For almost as long as I can remember, laptops and computers have included microphone jacks. But, I've never found a good use for them.

Granted, there are cute gimmicks that make use of a microphone. For example, Mac OS X has very cool speech features. I can, for example, hit a key, say, "What time is it?" and my Mac'll tell me the time Star Trek-style. But, it's not reliable enough for day-to-day use, and it's slower than just launching the clock app with the mouse.

Panther even has a fun command-line tool so you can type say "Wayne is really cool" and the Mac will actually say "Wayne is really cool." Pretty cool, eh?  Sadly, I rarely hear people utter those words.

No one I know uses these voice features for real work though. I even admit that Microsoft's speech features have left much to be desired. I tried Office XP's speech dictation features about a year ago, and though it probably recognized 95% of what I said correctly, having to correct that last couple percent made all the difference. I had to spend a lot of time using the keyboard to correct these mistakes, so it was actually slower than just typing everything in the first place.

And though I had a blast programming with Microsoft Agent and getting my personal parrot (or wizard) to say many random phrases, I fail to see the point unless you love the Office Assistant so much that you feel the urge to add one to your program, and you want yours to talk.

However, OneNote's audio linking is the killer app that makes microphones useful. Most helpful in lectures and meetings, you have OneNote record audio with your laptop's microphone while you're jotting down notes, and OneNote synchronizes the notes with the audio that's being record. I still can't get over how simple this feature is, yet how useful it can be.

After you're done recording, you can

  • Hover over part of your notes and a little audio icon appears. When you click it, OneNote plays back the audio that was recorded when you took that particular note. It does this by time-stamping all your notes as you're taking them, so it can jump to the right section of your recorded audio.
  • Just hit play on the toolbar to play back audio. OneNote will highlights portions of your notes that were taken while the current audio was recorded.

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This all works great with normal text notes, and additionally with ink notes if you have a Tablet PC.

The audio is saved with the Windows Media Audio 9 Voice codec, which is optimized for storing speech. At the default settings, an hour of audio takes up roughly 7 megs. So, the size is very reasonable.

If you're a Mac user, the new Word 2004 coming out this summer has a Notebook View with a similar audio capture feature.

One major reason this is so successful is that it doesn't even attempt to recognize the speech. As most computer science majors know, recognizing speech is very hard to get right. OneNote just gives you back your audio without trying to do anything "magical" to it.

I would have killed to have something like this in college. Very useful for when the professor's talking too fast or, heaven forbid, you fall asleep during lecture.