3 min read

Livescribe SmartPen - paperless journalist's dream

If James Bond were a journalist, not a spy, Q would give him a Livescribe Pulse Smartpen.

It’s a larger than average ball-point pen with a built-in microphone and digital audio recorder. This allows you to record audio while taking notes.

An audio recorder built-in to a pen makes it ideal for interviewing people. But it gets better.

The Pulse Smartpen also records handwritten notes and links them to the audio. This allows you to set bookmarks, so you can recall passages of audio instantly by tapping the pen.

And it connects to a PC to back-up your audio and handwritten notes – where you can use the files with conventional software.

It sounds magical. And in practice it feels like it. I used the pen to conduct a couple of interviews and can report it delivers on its promise.

Prices start at around US$150.

Livescribe Pulse Smartpen does journalism

I love how the pen doesn’t get in the way of an interview. People happily talk to a note scribbling journalist – it’s another thing entirely when you shove a microphone in their face.

The sound quality is surprisingly good. One interview took place in a noisy room – yet the Smartpen picked up my questions and the interviewee’s answers without a lot of the background noise.

It was less successful when I did a trial run in a busy café. In a quiet room it works well. An external headphone and microphone are packaged with the pen. Livescribe says this gives better quality recordings but I didn’t use it as it would be off-putting for interviewees.

In practice I found it hard to remember to set bookmarks in mid-interview. After a couple of pages of notes I set bookmarks at the top of each page – this made it easier to navigate when I went back over the interview.

It’s not paperless

The Livescribe Pulse Smartpen only takes me part way on my paperless journalist quest– but it does cut the amount of paper I need to store.

When you write with the pen, it puts ink on a page in the conventional way. But to get the best results you have to use the pen with special notepaper – called Dot Paper – which is more expensive than normal paper and only available from Livescribe.

Dot Paper has the buttons needed to control the pen printed on each page – which means you don’t need to struggle with controls on the pen itself.

You can download you your digital handwritten notes to your computer. Which means you don’t need to keep notebooks once they are full.


Dot Paper notebooks are expensive and they are not widely available here in New Zealand – as a journalist I can see myself quickly running out of the special paper. Thankfully you can print out more paper using your own printer if you need some in a hurry – but this is even more expensive than the official paper.

The pen also uses special ball-point ink cartridges – these are only small and at a guess I’d say they probably don’t last as long as normal ball-points.

Paperless positives

One surprising plus was the relatively long battery life, I found the pen works for days without needing a recharge. Also the 2GB of Ram is plenty, I haven’t come close to running out of space.

The pen docks into a USB cradle and downloads data quickly to a PC – usually it just takes seconds. The Windows software bundled with the Smartpen is better than I expected and the small lcd display on the pen is excellent.

Pushing the envelope

The basic Livescribe Pulse Smartpen stores notes as images. Handwriting recognition isn’t included in the standard package, but a $40 add-on from Vision Objects does the job. I’ll be testing this shortly.

I’ve tried feeding the audio from the Smartpen to Nuance’s Dragon Dictate voice recognition software with little success. I’d be interested to hear from anyone else attempting this.