Livescribe released their newest smartpen, called Livescribe 3, about 18 months ago. Why review it now? Well, with Android’s native support of Bluetooth 4.0 LE and wider adoption of KitKat and Lollipop, the smartpen finally has software support for Android. We first caught wind of the Android app back in January, its preview was released just a couple weeks ago, and now I will walk you through how the hardware and app play together. Overall, I am walking away very impressed with the experience. With that said, there are several significant drawbacks with taking notes with the Livescribe 3 that you will want to know about before picking one up.
The rise of “smart” everything has left a lot of people caught in between. Computers, clouds, and keyboards make pen and paper seem decidedly outdated. Count me among those people. I am a PhD student when I am not writing for Android Police and, as you might guess, I try to use today’s technology to its fullest in my studies. Note-taking is among the most significant things I do on a daily basis and digitization is key.
A lost notebook means information that will be difficult, if not impossible, to retrieve. Even better, keeping my work in a cloud-based format means I can access my stuff no matter where I am and without knowing in advance that I need it. If I am chatting with another researcher and we come across a topic that I know I have written about previously, I can just search my notes for it.
When evaluating the Livescribe 3, I am comparing it to the other systems I have used to digitize my notes. First of all, I own a Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0, which has a Wacom digitizer and stylus that enables extremely accurate and precise handwritten input directly on the screen. I use the S Pen to write in OneNote, Microsoft’s powerful, cloud-based, cross-platform software that boasts excellent recognition and organization itself.
When I prefer to or am in a situation where I need to write on paper, I use CamScanner along with my M7 or Note 8.0 camera to capture quality photos of the pages. I then upload to Evernote, which has remarkably good handwriting recognition for images and PDFs, something OneNote lacks. Livescribe straddles these two methods, allowing for pen-and-paper input but a clean, digital ink ouput to go with the physical copy.
|Ink cartridge||Replaceable, blue ink available|
|Connectivity||Bluetooth 4.0 LE|
|Software support||Android (4.4.2+), iOS (8+)|
|Multi-device||Up to 4 paired devices|
|Dimensions||162mm (l) x 14.9mm (d)|
|Weight||34g (1.2 oz.)|
|Software||Livescribe+ for Android was a pleasant surprise.|
|Ink-to-digital||This core function worked remarkably well.|
|Setup||I was up and running in less than 5 leisurely minutes.|
|Battery||Plenty of juice to go through multiple meetings, classes, etc.|
|Paper||It really adds value.|
|Pencasts||A real innovation, offering something you don’t get with all-digital, all-analog, or hacky attempts to mix the two.|
|Ergonomics||The pen is pretty chunky and takes getting used to.|
|Niche||More versatile than I expected, but still not a product for people who don’t write notes frequently already.|
|Paper||It’s still proprietary paper and that has its downsides.|
|Inking quality||As a writing implement, it’s firmly in the middle class.|
|Price||This is a product that you can’t just get on a whim and the cost ($150+) demands top performance.|
The Livescribe 3 is a chunky pen. If you have used a multi-pen before—the kind with different colors of ink in the same shaft—it will remind you of that. Why does it need to be so big compared to a “dumb” pen? It is holding hardware that far exceeds an ink cartridge.
At the tip of the pen, next to the ballpoint, there is an infrared camera. The purpose should be relatively obvious: it’s the part that allows the pen to know whether, what, and where you have written. There is also an ARM processor to deal with that information, a Bluetooth radio to communicate it, flash memory to store it, and a lithium-ion battery to power the whole unit. Logically, it isn’t difficult to understand why the Livescribe 3 is so large, relative to most other pens and pencils.
Knowing that won’t make it any more comfortable to write with, though. It is far from impossible to grip this thing, but it is awkward to hold, especially at first. When I begin to write, I find myself shifting it in my hand and regripping, trying to find the right way to tame the beast. This got better as I used it more and after that initial acclimation period, I am relatively smooth until I set it back down. See below for a size comparison with some of my go-to pens.
I don’t consider this a dealbreaker for me and I think there will be some who actually prefer its size, but these things are very idiosyncratic. There is definitely somebody out there who would like it if only it were thinner, so if you hate fat pens, you will at least want to be sure to look into the return policy of the retailer you purchase from.
Related is the weight. At 1.2 ounces it is heftier than many other pens, but not as drastically different as the size. For instance, the Fisher Space Pen—a popular ballpoint known for its rugged design—is 2.2 ounces. The weight of the Livescribe 3 is not a big issue in my view, as it's not much different from many metal-bodied pens that aren’t nearly as smart.
On the opposite end from the ballpoint, you have an integrated stylus tip. I didn’t really find myself using this, but it is a smart use of space. See, the pen needs to have a charging port. The capacitive nib covers the microUSB opening, which is pretty clever.
