Make that Smartpens. It’s a brand name as well as a concept.
Smartpens are larger than standard ball-points. They are bulky because they include tiny computers and have an infra-red camera to track the pen’s progress over specially printed paper.
Some Smartpens have wireless communications. Older models need to connect to the world using a USB cradle. Older Livescribe Smarttpens have LCD displays. The Livescribe 3 has coloured status LEDs instead. Not quite a disco in your pocket, but hey.
It’s a clever idea. Livescribe pens are great for journalists and students or anyone who needs to record meetings, lectures, seminars and conferences.
I’ve used Livescribe pens for years. As a journalist I’m delighted with the product. I take notes at press conferences and interviews, then use the audio track to get better quality verbatim quotes from people or to clarify my writing.
Livescribe smartpens have made such a difference to my working life that my shorthand skills — never good — have faded.
Ever-changing Livescribe 3
Livescribe got it almost right first time with the original Pulse Smartpen. The only obvious hardware flaw and a minor one was that the pen was round and inclined to roll off flat surfaces at the wrong moment. There’s another minor human user interface flaw that I’ll get to later.
The roundness was fixed in later models. The second generation Livescribe Sky pens have a flat side to stop rolling and the Livescribe 3 has a clip that performs the same role or, rather, doesn’t perform the same roll.
Despite getting it largely right first time, Livescribe hasn’t made up its mind on the best way to deliver its vision. Over the years it has tinkered with the Smartpen format. Not all the changes suit all users.
- The first generation Livescribe Pulse Smartpen with built-in microphone connected to computers by a USB cradle and came with it own app.
- Livescribe ditched the app and the cradle for second generation Sky Smartpen, sending data instead to the third-party Evernote. Wi-Fi replaced the cradle.
- The third generation Livescribe 3 Smartpen offloads recording to a separate iOS device. This makes for a smaller, lighter pen, but it means that second device is essential. Livescribe says an Android version is coming. This approach changes the Smartpen’s economics. As well as the NZ$200 plus cost of the pen, you need to budget another grand for an iPhone.
Each iteration comes with forward and backward steps. Subsequent models are not so much better as different.
Adding Wi-Fi to the second generation pen meant digitised notes are ready minutes after a session ends — that’s good. It’s especially good if you need to send them to someone else. However, the first generation Livescribe Pulse smartpen would run a whole week on a single battery charge.
The Sky Smartpen struggles to get through a busy day. A charge is good for about six hours, that’s not a whole day of reporting on a conference.
Wi-Fi good and bad
That Wi-Fi connection is useful, but it chews battery power. For the way I work, seven days of power is better than fast internet access. Having said that, not having to pack a cradle when working away from home is a bonus.
And using Evernote instead of the dedicated app means you have to deal with a third-party.
I also found Evernote is not as good at converting my handwritten notes to text as the add-on app I used with the original Pulse Smartpen, but I’ve heard others say they think it works better. In my experience Evernote was not as successful as the custom app that came with the first generation pens.
And anyway, while I like Evernote, I’d be happier if I could use Microsoft OneNote to store my recordings.
Livescribe 3 the next generation
In theory offloading the recording to an iOS device in Livescribe 3 makes for better audio recordings. One of Livescribe idiosyncrasies is that the built-in microphone often picks up the sound of the pen scratching across the paper. At times this is distracting. If the audio isn’t good, maybe an echoey room or a quiet speaker, those scratchings can temporarily drown speech, so it’s possible to miss an important quote.
I haven’t used the Livescribe 3 for a real interview or press conference yet, what I’m about to say is based on purely artificial testing. I have three problems with this approach.
First, there’s the business of a second device. Sure, I don’t go anywhere without a phone before all I need to remember was the pen and special notepaper when heading off for a Livescribe interview, now I have to check the phone is there and, importantly, has enough charge to handle the recoding session — this is often not a given if I’m away from my desk for a long day.
Second, it’s not a flexible in other ways. In recent years I’ve been in media scrums at ‘doorsteps’. That’s when someone, usually a politician, holds a short media conference while on the run.
Journalists stand around with microphones, cameras and notebooks capturing the moment. The old school Livescribe pens were fantastic for this job. Having to fiddle with a phone as well as the pen and notebook in a door step requires a third hand.
Third, there’s my tech paranoia. Needing an extra device means there’s more scope for things to go wrong. The other human interface flaw I mentioned at the top of this post is that on occasion I’ve started an interview thinking the pen was recording, but it wasn’t.
It doesn’t tend to happen in formal interviews or at conferences where there’s time to relax and get set up, it can happen when things start suddenly. There have been times when someone has talked for 10 to 15 minutes before I noticed I’m not recording. I fear this is going to happen more often when I have to watch and set up two devices.
What I’d like to see from Livescribe
So where does this leave me and my journalism work? I’d be happiest with the first generation Livescribe Pulse. That model is no longer on sale, but the $200 1.1 generation Livescribe Echo is an option. I’m seriously considering getting another one.
That’s the curious thing about the Livescribe Smartpens. Throughout this post I’ve talked about three generations of pen. In a technical sense that’s true, each iteration is more advanced than before.
And yet, the three generations are less an evolution than three different approaches to the same basic idea.
The first generation seems tailor-made for journalists. Second and third generation models are better suited to other roles. If you love Evernote, get a Sky Smartpen. If you’re a committed iPhone user and need something for business meeting the Livescribe 3 looks like the best choice.