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A High-School Student Reviews a Smartpen, the Livescribe Echo
August 19, 2010, 1:29 pm

A High-School Student Reviews a Smartpen, the Livescribe Echo - Pogue's Posts Blog - NYTimes.com

Each summer, I’m joined by a summer intern, a high-school or college student who, for some reason, has become fascinated by the inner workings of a tech critic’s life. This year, it was high-school senior Matt Gibstein, who hails from Miami and made my life a lot easier this summer.

Back in 2008, I reviewed the Livescribe Pulse “smartpen”. When you write on special paper, the pen memorizes what you’ve written and simultaneously records the audio. Later, you can tap your notes on the page and hear, played back, the lecturer or interview subject who was speaking at the time.

Now there’s a new version, called Echo. Since students make up a critical portion of the pen’s target audience, I figured Matt would be the perfect person to review it. Here’s his write-up.

The Livescribe Echo smartpen.As a student, I’ve been looking for some new technology that will change the note-taking process. There have been a few attempts: the tablet computer (bulky, easily misplaced special pen, poor battery life). There’s the iPad (typing on glass can be tough—and while you can buy a special stylus, they’re too imprecise for handwriting). And then there’s the laptop, the tool of every college student (useful, but a bother to carry around).

Like its predecessor, the Pulse smartpen, the Echo smartpen ($170 for 4 gigabytes of storage and $200 for 8 gigabytes) is a truly exciting product and it is designed almost exclusively for the student.

The device includes two ink cartridges, two pen caps, a micro USB cable, and a 50-sheet starter notebook.
The setup is simple. You indicate whether you’re right or left handed. Then you adjust the date and time by selecting buttons on a setup card with your pen tip. For example, to set the time to 8:28 p.m., I just tapped on the individual numbers 0-8-2-8 and then continued to tap on PM. The proper time appears on the skinny OLED screen on the side of the pen.

The Echo pen isn’t a radical departure from the Pulse, its predecessor. It is sleeker and slimmer. It’s obviously a bit heftier than your average 99-cent ballpoint pen, but it’s not too unwieldy. The updated pen also replaces the metal surface of the Pulse with a soft rubber grip.

To take notes, you write with real ink on the special paper, which is covered with barely visible dots; they tell the pen’s camera where you are on the page. (You can buy various pads of preprinted paper or you can print your own speckled paper at home.) Once you’re done, you’ll have the option to upload your notes to the computer.

The Paper Replay function lets you record a lecture while taking notes at the same time. The finished product is affectionately called a pencast. When you’re listening to a pencast, you can select a word by tapping on it in your notes. Then, the pen plays back whatever audio it recorded at that point in your writing.

You can share these pencasts with other people using the Livescribe Web site and desktop software. The app is free, so anyone with a computer can watch.

Yes, watch. Viewing a pencast is a unique experience indeed. You see your handwriting appear on the computer screen in front of you as the audio plays back.

One virtue of the smartpen is that it doesn’t serve as a distraction. Look, I’m a teenager. A laptop makes it incredibly easy to mask that you’re playing a game during a lecture or perusing Facebook. Once you mute the volume and start typing, most teachers assume that you’re vigorously taking notes. With the Echo smartpen, it’s a lot more difficult to fool around.

There are some other drawbacks. At the moment, there are only about 75 apps available—hangman, Mastermind, Sudoku and a tip calculator among them. (The pen actually recognizes what you’re drawing—a Sudoku grid, for example.) Most of the apps are very simple and most cost money. It was annoying to learn that after shelling out $200 for the pen, I’d have to drop up to $15 (the price of the American Heritage Dictionary app) on other proprietary applications.

Another disappointment is that the apps are bulky. The more affordable 4-gigabyte Echo pencan only hold 400 hours of audio. While that seems like a lot if you are just taking notes, apps eat up the recording space. Larger apps like the English or Spanish dictionaries are the equivalent of 50 hours’ worth of audio. Assuming you take eight hours of notes a day with audio, the pen won’t even last you to mid terms. Of course, you can use the Livescribe Desktop software to manage, save, and then delete audio and pages off of the smartpen, but that’s a task that I honestly only want to do once a semester.

Overall, the Echo smartpen is a brilliant piece of technology—it will change the way I take notes, share notes with my classmates, and even study for tests. If Livescribe can shave a few bucks off the price tag, it will have a killer product on its hands.