Livescribe Pulse Smartpen: It's a Keeper

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So here's a classic dilemma for me: I need to do an interview with somebody for a story I'm writing. It has to be in-person. It's in a place where lugging around my laptop and typing while the the person speaks isn't particularly feasible. And I won't have time post-interview/pre-deadline to go through a recording and transcribe the necessary notes 'n' quotes.

And here's a solution: Livescribe's Pulse Smartpen, a nifty piece of technology that can record audio every bit as well as my old voice recorder, while simultaneously making a digital copy of my handwritten notes and linking both notes and audio into a seamless whole.

I saw the Pulse for the first time last May at Maker Faire and promptly spent several months dithering about whether or not it was going to break my heart. I bought one last month, to help me keep track of research and interviews for a book I'm writing, and I'm happy to report that the Pulse lives up to my expectations. Granted, it's expensive and not particularly useful for everybody. But if you do a lot of note-taking (writers, journalists, college students, researchers... I'm looking at you), I think it's worth the investment. Here's why...

First off, let's talk money. I always hate it when tech reviews dangle something awesome in front of me and then spring the price tag at the end. This being my first tech review ever, I'm going to take the opportunity to switch things up. The Pulse Pens work with Mac or PC. There's a 2 Gb model for $169 and a 4 Gb version for $199. Both come with a couple of ink cartridges, a USB charger, and a small starter notebook. This is, however, not the end of your financial dealings with Livescribe. Ink cartridges will have to be replaced. Each fine point tip is supposed to last through about 56 pages of writing and replacements are $6 for a 5-pack. You'll also need special paper to use the Pen. A 4-pack of single-subject, college-ruled notebooks is $20, and there are lots of other notebook options, including Moleskin lookalikes. You can, however, also print pages of the stuff, for free, from any PC with a Color LaserJet Printer that is Adobe PostScript compatible and can print at 600dpi or higher.

Now, the fun. That special paper is important because it's covered with tiny dots that create a positioning system for the infrared camera in the Pen. The camera turns on when the Pen's tip is pressed into the paper, and turns off again when the tip is lifted. It's not really recording what you write, so much as it's recording the position of pen tip, on a coordinate plane formed by the dots.

I figured that out when the first Pen I got malfunctioned. Instead of turning off when I lifted the Pen away from the page, the camera would just stay on continuously. What I wrote on the physical page looked normal. But when I uploaded the digitized writing to my computer, I got not clean handwriting, but a crazy scrawl with a line recorded for everywhere the pen moved—whether on the paper or through the air above it. And that was how I learned Livescribe has great customer service. I called their phone line, the lady who answered was able to quickly figure out what was wrong, and she immediately got me a replacement in the mail. There was absolutely no hassle. Good stuff.

The replacement pen works perfectly. What I write on the physical page is recorded and looks great. I can use it without audio to make a digital (i.e., less lose-able) copy of my notes. If I want to record audio and writing at the same time, I use the control "buttons" that are printed at the bottom of every page of the dot paper—I just tap the space printed, "record", and tap "stop" when I'm done. To replay the audio, I tap the pen on the text I've written. I probably don't need to point out how incredibly useful this could be for note-taking during interviews, lectures, or even just keeping better track of your own thoughts and observations while you work. Plus, if you want, you can share your recorded audio and notes either with select friends, or the public, via a "Pencast". Observe:

So yeah, it's pretty sweet. The printed pseudo-buttons also allow you to set and jump between audio bookmarks, jump to a position in a recording, adjust playback speed, Pen volume, and set other Pen controls. There's also a calculator. Yeah. It's printed on the inside cover of the notebooks and you just tap the "keys" with the pen to make it work.

Another neat application: The piano. Choose this setting and the Pen will prompt you to draw eight boxes on the dot paper. Each box then becomes a note in the scale, which you can play by tapping it with the Pen. This is how you amaze your friends and make yourself feel better about not owning a smart phone. In my experience. Speaking of which, the Pen also has an online ap store, where you can pick up free and paid games, reference tools, a unit converter, a Spanish dictionary, and even a tool to teach yourself Hebrew chanting. Seriously. Right now, there's only a handful of applications. But I'm really looking forward to seeing how this grows in the future.

Bottom line: This thing does what it says it does, and does it well. If you're in school, or you have the right sort of job, the Livescribe Pulse Pen could really make your life easier. Someone also mentioned to me on Twitter that the Pen could be useful for people with memory problems, and I think it could work for that as well—provided the memory problems weren't so severe that you couldn't remember how to use the Pen. If none of this applies to you, though, the Pen is really just a nifty toy and probably not worth the cost of ownership. That said, you should still find a friend that does need it and get them to let you play with it a bit. Because it's really, really fun.