Livescribe is a company that many students and business people have heard of but few know much about it other than the fact that they make smart pens. I’ve been interested in them from afar since I became a student again in my small free time and when I heard that Livescribe had had a shake up in their software and now worked with Evernote I had to try it.
The Livescribe system is more than a smart pen – its a combination of smart pen and specific paper. The pen has a tiny camera that follows the nib and the paper has near invisible dots that let it work out where it is in space. Add in a microphone to optionally record conversations around it and in theory I have the perfect way to take notes. These notes and recording are then uploaded and stored in Evernote. The idea is that in a meeting or lecture I would have the full sound record of everything that happened and then your notes are timed to this recording. Later tap on an individual note and jump to the point in the recording that that note was made.
If you don’t go to lectures or meetings often but just prefer getting your thoughts down on paper the Livescribe Wifi can still be very useful without recording sound. Just take your notes in their notebook and you will get a version backed up to Evernote. I found the spiral notebook lent itself very well to being open on my desk and letting me take notes throughout the day. I often ended up with notes scattered here, there and everywhere but using the Livescribe Wifi I got a permanent record in Evernote.
I tested the audio recording at several locations and types of meetings. When I was talking one-to-one the sound was near perfect and in relatively small meeting rooms it worked well. When I got to larger and echoey rooms the sound quality dropped off considerably as did the volume. I still found it usable but it did need more concentration to understand and hear the voices.
Livescribe sell an external headset with dual microphones for around $20 which is said to improve the sound quality. The connector is a standard 3.5mm headphone jack and I was able to use my phones headset with its built in mic which did improve the sound quality by a noticeable amount.
Livescribe has come up with a novel way to control the software on the pen. Rather than hooking it up to a PC or controlling it via an app or something similar they provide a printed keyboard and series of commands at the front of the notebooks (and on a sticker and printable). Turn the pen on and tap on the icon of the desired command and the pen carries it out and reports back on the pens screen. This sounds rather odd to describe and I found it so the first time I used it but it works surprisingly well and quickly and means that settings and wifi networks can be changed on the go with something always carried with you (the notebook) rather than being tied to a PC.
The Livescribe Wifi comes with a single A5 starter notebook that gave me enough to get going with. It’s ringbound so opened very well on my desk for notes but was not the most mobile solution. Livescribe also does A4 notebooks, small flip notebooks and Moleskin style notebooks that will fit in a pocket.
If you want to take it with you regularly there are two possible problems. First the pen takes a couple of seconds to switch on and I found myself missing the first word or two of notes I jotted down by being in too much of a rush and writing before the pen had started up. The second problem is that the nib of the Wifi sticks out and is vulnerable to either drawing on the inside of your pocket or getting linted up. Livescribe do sell a cap at 3 for $5 but not having one in the box is an annoying omission.
The Livescribe Wifi is aimed at two separate markets. Students who want to record lectures and have their notes tied and time stamped into it and business people who attend meetings and make paper notes. There is one more somewhat hidden audience – Evernote users.
Size: 16.2 x 1.5 x 1.5 cm
Capacity: 2, 4 or 8GB
Item Weight: 32g
Point size: Medium
Point type: Ballpoint
Wifi: 2.4GHz 802.11 b/g/n
Battery: Rechargeable lithium charged via microUSB
Camera: Infrared fixed 75 images per second
Microphone: Embedded mono recording
Speaker: mono embedded or 3.5mm headphone jack
Warranty: Livescribe covers the pen from defects in workmanship for one year from the time of purchase.
The Livescribe Wifi works using an Evernote account for its cloud storage so you will need to have access to or create an account. Despite its name the Wifi does not actually need wifi to sync – there is a PC app called Livescribe Helper than will let you sync via microUSB. If you do use wifi you cannot use one with a captive portal – in other words if you have to use a web page to sign in as you often do on public networks you cannot use the pen.
Surprisingly there is no need for good light – the camera is infra-red and I found it worked perfectly in an almost pitch black room.
The Pen comes with a single ink cartridge in black but refills are also available in blue and red.
The single screen is low resolution and monochrome but serves well for displaying the small amount of information it needs to. It displays white text on a black background and has adjustable brightness. My review unit picked up a scratch on the screen in my months usage which does emphasise the Wifi is a device that needs carefully taking care of.
There is only one significant use of color in the Livescribe system. When replaying recordings and notes together notes that have not yet reached their timestamp are displayed in a light grey and once they have passed their timestamp in green. The colors are different but are similar enough that some may have problems with it.
