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Apple Watch: Livescribe 3 Smartpen


I wrote a few days ago about a ball-shaped robot as an example of extending iDevices with hardware. In that field, this device is a lot more impressive. The Livescribe pen is designed to take the pain out of digitising, archiving and sharing handwritten notes. You could think of it as an alternative to writing on the screen of an iDevice with a stylus, since you get the feel of paper and ballpoint (it is, actually, paper and a ballpoint) but there's much more to it. Many people simply prefer the feel of pen on paper, and some studies show that people remember better when they write, rather than type, things out - but with Livescribe, while you write, you're getting an almost-instant backup on your iPad or iPhone.

Since, with the right adapter, you can project the screen of an iDevice, you could be drawing and writing on the pad while it's appearing on a screen for a whole class or meeting to see. Nifty - especially for those with good drawing and writing skills.

When I first saw it, I imagined the pen would be heavy since it would surely be packed with electronics ... but it's not. It may be thick-barreled, but it's light.

What the pen actually houses, apart from Bluetooth, is a tiny camera. And the requisite paper is not laced with circuitry either - it's just paper, albeit printed with a very fine, almost imperceptible dot pattern. This is how the pen works - basically, it joins the dots, recording the process with the camera, and this pattern is transferred wirelessly to the Livescribe app to appear on your iPad (or iPhone) screen.

Another chip in the pen is memory, though: the Livescribe 3 smartpen retains notes and sketches even when you're not connected to your mobile device. Connect, and the drawings and text should appear in the app. (The previous models also stored audio but not any more, meaning the smartpen's memory can now store store thousands of pages of notes.)

The Livescribe pen only works when used with the company's proprietary paper, which is supplied in spiral-bound notebooks - buy the pen, get one pad and you will soon need additional paper. The tiny infrared camera in the tip reads the dots on the special paper ($7 per pad, and there are other paper formats available) to help it track its position and digitise your pen strokes. A lag of a second or two and the black lines appear in the Livescribe 'pages' on the iPad.

The ink refills, by the way (a little ink tube with a ballpoint tip) can also be sourced from Livescribe - other brands will work if they they have the exact same dimensions, but Livescribe doesn't guarantee those.

The clever pen pattern metaphor means the pads can actually do more than 'just' record your jottings. Printed patterns on the notebooks are registered by the camera, too: there's a button to tap to connect the pen to the app, and there are Record, Pause and Stop buttons which let you engage the iPad's microphone to record audio while you jot. While interviewing someone you can literally record the interview while you write down your observations, and the same in meetings. (Note it's required in NZ law to tell people if you wish to record them.)

These so-called 'pencasts' are available when you tap the three-lines icon at the top of the pages display in the app - they're displayed in the left column that appears. They sync with where you're up to in your writing. Any writing you do goes green if you simultaneously recorded audio. Further icons at bottom-right of notebook pages let you flag, star and tag the pages with a pen-tap and these, too, are appended to the left column. This is also where you'll find Settings, in which you can set up Evernote and/or OneNote cloud services, for Livescribe supports those, too.

On the old connectivity front, I ran into a glitch where the usual Bluetooth connection via the Settings app simply refused to work. Bluetooth on my iPhone simply could not 'see' the pen. I had to do it via the notepad. Mark Parker of Livescribe Australia thinks this is a glitch with the latest driver and has reported it back to the Californian HQ.

But you can link it - first you'll need the free Livescribe app - it's universal (the same app works on iPhone and iPad and iPod touch). Install and open that.

Open the notepad to page 1, turn your pen on (presuming it's charged) by rotating the knurled centre section (the LED near the top of the pen lights - this will go blue when it's paired) and touch the pen tip on the graphic at bottom left of the first page with the words Device Pairing under it.

Once I did this, the pen stayed paired no matter how long I had it turned off between uses. Just turning the pen on had it paired - and yet the Livescribe 3 never actually came up as a paired device under Bluetooth in Settings (but Bluetooth does need to be turned on).

An icon beside this, Smartpen Status, launches a screen in the Livescribe app with various status indicators and this is where you check the software is up to date, serial number, edition, battery charge etcetera.

The Livescribe + app is compatible with iPad 3rd and 4th Generation, iPad Air, iPad Mini, iPad Mini (with Retina); iPhone 4s, iPhone 5/5s/5c; and iPod touch 5th Generation. A graphic of the pen at top right shows how much charge you have in the pen - a charge should last ten hours, and the pen goes orange and red as the charge drops.

There are three views to choose from along the top of the app: Page, Feed and Pencast. Livescribe really is a smart pen - write down a phone number on an iPhone and the Feed view gives you a timeline of when you wrote/recorded what - ideal for minutes, notes etc. While in this view, tap the page with a phone number on it, hold your finger over the number, select Edit and it's turned into editable text via built-in OCR. Now you can correct it, if needed, but when you tap Done, it becomes typewritten blue, underlined text. Hold your finger on that in turn and you get to add it to contacts, call it, send a text to it or copy it for pasting elsewhere. In other words, write down a number on a pad and seconds later, call it. But it's also on record. Handy.

But wait, there's - you guessed it. The Livescribe app can convert handwriting to text with other things. Write an email address and you get similar options: New Message, Add to Contacts and Copy (or Cancel), and it works with websites, too.

There are lots of training videos that will give you a good idea of what this thing can do. Also, the Evernote support will really thrill users of that app.

What you get in the box for NZ$249 (I've seen it cheaper, so check for discounts) is a Livescribe 3 Smartpen (in black and chrome), a 50-sheet Livescribe Starter Notebook, a Tungsten-Carbide Ballpoint Ink Cartridge (Black, Medium) and one Micro USB Charging Cable. It costs (there's a more expensive Pro version) and you can buy them, and the pads etc, from this New Zealand site.

Everyone I showed this to either thought it was way cool, or wanted one. I do too.

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