Livescribe 3 Smartpen £129.99
23rd Jan 2014 | 21:52
Is the smartpen mightier than the keyboard?
The Livescribe 3 Smartpen is the latest electronic pen from California-based Livescribe. Designed to take the pain out of digitizing, archiving and sharing handwritten notes and sound recordings, its wide-ranging appeal spans anyone from note-taking business people to list-scribbling shoppers.
As with Livescribe's previous smartens, the latest model will only digitise your written notes when used with the company's proprietary dotted paper, which is supplied in a spiral-bound notebook. That's because the pen (somewhat disappointingly) doesn't work by magic - it houses a tiny infrared camera in the tip that reads the dots to help it track its position and digitize your pen strokes.
The company hasn't yet managed to engineer its smartpens for use with normal paper, but you can print Livescribe's special variety if you own a 600dpi (or higher) inkjet printer.
There are two versions of the Livescribe 3 Smartpen: a £130 (US$150/AUS$234) version that comes with a LiveScribe Starter Notebook containing 50 sheets and a single Tungsten-Carbide Ballpoint ink cartridge, or a 'Pro' version that comes with a 100-sheet notebook, two ink cartridges and a one-year Evernote Premium subscription for £170 (US$200/AUS$307).
Instead of notes being transferred through a micro-USB cable or via the cloud, as with the company's Echo and Wi-Fi smartpens that came before it, the Livescribe 3 Smartpen beams them to iOS devices via Bluetooth.
That's right: you'll need an iPhone 4S or later, iPad 3 or later, iPad mini and iPad mini 2 with Retina, or iPod touch 5th generation or later running iOS 7 to download the required Livescribe+ app, making it something of an exclusive pen party this time around. Livescribe tells us that an Android version is in the works and will see the light of day "late this year".
The Livescribe 3 Smartpen is thicker than a normal pen and takes some getting used to after using thinner regular types. If you have particularly small hands, you might find that its chunk is a little too much for it to be comfortably held for long sessions.
However, it's not a great deal heavier than a normal pen, and despite feeling very plastic its wide waistline lends it a solid feel that makes you confident it would survive a knock or two. You could sling it into a bag along with an iDevice without being too concerned of its welfare.
Clad in matte black plastic with a chrome tip and belt clip, its design is quietly classy, not unlike a technologically advanced version of something you might be sent after signing up for an over 50s life insurance plan.
At one end of the pen is a ballpoint nib that writes on paper the same as any other pen when the device is switched off; at the other is a capacitive rubber cap that comes off to reveal a micro-USB charging port. Be warned: that cap is on a constant bid for freedom, and you will lose it if you're not careful.
The pen uses real ink cartridges, but only Livescribe-branded ones (67mm length and 2.35 diameter) - or similar carbon-free ink ones that meet the same size and specifications. That means that reusing old cartridges designed to be used with the company's Pulse, Echo and Sky pens is a no-go.
Unlike previous versions, it no longer features an LCD screen or power button, making it feel more like an actual ballpoint pen than a gadget that behaves as one. There's no microphone in the latest model either as audio notes are now recorded using your iDevice's microphone.
Even with the upgrades, it should be remembered that you're ultimately paying a hefty chunk of your hard earned for 21st-Century notepad and pen. Does its bells and whistles make it worth the price of entry? Continue reading our Livescribe 3 Smartpen review to find out.
Usage and performance
After prizing the pen out of its clingy plastic casing like a stationary-wielding King Arthur, your first job will be to download the Livescribe+ app to your iDevice device to unlock the smartpen's functionality.
Opening it for the first time brings up a window asking for personal information, including your name, a name for the pen and a company email address. It's more than a mere registration process: you can pair the pen with up to four devices - three iPads and an iPhone, for example - though it will only communicate with one Livescribe+ app at a time.
Additionally, it means that if you lose a specific pen down the back of the couch (or anywhere else), the app has a Find My Pen function that will cause it to emit a shrill beep. After registering a pen you're asked to turn it on for the first time by twisting a barrel located halfway down its body, which makes the light on the its clip turn green to signal that it's entered pairing mode. Once paired, the light switches to blue.
The pen uses Bluetooth 4.0 to pair with an iDevice, which helps save power and lends it a battery life of around 12 hours. Pairing itself is quick and painless; it's also much more convenient than having to connect the pen to a laptop using a USB cable or messing around entering WiFI hotspot details as with previous versions.
The write stuff
Once you start putting pen to paper it becomes apparent at just how slick the pen's operation is. Written text and drawings are converted flawlessly and to the exact precision that ink is applied to the page.
There's no blurryness or distortion when ink is layered on top of ink, and though you won't be doing anything as advanced as applying different levels of pen pressure to create layered images, it's as sharp as you'll get with a single pen thickness.
