A few months ago, I took a close look at Livescribe’s Echo Smartpen, and was very impressed. In case you forgot, the Echo Smartpen is a handy gadget that lets you easily combine written notes and audio, and sync them together onto your computer via a USB cable. Livescribe’s Smartpens are equipped with a small infrared camera, and when used on special dot paper, they instantly scan everything you write, sketch or draw. The pen synchronizes recorded audio with text to create pencasts, which make accessing your notes and recordings very convenient.
Having liked the Echo Smartpen so much, I couldn’t imagine how it could get any better, so when Livescribe released the Sky Wi-Fi Smartpen I had to check it out. On paper, the Sky Smartpen should be everything the Echo was, but with the added bonus of wireless syncing. What could go wrong?
We went ahead and bought a 4GB Livescribe Sky Wi-Fi Smartpen to find exactly how it shapes up compared to its younger sibling. And if that’s not awesome enough, we’re also giving away this $200 Wi-Fi Smartpen to one lucky reader! Curious what the Sky Wi-Fi Smartpen is like? Want to find out how you can win it? Keep on reading.
Do you often need to take notes and record lectures? Do you struggle to keep up with long meetings, where both listening and writing are just as important? These are situations where Livescribe Smartpens can come in very handy. All you have to do is write down your notes on special dot paper while recording the audio, and the pen will do the rest for you. This is, at least, what Livescribe promises.
Livescribe’s pens are pretty unique in the market. While some competitors such as the Wacom Inkling, the Logitech io2 and the A4 apen do exist, none of them are exactly like the pens Livescribe offers. The A4 apen does come close, providing wireless syncing for notes, but it only work with the iPad, and doesn’t record audio.
The Livescribe Sky has two younger siblings: The Livescribe Pulse, the oldest version, is still available on Amazon in its 2GB model for $159. The Pulse is no longer available on the Livescribe website, but the newer model, the Livescribe Echo, still is. The pen I reviewed 6 months ago is currently offered only in a 2GB model on the Livescribe website ($120), but you can find the 4GB ($140) and the 8GB ($156) models on Amazon.
It’s worth mentioning that if you live in the UK, you might not be able to get the Livescribe Sky at all, as its been pulled from the shelves following a trademark rights lawsuit by British Sky Broadcasting.
In this review, I’m going to focus mainly of the features that differentiate the Sky from the Echo. For a more in-depth review of some of the other Smartpen features, I highly recommend reading the Livescribe Echo review.
What’s In The Box?
The Sky Wi-Fi Smartpen’s box is identical to the Echo’s, and is similarly easy to open. Inside, you’ll find everything you need to get started with the Sky Wi-Fi Smartpen. Well, almost. The package includes the pen itself, a micro USB cable which you will need in order to get started (despite the wireless capabilities), two pen caps, one extra ink cartridge, a dot-paper notebook, two sheets of extra printed-controls stickers, a Sky “Basics” manual in five different languages, and a Quick Start sheet, which pretty much tells you to go online to find everything you need.
When it comes to looks, the Sky is almost identical to the Echo, the only difference being the color of the bottom part of the pen. Like the Echo, the Sky has just one button – the power button. Everything else is done by tapping printed controls on the dot paper with the pen’s tip. On the backside of the pen, you’ll find a mini-USB port and a regular headphones jack.
Unlike the Echo Smartpen, The Sky doesn’t come with or even work with Livescribe Connect and Livescribe Desktop. Instead, the Sky Wi-Fi Smartpen works solely with Evernote, and when you activate your pen, you’ll receive 500MB of extra Evernote storage. If you go for the 8GB model, you’ll get a free one-year subscription to Evernote Premium.
Setting Up Your Sky Wi-Fi Smartpen
I did not have to go very far to get somewhat disillusioned by the Livescribe Sky Wi-Fi Smartpen. I unboxed the Sky on the same day I planned on using it to record an interview, but to my surprise, it was far from being ready to use. While the pen did come with a charged battery, when I turned it on it told me it needed to be activated first. The Quick Start sheet pointed me to livescribe.com/setup to get started, and off I went.
The first thing you have to do is create a Livescribe account. That’s reasonable enough. Next, you have to link your Smartpen with your Evernote account. As I’ve already mentioned, the Sky works only with Evernote, and there’s no other way to sync your notes and recordings. Still, it’s unclear why you can’t even start playing with your pen before linking the accounts.
