Who doesn’t want a Livescribe smartpen? Whether you’re a student, a journalist, attend meetings a lot, or just need to easily record writing and audio, you can make good use of a smartpen. Livescribe is the most famous maker of smartpens, and its former models — the Livescribe Echo and Livescribe Sky — are still a brilliant way to pair audio and notes and transfer them onto your computer.
The newest iteration of these smartpens — the $150 Livescribe 3 — looks like a shiny new model, and promises to “turn your words into action”. Just like with any new release, we expected this new pen to be richer and better than older models, especially as the Pro 2GB version of the Livescribe 3 sells for $200 — as much as a 4GB Livescribe Sky. But does the Livescribe 3 deliver?
To find out, and to have a chance at winning this $150 smartpen for free, just keep reading!
Livescribe 3 — New Features, Weaker Pen
If you want to know about some other smartpens on the market, head over to our Livescribe Echo and Livescribe Sky reviews for an overview. Focusing on Livescribe smartpens, it’s important to understand the differences between the models and the goal of each one if you ever hope to understand which one you should buy.
The oldest one of the bunch currently available is the Livescribe Echo. Arguably the most flexible one of the bunch, a 2GB version of the Echo can be had for $120 on the Livescribe website, or a bit less than that on Amazon. The Echo connects to your computer via USB cable, and can record and play audio all by itself. It uses the Livescribe Desktop software to sync your notes, where you can easily view them as pencasts — a combined version of your notes and audio. The software is available for Windows and Mac.
Like all Livescribe pens, the Echo needs dot paper in order to work, but can also be used as a standalone recorder (if you don’t want to write), and can do all sorts of neat tricks like translations, calculations, and more.
Moving on to the newer model, the Livescribe Sky was released 2 years after the Echo, and added an exciting new feature — Wi-Fi! Finally, you no longer needed to connect your pen to your computer in order to sync audio and notes. All you have to do with the Sky is connect it to your Wi-Fi network, and it syncs all by itself. The downside? Livescribe Sky can sync only with Evernote, so you lose the freedom you had with the Echo, but gain a pen that’s more cross-platform. It still sports its own screen, and can record and playback audio just like the Echo, as well as perform all the same neat tricks.
You can get the Livescribe Sky for $170 for a 2GB model or $200 for a 4GB model. You can even get a Propack 8GB version for $250, which comes with a 1-year subscription to Evernote Premium. You can find better prices for these on Amazon, especially for the 2GB and 4GB models.
We now get to the newest kid on the block — the Livescribe 3. If the Livescribe Sky sacrificed flexibility in order to become cross-platform, the Livescribe 3 does away with both. In fact, the Livescribe 3 is a somewhat crippled version of the older pens, and doesn’t have its own screen or headphone jack. It can’t record audio. It can’t even sync with anything that’s not running iOS. Yes, you heard right.
While its inability to record audio means that you will never need a pen with over 2GB of storage, you will still pay $150 for the regular Livescribe 3 version, and $200 for the Pro version, which comes with more dot paper, a fancy case, and 1-year Evernote Premium subscription. However, the Livescribe 3 can’t sync directly with Evernote anymore, so don’t be confused by the offer.
The Livescribe 3 is by no means useless, however. If you happen to own an iPhone 4S or newer, or an iPad 3 or newer, it might be the right choice for you out of all the smartpens. Let’s see why.
What Does The Livescribe 3 Offer?
The Livescribe 3 is a completely new take on the smartpen concept. As mentioned above, it does away with features such as the built-in screen and recorder, but the pen does boast several new elements. The first one is the stylus tip. Unlike former pens, the Livescribe 3 is meant to work hand in hand with mobile devices (currently only iOS), and therefore includes a nice stylus tip for navigating around your device. If you don’t already own a stylus, or even if you do, it’s nice to flip the Livescribe 3 over and use it for navigation, typing, etc.
The stylus tip comes off to reveal a micro-USB charging port. The Livescribe 3 comes with a lithium-ion battery that’s supposed to last up to 14 hours of use. Since the pen doesn’t really do much, you get longer battery life than previous smartpens.
While it’s nice to have the port hidden from view when not using it, it’s way too easy to misplace the stylus tip while you are using the port, so watch out.
On the other side of the pen, you’ll find another new feature — the retractable ink tip. The Livescribe 3 turns on when you rotate it, and by doing that, you’re also extending the pen tip. When you turn the pen off, the tip retracts into the pen, so you don’t need a cap to protect it.
This is all nice and dandy, but it also means that the pen has distinct on and off positions. If you leave it on, it will stay on. Even after forgetting and leaving it on for almost an hour, the pen still didn’t turn itself off, which might not be the most efficient thing battery-wise.
The pen itself is pretty slick, and while it’s still thick for a pen (it still has to house the battery and infrared camera), it’s a bit easier to hold than former models. The writing experience is nice and smooth. Since there’s no screen, there are no adjustments to be made whether you’re a righty or a lefty.
The Livescribe 3 sports a multi-color LED that indicates what your pen is doing. For example, when the LED is flashing green, the pen is in pairing mode. Solid blue light means its paired, and solid red light means it’s in recording mode.
