For all the things modern smartphones do very, very well, there’s one issue (OK, way more than one) they struggle with to this day: input. Touchscreens remain an inelegant wall standing between us and the capabilities of mobile hardware, and while they’re eminently accessible, they lack the sort of precision and feedback that old hats like myself -more at home with a keyboard and mouse than a glossy expanse of glass- crave.
Efforts like the active stylus in devices like Samsung’s Galaxy Note series are well appreciated, and go a long way towards overcoming the accuracy limitations of trying to point with a broad, stubby, screen-blocking fingertip. But for as much as I like the S Pen as a pointing device, I’ve just never felt comfortable using it to capture handwriting. And being pen-shaped and all, isn’t that something it would be nice for the stylus to be good at?
So when Livescribe let me know about the arrival of Android support for its Livescribe 3 smartpen, I was intrigued. I’d been aware of the digital paper technology behind Livescribe’s system for years, but had never enjoyed the opportunity to try it out for myself. Would the Livescribe 3 connect the written word to my digital devices in ways that had so far remained elusive? I spent the last few days armed with the smartpen and its accompanying notebook to find out.
The Livescribe System
Key to appreciating the Livescribe 3 and what it does is understanding how it works. There’s no digitizer panel, no calibration to worry about – at its simplest, it really is just putting pen to paper.
But both the pen and that paper have secrets hiding within, ones that allow the Livescribe system to function as it does. The pen packs some serious hardware for such an innocuous form factor, including a camera, ARM SoC, internal flash memory, lithium-ion battery, and a Bluetooth radio. The camera is what makes this system so special, as it optically tracks your handwriting.
It manages to do that with the help of “digital” paper. At first glance, Livescribe-compatible paper appears no different from ordinary notebook-ruled sheets, but peer closer and you’ll see an array of ever-so-tiny dots (above), which at arm’s length fade into a nearly imperceptible background haze.
While they generally conform to a grid, each dot is slightly out of alignment – maybe one is a bit higher than the other members in its row, or one’s a bit to the right of the dots in its column. A special algorithm defines all these dot offsets, and there’s enough variety that the pattern tends not to repeat. The end result is that even tiny clusters of dots are positively identifiable and distinct.
When the camera in the smartpen sees these dots, it not only can use that pattern to instantly know where on the page it’s looking, but which page you’re writing on, in which notebook – with no other contextual clues.
Connect the dots (slight pun intended) and you can already see how we have the makings for a system that can bring handwriting straight into you smartphone or tablet: the pen tracks its position as you write, and sends that data over Bluetooth to your device. If that was it, it would already be a impressive system, but Livescribe does things a few better. Let’s start by taking a look at the hardware to see how.
On my first interaction with it, the Livescribe 3 felt a bit unwieldy. Big and plastic, it was significantly thicker than my usual pen of choice (the Pilot Precise V5), while simultaneously feeling a bit too light for its size. That imbalance continued to the smartpen’s business end, where the presence of the camera requires the ballpoint tip to be mounted off-center. I was all ready for this to be deal-breaker, but I found myself easily adapting to the layout – I imagine it’s not too far off from a fountain pen, in this off-axis construction.
Midway up the pen’s body is a rotating collar, which simultaneously serves both as the on-off control and psychically extends the ballpoint writing tip for use. As such, it’s impossible to forget to power-on the smartpen, with the “dumb” side of its ink-based operation permanently tied to its smart digital paper sensing.
A little further up you’ll find a pretty standard pen clip, at the top of which lives the Livescribe 3’s multi-color status LED. At a glance you can see that the pen is powered-on, connected to Bluetooth, or in need of a charge. When the LED blinks yellow and indicates such a battery refresh is needed, the top of the pen pops off to reveal a micro USB connector. Livescribe says users can expect up to 14 hours of use on a charge, and if you’re writing more than that in a single day, you’ve got our pity.
The micro USB charging port’s cap doubles as a soft capacitive stylus for directly interacting with your phone or tablet’s screen, but without the benefit of any high-precision optical tracking. Here we ran into our first complaints about build quality, as the cap doesn’t snugly fit into the micro USB port. Instead, it’s just a bit wobbly, and while that makes sliding in a thumbnail to pop it off for charging extra easy, it also subtracts a bit from the premium finish Livescribe is going for.
