OneNote Notebooks on USB drives and SD cards

Do you want a OneNote notebook synced between two computers but don't have a network connection between them, or don't want to create a file share? A simple solution is to store a notebook on a USB drive, an SD card or other removable media. We specifically designed for this scenario with OneNote 2007.

A quick recap of OneNote syncing is in order (the paragraph version not the hundreds of pages of specs version). OneNote always works from a cache file. This is stored in the Local Settings folder, similar to an Outlook cache. OneNote syncs between the cache and your notebook files. The notebooks could be on your local hard disk in My Documents (yes we still cache notebooks that are on local disk for many good architectural reasons), they could be on a network file share, or they could even be on removable media like USB drives. When the location of the notebook files is not available (e.g. network disconnected, or you removed the USB drive) then the notebook is still available in OneNote and you can continue to edit it. When the location of the notebook files is available again (e.g. network reconnects, or you plug the USB drive back in), OneNote will sync to it, and merge in any changes you had.

The consequence of this is you can use a USB drive just as you would a network file share as a sharing location for a OneNote notebook between two machines. You can even view and edit the notebook when the USB drive is not available. If you went home but forgot to take the USB drive or SD card home with you, no problem, just edit the notebook at home and bring home the USB drive the next day and OneNote will sync and merge in the changes.

There's one catch here that we had to address. USB drives can get different drive letters assigned each time you plug them in. The first time you plug it in it may show up as the E: drive, but the next time you plug it in it shows up as F: drive. Or you could plug in some other USB drive that shows up as the E: drive. Our solution to this as that we use a unique ID on the removable drive to identify it and map that to the right notebook. So even if it changes drive letter everytime it gets connected we'll sync the right notebook to it.

Step by Step Instructions:

  1. Plug in the removable drive (USB drive, or SD card ). Note the drive letter.
  2. In OneNote 2007, create a new notebook on the drive.
    • File - New - Notebook
    • Give it a name and click next.
    • Choose "I will use it on this computer" and click next.
    • Click the browse button and browse to the USB drive and optionally a folder where you want the notebook stored. Click create.
  3. Add any content you want to the notebook (section, pages etc.)
  4. Remove the USB drive at anytime
    • Don't close the notebook in OneNote. There's no need. And by leaving it available in OneNote you'll be able to continue to edit it even when the USB drive is out and attached to the second computer. You can close the OneNote application, and next time you open it OneNote will still have the notebook available from its cache.
    • You might want to give it 10 seconds or so after your last edit, or wait for the drive to stop flashing before removing it. OneNote will sync quickly.
    • Depending on the type of drive you might want to use the Windows "Safely Remove Hardware" tool to shut it down and flush the drive first. This is not required by OneNote and if you don't normally need to do it for your drive (depends on its settings) then there's no need.
  5. Connect the USB drive to the second computer
  6. Open the notebook in OneNote on the second computer
    • File - Open - Notebook
    • Choose the folder with the notebook name that OneNote created on the USB drive above.
    • You should now have all the notebook contents available on the second machine.
  7. Again, you can remove the drive at anytime, without closing the notebook in OneNote. You can close the OneNote app at anytime and when you start OneNote again the notebook will be available from the cache.

In this way you can move the USB drive back and forth among multiple machines (2 or more). You can have the notebooks always available on any machine even if you don't have the USB drive with you. And you can even make edits on multiple machines at the same time, OneNote will handle syncing and merging the edits to the USB drive when it's available.

There's one privacy caveat you should know about if you're using removable media to store notebooks. If you plug it into a public computer and then you open the notebook, the notebook will be stored in OneNote's cache on that machine. So if someone using that public machine after you were to look for it, they could potentially see that data. You could minimize likelihood of this by closing the notebook on that machine before leaving the machine. There could still be residue of that notebook data on that public machine, just as with any other document you may have looked at (e.g. in the Windows paging file) but it certainly reduces the likelihood.