- Comfortable to use
- Organises, shares and stores written content
- Support for GoogleDocs, Evernote and Facebook
- High initial cost
- Expensive apps
- Takes time to get used to software
- No OCR software
- Review Price: £179.99
- Infrared camera
- Rubberised grip
- In-built microphone and speaker
- LiveScribe Connect
Trying to describe what it is a LiveScribe Echo Smartpen
does is quite tough. To say it’s a normal pen that simply records what you write does not really
do it justice. It also indexes what you hear at the time of writing,
converts what you have written into an interactive PDF file, allows you to jump
to any point in the page and hear what was being said at that time and now allows
you to share it with anyone directly from the page you are writing on.
While the system will not appeal to everyone, anyone who
takes notes while listening to someone else or wants to get across a visual
idea to someone on the other side of the world could find this tool invaluable.
But what about a fax I hear you say, or indeed that costly flatbed scanner
sitting on your desk? Well who wants to listen to the annoying screech of a fax
which will inevitably fail the first five times you try it, before you realize
that most people stopped using faxes sometime in the mid-90s. Scanning is not
much better. By the time you have powered up you scanner, connected it to your
PC, repositioned the document four times to the correct orientation, uploaded
the file, attached it to an email and sent it, your working day will be pretty
On the other hand, by just writing one word, the LiveScribe
pen gets rid of all these steps and automatically emails your document to who
ever you want. But more of this later, first of all lets look at the pen itself
and see just what makes it work.
We are looking at the 8GB Echo Smartpen which also comes in
2GB and 4GB versions, with the larger pen offering up to 800 hours of recording
time depending on audio quality. Two years ago we looked at the Pulse Smartpen and besides cosmetic differences, the pens offer practically identical functions. Doing away with the grey anodised aluminum we saw on the Pulse, the Echo replaces it with a black rubberised grip below a black plastic top. It all looks very nice and is easy to hold. Powering everything is an ARM 9 processor but
what makes this pen tick is the high-speed infrared camera situated above the
nib, which takes up to 70 images per second to record exactly what you are
writing. The pen measures 158mm in length and is 19mm wide at the top, tapering
to 11mm at the tip. While this is certainly chunky in pen terms the soft rubber
grip makes it very comfortable to hold and at just 36g feels nice in the hand.
At the top there is a micro-USB port to allow you charge the lithium battery as
well as a 3.5mm headphone jack – replacing the proprietary 2.5mm jack on the Pulse pen.
Audio is recorded via an integrated microphone, which only
makes mono recordings, which is fine for one-on-one meetings/interviews or if
you are just outlining your ideas as you draw and you can listen back to your
recording via an in-built speaker. If however you want to record something in a
larger space such as a lecture theatre, you will need to purchase the Echo 3-D
Premium Recording Headset which gives you stereo recording via a pair of
microphones located on the exterior of the earbuds. This headset is included with the Pulse pen but will cost an extra $30 if you’re buying this pen, as it has been omitted from the Echo packages – a rather miserly move if ever there was one.
A 96 x 18 OLED display is your windows into what is going on
with your pen. When nothing is happening it displays the time and the amount of
battery charge left. The first time you turn on your pen you set the language,
date, time and display orientation depending on if you are right- or
left-handed. All the set up can be done on your own or with the handy little
interactive leaflet that comes with the pens.
So how exactly does the pen work? Well the first thing you
need to know is that the LiveScribe smartpens will only work on something
called dot paper, which is regular paper on which microdots have been printed
allowing the infrared camera to record everything that is written. A
starter notebook comes with the Echo pens and various sizes of notebook are
available online through the LiveScribe website. You can even print your own
dot paper from the LiveScribe Desktop using color printers with 600 dpi
resolution or better.
Printed on the bottom of each page is a “navigation cross”
and various recording and tracking buttons (record, stop, increase speed, decrease speed, jump to position and volume controls, jump forward, jump back and star). To begin recording tap the pen on the record
button and you’ll hear a beep from the pen. From then on everything you write
and say will be recorded. To finish, just tap the stop button. And that’s it.
From then on it’s up to you as to what you want to do with the pen. It’s
possible to record your writing without recording sound by simply writing
on one of the pages without pressing the record button.
