The Neo Smartpen N2 is the company's second shot at an intelligent analog writer and this one comes with very few compromises. In a market without a whole lot of competition, especially for those who support Android, Neo's N2 needs to be on your radar if you want a smartpen. I've been testing it out for a couple of weeks and, on the whole, I am really excited about it. With that said, it does have a few drawbacks that you will want to think through before deciding to buy.
This is the second smartpen I've reviewed for Android Police. The first is the Livescribe 3, whose review you can see here. I will mention the Livescribe's offering a few times in this piece and take some time to do a more direct comparison, but at the outset I'll say this isn't going to be about the Neo vs. the Livescribe. I don't want to do the "read later and find out" sort of thing here, so I'll also say up front that these are very closely matched products. We'll work through the details as we move along.
For those less familiar with what smartpens are all about, the idea here is to be able to write with pen ink on real paper while also having a digital version of what was written. The less effort it takes to create and access that digital version, the better. What the Neo does is use a built-in camera to record the writing in real time with the aid of proprietary paper that contains miniscule markings that the software uses to figure out the location on the page and notebook. This info is stored on built-in flash storage and relayed to a phone or tablet via Bluetooth 4.0.
For me, I have a few use cases for a smartpen. I am working on a PhD and do lots of research towards that end. I take endless notes at times, and I don't always know how or whether what I'm using will be useful to me. Rather than lug a million notebooks around, I'd rather have remote access to everything. Along with smartpens, I've also used an active stylus tablet (Galaxy Note 8.0) and used phone-based scanning software to digitize handwritten notes (nowadays, that's Microsoft Office Lens). The N2 has to be a better choice than those options to truly be useful for me, but your priorities may be different.
Let's get to know the Neo N2.
|Ink cartridge||Fits any D1 Standard|
|Connectivity||Bluetooth 4.0 LE|
|Software support||Android (4.4.2+), iOS (7.1+, iPhone 5+)|
|Multi-device||1 paired device|
|Dimensions||156.5mm (l) x 11.8mm (d)|
|Weight||24g (0.85 oz.)|
|Design||For a smartpen, it is extremely sleek and comfortable to use.|
|Ink-to-digital||This core function worked very well, with few exceptions.|
|Battery||Lasted long enough for the longest day of work or school.|
|Paper||The pen isn’t the only thing that is smart in the Neo ecosystem.|
|Indicator light||I loved this little detail of the design.|
|Color changing||You can make your digital ink print in whichever color you choose, even when your analog ink stays the same.|
|Software||There are some rough edges, most of them seemingly translation related.|
|Documentation||There were a few times I wanted to see how things worked by searching Neo’s website and app, but answers were sometimes unclear or absent.|
|Niche||Like any smartpen, not everybody needs one.|
|Paper||It’s still proprietary paper and that has its downsides.|
|Price||Related to the niche factor, the cost ($170+) means you have to really need this smartpen to justify the expense.|
This is a sharp looking pen, if you haven't noticed from the pictures already. To make my first comparison with the Livescribe 3, in terms of build I much preferred the Neo N2. The build material gives a metal-esque feel that gives you more of a sense that you're holding something that costs nearly $200. More importantly, it is significantly more slimmed down. I had no problem just grabbing the N2 and writing, just as I would with any other pen. As you'll see below, it's still bigger than your average pen, but it is hardly unwieldy.
From left to right: Zebra F-301, Parker Jotter, Sakura Pigma Micron, Neo N2, Livescribe 3
There is a power button next to the indicator light on the end of the pen that is opposite the ballpoint, so you won't be hitting it by accident. At any rate, you'll have to hold a few moments for it to do anything, so your accidental touches won't make you lose your work.
The business end of the pen has a 120 fps camera located next to the tip of the ballpoint to capture what you're doing. This is then processed by an ARM 9 dual core processor embedded within the pen.
One differentiating feature of this mechanism compared to competitors is that the tip is also pressure sensitive, which can help the digital output have the sort of precision normally reserved for an active stylus (think Samsung S Pen). Applying pressure also automatically turns on the pen, so you won't lose your work if you forget to turn it on manually - a great detail.
The pen charges via microUSB, so most Android fans won't have a problem finding a cord to use. They say it charges in 2 hours, but it was even faster than that for me when using the quick charger for my Galaxy S6.
Before moving on, I have to take a moment to highlight my absolute favorite detail. While we'll cover this more in depth later, you have the ability to choose to have your digital output show up in different colors using the companion app. Of course, the physical ink won't change color, so you could lose track of your color selection. The LED on the pen, though, changes color to help you keep track. There are 8 colors in total, though my photos can make it a little difficult to see the somewhat subtle differences. A light can't really be gray or black, after all.
From left to right, top to bottom: Black, red, purple, blue, gray, yellow, pink, and green.
They aren't all faithful reproductions, but it won't take you long to know what colors each corresponds with.
You have gotten a variety of looks at the paper, so I won't dwell on this beyond explaining how things work. One of the major drawbacks of the N2 and its chief competitor is that you can't write on any old paper. The magic only works with their proprietary stationery that includes minuscule markings that tell the software where the pen is. Just by laying your pen down, it knows which notebook you're writing, where on the page you are writing, and which page you are writing on. This is really cool!
Nonetheless, some people just will not be willing to lock themselves into this paper ecosystem, so to speak. For that, I won't blame you, but I have come to accept this as a necessary evil for now. The bright side is that the paper adds value by not forcing you to tell the software all that information about which notebook, page, etc.
