Halfway between a stylus and a pen, the Smartpen 3 writes on paper but captures your notes and drawings digitally with added audio tied to your strokes
The pen hasn’t changed much since the successful invention of the ballpoint pen in 1938. We’ve had pressurised containers that work in space, different types of ink and slicker ball designs, but fundamentally it works the same way it always has.
The stylus is arguably the next evolution of the pen – a pen without ink. For many, however, it is a step too far, lacking the tactility of pen on paper and ditching the best thing about a ballpoint pen: it can write just about anywhere without any special equipment.
The Pen 2.0
The Livescribe system, of which the Smartpen 3 is the third generation, is a halfway house that’s potentially more useful than either a stylus or a pen.
What you’ve got is a pen that looks and feels like a pen, writes on paper with a ballpoint tip and ink, just like any other biro, but it also digitises your scrawls on the page. What you write on paper is exactly replicated in a digital form, without the need to photograph or scan the page.
How does it work?
A camera in the end of the pen recognises tiny dot patterns on the pages of special Livescribe paper to track motion. It means it won’t work on any old paper, although as a pen it obviously does, but Livescribe-compatible paper is available in various forms, notepads and Moleskine books, or you can print your own using a laser printer.
The notes are synced to the Livescribe+ app on Android or iOS smartphone or tablet via Bluetooth, but the pen works and records notes just fine on its own, meaning you don’t have to have it connected to your smartphone all the time to work.
Captured notes can be output line-by-line as images, as an image of the page or as a PDF and shared via any app or service you have installed on your smartphone or tablet.
The app also has a trick up its sleeve in the form of so-called Pencasts: audio recordings bound to your pen strokes. The app records sound via the smartphone or tablet’s built-in microphone, or an external mic plugged into the headphones socket. The app is not able to record phone calls made on the device running the app, but can use a pick-up microphone to record from another phone.
Audio is then timestamped to your handwriting, meaning that you can playback precisely what was being recorded at the time you wrote a particular word just by tapping on it. It makes transcribing interviews or meeting notes so much faster by getting to the right point in the recording instantly. It’s fantastic.
Pencasts can be played back using the app or via a PDF with the audio embedded within it. To do so you need to load the PDF into Livescribe’s Player – a web app – which is a bit of a faff, but it means anyone can play back a shared PDF even if they don’t own a Livescribe pen.
Livescribe also does handwriting recognition. Its success depends on how bad your handwriting is. It will recognise mine pretty accurately when I concentrate and write neatly. However, it starts to struggle as my handwriting scrawls when writing at speed, which I normally am when interviewing someone.
Differences between iOS and Android
The Android app is a poor relative of the iOS app, crucially missing an automatic send feature, which allows users to effectively sync their Livescribe notes with a notebook in Evernote. You can send notes in the form of images, PDFs or Pencasts to Evernote from the Livescribe Android app, but you have to do it manually.
It’s also worth noting that notes are synced between different devices running the Livescribe+ app, but not Pencasts, which are tied to the device they were recorded on unless shared via other means.
This is the second version of the Smartpen 3 I have tested. The first, the Moleskin edition, died after overheating. I charged it using a Qualcomm Quick Charge compatible USB charger (the pen does not come with its own power adapter), which was fine.
I put it in my bag and went to a meeting, but when I pulled it out to use it 30 minutes later it was unresponsive and too hot to handle. Just over 30 minutes later it had cooled off, but was completely dead.
- Controls for pairing the pen, recording, pausing and stopping Pencasts, as well as starring, flagging or labelling notes are drawn as icons on the notepad pages – tap them with the pen to use them
- The non-pen end is a capacitive stylus, hiding the microUSB port, but it doesn’t stay in the end very securely
- Sketches with the pen work just as well as written notes – artistic talent required
The Livescribe Smartpen 3 comes in various different models, including a new revised Black edition with a better weight distribution and slightly slimmer build. The Livescribe Smartpen 3 Black Edition costs £120 and comes with a small refill-style 50-sheet notepad and one ballpoint refill.
Livescribe-compatible notepads start at around £3 each and refills for the pen, £1 each.
The Livescribe Smartpen 3 isn’t perfect. Having to have a smartphone with you to record Pencasts isn’t as good as recording on the device itself, particularly if you’re in a rush. The Android app isn’t ready for primetime yet and the fact that the first version I was sent overheated and died is worrying.
But for speeding up the digitising of notes I can’t fault it. The pen perfectly replicates my scrawls, and when exported to Evernote it means I have a duplicate of my notes wherever I am. The Pencasts also speed up transcription no end. The pen is a decent writing instrument, particularly the Black Edition which feels more like a large pen with good weight distribution.
It will always have niche appeal but for anyone who makes notes, particularly while recording audio, it is an excellent tool.
Pros: Digital notes from paper, feels like a pen, writes like a pen, cross-platform, syncs audio to written notes, works without being attached to a phone, many sources of compatible paper, handwriting recognition
Cons: Android app not very developed, expensive, requires special paper, first pen failed
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