Review: The Moleskine Smart Writing Set turns written words into digital data

The high-end notebook vendor has packaged a 'smart' pen with a specially imprinted paper notebook that lets you transfer notes to a mobile device.

moleskine with hand
Credit: Moleskine

While many of us spend our days with our fingers on the keyboard and our eyes on the display, some people still prefer a more old-fashioned means of idea generating and communicating: paper and pen. This is why companies such as Moleskine, which sells what can be described as high-end notebooks, have hit a successful niche.

As a compromise between yesterday's and today's writing technologies, Moleskine recently introduced its Smart Writing Set, which includes the Pen+, a version of the Neo Smartpen N2, and a notebook designed to be used with the Pen+ (and which, according to Moleskine's PR, "is purposefully designed with extended rounded edges to look like a tablet"). The Pen+ works with a mobile app to record everything you write in the notebook in digital format. It currently sells for $199 (vendor price).

I had a chance to try one out, and found it very nice for the purposes of writing by hand -- with some reservations.

A comfortable digital pen

The Pen+ itself is a good-looking, reasonably slim and sleek pen that I found surprisingly comfortable to hold and write with (especially compared to other digital pens that I've tried out in the past).

It has a small LED near the base that flashes different colors depending on its status on use -- for example, red if the battery is getting low or while it's charging; white when it's live and in use. Near the LED is a small power button. The pen is powered via a micro-USB at that end. The battery is supposed to last for about five hours, and I got pretty much that much during testing.

The tip of the pen holds a relatively mainstream ballpoint cartridge (so it will be easy to replace). Below the tip, the pen curves down (very much like a fountain pen) to make room for an open space where the pen's camera is located.

The paper in the 5.1 x 8.3 in. notebook is printed with nearly imperceptible coding (to my eyes, it looks like a series of light blue dots), which enables the camera in the Pen+ to locate the pen strokes and translate them into digital code. The strokes are saved in the pen and then transmitted via Bluetooth to your mobile phone via the Moleskine Notes iOS app or the Neo Notes Android app. (I tested using the Android app.)

The Bluetooth connection automatically transfers everything you write from the pen to your mobile device as you write it (which can be fun to watch). If the two are not connected, the pen saves your work (according to the vendor, it can store about 1,000 pages) and then transfers it the next time you bring up the app.

A digital notebook

In the app, your writing appears as part of a digital "notebook." You can then tweak your notes in a variety of ways -- change the color, delete or add text, or share via email, to Evernote or to other apps. (If you're an Evernote user, you can also sync them automatically.)

I used the Pen+ to write and draw a few casual memos, and to take notes during a couple of phone calls. A nice feature is that you don't have to remember to turn the pen on to use it; a second or two after you start writing, the pen will automatically come on, signaled by the LED and by a quiet audio signal (it will also turn itself off eventually when not being used). However, be aware that anything you write before it comes on -- which for me, was usually one or two characters -- will not appear. I solved this problem by tapping the pen against the paper before I started writing to make sure it was on.

There is another way you can lose notes: If you don't hold the pen correctly. Because the Pen+ records your strokes via a camera, the part of the pen with the camera has to be facing down toward the paper -- something that can slip your mind if you're in a hurry. For example, at one point when I was taking quick notes during a phone call, I realized that I was holding the pen with the camera area facing up and quickly switched it. As a result, none of the notes I had written -- up to the point I had switched -- had been recorded (although they were, of course, written in the paper notebook).

Because the app also tracks which page in the notebook the Pen+ is writing on, you can go back and trace over the notes that didn't get recorded the first time -- or add new ones to the page. Still, it can be a hassle.

The audio recording feature works reasonably well. You start by going into the smartphone app, selecting into the page you're working on, selecting Voice from a drop-down menu and then starting the recording -- not a quick process. But it will record as you write, and play it back as well, which can be very handy for notetaking during lectures or interviews.

There is also a feature that claims to transcribe your writing into text, but although I flatter myself that my handwriting is reasonably clean, the resulting text was not very useful.

Additional Moleskine paper tablets cost $30 each. If you want a differently-sized notebook, Neo's site sells a variety of paper notebooks -- or you can print out your own coded paper using Neo's N Toaster Windows software.

Bottom line

The Moleskine Smart Writing Set is a fine gift for somebody who is a devotee of that brand of high-end notebooks. While its $199 price may sound high for those of us content with a cheap notebook and a $3 ballpoint, for Moleskine fans and those who want to preserve their handwritten notes digitally, the Smart Writing Set could be a good investment.

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