works well using your finger or the stylus.  The screenshot below shows a selection of text and how I can use the radial menu to change the look and feel as well as use the tagging features.

 The camera feature is exclusive to the Windows Store application allowing you to take pictures directly from the device’s camera and insert them into OneNote.  This is a great feature for taking pictures of whiteboards. 

When you are using the Windows Store application using a keyboard and mouse, you might miss the lack of context menus available.  For example if you are used to cutting and pasting text by right clicking, that feature is not available.  Instead, you either need to use the keyboard shortcut (i.e. Ctrl+C / Ctrl+V) or use the cut and paste commands from the radial menu.  The Windows Store application does support many common keyboard shortcuts though.  This includes my personal favorite Ctrl+. which inserts a bulleted list.  That’s a shortcut I would love to see come to the rest of Office.

OneNote 2013 (desktop) Application

The OneNote desktop application has more features comparatively but using it with touch is not as ideal.  Although, the desktop mode defaults to touch mode, you’ll find certain tasks such as searching when you have the Surface Pen in your hand a bit cumbersome.  For example, if you are holding the device vertically in the hand, that means you need to reach all the way to the taskbar to activate the virtual keyboard.  This makes it a bit awkward. 

When holding the device vertically, OneNote naturally collapses the ribbon bar and navigation area to provide a larger work area.  Click the “…” bar at the top to expand the ribbon.  You’ll use this when you want to change the color of your ink.


While OneNote 2013 only has minimal touch features, it has all of the other features you like about OneNote.  I personally use the Outlook integration feature a lot which lets me take notes about my meeting and include the details from the calendar invite. 

Using the Surface Pen

The stylus (or Surface Pen as it is called) that comes with the Surface Pro 3 is a nice upgrade from the previous generations of Surface Pro.  It features two buttons on the side and one on the top.  It was designed with OneNote in mind too.


As you expect, you can use the Surface Pen for handwriting, but you can do a bit more by making use of its buttons.  Click the button at the top of the Surface Pen to open OneNote from wherever you are to jot down a quick note.  This even works when the device is locked and your screen is off.  Not to worry though, your device is still locked and you can’t view any of the existing notes that you have written until you unlock the device.  Write your note and it will automatically be saved.  Click the button at the top again if you want to write another separate page of notes.


Using this functionality will always launch the Windows Store version of OneNote even if you set the default to OneNote 2013 (desktop).  Also, if you are using the desktop version as your default, and you click it when the device is unlocked, it will open OneNote, but it won’t take you to a new page in your Quick Notes automatically.

If you double click the button at the top of the Surface Pen, it will allow you to take a screen clipping of whatever is currently on your screen.  Just drag the area that you want to clip and it will put it in a new page in OneNote.  I actually used this feature a number of times to take the screenshots for this article.


The ability to use your own handwriting using a stylus is nothing new to OneNote.  This could be done with Windows XP Tablet PC Edition and OneNote 2003.  And this could be done in earlier versions of Surface Pro.  However the heavier weight of those devices coupled with the 16:9 aspect ratio meant the devices weren’t as comfortable to hold vertically.  Surface Pro 3 addresses both of these issues by being light weight and by having the proper 3:2 aspect ratio which makes holding the device feel more similar to a pad of paper.

The Surface Pro 3 features palm block technology allowing you to rest your palm on the screen when you are writing.  This is great, but I am so used to not touching the screen when using a stylus I forget that I can rest it there.  As you use your device for handwritten notes more and more, you’ll get used to it though.

The two buttons on the side of the Surface Pen can be quite useful.  The bottom button is your eraser.  Hold it down and move the Surface Pen over the area that you want to erase.  In OneNote 2013, it will actually change the pointer to an eraser to visually indicate you are erasing.  This feature isn’t present in the Windows Store application.

Use the top button for selection.  It effectively works like a lasso where you draw around the text or objects you want to highlight.  You can also use it in other Office applications such as Word though and it works similarly to selecting text with a mouse.

