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article imageOp-Ed: Livescribe's Smartpen, can you afford to be without one? Special

By Sharon Davis     Apr 28, 2010 in Technology
Christchurch - The recorder and pen combo of the Pulse Smartpen by Livescribe is a journalist's dream come true. Read's review to find out how this gadget could change the way you work.
About a month ago a query went out on a writer's e-group I belong to: someone was looking for an affordable voice recorder for interviews. I've used a microphone attachment for my iPod for this purpose for several years, and barely followed the thread, until someone mentioned the Pulse Smartpen from Livescribe.
Here was a gadget that could link audio recordings to what I was writing at the time (with the option to build in a personalised time lag to adjust for the fact that I would be writing after something was said) - and play back a portion of the recording simply by tapping on the notes on the page. It didn't take me long to realise that this could revolutionise my life as a journalist...
The Smartpen captures what you write or draw with a built in camera at the end of the pen and links this to what you heard with a built in microphone - but it does require the use of special paper and ink.
The Pulse Smartpen is about the size and weight of a large pen and is equipped with a removable ball-point ink cartridge, a microphone to record audio, a speaker for playback, a small OLED display, and internal flash memory that captures handwritten notes, audio and drawings. It can also function as a calculator and can translate words into several languages.
Within a week I was putting my 1.30 ounce 2 Gig version (there is also a1 Gig [now discontinued] and 4 Gig option) through its paces. The advertising info says the 2 Gig can hold about 200 hours of recording depending on the quality settings.
It started with several negative impressions. Firstly, the promised 24-hour delivery from the e-mailed prices obtained from contacting the representative at the New Zealand site was not met. I only learnt about the delay in despatch after querying when I could expect delivery... but I was excitedly opening my starter pack within 36 hours.
Secondly: The box was not sealed, and contained only one of two ink refills that the specifications said it should contain.
Thirdly: The ordered refills had not been sent with my order (which included a starter pack, some notepads and ink refills). Again I was only advised that the refills were on back order when I queried this with the New Zealand representative. A poor show on behalf of the New Zealand sales team - but hopefully they will get around to filling the order and replacing the addition refill sometime soon.
Divorcing service delivery from the pen... I was initially a little disappointed with the pen itself. I have fairly small hands and the pen is considerably larger and fatter than a normal standard pen. I was worried that it would be awkward to use, but because the pen enables me to work smarter, I need to write less and it has not proved to be the impediment I expected.
For example, only need draw a house to pinpoint a playback option for an address and contact details and can easily highlight important passages with an asterisks, exclamation mark, or similar.
I found the Smartpen easy to use. The tutorial had me up and recording in record time. A lot of the functions are activated by tapping lightly on instructions (like record, pause, and bookmark) on the notebook pages and the how to's are generally easy to intuit.
However, venturing out with the pen, sans notebook, hoping to record audio only was a disaster on my first attempt as I'd failed to learn how to navigate the menu without the written prompts in the notebook which the camera reads and recognizes. It is possible to record without the notepad, I just hadn't figured out how to do this at the time.
The Smartpen has proved to be an amazing tool. It can be set for both left and right handed people, has variable playback speeds and comes with software that allows you to transfer your notes onto a PC or Mac. You can also store your notes online. The means you can access your interviews from anywhere and the various view options means your notes can be totally private, shared with select friends, or open to the public.
The biggest plus for me is that I need to concentrate less on taking notes and can give more attention to what is being said. This means I can ask better questions, and this makes me a more effective journalist.
I've found the audio quality exceptionally good. The unit is easy to charge, via a USB connection to your computer. I've not yet tested the battery to its limits, but have found it more than adequate for my needs.
The only negative I've come across so far is that one is fairly hamstrung without the required dot paper that the camera needs for recognition. That said, the software comes with a function that allows you print your own. I'm not sure how cost-effective that is though.
The pen is lightweight, writes smoothly and offers top quality recording with good battery life.
The 1GB sells for under USD $100 and the 4GB Smartpen starts at USD$169.95, up to USD$229.95 for the 4 GB Pro Pack which is currently on special. Notebooks come in various sizes and colours and ink refills are available at USD$5.95 for five refills. Unless you are in the US you will probably have to find a local supplier. Prices will vary.
Handwriting recognition functionality is provided by a third-party application, MyScript by Vision Objects Inc., which sells separately for USD$29.95.
Other online reviews generally rave about the pen, but rate the software supporting the pen, especially following a recent upgrade, as fairly low. One user reported that the easy print option for printing your own paper is not that easy.
My take: it's not perfect - but it is an amazingly useful tool, and I'm really pleased to have one in my toolkit. I plan to use it to create talking notes for some training I do too.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about Pulse smartpen, Livescribe, Voice recorder, Interviews, Taking notes
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