Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Review of LiveScribe Pens

This is a short and personal review of the LiveScribe pens, originally written to help a friend interested in buying one. There are three versions of the pens available: "Pulse" - which is version 1, and "Echo" - an upgrade "wired" version, and the Wifi pen (the pen is also called a "Livescribe Sky" , but this name can't be used in the UK  for trademark reasons)
The Livescribe website gives you a lot of information about the pens.
(the support pages are useful to look at too, especially if you want to dig deeper than just the promotional stuff)
The Echo pen, and the stationery, is available from Amazon (and other suppliers) and also (until recently at least) from PC World. You can't buy direct from LiveScribe in the UK, so far as I can see. If you look around on the net there are some savings to be made (mainly on the stationery etc), though not massive ones.
I can be helpful, I think, by making one or two remarks.
First, forget the "Pulse" pen. I don't think is manufactured anymore, though it is still supported. In most respects it is exactly like the Echo.
On the face of it the Echo and the Wifi differ only in that Echo is wired (you have to plug it into your computer to download your pages). However, it is a bit more subtle than that.
First, let me tell you how they work.
Basically the pen - which is a standard biro with built in technology, including a tiny camera - must be used with the special paper which has tiny "micro-dots" printed onto it, for your notes to be saved. There are A4, A5 and notepads available, also sticky notes and some other stuff. Each set of notepads has 4 versions (1,2,3,4) and you have to use a set at a time - by this I mean you can use a no1 A5 and a no1 A4 at the same time, but if you use two A5 No1s at the same time the pen will think that you are using just one notebook and you'll have a lot of problems with pages overwritten. When you have filled one no1 book of a particular size, you have to archive it (i.e copy it to the computer and delete it from the pen) before you can use another no1 book of the same size. You can also print your own paper - though you need a colour laser printer to do so.
The magic is that the pages are saved on the pen, and you can record audio as well as writing, and they sync with one another, creating a "pencast" - you can see this in the little videos on the LiveScribe website. You can therefore play these back, and share them with other people - a bit like recording a simple video/powerpoint - very good for explaining maths problems (!) If you have recorded audio you can tap the page with the pen and the audio will play from the point when you wrote the particular word or number or whatever.
The pen can also does some clever things like act as a calculator, by using a calculator printed on the special paper, or even by just writing "calc" and then your calculation. There is also a piano application. (Draw a keyboard and play your tune).  Other applications can be purchased and downloaded (but there aren't many). There is one, for example, which will transcribe handwriting - it works with the Echo pen but not the Wifi (yet - this is promised).
The Echo pen has to be synced by cable with a particular computer which has the LiveScribe Desktop software installed. There is also a very clever piece of software called LiveScribe Connect - this enables you to set up commands on the pen, which - when synced - can send your page to someone by email, or send the page to another service like Evernote, a folder on your computer, or Dropbox.
The Wifi version more or less abandons the Desktop and Connect software (there is just a simple programme you can use to setup your pen) and syncs with Evernote, which is an excellent service for saving every kind of note or document which you can imagine. Evernote is not owned by LiveScribe, and reading the reviews there have been some teething problems in connecting the two services. The Wifi pen has a smaller set of commands and applications than the Echo pen, which can be a little disappointing for a previous Echo user, but which I think is unlikely to trouble the new user. Livescribe are promising to increase the feature set - but these developments don't come quickly.
What does work brilliantly with the Wifi pen is the syncing of the notes with Evernote. Every note you take on the special paper is uploaded and appears on your PC, phone and tablet so long as you have Evernote installed. The audio is uploaded too.
I've had an Echo pen for a couple of years and it works brilliantly, but the Desktop/Cable approach has always been a bit frustrating as it takes a few extra steps to get the pages in the book out of the pen and onto the computer. (There's always the risk of losing the pen before it is synced). I'm sure I would have used it more if I'd not had to plug it in to sync, and then copy or transfer notes to somewhere else (in my case, mostly Evernote). I've only had the Wifi for a few weeks. When it first came out last year there were some negative user reviews, but the worst issues seem to have been dealt with, so I went for it. It has worked more than fine, and the wifi syncing is great, though I have had one page where the sound but not the text was uploaded. Livescribe helped me sort this out through their user forums, and there's been no repetition of the problem.
The pens are available in different memory sizes, starting at 2 GB. I have never done much audio recording, and the 2 GB has always provided more than enough. The paper products are not cheap, and you have to buy them in packs of 4, but they do create a good discipline in note taking. Refills for the pen are easy enough to get. Again they are not cheap, but the refills seem to last well.

The charge on the pen seems to last for ages, though I guess the Wifi battery life is shorter than the Echo. And Oh yes, if you get one, don't forget to switch on the pen before you take notes.

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