The next step is to download the LiveScribe Desktop
software, which allows you to manage the recorded pages and audio. From here you
can easily store, organise and share the pages via email to anyone with the LiveScribe Desktop software as .pencast files, which can be viewed interactively. Pencasts are
interactive documents that recreate the document visually as well as allowing you to hear what
was being said at the time. This way of viewing what exactly went on in a
meeting/interview is a lot more informative than reading an email regarding the
same event. You can even jump to a particular point in the recording by clicking on that piece of text.
LiveScribe Connect, which has just been launched, seriously enhances the
functionality of your Echo Smartpen. When you have Connect installed on your
desktop and updated the firmware on your pen, you will be able to create a
Pencast PDF which anyone with Adobe Reader 10 or higher (or Acrobat Pro) will
be able to read and interact with. This means you can share it with almost everyone you know and not just those who have the LiveScribe Desktop software. Once you have completed your document, draw a
line on the page and when you are prompted, type the command you want such as Email, Facebook or
When the pen is next docked the Pencast PDF will be automatically sent to the
account you have set up for each of these ‘Connectors’. Connect allows you to
also send documents to GoogleDocs, online LivsScribe storage or a particular
folder on your computer. The system works well once you’ve got used to it, though we found that
initial set-up of the software was a little bit confusing – however we were
using a Beta version and LiveScribe confirmed to us that all aspects were now
working perfectly. Connect is also available to Pulse versions of the pen.
While being able to store your notes and scribbles in their original form online is great, being able to convert those notes into editable text would make the system all the better. This lack of bundled Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software has not been corrected since we pointed out the issue with the Pulse pen a couple of years ago. While third-party software is available, it seems like a ridiculous oversight from LiveScribe not adding this function considering you can ‘search’ your handwritten notes for a particular word with great accuracy. Considering the £30 price hike for the Echo Smartpen over the Pulse veriosn, we would have liked to have seen some OCR software included in this premium model.
Moving away from the more serious uses of the pen, as with
most new technology these days, the Echo smartpens come with their own app
store. That’s right people, a pen with an app store. While you won’t be playing
Angry Birds with the smartpens, some of the apps that are available do take
full advantage of the pens’ features. Among the pre-loaded apps which came on
the pen is ‘Piano’ which makes you draw out eight piano keys before letting
you ‘play’ the piano right from the page by tapping on each key. Another
more useful app was a demo of an English-Spanish translator which worked quite
well but with a very limited vocabulary.
There are currently over sixty apps in the store ranging
from educational to games. We tried out a few of the apps with Infocom game
Zork among our favourites. It‘s a good old-fashioned mystery game, which
requires you to follow the story and write down what actions you want to take
next. See the video below for a demonstration. There are a number of language
apps, which could prove very useful if you’re on holiday – and you have a
large supply of dot paper lying around. Prices for apps range from free up to
$14.99 for applications such as Paper Tablet, which turns you dot paper
notebook into a mouse and allows you to mark-up documents very easily.
The Echo Smartpen is certainly an intriguing piece of
technology. On the one hand it seems like a throw back to the good old days of
using pen and paper to communicate your message but has combined that with
digital technology to make sharing what you have written – and said – to the
whole world a lot easier. At £179.99, the 8GB Echo Smartpen is not cheap though LiveScribe
has today also launched a 2GB model for £99.99 and a 4GB model for £149.99,
which are certainly more affordable. It is hard to see what the extra £30 is for compared to the Pulse model besides the extra storage, which is not sufficient reason for such a price rise. While LiveScribe Connect does add more functionality, Connect is also available for the Pulse pens though it will cost you more to upgrade to Connect Premium (£9).
For us the system worked very well, but
only after quite a bit of trial and error. The system is not initially as
intuitive as we may have hoped for having seen a demonstration but once you have your connections set up and
are used to how it works, then the smartpen ecosystem works very well indeed. We did have some trouble with the LiveScribe Desktop
software crashing initially but once we updated the software to the latest
version, it worked flawlessly. Some of the apps, particularly those which bring
a lot of new functionality to the smartpens, do cost quite a lot of money, though
hopefully as the app store grows and more people begin using it, these prices
may come down.
While the Echo Smartpen is certainly one of the best on the market, its high price and lack of OCR software means we cannot recommend it. It will not be for everyone but for those who
take a lot of notes be it in meetings, lectures or interviews and want a more
reliable way of storing,searching, organising and sharing them then this system is
Score in detail
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