That issue continues with the materials Livescribe chose, and everything you touch feels like either plastic or chromed-out plastic (Livescribe clarifies that the tip and clip are indeed metal). It would have been nice for all those shiny bits to be real metal, a change that might also help give the pen the extra heft its size implies should be present.
It’s not just the charging cap that’s wobbly, and the pen cartridge itself doesn’t sit incredibly firmly in its housing. While that won’t get in the way of writing, it does give the pen a disconcerting rattle when jostled, and you’ll hear a little click each time the pen’s point touches paper. Depending on your writing style, things have the potential to get quite noisy.
There does appear to be a reason for that tiny bit of play in the pen’s tip, though, as that’s how the Livescribe 3’s hardware detects that you’re physically putting pen to paper. The pressure it feels from the pen’s contact with that writing surface triggers the camera to start looking for those dots.
Speaking of that, as this is an optical system, we had to see if it would work in the dark. Sure, we don’t usually do a lot of writing by candlelight, but in the interest of seeing just how flexible the Livescribe 3 is, we jotted down a few notes in a dimly lit room. Sure enough, it kept up without a hitch, and with the help of an IR-sensitive camera we confirmed what’s going on: every time the pen’s tip touches paper, the Livescribe 3 fires up its own infrared LED, making sure that the writing surface and its dot pattern are illuminated even when your own eyes can’t see a thing.
Our final concern with the pen’s hardware is a consequence of its relatively thick diameter, glossy plastic exterior, and slight tapering near its point. Unless your fingertips are nice and grippy, free from any hint of oil, there’s a difficult-to-ignore sensation during writing that the pen is about to slip right out of your hand. While it did not do so during our time with it, a few small design changes might give us even more confidence in our grip in the first place: some textured grooves, perhaps, or maybe losing that taper.
Livescribe is just now bringing Android support to the Livescribe 3, so our experiences were with preview versions of the apps. Yes, that’s “apps” plural: rather than a single Livescribe app on your phone or tablet, the pen requires a pair of them. There’s Livescribe Link, a bare-bones utility that manages the Bluetooth connection to the smartpen, and Livescribe+, the main app from which you’ll interact with your notes.
Setup was relatively painless, with Livescribe Link readily detecting the pen, and the pen’s shifting LED color from green to blue gave us feedback that the connection looked good from the pen’s point of view, too.
That sets the stage for using the Livescribe+ app, which gives you two main views for your writing: page and feed.
The page view is essentially a digital copy of your notebooks: everything you write on Livescribe digital paper shows up verbatim in page view, giving you a copy as if you’d scanned-in physical pages. If you’re juggling multiple notebooks, the app keeps track of them separately, and is always updating its on-device copy to match the additions you make to your physical notebooks. This gives you a convenient “aerial view” of your writing.
Feed view presents what’s more of chronological record. While the page view shows you only the final result, feed remembers what you wrote, when. Individual lines will appear in the order wrote them, even if you’re jumping back and forth between pages in your notebook.
This is also the view in which Livescribe+ does its OCR magic. Swipe an entry in the feed left or right, and it’s converted to digital text. While it unsurprisingly choked on a good deal of this reviewer’s chicken scrawl, it sure put up an admirable showing, including correctly recognizing some of the messier abstractions in the handwriting you see above (and yes, the o-s-e in “closed” should totally be a single character). What it doesn’t get correct you can quickly amend with Android’s on-screen keyboard, and then easily share the resulting plain text output.
Input fidelity is quite high, and even closely spaced lines were displayed successfully in software. But while this looks good at full-page view, zooming in quickly resulted in pixelated text. It’s still perfectly readable, but we would have thought the pen capable of generating vector input that would scale more gracefully.
In our tests, lines as displayed in software appeared a bit bolder than in the physical Livescribe notebook, almost as if written with a slightly broader-tipped pen. While that makes them very easy to see, it can also have the effect of washing-out smaller details.
Sometimes the software has trouble tracking very light glances – but that may be more a hardware problem, tied to the sensor that detects when pen touches paper. As a result, some fine details failed to appear in the app’s digital copy of our handwriting: dots on lower-case i’s, or light strokes between characters. With practice, we’re sure we could learn to write a little more firmly, but it’s something to keep in mind.
As with many Bluetooth devices, connections can sometimes get a little wonky. The fact that you’re dealing with two apps doesn’t help things any, and we occasionally hit situations where one appeared to see the pen, but the other didn’t. The standard force-close, toggle-Bluetooth routine tended to solve things, but even those once-in-a-while hiccups failed to derail our note-taking thanks to another trick up the Livescribe 3’s sleeve.
