Even the simple act of taking notes is being given a digital makeover in the ever-advancing world of technology. The LiveScribe 8GB Echo Smartpen transforms your written notes into digital form, while recording everything you hear and write and coverting it into an interactive PDF file which can be shared with anyone.
While the system will not appeal to everyone, anyone who takes notes while listening to someone else or wants to get across a visual idea to someone on the other side of the world could find this tool invaluable. But what about a fax, I hear you say, or indeed that costly flatbed scanner sitting on your desk? Well who wants to listen to the annoying screech of a fax which will inevitably fail the first five times you try it, before you realize that most people stopped using faxes sometime in the mid-90s. Scanning is not much better. By the time you have powered up your scanner, connected it to your PC, repositioned the document four times to the correct orientation, uploaded the file, attached it to an email and sent it, your working day will be pretty much over.
On the other hand, by just writing one word, the LiveScribe pen gets rid of all these steps and automatically emails your document to who ever you want. But more of this later, first of all lets look at the pen itself and see just what makes it work.
We are looking at the 8GB Echo Smartpen which also comes in 2GB and 4GB versions, with the larger pen offering up to 800 hours of recording time depending on audio quality. Two years ago we looked at the Pulse Smartpen and besides cosmetic differences, the pens offer practically identical functions. Doing away with the grey anodised aluminum we saw on the Pulse, the Echo replaces it with a black rubberised grip below a black plastic top. It all looks very nice and is easy to hold. Powering everything is an ARM 9 processor but what makes this pen tick is the high-speed infrared camera situated above the nib, which takes up to 70 images per second to record exactly what you are writing. The pen measures 158mm in length and is 19mm wide at the top, tapering to 11mm at the tip. While this is certainly chunky in pen terms the soft rubber grip makes it very comfortable to hold and at just 36g feels nice in the hand. At the top there is a micro-USB port to allow you charge the lithium battery as well as a 3.5mm headphone jack – replacing the proprietary 2.5mm jack on the Pulse pen.
Audio is recorded via an integrated microphone, which only makes mono recordings, which is fine for one-on-one meetings/interviews or if you are just outlining your ideas as you draw and you can listen back to your recording via an in-built speaker. If, however, you want to record something in a larger space such as a lecture theatre, you will need to purchase the Echo 3-D Premium Recording Headset which gives you stereo recording via a pair of microphones located on the exterior of the earbuds. This headset is included with the Pulse pen but will cost an extra $49.95 if you’re buying this pen, as it has been omitted from the Echo packages – a rather miserly move if ever there was one.
A 96 x 18 OLED display is your window into what is going on with your pen. When nothing is happening it displays the time and the amount of battery charge left. The first time you turn on your pen you set the language, date, time and display orientation depending on if you are right- or left-handed. All the set up can be done on your own or with the handy little interactive leaflet that comes with the pens.
So how exactly does the pen work? Well the first thing you need to know is that the LiveScribe smartpens will only work on something called dot paper, which is regular paper on which microdots have been printed allowing the infrared camera to record everything that is written. A starter notebook comes with the Echo pens and various sizes of notebook are available online through the LiveScribe website. You can even print your own dot paper from the LiveScribe Desktop using colour printers with 600 dpi resolution or better.
Printed on the bottom of each page is a “navigation cross” and various recording and tracking buttons (record, stop, increase speed, decrease speed, jump to position and volume controls, jump forward, jump back and star). To begin recording tap the pen on the record button and you’ll hear a beep from the pen. From then on everything you write and say will be recorded. To finish, just tap the stop button. And that’s it. From then on it’s up to you as to what you want to do with the pen. It’s possible to record your writing without recording sound by simply writing on one of the pages without pressing the record button.
The next step is to download the LiveScribe Desktop software, which allows you to manage the recorded pages and audio. From here you can easily store, organise and share the pages via email to anyone with the LiveScribe Desktop software as .pencast files, which can be viewed interactively. Pencasts are interactive documents that recreate the document visually as well as allowing you to hear what was being said at the time. This way of viewing what exactly went on in a meeting/interview is a lot more informative than reading an email regarding the same event. You can even jump to a particular point in the recording by clicking on that piece of text.
