Review: 3 note-taking gadgets keep you scribbling

Today's tech can add new functionality to an old-fashioned task.

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Livescribe 3 Smartpen

Rather than try to supplant pen and paper, Livescribe has chosen to embrace them. Its pens combine traditional ink with electronics to let you take notes as you normally would, but then digitizes those notes and sends them to a computer or tablet where they can be better managed.

The company's latest offering, the Livescribe 3 Smartpen ($149.95), is designed to work with Apple's mobile devices -- the iPad, iPhone and iPod touch.

Livescribe 3 Smartpen
Livescribe 3 Smartpen

The pen itself works like an ordinary ballpoint. You take notes or make drawings in a notebook that uses special paper. As you do, your scribbles are transferred to your iPad via Bluetooth. If your iPad isn't near or is shut off, the pen will store your notes and upload them automatically when your tablet is in Bluetooth range again.

The paper is printed with a pattern of microdots that is almost invisible to the human eye. These dots give the pen information about its location on the page.

Free iOS software for the pen can be downloaded from the Apple App Store. Using the application, you can tag and search your notes and convert them to text with handwriting recognition. You can even convert scribbles into reminder and calendar items.

The software lets you organize notes, and also lets you create "live" notes that appear on your device's display as you write them via the Bluetooth connection. Because the pen runs on a rechargeable battery, however, you'll need to connect it to a USB port when it runs low on juice.

When Livescribe introduced its first pens in 2007, the devices were ungainly to look at and clumsy to hold. Its latest line of instruments are much more elegant. The Livescribe 3, which is black with chrome ends, is admittedly fat but in the same way a classic Montblanc pen is. I found it to be nicely balanced and enjoyable to write with.

I was also impressed by the handwriting-recognition feature. If you write legibly, the recognition is remarkably good -- it recognized my handwriting with nearly 100% accuracy. However, if your handwriting is rushed or not that clear, the handwriting recognition may be less useful.

If you're an Evernote user, you can sync your Livescribe notebooks with your Evernote.

As someone who conducts many interviews a week, I found Livescribe's ability to create what the company calls "pencasts" very useful. A pencast allows you to sync your notes to an audio recording; you can then tap a note on the screen of your device and hear what was said at the time you took the note. You will need to have the Livescribe app open when creating a pencast, though, because the feature uses the microphone in your iOS device.

Ballpoint refills can be purchased from the Livescribe website, as can notebooks containing the special paper needed for the pen to do its thing. Notebooks range in price from $8.95 for a single pad to four-packs for $19.95 to $24.95. However, Livescribe offers free templates that can be printed from a computer for do-it-yourself notebook makers.

Although the Livescribe 3 Smartpen is designed for use with an iPad, the company's other pens (which I didn't test) -- the Sky WiFi ($129.95) and Echo ($119.95) -- support OS X, Windows and Android devices as well.

Bottom line

The Livescribe 3 Smartpen can be a very useful iPad, iPhone or iPod touch companion. It truly marries the best in pen and paper note taking with digital note management and creates a robust system that I found a delight to use. While the use of special paper may sound like a hassle, it's a small price to pay for the convenience of taking notes with ink and paper.

Conclusions

All these note-taking gadgets have their pros and cons. Livescribe, the most sophisticated of the three products, has the advantage of using real pen and paper to take notes or make drawings, and is my personal favorite.

But if you don't want to cart around notebooks and pens, yet still want a writing experience, Jot Script and a good handwriting app may be more appealing to you. Chances are, though, the writing experience of stylus on glass will likely prove to be unsatisfying.

By extension, that unnatural stylus-on-glass feel for taking notes should apply to the Boogie Board too, but I found writing on it a smoother experience than writing on a conventional tablet with a stylus, even one as well-designed as the Jot Script. The Boogie Board, though, has problems with note management. Its save-by-screen approach requires too much manual organization after notes are saved to a computer or mobile device.

Since note taking can be as personal as the pen you choose or the paper you write on, future variations on the themes used by Livescribe, Jot Script and Boogie Board are bound to appear. The only sure thing is that the old standby of paper and pen isn't going away any time soon.

John P. Mello Jr. is a freelance writer specializing in business and technology subjects, including consumer electronics, business computing and cyber security.

This article, Review: 3 note-taking gadgets keep you scribbling, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

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