Nicole Steinbok, OneNote Program Manager, has a good video on the Office blog demonstrating all of the tricks you can do with the Surface Pen.  Be sure and check it out to see the pen in action.

Using Handwriting with the Windows Store Application

Both OneNote applications support using hand writing.  Using the radial menu, you can select the type of ink including thickness and color.  OneNote can detect how much pressure you use with the pen to make lines bolder just like with a real pen or pencil.

When taking notes in the Windows Store app, they aren’t indexed.  That means you can search for what is in your handwriting, but you won’t get any results.  However, if you open the OneNote 2013 desktop application later or on another device, your handwritten notes will get indexed regardless of which application you wrote them with.  Then, you can search for them in either application.

Using Handwriting with OneNote 2013

OneNote 2013 on the desktop supports handwriting as well.  You’ll need to make a few extra screen taps to find the drawing menu for your pen.  Since the ribbon is collapsed you’ll need to tap the “…” at the top to expand the menu and pick the type and color of pen you want.  This is one spot that I think the radial menus from the Windows 8.1 application really excels. 

Searching handwritten notes

When it comes to dealing with handwriting, you also have the option of converting it to text.  You might be thinking that you need to convert it to text for OneNote to be able to search it, but that’s actually not the case.  Once the content is indexed, you will be able to search for text inside the ink whether it’s converted or not.  OneNote does an exceptional job at recognizing handwriting and can even parse my sloppy handwriting with ease.  I like that you can convert handwriting to text, however, I find that it just introduces more work for me because I am anal and insist everything be formatted consistently in my notes. J  Take a look at this handwritten note.


We can convert this to text by clicking the Ink to Text button in the Draw menu of OneNote 2013.


The handwriting you wrote will be converted to text.  However, you can see that the formatting is less than ideal.  This just means you are going to spend more time trying to correct it.


The ability to search handwritten notes is quite impressive.   Whether it is text or handwriting, you can search it either way.  When it finds notes that match, they will be highlighted directly in your handwriting.


You can search from the Windows Store application too by activating the search charm and then selecting OneNote.  I find this a bit cumbersome, because the search charm will search all applications by default (not just OneNote).  You will also find that searching this way will yield different results than the desktop application.  The results may be similar but it seems that the order in which things are presented is not the same (notice the results from above).  Just remember, that the handwritten notes won’t be indexed unless you open the notebook in OneNote 2013 at some point.




Is handwriting right for me?

If you have been taking notes on a laptop with OneNote over the years, you know without a doubt you can type faster than you can write.  So why would you go back to handwritten notes?  There are a few places where I think it’s really valuable.  In a meeting at a conference room table, I am going to go with my keyboard every time.  What about when you are doing a white boarding session though?  The device is great.  Just hook it up to a projector and get your Surface Pen out.  You can do this when you are sitting or when you are standing up.  This is great for drawing diagrams, process flows, and network diagrams. 

Another time I find handwriting useful is when I am in a place where I can’t sit.  The whiteboard example is a great one.  However, I think this is also useful for when you are in the field or at an airport waiting to board an airplane.  Just pull your device out and write on it just like it was a legal pad sitting in your clipboard.

Setting the default OneNote application

By default, the Surface Pro 3 is going to use the Windows Store OneNote application.  However, if you decide the desktop application is for you, you can change your default by changing the settings in OneNote 2013.   Simply go to File -> Options -> Advanced and then check the box Make OneNote 2013 (desktop) the default OneNote application for OneNote links, notes, and clips.


Which OneNote should you use?

This is going to be up to your personal preference, but let summarize the key differences between the applications. 

