Synchronising OneNote Across Multiple Devices

Whether you use OneNote for work, life or play, it is increasingly likely that you do so on more than one device. It is very likely that one of those devices is a mobile device too. This is even more true if you are using OneNote to manage tasks as well as information. OneNote handles synchronisation across instances brilliantly, so today we’re going to take a brief look at how that happens and what we need to do, if anything, to make that happen.

Understanding OneNote Synchronisation

OneNote’s synchronization feature is slightly different depending which of the two versions of OneNote you are currently using. In the future there will be only one (yes, Highlander reference) but until then we still have to talk about two.

OneNote 2016

In OneNote 2016 notebooks live on your OneDrive first and foremost, and can be opened in the OneNote app on your PC. In OneDrive the various files and folders of each notebook appear as a single file, even though in reality they are not.

When you open a notebook in the app, a copy is downloaded locally to your device and is then kept in sync with the original in the cloud whenever OneNote is open (and you are connected to the internet). This synchronised file can be found by going into the OneNote folder on your C drive, into OneNote and then into the AppData folder. This is a hidden folder by default, so you would have to turn on view hidden files in the explorer view menu to see it. This synchronised notebook content can not be opened in itself, as it is a mess of all the various sections and pages of the notebook you have opened, viewed and used, not a clean copy of the cloud notebook file. In this way, it is not useful to you to access it, and you can’t open or copy the notebook from this location, it is just functional.

In this version of OneNote you can also make notebooks (File > New) locally, and by default they live in My Documents/OneNote Notebooks. These do not sync and live truly locally only.

OneNote App (Universal app)

In the now more common and most recent version of the app, you can not make local-only notebooks, but the sync facility is much better (by which I mean faster and more reliable).

When you create a notebook in OneNote, it’s stored in your OneDrive account. This means that your notes are not just stored on your device, but also in the cloud. As a result, you can access your notes from any device that has OneNote and an internet connection.

You can also make notebooks by clicking on the notebook name in the sidebar, to reveal the list of open notebooks, and choosing ‘Add notebook’ from the bottom of the sidebar

Setting Up OneNote Synchronisation

If you are making a notebook you wish to synchronise and backup, it is often cleanest to make it in the OneDrive web interface and then open it from there, so you can be sure it is kept in OneDrive.

To do this, sign in to your Microsoft account in OneNote. If you don’t have a Microsoft account, you can create one for free. Once you’re signed in, the notebooks you create will automatically be kept inside your OneDrive and so can be accessed from any device as well.

In order to access your notebooks on another device, you will just need to download the OneNote app on that device, and sign in with your Microsoft account. Once open, you will be able to chose to open any of the notebooks already kept in your OneDrive, or make new ones.

Working with OneNote Synchronisation

Synchronisation in OneNote could not be more simple in principle – it happens automatically. Any changes you make to a notebook are automatically synchronised back to the cloud version and then to all copies open on other devices. You do not need to do anything to make this happen. This is not instant, but based on your internet connection will happen relatively quickly.

You can manually sync your notebooks. This is useful to be able to do, for such occasions as you may be getting on a train, flight, etc, and want to know you have the most up to date content on your device. To do this:

In both versions of OneNote, you will need to right click on the notebook in the left hand list and chose ‘sync notebook’.

In the universal app there is a sync icon in the top right corner of the ribbon that will tell you if the sync is up to date.

As well as choosing to sync the notebook there is another ‘sync all’ option, which will show you a list of all notebooks as well as the amount synchronised each has reached.

Troubleshooting OneNote Synchronisation

The internet is full of horror stories of lost data, corrupted notebooks and work gone when using OneNote. This can happen, but is often based on users not understanding how OneNote works and so not working sympathetically to this.

Firstly, do not close a notebook until the content has synchronised back to the cloud. If you do, the unsynchronised content on your device will likely be lost. OneNote tries to synchronise whenever the app is closed. It is a good idea to let it, and not close the laptop or turn it off during this brief process.

Also, if you sign out of the OneNote app then all your notebooks that are accessed through that account will be closed, so only do this when they are synchronised up to date too.

Not synchronising? Check you are still connected to the internet.

Next, check you are still signed into the app with your Microsoft account. Also, is it the correct Microsoft account, if you have more than one!

Amongst the noise you can often find good advice here https://www.reddit.com/r/OneNote

Keep Up To Date

The first advice on any site including Microsoft’s own will always be to make sure your OS and apps are up to date. This is not helpful once an issue arises so try to get into the habit of turning on automatic updates where offered, and manually update when available. Also, give OneNote a minute to update when you know you have made changes to a page on another device. This alone can resolve many potential issues before they arise. I have used OneNote for twenty years so far. I rarely get sync issues because of this practice and still trust the app with my most valuable work, personal, finance and long term information. Following the above tops will help you to feel confident that the great features of the app are not marred by issues with the safety of your data.


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