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Livescribe 3 smartpen NZ

Livescribe makes smart pens that record your writing and a synchronised audio track.

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 computers and 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

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.

Second-generation Smartpen

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.Livescribe 3 Smart Pen Notebook App

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.

Device two-step

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.

Controlling the Livescribe Smartpen recording
Controlling the Livescribe Smartpen recording

Tech paranoia

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.

Tuesday saw a press breakfast at Vodafone – with global innovation chief Juan-Jose Juan – and lots of writing. In the evening I went back into town to record this week’s NZ Tech Podcast.

Normally I drive to appointments in the city, but where I live, the rush hour traffic is appalling. The good news is that buses whisk to town down a transit lane.

My plan was to sit on the bus and listen to a podcast on the iPhone 5S during the 25 minute journey. When I plugged-in the earphones I realised I hadn’t downloaded the most recent edition. And although much of my iPod music was listed, it was stored in the cloud.

I could have downloaded, but guessed it would take too long and would eat too much of my precious monthly mobile data allowance. As it turned out, I was wrong on both counts. I forgot the review phone had a Vodafone 4G sim and 25 minutes of audio is only about 25 MB of data.

Using the LiveScribe Pen

You never quite know what to expect at press functions. There may only be a handful of people, it may be longer or shorter, it may be interactive or more like a speech or presentation. In this case a handful of journalists and an informal run through some PowerPoint slides.

When I was younger I would have taken shorthand, I’ve never been a big fan of audio recording. On Tuesday I took my LiveScribe smart pen, which does record audio. I’m still using the Sky Wi-Fi version, the latest LiveScribe pen is lighter and smaller because it syncs with an iPhone that does all the heavy lifting on the recording front.

As it turned out, my handwritten notes were more than enough for a decent story – I didn’t need to sync the pen and download the audio. I also got another decent photo from the iPhone 5S. I’m impressed with its ability to make my amateur snaps look acceptable.

Writing on the MacBook Air

It’s possible to write short stories on an iPad just using the on-screen keyboard. I’ve done that a few times. Anything more than six paragraphs and things start to get uncomfortable. So I did what I normally do and turned to the MacBook Air.

When I first got the MacBook Air I would use Microsoft Word to write stories for newspapers, magazines or other web publishers. Apart from anything else, it meant I could send them the kind of Word documents they are familiar with. I’m not impressed with Word on the Mac, it’s now three years old and still gets in the way of my productivity – that’s not true with the latest Windows version of the software. I’ll get a chance to write more about that next week.

Apple pages 5.0
Pages 5.0 has a minimalist look.

I started using Pages ’09 a few weeks ago and upgraded to the 5.0 version when it became available. It’s almost idea for a journalist – the Mac might not be a typewriter, but I don’t need much more than typewriter functionality.

WordPress on Safari

When it comes to the web, I usually type directly into WordPress – that’s what I’m doing now. It works perfectly well on Safari. I use the full screen editor. Most of the time I’m in visual mode – which gives me a preview of what the text will look like on the web page. If I need to add headlines or other code I may flick to the HTML view. This is the kind of job I got the MacBook Air for.

We record the NZ Tech Podcast at offices in town. Normally I get a draft running list for the show’s topics before heading off to the recording. I carry my iPad 2, use it before the recording when we run through the tops and then during the recording to refer to the list and maybe check my own notes or background information on the topics discussed.

This week I used the iPad Air. Apple says it’s 28 percent lighter and a little smaller than my old iPad. That’s true, what isn’t apparent until you spend time with it, is what this means in practice. While the iPad 2 is far from heavy, I get weary of holding it one-handed after 30 minutes. I barely ever noticed this – I did notice not getting tired using the iPad Air.

The Retina display makes for better images. Again it’s not so much that the older iPad was bad, it’s just that you quickly realise the better quality. It may be a struggle going back when the review period is over – that’s right folks, tech journalists get to borrow a lot of cool kit, we don’t usually get to keep anything.

This week I’m setting out to work the entire seven days using only Apple’s technology. Next week I’ll repeat the experiment with Windows. I’ll follow this with a Google week.

The goal is to see how well each company’s technology works, whether staying in a single silo is practical or whether limiting tools this way is madness.