OneNote for Windows 8.1

OneNote 2013 (desktop)

  • Optimized for touch
  • Radial menus make common tasks easier with touch or the Surface Pen
  • Works when the device is locked and OneNote is activated by the Surface Pen
  • Can take pictures directly from the device’s camera
  • No context menus
  • Inserting tables is cumbersome
  • Does not support password protected sections
  • Touch support not as good.
  • Supports all OneNote features including Ink to Text, and Outlook integration
  • Supports indexing handwritten notes
  • More export and sharing options
  • Support for audio and video recording
  • Support for math symbols
  • Has review features such as Spelling, Research, and Thesaurus
  • Supports password protected sections
  • Can view previous versions of notes
  • Surface Pen shortcut doesn't open a new page


With my Surface Pro 3, I find myself jumping between both OneNote applications.  Since they sync automatically it doesn’t really matter which one I use.  When I am holding the device in my hand and using it with the Surface Pen, I use the Windows Store application.  When I am using the device as a laptop, I use the desktop version.  By leaving both applications open, it also allows for my handwritten notes to be indexed rather quickly.

You may need to weigh the pros and cons to determine what will be your primary OneNote application.  Whether you choose OneNote for Windows 8.1, OneNote 2013, or both, you should have no problem with meeting your note-taking needs.

If you are considering the Surface Pro 3 as the tablet that can replace your desktop, be sure and read my full review.

About the author

Corey Roth is a SharePoint consultant specializing in solutions in the Oil & Gas Industry.  He is a four-time recipient of the Microsoft MVP award in SharePoint Server.  Corey has always focused on rapid adoption of new Microsoft technologies including SharePoint 2013, Office 365, and  Visual Studio 2013.  When it comes to SharePoint, he specializes in Office 365 deployments, Enterprise Search, and Apps.  As an active member of the SharePoint community, he often speaks at conferences, events, and user groups.   Corey has a blog at ( where he posts about the latest technology and SharePoint and he develops Office Apps for his company SP2 (  Corey is a huge fan of the Surface line of products.  Follow him @coreyroth on Twitter.

About MVP Monday

The MVP Monday Series is created by Melissa Travers. In this series we work to provide readers with a guest post from an MVP every Monday. Melissa is a Community Program Manager, formerly known as MVP Lead, for Messaging and Collaboration (Exchange, Lync, Office 365 and SharePoint) and Microsoft Dynamics in the US. She began her career at Microsoft as an Exchange Support Engineer and has been working with the technical community in some capacity for almost a decade. In her spare time she enjoys going to the gym, shopping for handbags, watching period and fantasy dramas, and spending time with her children and miniature Dachshund. Melissa lives in North Carolina and works out of the Microsoft Charlotte office.

Comments (21)

  1. Angus says:


    Is there a way to change the pen thickness for the Onenote boot from Pen click on the Surface Pro 3 ?

  2. Camilla says:

    Hello Corey!

    I have just bought the Surface Pro 3 for myself since I found it awesome for the task of taking notes at the studies at university. Though before I bought it I used to have an ordinary PC with windows 8, but I used the Onenote desktop app. Now, I try to get used to the Windows Store app, but there are certain things I can't make working.

    First, a slightly simply question: Can you explain to me how I can change the default settings of the script size which the Store app uses? I keep getting annoyed at the app because it keeps using a size 11 Capri as a default setting, and I just have to correct it each time.

    And second, you write that "With my Surface Pro 3, I find myself jumping between both OneNote applications.  Since they sync automatically it doesnโ€™t really matter which one I use." – how did you make it sync the notes you make to both programmes?

    My Windows store app refuses to open (it can't even "see" the Onenote file that I have located in the OneDrive) the Desktop app's notes, so I had to make a new notebook to put that application's notes in – it would really make it a lot easier if what you're doing is possible – seriously, it would make a significant difference for me, so could you PLEASE spare a couple of minutes to explain/help me get to this. I am desperate for it to work.

    I have tried to google my way to the solutions, but it doesn't seem that anyone knows.

    Hope you can help me. Camilla.

  3. Tony Towson says:

    I started on OneNote 2003, them 2007 and was on 2010 until I purchased a Surface Pro3 on black Friday and was having trouble with new version. Have read several articles and watch as many youtube videos as I could find. Then I found your article and feel it was the best by far it's easy to comprehend, I found if simple, but well stated clear and clean. I am layman so if I can understand it then anyone should be able too. And for what it's worth this is the 1st article I have commented on I think you guys did great Job.      

