Hands on: Livescribe 3 Smartpen

By Pat Pilcher

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One of the not so fun parts of journalism is transcribing. Being self-taught means that shorthand isn't an option so lugging an audio recorder when doing interviews is a necessary evil.

Aside from scratchy recordings drowned out by noise in cafes or batteries dropping dead mid-interview, the big downside is listening to recorded audio over and over whilst typing it out.

This can be a drawn out process that leaves plenty of margin for error should the recording not be up to scratch.

Enter stage left the Livescribe 3 Smartpen. It's a curious beast. Not only does it record interviews but it also synchronises the writers scribbles with the audio it records.

So is the Livescribe the answer to banishing my transcription pain?

Look and Feel

The Livescribe looks and feels a lot like a high-end writing tool. It feels solid yet comfortable even for extended bouts of writing.

A ballpoint tip pops out when you twist a ring on the pen's midsection. Doing this also activates the pen's Bluetooth-powered smart features. Flipping the pen around also allows you to use its top as a stylus which proved handy for controlling the Livescribe app.

Inside the pen is an ARM 9 CPU, an infrared camera and a rechargeable battery (I managed to get just under 14 hours before it needed recharging).

In Use

The Livescribe is as ingenious as it is handy. A small built-in camera recognises text as the device running the Livescribe app records audio and synchronises it with a digitised version of the handwriting.

Special paper is used so the camera can track the Livescribe's movements. Record/ play/pause and tagging controls are also included. Tapping them with the Livescribe pen activates them.

The Livescribe needs the app to do its thing. This was when I discovered that there's no love for Android. The Livescribe app is only available for iOS devices. Luckily I had an iPod touch at my disposal.

Getting started involves installing the Livescribe+ app which was a hassle-free process. Twisting the ring on the Livescribe's midsection saw the Livescribe+ app asking me to okay the pen and my iPod becoming good pals.

The Livescribe+ app is where all the digital versions of my scribblings lived. There are several views available, the most intuitive being the Notebook View which resembles an old-school notebook with viewable pages.

The Feed view also proved handy as it organized my scribbles along a timeline, making them easy to find. The Pencast View lets me listen to audio recordings that are synced to my scribbles.

The handiness of this cannot be overstated. Being able to hear what was said as I wrote it proved to be a great memory jogger. Simply tapping the text plays the relevant audio.

I also liked that I could share notes to Dropbox and Evernote, which made reviewing notes on other devices dead easy.

The Livescribe 3 Smartpen is available in NZ for $249 (inc GST), and includes a 50-sheet Starter Notebook, as well as a micro USB charging cable and a black tungsten carbide medium-tip ink cartridge. A Pro Edition priced at $329 (inc GST) includes a leather smartpen portfolio with a 100-sheet hardbound journal plus a one-year subscription to Evernote Premium as well as a charging cable and an additional ink cartridge.

Verdict

If you do a lot of note taking, the Livescribe is probably just what the doctor ordered. As a pen it is a beautiful piece of hardware that has the look and feel of a Mount Blanc or Parker.

Unfortunately there is a downside. The iOS-only nature of the Livescribe will be a show stopper for for the fastest growing and largest segment of the smart device market. Thankfully Livescribe say Android support should happen later this year.

If you're an iPerson who does a lot of interviewing or other note taking, then there really is no reason not to get one. Even though I had to use my ageing iPod to test it, the Livescribe+ app was great for translating my arcane scribbles back into usable text.

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