Livescribe 3 Smartpen Review

In my non-blogger day job, I attend many meetings every day. I tend to make heavy use of my Premium Evernote account to store any notes or minutes I take while in these meetings (I highly recommend using something like Evernote or OneNote if you have a need to be able to call up notes from a historic meeting at short notice too).

My workflow tends to be either writing directly into Evernote using my laptop, or more often than not manually writing the notes in my notebook and using something like Scanbot from my Android device to upload a copy of every sheet to my cloud provider of choice.

In my quest to become ever more efficient, the Livescribe 3 smartpen sounds like just the thing I need to move up to the next level. Does it do the job I hoped? Read on to find out!

Introduction

Just about everything has a “smart” variation today. We are all used to smartphones of course, and to some extent smartwatches. But there are many more items we find in the home that are smart.. your TV, oven, fridge, even your central heating. The Livescribe 3 takes your run of the mill Biro and hooks it up to the internet of things.



box

The general concept of the Livescribe 3 is to automatically capture the notes you write with pen and paper and to turn this into digital text using some pretty smart tech, centered around a high-speed infrared camera built into the pen itself and an app on your iOS or Android device.

Hardware

The Pen

The Livescribe 3 smartpen is the brains behind the operation. It contains the high-speed infrared camera that captures every stroke of the pen, flash memory to store notes locally until they are uploaded to the app, and a lithium-ion battery to power everything. The smartpen utilises Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy to connect to your mobile device in an as efficient manner as possible.

bluetooth

The pen also contains some more traditional “pen-like” features too. An ink cartridge as present as you would expect, allowing you to write onto paper as you would with your standard pen/pencil. The top-end of the smartpen holds a capacitive tip, I assume added to allow you to control the app without having to let go of the pen.

full_length

The pen itself is probably best described as bulky. It’s a lot chunkier than your standard pen. This has to be expected, it is a lot more than your typical pen and contains a lot more technology (as opposed to no tech whatsoever!). Having never used a Livescribe pen before, I did wonder if I would be able to get used to such a large pen. After the initial shock however, the pen began to feel more natural almost immediately. It has a very smooth body and feels good in your hand. It also feels weighted correctly, the weight is more towards the top of the pen (this may be due to the battery and memory potentially being housed here) and this meant that it sat well in my hand when writing.

usb

The capacitive tip at the top of the pen can be removed to gain access to the micro USB charging port. The rubber tip also appears to be replaceable, this could be to allow for different sized tips to be used although I couldn’t confirm this at time of writing. The tip slips off easy enough, and clicks back in place when attached, I was never worried about it falling off in my bag or when in use.

led

The body of the pen has a traditional clip to keep the pen secured if carrying in your pocket. It’s extremely sturdy and also carries the Livescribe moniker. This clip also contains the LED which has a few important features. Primarily it turns green when the pen is turned on and will stay lit green until it is turned off. Turning on the pen also produces a slightly annoying bleep. There doesn’t seem to be a way to disable this noise (correction: This can be easily disabled in the settings within the smartphone app) and I have noticed a few glances in my direction when I’m sat in a meeting and want to start taking notes. When the pen is connected to the Livescribe+ app on your mobile device, this LED turns blue, it also lets you know when the pen is ready for a charge.

clip

Moving further down the pen, about 60% of the way down is a textured ring, this spins and is how you turn the pen on and off (which generates the unsatisfying bleep mentioned earlier, unless disabled in the app).

textured_ring

The bottom of the pen differs significantly from a standard pen, which tend not to have a camera next to the ballpoint tip! The camera forces the nib to be off-centre, slightly strange when viewing it but gladly not effecting how easy it is to write with.

Generally speaking, the look and feel of this pen is very premium, even if the bulk of the body is made of plastic (I’d wager this might be to do with weight). You’ll definitely stand out from the crowd in your meeting, university lecture or any other location you;ll be taking notes.

The Paper

One of the slight negatives of the Livescribe 3 is that you cannot use any old paper. You have to use the proprietary “Dot Paper” that Livescribe produce. This is necessary evil due to how the pen actually works. Each sheet of Dot Paper contains thousands of little blue dots, giving the paper a slight blue tint. The dots themselves aren’t a problem, you can only really see them if you get up close. The dots actually perform an important job however. It allows the pen to know the precise time, page location, page number and which notebook is currently being written in. To be honest it’s quite amazing, and impressed everyone who came over to ask me about the strange pen I was using.

dots

Fortunately, there are a few choices in obtaining the Dot Paper. Although I haven’t seen any in the high street (honestly, I rarely tend to go to the High Street any more), but there are plenty of size options on Amazon and other online retailers. Failing that, Livescribe also allow you to print out your own Dot Paper from their website for free, a great option in line with the “throw away” nature of the handwritten notes you’ll be taking with the Livescribe 3.

dot_paper

I do wish that I could pick up my Moleskine and use the Livescribe pen to take notes, but I also fully understand the need for the paper, and for that reason I’m happy to make the compromise.

