REVIEW: Livescribe Pulse Smartpen

When it comes to taking notes in business meetings you have several choices―each with their advantages and disadvantages. Use a laptop and provided you can type fast enough, you’ll get notes you can cut and past for easy reuse and sharing. But the laptop itself is a physical barrier to you and your clients and constant pounding of the keyboard may irritate others.

Use pen and paper and you can make drawings as well as written notes, but you’ll need to scan and transcribe later to get computer-usable data to share with business partners. Record, and again you’ll need to transcribe using a speech to text solution―if you have one.

The Livescribe Pulse Smartpen is an additional option. It is a pen that records both handwriting and voice. It is relatively unobtrusive in use and it uploads data to your computer. Is it the perfect solution for the time-poor businessperson?

What is it and who is it for?

The Livescribe Pulse Smartpen is an ordinary ballpoint pen that, when used to write on special paper, can record your pen strokes. It captures text and drawings, and also records speech. Speech can be tied to particular segments of text or drawing so that it is easy to get back to later. The Livescribe Pulse Smartpen can also run apps many of which are available for free from the Web

Those executives who want the convenience of having their written word translated into computer editable text for forwarding to colleagues and clients without the bother of transcribing it themselves can get an application to do the job for them.

Does it do it well?

The Livescribe Pulse Smartpen certainly works efficiently. It comes with a USB docking station and automatically transfers new data onto your hard disk when you dock it. There is an option to use 500MB of free online storage―very handy if your business needs include sharing data with clients and colleagues over a wide geographical area.

The Livescribe Pulse Smartpen’s battery charges while it is docked, and so if you are a regular user keeping it topped up should be easy. It comes in 2GB and 4GB versions, with the smaller capacity model capacious enough to see you through a week or more of business meetings with minimal downtime.

In order for the pen to record what you write you have to use special paper, which is populated with tiny dots. It is the dots which help the pen record what you write and draw, via an infra-red camera that sits near its nib. There is a sort of control panel on a strip at the bottom of each page. You tap at this with the pen to do things like start a voice recording, set a voice bookmark, and move through the pen’s software. An Organic Light Emitting Diode (OLED) display on the pen displays information and lets you make various settings.

Where does it disappoint?

While it works efficiently, there are some aspects of the Livescribe Pulse Smartpen that business users might find irritating. It is large—necessarily so as it has to have room for a battery, some circuitry and its 96 x 18 pixel OLED display. This makes it large for the top pocket and yet another thing to overfill the burgeoning business briefcase.

For the record, the Livescribe Pulse Smartpen’s dimensions are 155mm long, 14mm to 16mm wide and it weighs 36g. These don’t sound like much, but compare them with the pen you regularly use. Put the Smartpen in its supplied protective case and it is, obviously enough, a bit larger and heavier. We found the size made the Livescribe Pulse Smartpen a little unwieldy to use.

When the pen talks to you, which it does as it moves through its menus when you make settings or use applications, its accent is American. This is a small thing in the scheme of things, but we found it rather irritating.

You can listen to recordings made in business meetings direct from the pen via loudspeaker or headphones. For the sanity of colleagues in the office or fellow train travellers, we suggest you use headphones. These connect via a 2.5mm slot in the top of the pen. You’ll look like a bit of a chump when wearing them, and irritatingly they are something else you’ll have to carry as the standard connector size for headphones is 3.5mm—the set you usually use with your phone or music player aren’t going to work here.

There is also the expense of using the Livescribe Pulse Smartpen. Pads are available in A5 and A4 sizes and we found a pack of four A4 notebooks for £17.99 at Amazon.co.uk. You can print the paper out for yourself—there are templates at the Web site and within the desktop software, but of course this too has a cost, and you’ll need to devote time to the task too.

The software that converts the written word to editable text is also an added extra, though at $29.95 it is not particularly expensive. The pen itself is far from the cost of an ordinary ballpoint. The 2GB version is currently at Amazon for £119 (inc. VAT), the 4GB one for £149 (inc. VAT).

Would we recommend it?

There is very little doubt that the business person who needs to take copious notes of meetings and share these with others or refer to them would find the Livescribe Pulse Smartpen a useful device. It is relatively unobtrusive to use in business meetings and should not therefore faze clients as a laptop would.

The ability to link the spoken word to written notes could be invaluable too—much is often said in meetings that’s difficult to write down or whose importance is not realised until later. And you can listen back to conversations on the move, which should be handy for those who spend little time in the office and a lot on the train. However, the running costs are not inconsiderable and infrequent users may find they pull the pen out to use it only to find they have failed to charge its battery! [6]


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