The late Steve Jobs famously said, “people don’t know what they want until you show it to them”. While Mr. Jobs and Apple have nothing to do with the Echo Smartpen, it is developed and produced by the company Livescribe, it could well qualify as one of those things in life that you didn’t know you needed until you see it.
For years now we have seen companies bringing electronic pen-based devices to market that have promised to replace your tried and true ink pen. The proverbial dangling carrot with these devices has been the ability to take all of your notes electronically making them easily searchable, sharable, and easy to store. The Apple Newton, PDAs, Tablet PC, and Wacom Tablets are all devices that over the years have given people the ability to take electronic notes. But nearly all of these devices had the same flaw – it just didn’t feel like a natural pen on paper note-taking experience and each device was cumbersome in one way or another.
Enter the Livescribe 2GB Echo Smartpen, a device that instead of trying to replace ink and paper takes the approach of providing a technology bridge between old ink and new e-ink. The $49 Livescribe 2GB Echo Smartpen can serve as just a pen, you can write with it as you would a $0.25 Papermate pen. However, if you use a specially designed type of paper with tiny dots on it the Echo Smartpen can “record” your notes and store them electronically in its onboard memory. Then, simply attach the pen to your Mac or PC and you can retrieve all of those notes you took on paper in an electronic format. After your notes are available in electronic format you can convert and share them via PDF, Google Docs, Evernote, Microsoft OneNote, and even Facebook.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, the Livescribe 2GB Echo Smartpen also can record audio, so you can not only capture written notes and diagrams from class in electronic format, but also the entire audio from the lecture. You can go back and replay a lecture its entirety, this means that even if your long-winded professor outpaces your note-taking speed, you can still go back in time and recall what you may have missed in your written notes. Furthermore, if you forget what a particular note means that you took, you can use the Livescribe pen or Desktop software to playback the audio that was being spoken at the time you took the note to see what the professor was saying. This can help remind you what a note means given the context of what was being spoken at the time. Audio is captured via a built-in microphone on the Smartpen, for higher quality audio recording in lecture halls.
Below is a diagram of the Echo Smartpen and a list of all the technological features that come with it:
Below you can see a picture of the OLED display which shows the current time by default when not in use:
On the top of the pen you can see the 3.5mm adapter for headphones and the micro USB cable plugged in:
There are a few configurations of the Echo Smartpen available for purchase, the version being reviewed is the budget-friendly 2GB Echo Smartpen that retails for $99.99 and is available from retailers such as Best Buy and Amazon.com. The 2GB Echo Smartpen comes with the following in the box:
There are other bundles available in which you get a higher memory capacity smartpen and a more generous amount of paper.
The Echo Smartpen relies upon a special type of paper called Livescribe Dot Paper. The pen uses the dots to track what you are writing, since the Smartpen relies upon the dots you cannot use regular lined paper. That does mean you will have to buy custom notebooks made by Livescribe, for instance, you can buy a four-pack of single subject spiral notebooks with 100 pages for $19.95 from Amazon.com. Alternatively, you can print out your own Dot Paper using a laser printer. At the bottom of each sheet of dot paper, there is a “record”, “pause” and “stop” button that you can tap with the pen to perform the indicated actions. So when you want to start taking notes and recording audio you simply tap the record button.
A timer on the OLED display on the pen shows you how long you have been recording and gives confidence that recording is taking place. There’s a built-in speaker on the pen that gives audible feedback in the form of chimes when you stop and start recording. The speaker can also be used to playback spoken audio that has been recorded.
Once you’re finished taking notes and get back home to your computer it’s very simple to get notes off of the Smartpen and into a readable electronic format on your PC or Mac. Simply plug in the Echo Smartpen via the micro USB connector to your computer and you can use the Livescribe Desktop software to select pages you want to be converted to PDF or whatever another available format you choose. It’d be nice to have a way to do this wirelessly, via either Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, but we can just hope for that in a future smartpen from Livescribe.
The neat thing about the Echo Smartpen is that different people tend to use it in different ways and come up with creative solutions for their needs using the Smartpen. Because each student learns in different ways, takes notes in different ways, and has a preferred method of studying you’ll probably find a unique way the Echo Smartpen can work for you.
A very typical use of the Echo Smartpen for students would of course be to take notes during lectures. You can capture the entire audio of the lecture and have an electronic copy and hard copy of the notes you take by using the Echo Smartpen. You can also share those notes with others, or if you’re not into sharing, keep them to yourself and have a competitive advantage over other students of being able to replay the lecture.
But other uses are not so obvious. For instance, if you’re having trouble in math you could work through a problem using the Echo Smartpen and talk out loud about how you are solving that problem. Then, convert those notes to a pen cast and email it to your teacher or professor and they can see and hear exactly what is going on in your head and provide help where needed.
If you like to take notes on a laptop because you prefer electronic notes over physical notes but hate the limitations on diagramming then the Livescribe Smartpen is a great solution. In many sciences, math, and engineering classes there is heavy use of diagrams and symbolic notation that just doesn’t translate well to being typed on a keyboard, this is all easily done with the Smartpen.
The best technology is the type that makes you more efficient and doesn’t force you to relearn ways of doing things and change your habits. The Echo Smartpen 2GB is an example of this, you take notes very much like you would with a “regular pen and paper” except you have the added benefit of being able to convert all your physical notes to an electronic format and have audio to go along with it. If you’re planning on capturing high-quality audio I would recommend getting the 3D headphone accessory with a built-in microphone. The built-in microphone on the pen tends to capture a lot of background noise and even the pen on paper sound.
The bottom line, if you’ve been looking for an efficient and cheap way to capture notes in electronic format, the Echo Smartpen is it. Tablet devices are great, but they’re expensive, cumbersome, and taking notes on-screen surfaces just doesn’t feel natural. The only gotcha with the Echo Smartpen is the fact you have to use proprietary dot paper, while that is an extra and ongoing cost, you can get around it by using the Desktop software to print your dot paper notepads. However, I would argue that the efficiency in time and organization the Smartpen can bring you will pay off. Time is money and success in academics, in the long run, can equal more money so you can simply view the Echo Smartpen as an investment if it helps you to perform better in school.