The controls and interface on the pen itself are minimal, as those features are largely offloaded to the software side, which you will interact with on mobile devices. To turn it on and off, you twist the textured band in the middle of the shaft. It is in such a place and has enough resistance that you won’t toggle the power accidentally.
Beyond that, there is an LED on the pocket clip. When powered on with no Bluetooth connection, it will be blue. A green light indicates that it is connected to a device while a red light means it is also recording audio. A yellow light tells you it is time to charge or there is some other problem to address via the app. These are sufficiently intuitive and in terms of interface, less is more when you’re talking about a pen.
If the Livescribe 3 has a catch, this is it. The pen only works—and by works, I mean captures digital text—with proprietary “Dot Paper.” This is a big limitation and I don’t want to understate that. For all the paper in your home and workspace, the Livescribe 3 is a “dumb” pen. This comes at a cost to convenience and cash. You need to have Livescribe paper with you at any point you might want to use the pen and it isn't free. You can print out your own, but you still are buying the printer paper and that's an even bigger drag on convenience.
I suspect this is the factor that will turn off the most people. It’s debatable whether it is necessary, but nobody has managed anything better. What is basically the sole competitor to Livescribe, Equil, allows any paper but requires you to clip a receiver onto the page and press a button when you flip to a new one; reviews on that product’s usability are decidedly mixed. You shouldn’t be surprised that there are tradeoffs involved with smartpens. This is Livescribe’s biggest one.
The Dot Paper works because it has very, very tiny dots all over it. When you look at it from the typical distance you would while writing, you probably won’t be able to see them. The paper will just look like it has some kind of texture. Putting aside for a moment the downside of acquiring this paper, it really adds value to the experience.
Without any special user input, my synced notes will all appear in the correct notebook and in proper sequential page order. To be clear, I could write hundreds of pages of notes in various Dot Paper notebooks while miles away from my phone and the moment I sync it to Livescribe+, it will be organized according to the notebook and page it was written in. All you have to do is write and Livescribe’s back end, thanks to information encoded into the pages, will do the tedious task of figuring out which notes go where. Compared to scanning in pages, this is extremely useful.
The base package for buying the Livescribe 3 includes the 50-page “starter notebook” seen in the photos for this article. The “pro edition” is bundled with a 100-page journal, a leather portfolio with pen holder, and a year’s subscription to Evernote Premium (this costs $45 by itself). Livescribe’s store is packed with different paper options in various sizes and form factors. They are nice and it’s great to have the options, but they are indeed expensive. A recent partnership with Moleskine has resulted in two 240-page journals that will appeal to those who enjoy fancy things.
This was surprisingly easy. To start with, download the Livescribe Link app on the device you want to pair to. Then, power up the pen. From there, Link should detect the pen, at which point you will be asked to name it and provide a name and email address to help store your items in the cloud. New pens will require firmware updates, which are quite slow over Bluetooth due to bandwidth limitations. There is a simple fix in that you can do those with your computer over the microUSB connection. I cannot speak to how things used to work when the Livescribe 3 was released, but setup on Android was very straightforward for me.
A quick note: this only applies if you have a phone/tablet running 4.4.2 or newer and with a Bluetooth 4.0 LE radio. Check your device’s spec sheet to see if it has the right hardware. You will have no way to connect if you don’t have KitKat/Lollipop and the proper hardware, so be sure to do your research before purchasing.
Using it to jot notes is really easy. You just turn it on and write. That’s it! It works like a fat-bodied ballpoint pen because, well, that’s what the Livescribe 3 is. As a pen itself, it’s nothing special. The output is pretty typical and it is reasonably—though not exceptionally—smooth.
From top to bottom: Livescribe 3, Parker Jotter w/ Fisher Space refill, Uniball Jetstream, Micron Pigma 02 technical pen
I will disclose that I write left-handed and us lefties tend to experience more issues with ballpoints and rollerballs than righties. It’s possible that a right-handed person would be more enthusiastic about it, but as it is I will use my Uniball Jetstream for non-smart writing. If you prefer blue ink, be aware that blue refills are available too.
The chubbiness obviously factors in here and I will say that fatigue seemed to kick in sooner than normal in my use because of it. This was not a drastic effect, though. I wrote a lot with the pen and it is hardly below 50% battery, which suggests the 14 hour estimate is pretty accurate. There isn’t a lot to say here because Livescribe made this aspect very similar to its “dumb” counterparts. This is the selling point: writing your notes feels the same as normal.
I have to talk briefly about pencasts. Using your mobile device’s microphone, this feature records the ambient sounds as you write. The kicker is that the audio and digital writing output are synced. If I wrote “e=mc2” in my notes and later wished I had jotted down who came up with that equation, I could replay the lecture starting at the very moment I wrote that. I would presumably hear about Einstein when listening to the pencast. When viewing in the Livescribe app, you can see the pen strokes as the audio plays; it’s really cool.
