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Featured Review: Livescribe 3 Smartpen, Bridging the Gap Between Physical and Digital

May 23, 2015 - Written By Nick Sutrich

Over the years many people have changed the way they communicate and write drastically.  Communication has moved from phone calls and conference room meetings to text messages and Hangouts.  Many people don’t carry around a pen any longer but tend to use the note-taking app found on their favorite phone or tablet instead.  This digital world has created many new opportunities, including new ways to work, share and communicate, but in the process some of the joy of the physical medium has disappeared.  We often don’t see hand-drawn animated movies any more, and many people have ditched the pen and paper because it’s yet another thing to carry around.  But what about those who still prefer to read a physical book or use actual paper and pen to take notes or jot down meeting minutes?  Livescribe is here to help those folks as well as introduce a whole new way of thinking between digital and physical.

It’s entirely possible that you’ve heard of Livescribe in the past, and that’s for good reason.  The company has been around since before the original iPhone was announced and has been a pioneer in the note-taking market since January 2007.  Livescribe is a physical pen at the most basic level but does so much more thanks to the computing elements found within the shell of the pen, as well as with the help of the special Dot Paper notebooks and companion apps.  Together this suite of tools literally takes the information you’ve jotted down on paper and translates it to a familiar PDF format, ripe with rich text, hyperlinks and even audio that can be recorded from the pen.  This information can then easily be shared as you would any PDF, although some functionality is only retained when it’s opened in the Livescribe app on anyone’s mobile device.  Previously this companion app was only available on iOS but has finally been launched on Android as of last week, which is why we’re finally able to review it for everyone to see.

The Pen

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Sensibly we’ll start from the most basic part of the package, the pen.  The pen resembles one of those fancy desk pens you often see on an executive’s desk, except likely at a fraction of the price.  It’s quite a bit larger than your average ball-point pen but not any heavier.  The tip of the pen features a retractable pen tip as well as a space surrounding it that resembles an inkwell pen.  The chrome and black fashion of the pen gives it an overall suit and tie look and keeps things classy all around.  The pen tip is either extended or retracted via a twisting grip that’s found in the middle of the pen.  This twisting grip also doubles as the way to power on and off the pen, with a small LED positioned at the top that changes color to show the status of the device.  The top of the pen isn’t just pretty either, it’s also utilitarian.  Besides the standard clip that houses the status LED the top end of completely covered in a soft-touch rubber that doubles as a stylus.  This stylus can be used on any capacitive screen, which means the screen on your phone or tablet as well as the buttons found underneath the screens of some devices out there.

As I said before the pen itself is a little larger than most pens, but it doesn’t feel like this was done out of necessity, rather that it was done out of design.  It’s likely also a way of keeping the pen from getting lost, a crucial problem that could very well happen if it were as small as the stylus found in devices like the Galaxy Note series.  Seeing as how this is the most expensive part of the whole package it’s certainly something you wouldn’t want to lose.  I don’t normally use pens so I found my hand cramping bit during use, but that’s likely my fault and not the pen’s.  When the pen eventually dies from low battery it’s simple to charge it via a standard microUSB to USB cable that’s included in the box.  You can also use any charger that’s made for an Android-powered phone since this is the same connector, although your mileage may vary on charge time depending on power rating of the charger.  Battery life was absolutely phenomenal in my testing and I never even got it below 75% during all the use over the past two weeks or so.

The pen connects to your phone or tablet via Bluetooth 4.0 Smart (low energy) and is able to pair with up to four devices at a time.  Seeing as how most people aren’t going to have this many devices they switch between on a regular basis this seems to be more than an adequate limit, to say the least.  Upon connecting the pen to the app for the first time it’ll check for software updates and sync any pertinent information to the pen such as date and time.  I would highly recommend connecting the pen to a PC to do the initial firmware update, as it literally took somewhere in the ballpark of half an hour for me over Bluetooth, which isn’t the quickest way to transfer anything in life.  Inside the seemingly empty head of the pen lies an infrared camera that uses the unique dot system on the Dot Paper which we will now delve into.

The Notebook

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No I don’t mean the sappy romance flick, rather I’m taking about the starter Dot Paper notebook that’s included with the Livescribe 3 kit.  This special paper is made with a tiny, unique dot system that lets the pen see exactly what you’re writing so that it can be translated into a digital format.  The dots are small, placed in a seemingly random fashion and light blue enough to where the paper you’re using doesn’t look any different from regular ruled paper that many are familiar with.  That’s not the only special part of this paper either, as there are a series of printed “buttons” placed in the corners of the page that perform different functions.  The top left features the numbers 1, 2 and 3 to help categorize different points of interest on the page, and the bottom left features a star, flag and a tag icon.  These actions stand for Favorite, Flagged and Tagged and unfortunately none of these have been implemented into the Android version of Livescribe+ just yet.

