While Livescribe didn’t design the SmartPen especially for journalists, there are times when it feels that way.
The pen is a powerful tool for anyone who needs to take notes. Sadly the latest Livescribe Sky version needs work before it will live up to its predecessor’s reputation.
Livescribe’s Sky WiFi Smartpen lets you write ink note on special notepaper while recording what is being said. The notes upload directly to the internet when you can read them back and step through the recorded audio in sync with the written words.
Sky is an updated take on the original Livescribe Pulse SmartPen reviewed here two years ago. At the time I described the pen as a paperless journalist’s dream. It would be fair to say it changed the way I work. More about that later.
You still use pens?
Pens and paper are unfashionable in an age of smartphones, tablets and laptops. In many situation they are still the best way to take quick notes. Journalists often have to stand around for impromptu press briefings, speak to people on the hop in the back of cabs, in bars or cafes. Whipping a laptop out isn’t always practical.
And, here’s the big point, laptops, smartphones or traditional voice recorders create a barrier between the journalist and the interviewee. They switch into formal communications mode. A pen and pad rarely triggers the same reaction. I’m not out to trick people, but I find they relax and talk like humans when I use a pen in an interview.
Where Livescribe scores
Livescribe’s pen and paper approach has another advantage. My shorthand was always atrocious – work pressure meant I never finished the training course as a junior journalist. At first I made the mistake of taking shorthand notes with the pen. Now I don’t bother.
Once you get used to the technology, you realise you no longer have to capture every spoken word with ink. Instead, you can just write brief notes, markers if you like, indicating which bits of audio are worth winding back to. This simplifies the task enormously, so I can concentrate on what’s being said, think up fresh questions and so on.
Livescribe Sky and the starter notebook
Physically the LiveScribe Sky is the size and weight of a large fountain pen. There’s a small ball-point at the sharp end, the other end has sockets for a USB cable and a headphone jack. Along the flattened shaft there’s a microphone, speaker, a OLED display and an on-off button. Once switched on, you use it just like an everyday pen.
Well, not an everyday pen. It needs special paper – which comes in a variety of notebooks and notepads. They’re more expensive than standard paper, but you don’t use as much. I estimate I spend about NZ$15 a year on the paper. If you’re pushed you can print your own paper.
Easy to use, not idiot proof
Using Livescribe is simply enough. You switch it on, tap the button at the bottom of the page to start recording then start writing. The pen remembers which audio is recorded at the same time as which piece of text, so you’ll need to make reasonable notes. I focus on speaker names and key words.
Over the years I must have recorded 50 or so sessions with my earlier pen, two failed. In both cases I forgot to hit the start recording button. The pen’s display tells you when it is recording, so I now make a point of checking this two or three times just to make sure.
What does Wi-Fi bring?
Less and more than I hoped. The good thing about Wi-Fi is you don’t need to struggle to find the pen cradle – which was the case with older SmartPens. On the other hand those earlier Livescribe pens would run for days at a time without needing a recharge. I used it to record an intense three-day conference and still only used about a third of the battery charge.
Wi-Fi can chew through batteries at an alarming rate. Testing at home indicates it should be good for about a day’s work between charges. Which means you may need to carry the USB charging cable and top up power. The USB cable also comes to your rescue if you don’t have a good Wi-Fi connection. Overall, I’d say Wi-Fi takes as much as it gives. Your needs may be different.
One of my favourite uses for the Livescribe pen is covering press conferences and seminars. If you’re in a venue with Wi-Fi you can sync locally and have the files sitting ready for you when you get to a computer. The Sky is great for travelling light and I’ve even had it working with my iPad.
Previously you needed a separate desktop application. The latest version works with Evernote, an otherwise excellent cloud application that I need to get around to writing about. Sadly this is a step backwards for Livescribe. It feels like beta software.
One great feature of the earlier software was a handwriting recognition add-on app called MyScript, which could turn my written notes into text. My writing is awful Evernote claims to do handwriting recognition, in practice it scored a big fat zero dealing with my scrawl – MyScript fared better.
Finding stuff is harder in Evernote. Text and audio integration is less complete and clumsy. I had difficulty playing sound files on my PC – luckily you can play them back directly from the pen. Frankly, if Livescribe stuck with its own software this would be a glowing review, it isn’t. Make no mistake, the Livescribe Sky is impressive, the software feels under-cooked.
Despite misgivings about the software, the Livescribe Sky remains a powerful tool. It does things tablets can’t. It is essential if you’re a journalist, student or someone who needs to take lots of notes while working. Wi-Fi is a nice feature, but not essential. The software badly needs updating.
With Livescribe Sky prices starting at NZ$274, this isn’t an impulse buy although I can’t function at maximum efficiency without one. If you like the idea, consider the earlier Livescribe Echo at NZ$190 – it doesn’t have WiFi, but uses the older software which is more reliable and consistent.