Ever since Bill Gates singled out my use of a Tablet PC in a speech in Seattle in May, I've been barraged with e-mail from people asking...

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Ever since Bill Gates singled out my use of a Tablet PC in a speech in Seattle in May, I’ve been barraged with e-mail from people asking me about the software I used to take handwritten notes on the screen while simultaneously making an audio recording.

Some Tablet PCs come as laptops, with a screen that swivels and flattens down over the keyboard. Some, like the Motion 1400 model I use, are called slates because there is no attached keyboard; the unit resembles a big Etch A Sketch.

Mine weighs about 3 pounds, is a half-inch thick and has a 12-inch screen. I can attach a keyboard to it when I want it to work like a desktop, but mostly I just carry it around to surf the Net, check e-mail and take notes.

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It’s all made possible by what has to be one of the most innovative and productive pieces of software ever invented, yet few people have heard of. It’s called OneNote, and it’s a $99 application from Microsoft that is officially described as a note-taking and management program.

You can use OneNote on any Windows computer. On traditional desktops and laptops, you type your notes. On a Tablet PC, you can also use a stylus to take handwritten notes or draw diagrams, and you can mix and match typed notes with handwritten notes.

Handwritten notes are done in what’s called digital ink. If your handwriting is neat enough, the program does a reasonably good job of converting it to text if you’d like. Not for me: My handwriting is gibberish to others and the digital ink translator.

The screen looks just like a typical notebook or legal pad. You can select different colors for different projects, and tabs and folders let you organize the notes and subnotes into categories or projects.

But it is the audio synchronization ability of OneNote that is the most impressive feature.

Using either the built-in microphone on your computer or an external one plugged into the microphone port, you can click a button and record what’s being said as you take notes.

When you’re done and ready to review your notes, you put the stylus or mouse cursor next to your digital-ink scribbles, and the audio that was recorded at that time is played back.

So when I interviewed Gates, for example, I scribbled away on the surface of my Tablet just as if I were taking notes on a paper pad. As he said something that I knew I’d want to quote later when I sat down to write my story, I just scribbled an asterisk next to the handwritten note I made of his quote.

Back at my office, when I wanted to make sure my notes of the quote were right on, I just tapped the screen next to the asterisk and there was his voice, as recorded during the interview.

OneNote is a great tool for journalists, obviously. But of the dozens of e-mails I received, physicians and students seemed to be the most interested.

OneNote works seamlessly with Office 2003, though earlier versions will also work. The biggest surprise is how long OneNote can record. The longest recording I’ve made is about an hour.

Microsoft has figured out how to compress that down so that an hour’s audio only requires about 5 MB of disk space.

I’ve read of some OneNote users who record six to seven hours’ worth of material a day.

I can’t think of any other piece of software I’ve seen in recent years that is more powerful and useful than OneNote.