What has been integrated are the buttons on the bottom left which resemble record, pause and stop buttons.  This is where the voice dictation system comes into play, as pressing record will immediately record any audio that the pen picks up.  This translates into what looks like a green hyperlink when viewing the notes from the app and can be played back at any time to hear the audio while reviewing notes.  There are also additional buttons in the front of the book for device pairing and smartpen status, and Livescribe sells a whole suite of different types of paper filled with functional buttons that perform other actions.

The App

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The heart of the experience is of course the app, as without it we’re really just using a pen and paper with no way to translate the information stored inside of the plastic shell.  Livescribe has gone through some lengths to make their Android debut the right one, and it’s obvious from the get go that they have been serious about their product looking and working right.  Full Material Design is enlisted here, including the rarely used tinted navigation bar.  A constant floating microphone button is featured on the bottom right as the Material action button and aids in quick recording when needed.  A left-hand slide-out menu features the full-height bar as per Material Design spec, and contains all the different sections of the app as you would expect it to.  The main section of the app contains all the notebooks and different pads of Dot Paper that you might have used during your time with the Livescribe 3.  Each notebook is broken down into pages and each page or notebook can be shared separately.  Sharing is done via the overflow menu after selecting a notebook or page, and can be sent via the standard system dialog to any app that can handle PDF files.  This means easy emailing, cloud storage and data transfer via your favorite app without hassle.

Moving into the pages of a notebook we find a few tabs up top denoting different views of the page: Page, Feed and Pencast.  The page view is a vertical list of all the pages in the notebook, whereas the feed view shows the individual sections written on a page.  For instance if you write a few sentences in the same space of time, take a break and start writing again these sessions will be broken up into different feeds.  Feed view is also where you go to get more out of what’s written on the page, for instance if a URL is written heading to the feed view gives you access to pressing that link.  Swiping left or right on any feed section flips the page between hand-written and converted text.  I found the text didn’t really do a great job with my handwriting, but you can see from the picture that no average human could decipher my chicken scratch either.  Someone who writes with a pen more often might have better luck with this section, as my wife did for instance.

Pencast is the section that holds all the recorded audio from the pen during any writing sessions.  Audio is listened to either by going to this section and finding the dedicated snippets of audio recorded or by clicking on the green wording on any page.  Green wording denotes recorded audio during a written portion on your notes, and the text changes color to show the progress of the audio recording during playback.  Audio quality from the pen was absolutely phenomenal and didn’t seem to be affected no matter how I held it, even while writing.  This is incredibly useful in any given situation, especially for those looking to re-listen to meetings, lectures, sermons or whatever you’re taking notes on that may include some form of audio.  I found these sections to be a little bit glitchy in my usage period, as tabs would randomly disappear and I would have to back out of the note to find them again.  It’s a minor annoyance that didn’t happen too often but it’s worth noting, although I’m sure this will get fixed as the app gets updated and more features get added as well.

Conclusion

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Livescribe is one seriously amazing piece of technology that will certainly help plenty of people do their jobs more effectively and take better notes.  Livescribe isn’t just a simple way of backing up your notes to a digital format on the cloud or your other favorite storage device, it’s also a great way to create more interactive notes and share them too.  Since sharing paper isn’t exactly easy this benefit in particular really significantly adds to the value of the product, and being able to record audio and make links and other actions via the app only add to that value.  The app itself is an absolutely beautiful app that’s worthy of being called one of the best on Android.  It utilizes the Material Design guidelines created by Google in a beautiful way that’s not often seen, and the organization of the information and action buttons are done in a way that logically makes sense and doesn’t have users poking around forever to find settings and options.

The pricepoint of Livescribe is around the same as any nice pen out there, and maybe even considerably less depending on what you’re looking for, all while providing more functionality than any regular pen could hope for.  The pen itself is stylish and sleek, although it’s definitely larger than your average ballpoint pen from the office supply store.  Livescribe’s ingenious Dot Paper notebooks provide a stylish means to write all while adding more functionality to your note taking in a way that makes sense.  Buttons on the paper give context to your notes, and there are even easy record and tagging sections that add depth to lists and journals.  This is a phenomenal package that’s unrivaled in the tech world, a unique product and one that’s absolutely worth buying if you take any kind of notes on a regular basis.