Some gadgets seems really cool when you hear about the concept, but after actually using them you realize that tech has already passed it by. Sadly, I think that’s the case with the Livescribe’s Echo Smartpen for all but a small group of people.
The pen records your handwritten notes and audio helping you keep track of meetings, lectures, or any situation where you want to remember information or save things in audio and/or written form. The combination of digitally recording your handwritten notes on special note paper, and the audio recorded as you take notes, could potentially be a boon to students or business people who write down a lot of notes. But in a tablet-crazy world, has technology passed the Echo Smartpen by?
That depends on your budget and preferences.
Taking Notes and Recording Audio
The Livescribe Echo Smartpen does two things. It digitally records your handwritten notes and it also digitally records the audio around you. You can then connect the pen to your computer to archive, share, print or store them in the cloud along with the corresponding audio.
The magic of the Echo Smartpen is in this syncing of the audio and handwriting. This happens while you’re taking notes, so you can listen to audio that the pen recorded as you wrote those specific words or drew that specific doodle or image. Hit the stop button at the bottom of the special paper (see above) and then tap a word or drawing and your pen plays the corresponding the audio.
Tether the pen to a computer via USB and download the notes and audio to the Livescribe Desktop software. Once copied to the software the notes sync with the audio. Click on a note with your mouse and the audio is played. The software highlights words or drawings that you inked at the same timestamp as the audio recorded. If you didn’t quite hear the professor or if you can’t read your own chicken scratch, this audio-note syncing helps figure it out.
Apps and Other Tricks
In addition to notes and audio recording, the pen has apps like the included piano or calculator (and others) that let you play games, read books or listen to books when purchased from the Livescribe store. Others include a guitar, stopwatch or sound effects machine. Apps range in price from free to $15.
The Livescribe Desktop also connects to other services like email, Evernote, Facebook or Google Docs. These connections work well and make the software much more versatile and useful.
With the included piano app you draw a piano (see to of image below) on the special paper. You can then play simple tunes by tapping with the pen on the keys. You’re not going to compose or play a masterpiece, but a musician could test out a simple tune.
The calculator app works with the image printed inside the tablets, like the one I bought. I was able to do basic, and even complicated, computations. The calculator comes inside the front cover of Livescribe notebooks.
You can’t just use any paper. You must use Livescribe’s special paper. The paper has tiny micro dots that the pen’s built-in camera can track. The combination of the pen camera and these dots tells the pen where the strokes are on the paper so it can record the pen location and the shapes you draw.
You can print your own paper if you have an Adobe Postscript compatible laser printer that prints at 600 dpi. See if your printer might work by visiting the company’s forums where there’s a thread listing printers users have had luck using with their pens. Otherwise just test it out by printing a sample page. Inkjet printers and not all lasers are supported. For example, my HP LaserJet M1212nf only sort of works. The test page printed and I was able to start a recording, but not all of the functions worked perfectly.
Build and Design
The pen itself won’t win any competitions for design or style. It’s a bit chunky and people with small hands I’m sure will feel uncomfortable using it. The pen is light, which may be a plus or minus depending on your tastes. I like a heavier pen.
Using micro-USB to connect means your Android smartphone or tablet cable will likely work to sync your pen with the desktop, limiting the number of cables you need. One is supplied with the pen.
The small LED display gives enough information to be useful. At the bottom of the special paper you will find controls that work well once you learn the system.
I hate the pen cap. It’s hard to remove and reattach to the pen. The actual pen tip feels loose, like it’s not held in place very well. However, writing with the pen was smooth so the looseness didn’t affect use. I’m just worried that I might damage it since I press down with some force as I write.
I like the concept of the Echo Smartpen and wish someone had given me one of these back in 1987 when I first went off to college, or in 2000 when I started my graduate studies. I would have been less focused on getting all of the stuff on paper and more focused on the discussions and interaction with my fellow students and professors. However, it’s not 1987 or 2000. Tablets make this gadget almost obsolete for most readers of GottaBeMobile.
I can see only two kinds of people finding the Livescribe Echo Smartpen useful – people who don’t want to spend $300-$500 on a tablet but need to take notes, and people who just prefer paper to inking on a screen. If all you want to do is take notes of meetings or classes or need paper to be productive, then you can save some money compared to a tablet.
- Smooth inking
- Versatile with added apps
- Syncing audio with notes
- Cheaper than a tablet
- Chunky pen
- Pen tip loose
- Requires special paper
- Most add-on apps seem like gimmicks
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