Turning the page over with your hand creates a new page on the app, making the experience seamless and allowing you to write quickly. Handily, if the Bluetooth connection is broken between devices, any writing jotted down will automatically sync up with the app once reconnected.
The app has three modes - Page, Feed and Pencast - which are opened by prodding on their accompanying tabs at the top of the screen. Page is where you'll be doing the bulk of the writing, providing a blank slate for jotting things down, but it's under the Feed tab that things get clever.
Feed positions everything you've written top-down in chronological order along with the date and any photos, which can be inserted via your iDevice's gallery or taken on the spot. By swiping the smartpen's tip over written text in a left-to-right motion, the app uses a version of MyScript - Vision Object's OCR technology - to convert it into typed wording.
This lets you quickly convert masses of scribbles and scrawls into clearly readable letters, though you'll need your handwriting to be fairly legible for it to work - you can't expect the app to convert what you've written down if you can't read it yourself.
In Feed, numbers and dates are transformed into underlined links that can be saved as phone contacts or entered into the iOS calendar with a tap. If the text forms an address, pressing and holding it opens it in Apple's Maps app, and numbers can be similarly dialed from an iPhone, or sent in a message if you're using an iPad. Converted text can also be shared via email or through AirDrop.
At the bottom of each notebook page are six icons that perform different functions when tapped with the pen's ballpoint nib. On the right-hand side there's a star for favoriting pages for quickly accessing them within the app, a flag icon for creating to-do lists that can be sent to the iOS Reminders app and an icon for more specific tagging and locating of content within your digital notes.
The app's third mode, Pencast, lets you record sound with your iDevice while scribbling down notes. Livescribe's decision to remove audio recording functionality away from being built into the pen itself and into your phone or tablet marks a clear improvement over its previous pens, which occasionally picked up scratching, coughing and other sounds when you wrote due to the microphone being housed in the pen itself.
It means you can position your device closer to your subject to pick up what they're saying (or what you want to say) much more clearly without capturing extraneous noise. Recording audio is controlled with three icons at the bottom left of each page that let you record, pause and stop recordings with a pen tap.
Pencasts can be exported and shared with other iOS 7 users. This can be done using Apple's AirDrop function that's built into iOS 7 and OS X, and notes can be uploaded to Evernote, which works with Livescribe's Pencast format. They can also be emailed as a PDF document.
Hands on gallery
Whether you're an occasional jotter not keen on leaving the familiar feeling of pen and paper or somebody that wants to build a digital archive of everything you write, the Livescribe 3 Smartpen will match your ambition.
It certainly packs enough features when used with the tailored Livescribe+ app, but you'll have to spend time becoming familiar with them to make the most out of your investment.
The Livescribe 3 Smartpen's basic purpose - that of translating handwritten text into pixels on a screen - is fast, accurate and works for a decent length of time before the pen's battery gives up the ghost.
The additional features that work with iOS 7 - from adding entries into the Reminders app to saving telephone numbers and addresses with a swipe - extend that functionality further. Other features, such as Find My Pen and the ability to sync with up to four different devices, are more subtle but equally useful.
Additionally, Livescribe's decision to use your iDevice's microphone now gives you much more flexibility when making audio recordings, particularly as the microphone quality in Apple's devices is higher than what the company's pens have offered in the past.
The Livescribe 3 Smartpen falls short of a higher mark due to its rotund nature. If the company finds a way to slim down the pen to the size of a normal Biro and make it work with normal paper (though let's be honest, printing your own isn't that difficult if you own the kit), it would be difficult not to award it a perfect score.
Also, though a temporary caveat, the fact that an Android (or Windows Phone) app still hasn't been outed is still a major gripe if you're not keen on digging deep to pick up a fruit-flavoured device.
Is the Livescribe 3 Smartpen worth the cost of entry over a cheap notebook and pen combo? That depends entirely on what you're planning on doing with it.
It's much easier than writing notes and drawing on a screen with a mouse, still less painful than writing on glass on devices such as the Galaxy Note 3 (as impressive as Samsung's S-Pen functionality is) and far less time-consuming than scanning or taking photographs of copied notes.
Those time savings are ultimately what gives the pen value - whether that's for business users, students or anybody else. If you don't write a great deal and don't have any need for saving time (or additional convenience), you should ask the question of why you're picking up a smartpen in the first place.
If you don't already own an iDevice and aren't interested in Android but are keen on the idea of using a Livescribe smartpen, both the Echo and the Wi-Fi smartpen are viable alternatives that rely on the cloud and USB respectively instead of iOS - and you might be able to get hold of one cheaper - too.