This is one of the coolest toys I've played with in years. LiveScribe's smartpens have the ability to instantly digitize anything you write in a notebook and send it to a tablet or PC as a handwritten note. But here's the cool part: they can also record the sound you were hearing when you wrote those notes, timecoded to each penstroke, so, for example, you can tap on a lecture note and hear exactly what the professor was saying when you were writing it. The latest LiveScribe pen, the Sky wifi smartpen, has built-in wireless connectivity that quickly syncs your notes, audio and all, with the ubiquitous Evernote application so you can read and play them back on your PC, tablet or smartphone. It's a fascinating device that revolutionizes the taking, usage and sharing of handwritten notes. We spent ten days with a LiveScribe Sky 4 GB.
You'll have to forgive me if I sound overexcited here. The smartest pen I'd used prior to the LiveScribe Sky wifi was one of those ten-color jobbies where each ink has a different perfume in it, so it's safe to say I'm a complete newbie to the concept of smartpens.
What the heck is a smartpen anyway?Here's the concept if, like me, you've never seen one before: you go into a meeting or a lecture, turn on your electronic pen, hit record and start taking notes as per usual in a specially coded notebook. The pen digitizes everything you write, so you can sync all your notes to your tablet, phone or PC – and it also records audio the entire time, time-coded to every stroke of your pen so that if you tap on anything you've written, it'll start playing the audio of whoever was speaking at the moment you took that note.
So when you're looking back through your lecture notes and they're complete gobbledegook, you just tap on the bit you don't understand, and you can hear exactly what the lecturer was saying at that moment. Or if somebody disputes your meeting minutes, you can tap on the sore point and go back to the conversation as it happened.
If your job involves taking notes, I'm sure you can imagine how useful this sort of thing would be.
How does it work?LiveScribe's Pulse, Echo and the new Sky wifi smartpens all work on the same mechanism. They use a tiny camera to record the pen's position on specially marked paper, courtesy of Anoto. If you look very closely at the paper, you can just make out a series of tiny dots. These dots tell the pen what page it's on, and what exact part of that page it's pointed at, so that as you write, every pen stroke is digitized at 72 dpi.
The LiveScribe Sky wifi has only a single button on it, and yet it's able to perform a whole bunch of different functions by tapping printed buttons drawn onto special pages in the included notebook. In fact just about everything you do with the pen is controlled by tapping it on these pictures of buttons. It's quite an odd feeling.
Integrating your notes with the cloudYou can use the LiveScribe pens exclusively with the notebooks provided (which are no more expensive than a regular notepad) and it's an exceptionally useful gadget. But the whole concept comes alive when you connect it to the Web and sync your notes with the cloud.
And that's the killer new feature of the LiveScribe Sky wifi smartpen: the Pulse and Echo needed to be physically connected to a PC in order to sync content, but the brand new Sky, announced today, has inbuilt Wi-Fi connectivity that fires your notes and audio into the cloud and back out to all your desktops, laptops, tablets and smartphones using the very popular and platform-agnostic Evernote app.
So effectively, if a student carries a single notebook and a tablet at all times, they have access to the entire year's lecture notes and lecture audio, in a format that works pretty much the same as it does on paper: you can tap or click on any bit of writing on the page in Evernote, and it'll play the audio from that moment.
Is it any good?
Having played with a 4-GB LiveScribe Sky wifi for a week and a half now, syncing to an iPhone, an iMac and an Asus Transformer tablet, I can unreservedly say yes. It does exactly what it says on the tin, it syncs quickly and effortlessly, and the whole experience is extremely smooth.
The audio recording quality is surprisingly good, even when the speaker is at a considerable distance. If you can clearly hear it where you're sitting, the pen will record it in a fashion you can understand. Yes, background noise, paper rustling and some pen use sounds come through as you write, but in all, the audio recording part is very well done.
The pen stroke digitization worked without any hiccups for me. All my notes came through beautifully and legibly despite my kindergarten-level handwriting. The 72-dpi resolution scan probably doesn't make this a feasible tool for fine art drawing, but the Sky captures cartoons, diagrams and signatures perfectly.
Evernote integration is very easy to set up and works pretty much seamlessly – except for the fact that if you want to tap around and listen to your audio recording, it needs to launch an external browser window and download what can sometimes be a large audio file before it'll work. LiveScribe and Evernote are working together to bring the LiveScribe player into the Evernote app to remove this one slight speed bump. Evernote has already signaled its dedication to the partnership by offering all Sky wifi propack users 500 MB of storage per month, which should be more than enough even for heavy users.
I was astonished to discover you can actually run text searches on your digitized scribbles, and Evernote does a surprisingly good job of finding the words you're searching for.
There're a few printed buttons that aren't up and running yet printed into the LiveScribe notebook. Share buttons that fire LiveScribe notes to email, Google Drive, Facebook and Dropbox are set to come online early in 2013. And the developers have a few other ideas up their sleeves too, including audio and note transcription services, sketch-to-SMS apps and a range of other fascinating ideas that are being developed in-house or through the soon-to-be-released LiveScribe SDK that will allow anyone to develop software for the platform. We'll have to wait and see how much of this stuff sees the light of day, but at least the scientific calculator at the back of the notebook works fine!
Even before the addition of the Sky's Wi-Fi connection and wireless sync abilities, LiveScribe's Pulse and Echo smartpens are pretty astounding gadgets. The on-board batteries last for ages, and even the smallest capacity 2-GB pens will record as much as 200 hours of audio before you need to sync or clear them off.
This is an exceptionally useful gadget, and a lot of thought has been put into making it simple and intuitive to use. I can see it being a transformative experience for students, a lifesaver for journalists, and a very handy tool for anybody in charge of taking meeting notes.
Pricing and availability
The LiveScribe Sky wifi pen is available from today through a range of retailers globally. The LiveScribe Sky will retail at US$169.95 for the 2-GB pen, $199.95 for the 4-GB version, and $249.95 for the 8-GB propack edition, which includes a 12-month premium subscription to Evernote.
The release of the Sky should also push the price of the non-Wi-Fi, USB-syncing Echo pen down as well, so if the smoother wireless experience of the Sky doesn't seem worth an extra hundred bucks, the Echo is still an excellent option.
Pen-and-paper note-taking is still a comfortable, easy way to organize thoughts and enhance verbal communication. Writing directly onto electronic tablets just isn't good enough to replace it yet – but the LiveScribe smartpen systems do an amazing job of blending the advantages of tablets and cloud storage with the sheer, simple usability of the humble pen. Brilliant stuff.
Product page: Sky wifi smartpen