Here's the concept behind the smartpen: there are millions of pages of good old fashioned handwritten notes taken every day in business meetings and school lessons around the world. Unfortunately they remain trapped within the confines of the paper they are written upon. But what if you could easily share those notes, make them searchable and accessible by digitising them with a tap of the pen you write them with?
That's where the Echo smartpen comes in by digitally capturing what you write, and what you hear, and then 'pencasting' the data using the new Livescribe Connect software. To pencast your written data is really easy, and involves nothing more complex than drawing a line and writing the name of the destination (such as Facebook for example) followed by a tap or even the drawing of a circle to lasso the information you want to share. The next time the pen is docked with your computer the pencast is sent. Livescribe Connect currently works with Microsoft Exchange, Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo! Mail Plus and AOL for email, Facebook, Google Docs and Evernote. There is also a 'Mobile/iPad Connector' available which allows you to send pencasts from paper to iPad and iPhone.
The hardware itself incorporates a microphone, memory storage and an infrared camera within the body of a pen. Oh, and a pen of course. Now you might think that stuffing all of this into a writing implement would result in one chunky pen. You would, I have to report, be absolutely correct. This is no sexy slimline pen, it's a chunky monkey geekfest of a tech writing device. Amazingly, the new echo starter pack open is slimmer than the pens it replaces, yet still manages to feel like you've stuffed a biro into a magic marker. You actually do get a biro type ballpoint pen tip which is a shame given the cost, but Livescribe redeems itself by adding an OLED screen on the body of the pen. Not that the truly brilliant little single-line display is put to great use; it acts as a clock and an options menu navigator only. If the sheer look and feel of the smartpen in your hand wasn't geeky enough, there's also the small matter that it's no use at all (from the data capture perspective) unless you write your notes on 'special' paper.
Yes, that's right, special paper. Actually the pads are just imprinted with microdots and you can actually print your own if you don't want to be tied into buying endless 'special' paper pads. On the plus side, the use of this 'special' paper does ensure that there is a very good level of accuracy when it comes to the digitising and transferring of the captured data, even when your handwriting isn't much to write home about.
The microphone is excellent, capturing very clear audio under most to be expected circumstances, which means it's a bit crap outside or when there's a lot of ambient noise but really great in the classroom or boardroom. Record speech while taking handwritten notes and the pen/software combo remembers what was said when, perfectly syncing the two. So later you can click on your text and hear exactly what was being said at that precise moment.
A whole bunch of apps are available for your pen. You kind of knew it had to happen, apps for pens, didn't you? The introduction of apps for your smartpen allows the user to expand the functionality by introducing such things as word translation at a click, conversion of your handwritten notes into editable text, spell-checking for your writing and even the ability to turn your pad of paper into a collaborative Skype whiteboard. Livescribe tell me that there are no less than 7000 developers working on new apps for the pen, although less than a hundred apps are available right now and can be a bit pricey.
The smartpen does what it sets out to pretty well, but at a price that may be too high for many. Although the unit as reviewed, the Livescribe Echo smartpen 2GB starter pack, costs $99.95 (or, rather frustratingly for us Brits, £99.99 in the UK) the price moves up to $149.95 for the 4GB version, $199.95 for the 8GB version or a rather massive $249.95 for the 8GB 'pro pack' option. For the additional one hundred and fifty bucks, the pro pack throws in a portfolio case for carrying your pen and paper around, and a 3D 'recording premium headset' which has embedded microphones for 360 degree binaural recording, and twice as many ink cartridges and smartpen caps. Don't get too excited though, twice as many is actually just two of each.
The lack of any wireless capability seriously hampers the usability of the smartpen though, as you have to dock the device to a computer in order to be able to share your data rather than just press a button. In this mobile day and age, pressing that button is what we all really want, and perhaps a chunky pen which needs special paper and a computer to physically connect to isn't really the cutting edge tech that gets geek blood stirring. In fact, it kind of feels lost in the modern age of tablet computing...