LiveScribe Connect, which has just been launched, seriously enhances the functionality of your Echo Smartpen. When you have Connect installed on your desktop and updated the firmware on your pen, you will be able to create a Pencast PDF which anyone with Adobe Reader 10 or higher (or Acrobat Pro) will be able to read and interact with. This means you can share it with almost everyone you know and not just those who have the LiveScribe Desktop software. Once you have completed your document, draw a line on the page and when you are prompted, type the command you want such as Email, Facebook or Evernote.
When the pen is next docked the Pencast PDF will be automatically sent to the account you have set up for each of these ‘Connectors’. Connect allows you to also send documents to GoogleDocs, online LivsScribe storage or a particular folder on your computer. The system works well once you’ve got used to it, though we found that initial set-up of the software was a little bit confusing – however we were using a Beta version and LiveScribe confirmed to us that all aspects were now working perfectly. Connect is also available to Pulse versions of the pen.
While being able to store your notes and scribbles in their original form online is great, being able to convert those notes into editable text would make the system all the better. This lack of bundled Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software has not been corrected since we pointed out the issue with the Pulse pen a couple of years ago. While third-party software is available, it seems like a ridiculous oversight from LiveScribe not adding this function considering you can ‘search’ your handwritten notes for a particular word with great accuracy. Considering the $50 price hike for the Echo Smartpen over the Pulse version, we would have liked to have seen some OCR software included in this premium model.
Moving away from the more serious uses of the pen, as with most new technology these days, the Echo smartpens come with their own app store. That’s right people, a pen with an app store. While you won’t be playing Angry Birds with the smartpens, some of the apps that are available do take full advantage of the pens’ features. Among the pre-loaded apps which came on the pen is ‘Piano’ which makes you draw out eight piano keys before letting you ‘play’ the piano right from the page by tapping on each key. Another more useful app was a demo of an English-Spanish translator which worked quite well but with a very limited vocabulary.
There are currently over sixty apps in the store ranging from educational to games. We tried out a few of the apps with Infocom game Zork among our favourites. It’s a good old-fashioned mystery game, which requires you to follow the story and write down what actions you want to take next. There are a number of language apps, which could prove very useful if you’re on holiday – and you have a large supply of dot paper lying around. Prices for apps range from free up to $14.99 for applications such as Paper Tablet, which turns your dot paper notebook into a mouse and allows you to mark-up documents very easily.
The Echo Smartpen is certainly an intriguing piece of technology. On the one hand it seems like a throw back to the good old days of using pen and paper to communicate your message but has combined that with digital technology to make sharing what you have written – and said – to the whole world a lot easier. At $299, the 8GB Echo Smartpen is not cheap though LiveScribe has today also launched a 2GB model for $149 and a 4GB model for $199, which are certainly more affordable. It is hard to see what the extra $100 is for compared to the Pulse model besides the extra storage, which is not sufficient reason for such a price rise. While LiveScribe Connect does add more functionality, Connect is also available for the Pulse pens though it will cost you more to upgrade to Connect Premium ($14.99).
For us the system worked very well, but only after quite a bit of trial and error. The system is not initially as intuitive as we may have hoped for having seen a demonstration but once you have your connections set up and are used to how it works, then the smartpen ecosystem works very well indeed. We did have some trouble with the LiveScribe Desktop software crashing initially but once we updated the software to the latest version, it worked flawlessly. Some of the apps, particularly those which bring a lot of new functionality to the smartpens, do cost quite a lot of money, though hopefully as the app store grows and more people begin using it, these prices may come down.
While the Echo Smartpen is certainly one of the best on the market, its high price and lack of OCR software means we cannot recommend it. It will not be for everyone but for those who take a lot of notes be it in meetings, lectures or interviews and want a more reliable way of storing,searching, organising and sharing them then this system is perfect.
To read the original review, click here