The Livescribe 3 connects to your iOS device via Bluetooth. In order to use it, you need to download the free Livescribe+ app from iTunes. The pairing is automatic and quick, although you might have to update the pen’s firmware before first use. This process is not very long, but don’t let your device go to sleep in the middle of it, as it will stop the update.
We now get to the best part of the Livescribe 3: immediate syncing. Once paired, you can start writing notes on your dot paper, and these will immediately appear on your iOS device. If you want to create a pencast like you could with he older versions, you’ll have to resort to audio recording through your iOS device. The Pencasts work the same way they always did, but if you find that your iOS device is not the best method to record a lecture, you’re pretty much stuck. In addition, I did find that audio and text were not synced properly at times, and one time, no audio was recorded at all.
If you’ve ever used the Echo or Sky smartpens, or even read about them, you know all about dot paper tricks. Dot paper is the special paper all Livescribe pens need in order to work, and former models came with all kinds of features and functions to play with. These made use of the pen’s inner speaker as well as the infrared camera. You could write stuff, tap it, and get answers. This is no more.
The Livescribe 3 comes with a feature-less dot paper notebook. The only things you can do is start, pause and stop a recording (this activates the recorder in your iOS device via Bluetooth), and star, tag or flag items on your page. The latter feature is somewhat useful, but not always very efficient. Sometimes, if you’re too quick about it, it won’t let you star one item and then flag another while writing — the second one will be both flagged and starred. This is not always the case, though.
Each notebook page also includes three additional buttons bearing numbers. These are meant to serve as shortcuts, and were really useful with the Livescribe Sky. Here, they do nothing. This is a “coming soon” feature. Disappointing.
This about sums up everything you can do with the Livescribe 3 smartpen. Fortunately, the Livescribe+ app offers some additional features.
The Livescribe+ App
Available only for iOS at this time (other platforms coming “soon”), Livescribe+ is where all your notes appear magically as you write them using the Livescribe 3. Each page of your dot-paper notebook is represented as a page in the app, and you can view these through the “Pages” tab. Any text that has audio accompanying it will appear in green, and tapping anywhere on it will send you to the “Pencast” tab where you can listen to the audio recorded at the time of the writing.
The “Feed” tab is where things get interesting. The Livescribe+ app tries to separate your writing by line. Each line gets its own little compartment, and some actions you can perform on it. Swipe from left to right, and your written notes turn to digital text. As long as you don’t try this on drawings and keep your handwriting fairly legible, it works quite well. You can also swipe from right to left to delete a segment.
Once in digital text, you can type in additional text into the cell or fix text that was not recognized correctly. You can also perform some other actions such as sharing, adding to reminders, and more. If you’d like to write in a different language and have the app transcript it, you can download some more languages through the preferences menu. These include French, Spanish, Italian, German and Chinese.
Sometimes, your notes turn into links when you convert them into digital text. This happens when the text is a date, but it sometimes happens regardless of what you write. On paper, you’re supposed to be able to tap these links and get some additional actions, but this is next to impossible. I was able to do this once with a date, and got the option to open the date in my calendar or add an event on this date. This is quite useful, but as I said, almost impossible to do. Endless tapping on the link simply selects and de-selects the segment.
If you want to share entire pages from Livescribe+, you can export them as PDFs which anyone can open anywhere. If, however, you want to share pencasts, this becomes more of a challenge, as PDF readers can’t actually play these. At the moment, you can either open pencast PDFs on Livescribe+ itself or on a Beta online app called Livescribe Player. This player completely refused to work on Firefox, and while it went through all the motions on Chrome, it didn’t work there either, at least for me.
Living With The Livescribe 3
Were this the first iteration of Livesrcibe smartpens to hit the market, I would have probably loved it. After all, the way your notes are immediately transferred onto your iOS device is pretty awesome, and having your device record audio on top of them is quite neat. That is, if you’ve never seen a smartpen before.
As it stands, the Livescribe 3 is so crippled when compared to previous models, I can’t help but be disappointed. The most crucial issue is the iOS-only compatibility, and the smartpen’s complete reliance on Bluetooth. Admittedly, seeing a Livescribe+ app released for Android, Windows and Mac would be great, but even then, you’re going to need Bluetooth in order to sync, which not all computers have.
The pen’s inability to record audio on its own is also a big problem, as you always need another device lying next to you if you want to create pencasts. In my case, the only iOS device I own is an iPad, which I barely take out of the house. If I want to record a lecture with the Livescribe 3, I now have to lug my iPad around and place it in a good spot to record the lecture. Not sure it’s worth the hassle.
Should you Buy The Livescribe 3 Smartpen?
The Livescribe 3 is a good-looking pen with some nice features, and it really does simplify the process of converting written notes to digital format. However, it feels more gimmicky than useful most of the time. The use case for it is very specific, and if you happen to need exactly these features, and happen to own an iOS device which you take everywhere anyway, you’ll enjoy it.
Otherwise, you may find that you made a useless $150 purchase, and that you’re better off with the more complex and feature-rich Sky, or even with the Echo, which is still a solid buy, and a more affordable one.
MakeUseOf recommends: Skip it.
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