I got a Livescribe Pulse smartpen just about a week ago. This is a device that records your penstrokes (i.e. writing and drawing) and, optionally, records audio alongside, allowing both to be transferred to a PC afterwards. I bought it with the intention of using it to make better notes in meetings and seminars, and at conferences. It is a rather clever piece of kit, and I thought it would be worth making a note of my thoughts after a week of playing.

The pen itself has an infra-red camera near the tip, and registers its position based on a pattern of microdots on the page. This does mean it has to be used with special paper (although you can print your own on PostScript capable laserprinters), but it also has some interesting advantages. For example, each page of a given notebook is different so you can go back to a page and add new notes and they’ll be correctly merged with the existing notes in the digital copy. You can also have several notebooks active at any once time and the notes are always added to the correct one. The pre-printed notebooks also have special areas on the pages that you can ‘tap’ with the pen to control it. These range from controls for starting and stopping the recording, to a pre-printed scientific calculator (the pen has a one line OLED display for the answer). There is a good range of sizes of notebooks available, from pocket size notebooks to A4 journals.

The basic functionality, then, is to digitally record your pen strokes and transfer them to a PC (or Mac) where they can be organised, exported to images files or PDFs and emailed and otherwise shared with others. The pen also records audio, properly synchronised with the penstrokes. You can play this back directly on the pen, and even add new notes during playback that will be properly synchronised with the audio. These recordings can also be transferred to a PC and exported as PDFs that play back audio and pen strokes properly in sync. Livescribe also provide an online storage facility for these recordings. You can publish them and make them publicly visible, when they become “pencasts”. This is one of my favorite examples of a pencast.

So, how am I finding it after a week? Basic operation is very good. This is another gadget that “just works”, and I love those. It has clearly been well thought out. Transfer of the digital ink to the PC just works, as does the subsequent export to PDFs. I also like the integration with Evernote so that from the livescribe desktop software I can just transfer notes to Evernote and I have them available from anywhere. I use Evernote to record pretty much everything, and so being able to add my handwritten notes fills a big gap in my Evernote records.

I don’t like how the system handles handwriting recognition. The livescribe desktop software does handwriting recognition and allows you to search. You can’t export the text, though. For that you need to purchase a separate 3rd-party app, which is annoying. That app allows you to recognise handwritten text and export to a word or text file, which is fine. I’d like to attach the recognised text back to the original note and to export it to Evernote. There’s no automated way of doing that. Also slightly annoying is that handwriting recognition is an extra cost option. The Livescribe pens are expensive enough as it is… (hint: ebay has occasional cheap ones)

My only other gripe is that this device is just crying out for a wireless connection. Bluetooth would make it so much more useful and convenient for me. I connect my pen to machines at work and at home (which works really well, by the way) and that means carrying the cradle around with me. Yes I can buy a second, but Bluetooth would be so much more convenient. It would also enable use of the pen as a live input device – a mouse replacement. The more expensive “Echo” models can do this, with an extra cost option, but there’s still a cable tying pen to machine. A wireless connection would be much better, and bluetooth hardware is not hugely expensive these days.

In summary, then, I love the ability to digitally record my handwritten notes and scribbles, and drop them into Evernote along with all my other notes. The audio recording is useful for reviewing meetings afterwards and filling in the gaps in my notes. I’m not sure I’ll make many pencasts, though. And I wish the connection between pen and PC was wireless. Overall I’m liking it very much.

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  1. [...] had my livescribe pen for a couple of weeks now and have started to settle down into a bit of a routine with it. I [...]

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