  4. Caroline says:

    Cool stuff- I CANNOT find the menu on Onenote- where is it?? Trying to use Draw menu to convert ink to text, but don't see menu. Is it hidden??



  5. Brian says:

    Thank you for an excellent article. Like Camilla, I too would be most interested in how you got both OneNote applications to sync.

  6. Corey Roth says:

    Hi Camilla,

    I don't know if you can change the Store App sizes or not.  As far as the two OneNote applications they are both tied to your Windows Live account.  However, the way you browse and select notebooks is completely different between the applications.  You should be able to find them both though.  It might just take a number of clicks.  You should be able to find it though.



  7. Jay says:

    Is there an easy way to change,edit or delete a notebook title?

  8. Jay says:

    Is there a way to change a notebook title or to delete it?

  9. Han Nyo says:

    Why I do not have a tool bar on my onenote surface bpro 3?

  10. Tammy says:

    I don't have a menu bar on my Surface Pro. I've clicked everywhere I can think to search for it.

  11. Kristina says:


    After a reset of my Surface Pro 3, my radial menus have disappeared in OneNote. How can I turn them back on?

  12. Jonathan says:

    Correction on your statement that clicking your surface pen in desktop program does not open a new page.  It actually does once you're in a notebook.  It'll create a new page in the same section in you're in, in any given notebook.

  13. Sean says:

    Is there a way to use Checkboxes with the Surface Pro 3 Stylus?

  14. David says:

    Thanks for the great write up.

    I have been looking for a solution for this for quite some time. I have hesitated with the Samsung tab due to the inability to run windows programs. I need this for work for sure. I just have to wait for the price to come down as I have a spending limit, even as an IT director. ๐Ÿ™‚

    So, since I have to wait I may just wait for the 128GB version with 4Glte. unfortunately I think I'll be waiting quite some time ๐Ÿ™

  15. Natalie says:

    Hi there!

    im using a Lenovo Yoga so only have one button on my pen. is there a quick way to change colours/thickness without having to go back into the menu each time?

    thanks in advance ๐Ÿ™‚

  16. Ell says:

    Hi, I have just purchased the surface pro 3 and want to know how I can share one note files for example if I need to email them.

  17. Raj says:


    I dont have File,Home,Insert,Draw….any of these tabs in my one note app in my SP3. So i cant save any of my one note files and send it to others. Do you know how can I activate these functions….pls?


  18. Mathew Edlund says:

    Hey there. I just updated to Windows 10 on my Surface Pro 3. Could you tell me how I can get back all the functionality you just went over in this article back? I now have the Windows 10 version and it is god awful. I want my old OneNote back. The one I paid for. Is there a way to get back all the functionality that I paid for (and was the reason I got a surface) that was removed with the Windows 10 app?

  19. Ben says:

    I just got a Surface Pro 3 for school so OneNote is becoming a very important and efficient tool for me but I'm not finding any information in line with the version of OneNote I seem to be running. (Running Windows 10)

    I hoped this write-up would help me solve my issues but the option to use the 'desktop' version isn't present or is hiding from me. Primarily, what I am needing is spell checker. It just doesn't seem to be available in OneNote. I get red squiggles under misspelled words but zero corrective options.

    Any advice will be appreciated.

  20. Larry says:

    all I would love to do is within one note, be able to take a picture, size it, comment on it, then go on to the next picture.  Don't want to take a bunch and then import from the gallery.  People at the MS store have said wow, can't believe it can't be done, but are then stumped.  any hints?

  21. Tom says:


    I'm desperately a way to make both apps (the Onenote 2013 and the preinstalled Version on the surface 3 updated to Win 10) being synced automatically: it failed so far:

    – I can switch between both apps on the surface

    – but the content is not synced

    would be glad to receive some hints, since my supporter can't help me either

    regs, Tom

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