Once the accounts are linked, it’s time to activate your pen. Enter the code you see on the pen’s screen into the right field, and name your pen (this is where you hope you can de-activate it later, so you can send it off to your giveaway winner).
Think you’re done now? Not by a long shot. It’s now time to connect your Smartpen to your computer, so it can install drivers and update the pen’s firmware. You will be prompted to download Livescribe Helper, which, according to Livescribe, you need in order to get the updates and for non Wi-Fi syncing (remember this part). The software has to recognize the Smartpen before you can even get started, so be prepared to wait quite a while for Windows to install drivers, etc. before the software does anything for you.
Once it finally starts working, it commences to update the pen. You’ll be looking at the window you can see in the screenshot above for quite a while before you realize you actually need to click the “Install” button (doh!), and then quite a while again while the lengthy updating process is underway. And I mean lengthy, especially if you lose patience and walk away, only to come back and find an “error in upgrading” message, and have to start all over again.
All in all, it took me well over an hour to even start using my Smartpen – a striking difference from the Echo – and when I connected it again several weeks later, the whole thing happened all over again.
Finally, I can start using the pen! But how? One thing I sorely missed upon opening the Sky’s box is the interactive Getting Started manual that came with the Echo. This guide showed you exactly what your Smartpen can do, and walked you through several demos of its capabilities. It also showed you exactly how to set up the Smartpen’s time and date, and everything else you needed in order to get started. With the Sky, it’s as if Livescribe assumed you already know how to use it, and therefore included only very scant instructions, which mentioned nothing about how you’re supposed to connect your Smartpen to your wireless network, and or set up the time and date.
After racking my brain to try to remember how to use the pen, I accessed the main menu and started trying. It took me several minutes, and a trip online, to finally discover that all the buttons I need are in the included dot-paper notebook. To set up your Wi-Fi, tap the “Scan for Networks” icon with your pen, use the arrow symbols to find your network and then tap the checkmark to select it. You can use the provided keyboard to input your password. Once it’s set up, the pen will remember your network, and will connect to it automatically every time you’re in range.
If you look at the end of the notebook, you’ll find a small “Time & Date Settings” button set, next to the calculator. Use it to set up your pen’s time and date.
Using The Sky Wi-Fi Smartpen
Using the Sky is really easy. Simply open your dot-paper notebook, and look for the playback controls at the bottom. Tap the record button with your pen, and start writing and sketching as you would normally do.
As you write, the pen will record any audio around you, as well as the notes themselves, and will combine them into a pencast – a file which includes both your notes and the audio. When you’re done, tap the stop button. You can now use the pen to tap anywhere on your notes to listen to the corresponding audio. With the playback controls, you can jump backward or forwards, pause the playback, control the volume and more. The Sky will automatically sync your notes to Evernote every time you hit the stop button.
Aside from simple note-taking and recording, the pen comes with several cool tricks, such as a calculator app that lets you write a simple equation and get an immediate result on the screen; a translation demo that translates simple words into Spanish, Mandarin, Arabic and Swedish, and the coolest one: a simple piano you can draw yourself and then play.
You can quickly launch apps and commands by drawing a launch line and writing on top of it, or by drawing a plus sign and tapping its center to launch the menu. Once the menu is launched, you can either explore it using the arrows, or start writing a name of an app to launch it.
In lieu of the cool Getting Started guide, which really gets you going easily, you can visit the Sky support website for a short video and some tips, and the online help for any other questions you have.
On the more technical side, the pen’s battery life is pretty good, and after charging it for around 2 hours, my battery was still 2/3 full a month later, after using it to record about 2.5 hours of audio, and after playing with it for several hours more. Obviously, if you remember to turn off Wi-Fi, the battery will last longer.
In addition, the Sky’s microphone is very sensitive – you don’t have to talk into it to get a clear recording – and playback is good even when the speaker is on the other side of the room. You can play with both audio quality and microphone sensitivity to get the best results for your scenario, but Livescribe does state that the pen is not ideal for huge lecture halls, and recommends that you buy its 3-D recording headset for an additional $20 if you want to get good results.