Writing

One of the best things about the Livescribe 3 is that it just works. You switch on the pen, start writing and that’s it. Anything else would have been of serious detriment to the pen, especially in those scenarios when you have to quickly jot something down. You can work in one of two ways, with the app open and the smartpen connected or without any connection being active. If the smartpen is connected to the app, then everything you write on the Dot Paper immediately appears on the app, it’s quite remarkable. If you choose not to open the app (thus the pen isn’t connected), the Livescribe 3 will store the handwriting data in the flash memory on the pen itself until a connection is established. The speed at which any stored data is updated in the app once connected is again pretty much instant.

writing

One of the benefits of this real-time updating is you can do things like mirror your smartphones display to a TV, monitor or projector and an audience will see exactly what you are writing, in real-time, in your notebook, this seems extremely useful for the more creative types (think storyboarding with a group of stakeholders).

writing

As a pen, the Livescribe is decidedly average. Nothing special, but also nothing I can say negatively about the writing experience. From a personal perspective, I prefer the smoother writing experience of gel-based based as opposed to standard ballpoint ink. The Livescribe is of the latter type and if you enjoy this type of pen you’ll be right at home with the Livescribe 3.

nib

The pen I received came with black ink, which seems to be the default for this pen, however blue refills are available if that is your preference.

One of the unexpected benefits I found with the smartpen is that it also works great in low light conditions. I mean I don’t tend to write much in total darkness, but the pen digitized my writing perfectly when in a dimly lit room during a PowerPoint presentation.

micro_usb

Livescribe suggest the Livescribe 3 has approximately 14 hours battery life between charges, although I haven’t tested this formally it does seem about right. I haven’t actually had to charge the pen at all since I opened the box.

Software

As an avid Android fan, I didn’t have access to the iOS software when writing this review, however I will mention where the iOS app does have a working feature that the Android app does not.

Android support for the Livescribe 3 smartpen is relatively new, the app (or should I say apps) has only been around on the Play Store for a couple of months thus far. The pen has had iOS support for a longer period of time, and it shows. The iOS app has a few additional features that we Android users are still waiting for, such as automatic sync to places like Evernote. Hopefully these additions won’t be too far away.

I mentioned the plural apps before, this is because Livescribe requires you to install two separate apps. One of the apps (Livescribe Link) is required to connect the smartpen to your device, you’ll only use this one. The other app is where all the action is, the Livescribe+ app is the one you will be using frequently.

I was honestly expecting the Android app to be quite poor, this is not due to any preconceptions of Livescribe themselves. But what I have found with apps that accompany some other device is they tend to be a rushed afterthought, especially those chasing their iOS cousins.

app1

Thankfully I was pleasantly surprised! The Livescribe+ app is actually quite nice to use. The Livescribe guys have attempted to follow some Material guidelines which results in a smooth, mature and generally nice app to use.

The app itself has three main sections:

1. Notebooks
This section contains all your Dot Paper Notebooks. It allows you to use more than one notebook simultaneously and easily browse through them.

notebook

2. Feeds
Because Livescribe not only records what you write, but when you write it, feeds contains a running log of what you write, in the order in which you write it.

feeds

3. Pencasts
Pencasts is a clever feature of the Livescribe world, something I hadn’t had the chance to appreciate fully during my review period. Each page in the Dot Paper notebook has three “buttons” in the bottom left. These are “record”, “play” and “pause”.

Essentially this lets you record the sound along with the notes you write. This in itself is pretty cool, but the best thing about it is you can skip right into the middle of a recording by tapping on a word on the page. The pen then plays back the recording from the moment you wrote that word. I can image this feature coming in hand for students especially, who want to skip back to hear what the lecturer was saying when they wrote a specific word.

This feature also opens up new ways to use the smartpen too. Maybe you could use a specific set of symbols on the page or more formal headings to make jumping back within recordings more effective.

search

The search within the app is also quite powerful. I don’t have the most legitimate of handwriting, but the search astounded me. It was more than accurate, sometimes returning the correct note even when I couldn’t understand what I had written! There were some false positives, it seems like Livescribe purposely decided to take this approach, acknowledging that more is better than less. And I agree.

Each page, pages and notebook can be shared using the standard Android share picker. Props to Livescribe for building the app to take advantage of this powerful Android feature, as opposed to building a limited set of apps to share with within the app. As I mentioned at the beginning of this section, the Android app doesn’t allow you to set automatic uploading to a specific service, something the iOS app does allow right now.

The Livescribe 3 can pair and sync to up to four devices at any one time, and those four can be a mixture of iOS and Android devices too. The minimum requirements are as follows:

iOS 8 or newer: iPhone 6, iPhone 6 Plus, iPhone 5, iPhone 5s, iPhone 5c, iPhone 4S or newer, iPad 3rd generation or newer, iPad mini, iPod touch 5th generations or newer.

Android: KitKat (v4.4.2) or newer

Final Thoughts

The Livescribe 3 smartpen isn’t your standard pen. It takes the pen we all use today and positively supercharges it. In my time with the pen I’ve come to rely on it for the important task of storing all my notes in the cloud, allowing every piece of information I write to be instantly searchable across any device. For this reason I’ll find it hard picking up a standard pen in any future meeting I attend.

There are some compromises of course.The size of the pen and the proprietary paper stick out. Firstly the size of the pen would ideally be smaller, but with the amount of tech inside this thing it’s something I can definitely overlook. As I can with the Dot Paper. The choice of technology Livescribe have chosen requires the pen to be able to identify any page within any notebook, and Dot Paper allows this to happen. It’s just easy enough to purchase the reasonably priced Dot Paper notebooks from places such as Amazon.

If you’re someone who likes to keep a digital copy of your notes (and if not, you should really think about doing so), attends a lot of meetings or lectures, or just someone who writes a lot, I think the Livescribe 3 smartpen would be a welcome addition to your life. For me, the fact I can upload all my meeting notes to my Evernote Premium subscription has changed how I store minutes, for the better.

Personally? I’m not so sure I can go back to a non-smart pen having experienced the benefits of the Livescribe 3.