Smartpen is a boon for those who take notes

12 Apr

April 12, 2010

By Geoff Meeker

I admit to being skeptical on first hearing about the Livescribe Pulse smartpen. What next? A smart paper clip?

I mean, how smart can a pen be? And what’s wrong with ink on paper anyway?

But bear with me – the smartpen is actually worth a second look. Read about what this pen can do, think about your own note-taking requirements, then see if you can dismiss it so easily.

As it turns out, anyone who writes notes on the fly, while trying to keep up with a fast-talking professor or boss, could use a smartpen – especially those with inscrutable handwriting. It might also be useful for creative types, those who think faster than they can write.

The device is ‘smart’ because it contains a little computer with a capacity of up to four gigabytes.  A tiny camera built into the barrel captures everything you write, as you write it. After the data is downloaded to a computer, your notes or drawings are displayed onscreen, exactly as you composed them.

I know what you’re thinking… How does the camera keep itself oriented while rolling around in your hands? The images it captures are anchored through the use of dedicated Dot Paper, which comes in notebook format. This, presumably, gives perspective when the computer merges the frames into a static screen shot.

The pen also has a built-in microphone, enabling you to record a ‘back-up’ of everything said during a lecture or meeting. That, in itself, is no big deal. But the pen gets smart in how it references the recordings.

With typical digital recordings, you have to scroll through the file, looking for a particular section – a process that can be cumbersome on longer recordings. With the smartpen, you tap the pen tip on relevant words in your handwritten notes, and the device plays audio that was recorded at that precise moment. Serious note-takers will have an ‘aha!’ moment about that feature.

The Dot Paper controls many of the pen’s functions. You can fast-forward, rewind or pause by touching the pen tip on the printed toolbar. However, the Dot Paper is not a total cash grab – you can choose to purchase notebooks, or output your own on any printer with 600 dpi resolution or better.

Sometimes, ideas form faster than the hand can transcribe. A screenwriter, for example, might write a movie treatment by hand, while thinking aloud about – and recording – the traits of her lead characters. Later, she taps the pen on the treatment to hear those additional notes. When you think about the pen this way, new vistas begin to unfurl…

The smartpen works with your computer, but is not chained to it. That is, you can connect when you want to back-up files, or download data because memory is full. But the device stands alone nicely, performing key tasks independent of any computer.  It has a built-in speaker and headphone jack, so you can review and ‘listen’ to notes at the library, on the bus or curled up in your study chair. With up to 400 hours of recording time (on the 4 Gb model), you might never fill up this baby.

The smartpen is, quite simply, a brilliant little device for those who can see the utility of it (and I emphasize that – this device is not for everyone). In this case, seeing is believing. Go to www.livescribe.com, and watch the demo movies. Then browse the ‘community’ section, where dozens of users have posted samples of work created on the smartpen.  These demonstrate the full range of what’s possible on this device, from basic note-taking to creative art, including pieces that make clever use of the audio function.

And it works on Windows and Mac.

There is already an app store at the Livescribe site, where you can download app’s for fun, education and productivity. I’ve browsed some of these, but I’m not able to sample them because I don’t have a smartpen – at least, not yet. As cool as this device is, I don’t think I will make the purchase at this time. I don’t write enough notes to make it worthwhile.

Finally, a word of caution: it is the pen that is smart, not the holder. A smartpen will not make you more intelligent (nor will a smartphone, for that matter). A person of limited writing ability cannot pick up a smartpen and begin composing brilliant prose. It’s a great tool, but it can’t perform miracles!

The Pulse smartpen is available online at the Apple Store (store.apple.com.ca). The 2 Gb model is $149 and the 4 Gb model is $199.

Geoff Meeker is a communications consultant with a soft spot for technology. He also writes a blog about the local media scene, which is hosted at www.thetelegram.com.

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