Remember that flash memory we mentioned earlier? So long as the pen is turned on (which it will be, since extending the pen tip powers it up) its camera records what you’re writing, even if the Bluetooth connection is down. When you finally get things connected again, the pen syncs its data with the Livescribe+ app, and all your notes appear on your device.
This is a huge deal for reliability, and instantly makes the smartpen that much more accessible: just pull it out and start writing, and you can rest assured that your input is being recorded, even if your phone or tablet is on the fritz.
Another neat software trick is support for audio annotations. Tap a little “record” button on the bottom of a page (the pen’s software lets these on-paper icons act as inputs) and your phone or table will start capturing audio along with your writing. Then you can play it back with your handwriting appearing on-screen in real-time, perfectly synced with the audio you recorded. This “pencast” can then be shared with colleagues.
Sharing a page or an item from you feed is as easy as it gets, and a standard sharing menu lets you shoot off a PDF via Gmail, Drive, or your service of choice. Sharing pencasts is a little trickier, what with the presence of audio and animation. The software generates PDF files that display a page view while informing recipients that they’ll need to visit Livescribe’s site to play the rest of the content. And while that looks like it should be a simple drag-and-drop operation, we were greeted with a browser incompatibility message: Livescribe mentions only Chrome, Safari, and Internet Explorer support (guess that’s what I get for using Firefox). (Livescribe informs us that this is due to a lack of native .m4a support in Firefox)
Going into this review, I had some big reservations about digital paper. Given the opportunity, I’ll always choose a system that uses fewer expensive consumables. And in this case, with the fact that ongoing use of the Livescribe 3 smartpen means buying special digital paper, I had cause to be worried.
Granted, obtaining digital paper through Livescribe can be expensive: a four-pack of 100-page notebooks goes for $25 from the company directly, and while I can’t imagine I’d go through them too quickly, at that price I’d hate to misplace one or accidentally spill my coffee on it. Luckily, there are cheaper options out there, and Amazon has the same set for just $17. That’s still a lot pricier than the generic four-pack of what you might find at your local store, but quite comparable to brand-name notebooks without this embedded digital paper tech.
Beyond simple notebooks, you’ll also find bound journals, flip-style notebooks, and digital paper in various sizes, all available for sale.
And if you really don’t like the idea of buying custom paper for your smartpen, Livescribe gives you the opportunity to print your own. On the company’s site it distributes PDFs of four 25-page notebooks, all covered in that special dot pattern. You’ll need a 600dpi printer to reproduce them, and your success might vary based on your setup, but the tools to do so are there, should you choose to take advantage of them.
Ink cartridges are also pretty affordable, with eight-packs selling for about ten dollars.
As for the pen itself, the Livescribe 3 sells for nearly $150, and comes with a 50-sheet starter notebook. For $200 you can upgrade to the Pro Edition, with darker chrome finish, a digital paper 100-sheet journal and portfolio, extra ink cartridge, and a year of Evernote Premium. Look around a little and you’ll find lower prices yet, like $126 and $175, respectively, at Amazon.
Last month I found myself in New York for a smartphone pre-launch event, jotting down notes with pencil and paper. Some people can type out notes on a laptop, but when it comes to recording thoughts in a hurry, for me nothing beats the old fashioned way. At the end of the day, I was left with page after page of the likes of what you see here: detailed, yes, but also not the easiest things to work with.
Testing the Livescribe 3, I found myself thinking back to my time flipping through that notebook as I prepared to report on the event, and how much easier it might have been having all those notes right on my screen, not just immediately accessible but also conveniently sorted in my feed – no more jumping from page to page as I tried to recall which details I came back to add later.
If you regularly find yourself in similar situations, whether you’re taking notes in a meeting, in class, or just forming a shopping list, there’s a lot of potential in the Livescribe 3 and Livescribe+ experience.
Similarly, if you’re an author, musician, or any sort of creative type who wants to capture inspiration when it strikes, not whenever you can reach a keyboard, the ability to digitally record your thoughts using just pen and paper is an attractive proposition.
Sure, the pen could stand to be slimmer, and the Bluetooth connection a little sturdier, but in the end, this is a solution that really does work, and largely delivers on its promises. If you can live with the cost of admission, the world of digital note-taking is one that’s well worth your consideration joining.