Sound is a crucial part of the Livescribe Wifi and it has both a built in speaker and microphone. Both are of reasonable quality and will serve most people well for recording and for playback but there are two additional options if you want more privacy or controls.
The Wifi has a 3.5mm headphone jack in the top that lets you plug your earphones in to listen to recordings or if the headset has a microphone to use that microphone instead of the built in Wifi mic. This means better recordings and better more private playbacks.
Once synced to Evernote you can play back the recordings on your PC and can use your PC’s audio setup. Evernote cannot natively handle the playback and links you out to the Livescribe website to do so. It is also possible to save the audio file as a m4a which allowed me to make manual edits to it. This would break the timed link between the notes and the recording but is potentially a good fallback if you can almost hear a sound.
Input and touch
The Livescribe pen has a single control button on it. This small rubber button is slightly recessed to avoid pressing by accident but is straightforward enough to press. Press and release to turn the pen on, press and hold for a few seconds to turn the pen on and start recording audio.
Writing and using the pen is easier than I expected. The pictures of the pen make it look quite fat and chunky and it is not slim by any means but it feels nice in in the hand and better controlled than I had expected. The plastic on the bottom half of the is slightly rougher than I had thought it would be and this gives good grip while the top half of the pen is smooth.
Once switched on the pen is controlled via the setting sheet at the beginning of the notebook or via quick controls at the bottom of the page. I originally worried that tapping on these controls with the pen would obscure them with dots of ink but while dots did build up it did not seem to cause any problems.
There are several lesser used settings available via the control sheet. Perhaps the most important is the ability to switch from right-handed to left-handed mode which changes the screen’s orientation and may have some other effects that I was not able to ascertain.
The control sheet also offers options like setting the audio compression, brightness and other languages
Ease of Use
The first time you come to use the Livescribe Wifi there is a setup process. This involves going to their website in your browser, creating a Livescribe account, tying it to the Evernote account and then entering the serial number of the pen. Once this is done I powered up the pen, scanned for wifi networks, entered the password and checked for updates. From that point the pen was ready to use.
Once setup the Livescribe Wifi t is simple to use. Push the button, wait a second or two and start writing or push and hold the button for a couple of seconds to start writing and recording audio. Sync manually or wait for the auto sync.
The Wifi is designed for Evernote users and only lets you insert your notes and recordings into Evernote. If you are already an Evernote user this will be ideal but if not you would need to alter your note taking system to use it.
The Wifi needs a little maintenance – charging and replacing the ink occasionally – but otherwise needs little attention. I did find that the nib was rather exposed if I packed it in my bag of pocket so made sure to pack it very very carefully. Livescribe does offer a separate lid to get around this issue.
Cognitive, language and math
The Livescribe Wifi is a pen and designed for note-taking and as such an ability to write and take notes is nearly a pre-requisite. I tried using the Wifi for drawing and doodling but while it worked to some degree the nib and ink are not designed for it and did not produce great results. It was accurately transposed into Evernote so this could work for drawing graphs and diagrams.
Whilst you could just use the Livescribe Wifi to record audio there are simpler and cheaper ways to do so and I wouldn’t recommend buying the Wifi just for that.
There is no social interaction involved with the use of the Livescribe Wifi.
The Livescribe Wifi is made of a molded plastic polycarbonate that very few people are going to have a allergy to. The paper is thinner than I expected but seems quite dense and smooth with a higher grammage. You are normally restricted to the notebooks and pads that Livescribe sells but you canto print your own on your own paper if you need to.
Livescribe was founded in 2007 and focuses specifically on smart pens and paper and the complimentary products including software. They are based in Oakland, California and are VC funded.
Included In The Box
- Livescribe Pen
- Quick Start guide
- 2 sets of control stickers
- A5 50 sheet starter notebook
- Basics Manual
- MicroUSB cable
The Livescribe Wifi Pen is a well designed and manufactured system with a novel control setup and for the right person could be very useful. Are you someone who writes a lot of handwritten notes or draws a lot of diagrams? Do you attend meetings or lectures. Crucially – do you use Evernote? If you do then the Livescribe Wifi Pen is for you.
If you are not an active Evernote user or find the whole idea of writing with a pen scary then I would not recommend it.
For me the ringbinder is going to stay on my desk to let me record my daily notes and I’m going to invest in a smaller moleskin notebook to take notes and recording at events. Recomended.
The review is based on the 2GB of the Livescribe Wifi kindly provided by Livescribe.