There are moments when taking either a laptop or tablet isn’t an option and a smartphone screen is too small to actually do something. This might be going to a meeting, studying or while travelling. In this case, it is handy to just write things down. Huh… write? Well, yes! Write. And afterwards, transfer your notes to your device. For this, I have my Livescribe Echo smartpen.
Disclaimer: I am a satisfied Livescribe user and have no commercial interest in the company. I am not asked by anyone to write something about my experience with the smartpen, neither for free or paid. This article is purely based on my own experiences and are not representative for any other opinions and/or experiences.
As a digital immigrant, I grew up with learning how to write neatly. Today, I am not sure in which amount it is still taught, but I remember the pain in my hand after writing an essay. And of course, rewriting. Make notes, sort them, write the draft, rewrite the final… it took a lot of time and quick quickly inserting pictures wasn’t an option. Well, we had the old-fashioned type writer, which quickened writing just a little. The speed enhanced when using an electronic typewriter, and even more when the pc was introduced.
I used to think that a high pace of typewriting would help to learn better, for more text is captured while typing (unless you can read and write steno, which I cannot). Therefore, I was a bit surprised that research showed that people can learn better while taking handwritten notes than while typing. There are several articles found on the internet on this topic, such as this one on NJ.com. Since I started studying again, and sometimes I just want to remember things better, I started to write more than just quick notes again. That said, I am quite lazy and I believe that electronic devices such as pc’s weren’t invented for nothing. To first take handwritten notes and than rewrite them on the computer is double effort which can definitely be avoided. So I bought a smartpen.
My first pen was a “wanna be” pen, with a special writing pad which has to be attached to my computer before it worked. That didn’t do it. So I decided to look further. My second pen was a Livescribe Pulse. A beautifully designed, somewhat large pen. This I liked better, for it is just a pen with special dotted paper. Initially, I wasn’t too sure on how to use it. Years of typewriting had passed by and I wasn’t used to take a pen and some notepad with me. I also wasn’t sure if this kind of gadget would be successful and for how long the cartridges would be available. When it appeared that the smartpen was here to stay, I got more confident and bought some extra notebooks (A7 and A4 writing pads).
Unfortunately, the display of my Pulse pen died, and since they weren’t on sale anymore, I decided to go for the Echo 8 GB model. The choice for this pen had several reasons: the cartridges fit, the battery life is better for there is no wifi-connection option, and most important, I don’t have an iPhone or iPad (and I do not intent to buy one) which have apps for real time note transferring. I can’t say I am unhappy with my pen, absolutely not, and I am also not saying that other models are not good either. I think they are very fine, but the Echo pen fits my needs perfectly.
How to use it
Using is easy: make sure it is charged, adjust the settings as per manual and start writing. Once you know how to adjust the settings (and it is really, really easy), it feels quite natural. The pen is a bit bulky because of the recording and replay hardware inside, but otherwise it feels and writes like a combination of a fountain pen and a ballpoint pen. You can not only record what you are writing, using the dot-paper and built-in camera, you can also record sound. Very handy during meetings, or taking notes when on the telephone. The manual can be found on the Livescribe website. For charging and transferring data I use a micro USB-data cable, but every model has its own means for this. I hope one day, Windows 8.* and Windows 8.* RT will be supported as well, so I can make even better use of my pen and be even more productive with my devices.
The dotted paper is quite expensive, but when you have access to a good printer, you can print A4-notepads for free. Templates are available in the (free) desktop program Livescribe Desktop, with which you can also register your pen, transfer your notes, update firmware and more. Sometimes, it is just handier to take a smaller notebook with you, like an A5 model. There are several types of notebooks available through the website and assorted retailers / web shops.
For a few Euros (or Dollars), you can purchase an extra OCR program called MyScript for Livescribe. This will convert your written notes into typed text. As it is a ‘learning’ program, you will have to put some effort in adjusting in the beginning, but in the end, it will save you extra time for you don’t have to retype your already written text. The converted text can be exported to MS Word for further processing. This option only works with the Echo pen, but the Livescribe 3 pen has a similar function as well. My experience with MyScript is very good, even though it needs checking all the time, for it is a timesaver.
When to use it
Due to the price of the notebooks, I wouldn’t recommend to use it for simple reminders. However, if you are keeping logs or taking study notes, if you are an amateur or professional writer or you travel recently to places where it is not a good idea to take expensive devices with you, it is a great solution. The pen looks classy, but never overly expensive, and the notebooks are just… notebooks. Very nondescript so quite safe to take with you (Dear diary… you never imagine what happened to me today…).
I use my pen very regularly for exactly the above mentioned purposes, and I am very happy with it. I not only save my notes in the Livescribe Desktop program, I also can export them to my OneNote 2013 notebooks (which is supported since very recently). If you are an Evernote user, you will be very happy, for this feature is supported too. Exporting notes with or without audio recording to the computer is possible as well, as a pencast or PDF file, from which you can share the notes.
Quality and customer care
The hardware quality is fine for the purpose. Solid plastic, a protected camera and a good microphone. Each model has its own design and feel. The cartridges are a bit small due to the space available, but it is not annoying and the ink writes smoothly.
The firmware in general does what it has to do, but recently (first half of 2014), a software update seemed to be the cause of a rapidly fading display on the Pulse and Echo pens. Nobody seemed to know what happened and a lot of pens were returned to the retailer. It took some time to find out the reason, and in the mean time, the Livescribe customer staff remained very quiet.
The customer care staff in general is very friendly and helpful when it regards issues like resetting passwords, de-registering pens and so on. When there are technical issues (either hardware or software), the standard reply is “Please go to your retailer and see if the pen can be returned”. I don’t think this is a good way of dealing with the customer (after all, the pens and accessories are expensive) so a better and a more extensive support would be highly appreciated. I think nobody is helped when the company practices ‘Ostrich’ politics. Customers with less to spend are customers too, after all. There is still something to win here.
So… back to handwriting?
I feel very comfortable when typewriting. On a QWERTY-keyboard, I typewrite blindly and in a fair pace. But I have never left handwriting, and I think the smartpen is a valuable addition to all the digital tools available. The all-natural feeling of writing-on-paper, combined with digital advantages… I hope it will be here to stay.