It’s worth explaining how I work:

Portability, a decent keyboard and battery life are at the top of my list. I raced out to buy Apple’s 2013 MacBook Air as soon as it hit the market. The MacBook is more than enough computer for my needs. It’s also easy to carry and will work all day on a single charge.

Much the same applies to my iPad 2. I use it around the house when I’m away from my desk.

Some people give me a hard time for owning a Windows smartphone. Nokia’s Lumia 920 takes fabulous pictures. Image stabilisation makes it can take clean shots in poor light, making it a great tool for a journalist. I find the Lumia 920 has the cleanest, most readable screen – it is great for reading email while on the move.

Main Devices

Computer: MacBook Air
Tablet: iPad 2
Smartphone: Nokia Lumia 920

Other hardware

The original LiveScribe Pulse Smartpen was great for press functions, doorstep interviews and covering conferences. I’m still not sure about the newer Sky model with built-in Wi-Fi. Some of the things that made the Pulse great have gone.

Even so, I still use it. Instead of relying on my dodgy shorthand I can record audio and take handwritten notes.

Guilty secret

I have a ridiculous number of external drives considering I also back everything up to two or three cloud services. Must justification is that I’ve lost data in the past. That cost me a lot of work and money – so now I’m paranoid about keeping many copies of everything.

Essential apps

Google Chrome is a must, I use it synched across devices – although, sadly not my phone.

My favourite writing tool is iA Writer, I use it on the Mac and the iPad. In fact I’m writing this blog post with it. IA Writer just gets out of the way, unlike feature-rich word processors. A lot of the time I also work directly in WordPress.

Microsoft Office is essential for some jobs and some clients. There are people I’ve worked with in the recent past who insist on it. I prefer Microsoft’s cut down web apps to the desktop version, but that’s because I need writing tools that keep out of the way. My favourite Office app is OneNote, quite possibly Microsoft’s single most under-rated product.


Another app I can’t live without is Evernote. In some ways, it is like OneNote. I keep story notes there. FaceTime is a must for catching up with family when we are apart and if that doesn’t work, Skype is our fallback.

I have Photoshop. I have the entire Adobe Creative Cloud suite. Most of the time I prefer to stick with the simpler Adobe Fireworks for quickly editing images.

TweetDeck stays on most of the time so I can watch breaking news. I use Feedly to watch key companies and people. My backups go to Apple iCloud, SkyDrive, DropBox and Google Drive – as I’ve said I’m paranoid.

Otherwise, there’s a lot of cloud software in my life. I’m a huge fan of Xero. After years of hating doing the accounts, I can now spend less time hating the job because Xero helps me get through the pain faster.


Livescribe Sky smartpen and the starter notebook
Livescribe Sky and the starter notebook

From a journalist’s point of view LiveScribe’s original Pulse smartpen was one of the greatest inventions of the last decade.

Pulse was a large ball-point pen that can record sound as you write in a special notebook. It syncs to a computer and downloads the audio along with an image of the pen-written notes. Point the pen at the notes, or your cursor at the on-screen notes and the audio track picks up from that point. There was also an add-on handwriting recognition app.

For my work it was nothing short of brilliant. I could find a quite spot at an event like NetHui, go back over the highlights of a session and write a great, accurate story in minutes.

The day my Livescribe Sky smartpen died

Sadly my Pulse smartpen died. I replaced it with a newer model, the Wi-Fi Sky smartpen. And that’s where my problems begin.

I’ve used the Livescribe Sky smartpen at other events, but NetHui crams more sessions into a day than conventional conferences. The original pen was good for a whole week on a single battery charge, the Sky barely makes it through a working day. In fact, the battery ran out of juice before Monday was over.

That’s not the only problem. Although there’s a solid wi-fi network at NetHui, it was congested at times. I set the pen to sync when I close a file – that’s normally at the end of a session. Syncing rarely takes long, it can take less than a minute, but at NetHui I was often ten minutes into the next session before syncing finished. Not good.

The other change between the Pulse and the Sky was switching from a stand-alone LiveScribe app to syncing with Evernote. Evernote is fine, but being able to turn my handwritten notes into text was a great productivity helper, the new software doesn’t seem to do this.

Between batteries draining too fast and time lost through syncing, I missed some great quotes, I still have handwritten notes, but that’s not as useful as being able to pluck quotes out of the air.