In my testing, it worked pretty well. When it doesn’t perform great, it’s because there isn’t a clear source for the noise. Random ambient sounds aren’t honed in on by the mic, so it will do best when there is somebody speaking, even if there are multiple speakers, as long as there is a single person going at a time. For example, a loud television wasn’t picked up much at all, but this is probably a good thing under some circumstances.
Since the mobile device records, there is no appreciable impact on the battery life of the pen. You can also change the quality of recorded audio depending on your needs.
The key aspect of the product is its software. I tested a Preview version of the Android app, which is publicly accessible via the Play Store. It will be going stable very soon, though, so I will treat it as I would a stable release. I will also confess that I expected going in that the app would let me down. Working with OneNote and Evernote makes me skeptical of little ol’ Livescribe’s ability to create an app that is useful outside of its ability to record the notes. All in all, Livescribe+ exceeded my expectations.
Before I get too ahead of myself, it does a fantastic job of converting your analog input into digital. I would rather read my writing on the screen than the printed page, which speaks to how well it works.
By and large, all defects of my digital notes are the fault of my hand and not the pen/software combo. Livescribe had to get this right and they did. I handed my phone to a friend while writing in my starter notebook and her jaw dropped as she watched my scribbles appear in near-real time in the Livescribe+ app.
An early outline of this review.
As discussed when I talked about the paper, the app knows the page number and notebook all of your notes were written in. This applies even if you write on them out of sequential order. It’s kind of magic and I can’t tell you for sure how it works other than “the dots tell the pen what page and notebook it is.” The app also boasts handwriting recognition, which is pretty accurate.
You can search your notes if you can’t remember where you wrote something and it will bring you right to the spot. It also possesses handwriting-to-text conversion ability, though that is somewhat spotty. The nice thing is that you can go in and correct its errors. There is also a “feed” view that breaks your notes into chunks and could be useful for managing to-dos and the like. I wasn’t a big fan of this and I don’t think it does a very good job of finding meaningful pieces of text.
You can share your notes to other people and apps as either PDF or image files. It even creates special pencast PDFs, but the audio content only works with their web app or mobile apps. One issue I noticed is that while Livescribe backs up all of your notes to their servers, pencasts are stored only on your device. You will have to be careful to save those PDFs if you are going to change devices because they will be lost after a ROM flash, device change, etc.
A feature missing from the app that is present in the iOS version is automatic sync to Evernote and OneNote; this is a bummer. In the iOS version, all of your notes can be synced to the third party of your choice by no effort of your own. You will have to use the sharing menus to do that on Android, for now. Livescribe tells me it is definitely on their agenda to get the auto-sync feature added. The positive here is that as a note management app, Livescribe+ exceeded expectations. Still, I would sync to Evernote or OneNote for the simple fact of making them easier to manage on my desktop. Without auto-sync, this will become tedious.
A smartpen was going to require sacrifice. There was not going to be a system where you could grab a pen that is indistinguishable from any other, write on any paper you want, and then just effortlessly find everything you wrote in perfectly accurate digital form in the cloud somewhere. As far as I'm concerned, Livescribe chose the right spots when it comes to where this pen would excel and where it would fall short of the conventional writing experience.
Though it has a little thicker body than I would prefer, it writes like a typical low-end pen with consistent output on the page. There is no training involved and it preserves the most important aspect of longhand writing. If you want to attract people who like to hand write, you better let them do it the way they are accustomed to. Livescribe did that.
The paper is the obvious drawback, in that you will have to buy it, it is expensive, and you won't be able to use the pen without it. It's logical that a smartpen would need smart paper and Livescribe does as much as they can to make up for it by adding features to the paper itself. They also give you lots of choices for the size and format of your notebooks and pads.
Most importantly, they hit the analog-to-digital conversion out of the park. The digital version of your written notes is exactly the same, but even smoother. The tiny skips and the like you get from the physical ink aren't present in the digital copy, making it cleaner and nicer to look at. Even better is that it was 100% error free in its recognition of my writing. Livescribe could not sacrifice this part of the user experience and they definitely didn't.
The app has a few rough edges and is not a true replacement to Evernote and OneNote, but for some people it will be more than good enough. It is easy to use, well-designed, and surprised me with its behind-the-scenes feature set. The one I really want to see is the automatic sync to third-party note apps like those I just mentioned. Be on the lookout for the stable app release in the very near future.
If you have been dying for a product like this, I don't think you'll be disappointed. If the paper or form factor hold you back, I don't blame you, but I can't offer an alternative that will be as good as Livescribe at the other things it does.
To celebrate their addition of Android compatibility, the Livescribe 3 Pro Edition bundle is offered at $25 off of its regular $200 price, down to $175. The standard pen is discounted by $20, down to $130. It can be purchased at Livescribe's site or via Amazon at those prices. While it may not seem like a big price drop, it is tied for the lowest price ever, according to CamelCamelCamel.