Syncing Your Notes & Audio To Evernote
There’s nothing much to the syncing process, really, since it’s all done via Wi-Fi. Or so I thought when I returned from a 2.5-hours long interview, and wanted to listen to my recordings. Despite claiming to sync for quite a long time, when I opened my Evernote notebooks, the recordings were nowhere in sight. It did manage to sync three short recordings I made earlier, but there was no sign of the larger ones.
Thinking it might take time to sync such long recordings, I gave the pen several days in which I kept telling it to sync, and kept checking my Evernote account. Nothing. Frustrated, I ended up plugging my earphones into the pen, and listened to my recordings this way, controlling the playback by tapping the notebook controls. This experience wasn’t perfect either, and I encountered several playback bugs, and at one point the pen even spontaneously rebooted itself. Today, almost a month later, when I took out the pen again and recorded some additional audio, it finally decided to sync everything, and for the first time I can access those month-old interviews on Evernote.
You must be wondering why I didn’t just go for the non-wireless syncing promised when downloading Livescribe Helper? Believe me, I tried, but apparently, this feature isn’t available yet. My copy of Livescribe Helper did nothing but install updates (sometimes successfully), and open the “How to set up a wireless network” page in my browser.
Assuming and hoping you won’t hit the same glitch, accessing your synced notes is as easy as accessing any Evernote notebook. You’ll find your recordings and notes in a notebook bearing the pen’s name.
The most brilliant part of working with Livescribe is the pencasts. When you open a pencast, you’ll see green notes for any part that includes audio. Clicking (or tapping, if you’re on a mobile device) the notes will launch Livescribe Player, and you’ll be able to click anywhere on your notes to listen to the corresponding audio while watching an animation of your writing and sketching process.
When I first launched Livescribe Player on Firefox, which is my default browser, I saw this message:
Thinking it’s just a meaningless disclaimer, I happily continued, only to find out they were actually serious. While the audio played just fine, nothing happened when I clicked the notes. So for Livescribe Player, I recommend Chrome or Safari.
So is this Evernote exclusivity a good or a bad thing? It’s a little bit of both. On the one hand, Evernote is a very popular service and works on multiple platforms. With your notes in Evernote, you can easily access them on your computer, your mobile device or your tablet without second thought. On the other hand, Syncing to Evernote was possible anyway, just not mandatory, and forcing users to use Evernote also forces them to accept the space limitations of the free account (+500MB), or go for a premium account, which could be inconvenient after purchasing a $200 Smartpen.
There seems to be some plan to allow sharing to Dropbox, Google Drive, Facebook and email in the future – these icons are included in the notebook and the sticker sheets – but if you actually tap them, all you get from the pen is a “Coming soon” message.
Should You Buy The Livescribe Sky Wi-Fi Smartpen?
If you’ve read my raving review of the Livescribe Echo, you know how much I loved the Smartpen concept and execution. I was really excited about the Livescribe Sky, which is why I was so disappointed when it failed to deliver perfectly. It started with the lack of any real instructions in the box, which first sent me to try things out for myself, and failing to do that, to online resources. The lack of a good Getting Started guide, as trivial as it seems, makes a big difference when it comes to a product like this. Is this feature not working right because there’s a bug, or am I not doing it exactly as I should? While the Echo Smartpen responded to everything I asked perfectly, the Sky did not, and I found myself struggling with it more than once, not sure whether I was doing something wrong, or if it’s just not working.
Were it just this issue it would not be so significant, of course, but on top of the much-too-long setup process, the audio-syncing issues, the lack of USB syncing and the Evernote exclusivity, I was left with bitter taste in my mouth. As much as I love the Livescribe concept, and as much as wireless syncing simplifies the process, if I were buying a pen right now, I would still go for the Echo. It’s somewhat cheaper, and in all honesty, it’s the better product of the two.
All that aside, the Sky is still a really useful tool for anyone who needs to record audio and take notes, and at $200 a piece, it’s not exactly a bargain. Here’s how you can win one for free!
How do I win the Livescribe Sky Wi-Fi Smartpen?
This is an exclusive Twitter giveaway. MakeUseOf giveaways are open to readers worldwide. To join, follow these steps:
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This giveaway begins now and ends Friday, March 15th. The winners will be selected at random and informed via email.
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