The N2 comes with two notebooks, the pocket note which is as big as it sounds and the ring note, which is 150mm by 210mm. Once you want more, you can get 5 ring notes for just under $20 from NeoLAB. There are many other options, too, like the leather bound "professional" notebooks, the "college notebook," the "idea pad," and more. I found them to be better priced than competing ecosystems.
There is also a nifty padfolio + penholder combo, which for now is a free add-on with every purchase at Amazon. I like nice things, so it's a positive that NeoLAB is making sure you can pimp out your setup.
Getting started is fairly simple. When powering the pen on for the first time, it immediately goes into pairing mode. To get it in conversation with your phone or tablet, you'll have to download the Neo Notes app from the Play Store. The app will also start looking for an N2, and chances are they will find each other before you have to do anything else. You may have to turn on Bluetooth if that is turned off.
Bear in mind that your device must support Bluetooth 4.0 and be running Android 4.4.2 or higher. You'll never get paired if you don't have the right hardware and software support.
From there, before you can start writing, you need to activate your notebook. To do so, you just mark a sticker on the front of the notebook. I'm not 100% clear why you need to do this, but them's the rules.
After that, it will know exactly which notebook you're writing in. I think the activation process exists to help it handle multiple copies of the same style of book. You only have to do the checkmark once, after that you can just start writing.
We'll start with the good. The primary function of Neo Notes, the companion app, is to convert your handwritten analog scribbles into digital ink. In that regard, it really does quite well. Early on, I had a few hiccups with missed penstrokes, but after a while I couldn't replicate the issue, so I'm going to assume it was just a one-time problem.
As an analog writing tool, the N2 is pretty ordinary. There's nothing wrong with it, but I doubt you will be raving about how smooth it is or how great the ink looks on real paper. One thing that I really appreciate, though, is that it supports the standard D1 ink refill. If you want to have a very high-quality ink, you can buy a compatible cartridge pretty easily and cheaply.
Here's a look at the N2's output on the page alongside some other pens I had handy:
From top to bottom: Zebra F-301, Fisher Space Pen, Sakura Pigma Micron 02, Livescribe 3, Neo N2
Compared to its most direct competitor, the Livescribe 3, I thought it was noticeably nicer in this regard. Probably not enough to have any effect on my buying decision, but there were fewer skips and a slightly cleaner end product.
Now let's take a look at the analog-to-digital conversion, which is obviously the most important factor here.
The digital output you see is in PNG format and using the black, medium thickness "ink." I found that I like the look of the medium thickness rather than the default, thin look. This can be toggled within the app and when not connected to your phone, the pen will continue to use the settings you left it on when last paired.
I don't know about you, but I think the above looks fantastic. The pressure sensitivity even allows it to pick up on some of the little flourishes and the like and give them the thinner or thicker line width that is appropriate.
Generally speaking, the N2 recorded a digital version that looked better than the analog. Here's a look at some of the in-app configuration that you can use on the fly while writing. You will probably want to watch in full-screen due to the phone portrait dimensions.
I really appreciate the ability to change the color of your digital ink as well as the thickness. This could be really useful for a variety of purposes. I can imagine returning to an older note and making my edits in a different color, for instance.
Since NeoLAB includes some drawing in their marketing materials, I had a friend who could draw better than I can give it a spin for that purpose. Once again, it looks pretty good in my opinion. You can share in SVG format, so you can fairly easily turn your doodles into high-quality vector graphics. If you are a doodler, this may be a really big deal.
The Neo Notes app has a pleasant appearance, though it feels a bit like an iOS port. The default view lets you cycle through your notebooks while there is a slideout menu for other tasks.
One of the more useful features of the software is the ability to transcribe the text, which is especially useful if you want to search through your troves of notes. It does a pretty good job, too, in my experience. It supports several languages beyond English, as well. Check out the GIF below to see what it looks like to browse a single page's transcription. I also added a tag to the note to demonstrate how that function works.
With all of this said, I think most of the rough edges to the experience are in Neo Notes. There are times where I'm not sure whether the app isn't working right or if the translation is just especially clunky. NeoLAB is based in Korea and Neo Notes is developed in multiple languages, so I have the impression English may not be the native one for the development team.
For instance, I haven't a clue what "data optimization" is, even after reading about it on the company's support site. It is described as if it is data recovery, but it's really not clear. I don't want to spend too much time on this, since it is mostly harmless, but it is something you should keep in mind if you are a person who likes to utilize the online support resources.
Another limitation is that you can only pair the pen to one device at a time, and I don't just mean simultaneously. It can only have one device with which it syncs and shares data. This is mostly fine, but for some workflows it may be a dealbreaker. I also lost my data when switching between phones. Luckily, there is a sort of solution to this that leads into a big positive: Evernote sync.
You can have all of your N2's notes sync to your Evernote account, which will automatically be organized by notebook just like they are in the Neo Notes app. When you make changes, they will be updated in Evernote rather than creating a new note. I much prefer this to managing my notes in Neo Notes or just about any other option other than OneNote. At present, by the way, Livescribe's Android app does not sync to Evernote, though it exists in their iOS software and they promise it will be brought to Android eventually.
If you are in the market for a smartpen, the most prominent alternative to the N2 is the Livescribe 3. Overall, I am surprised to report that there is no clear-cut best choice. I expected Livescribe, since they have been doing this for a long time, to provide an overall better experience. However, the newcomer, NeoLAB, really made a great product. The decision will come down to your preference on a few of their differences.
Perhaps the biggest advantage for the N2 for me is its form factor. Every time I write with the Livescribe 3, I end up moving it around in my hand for a few moments trying to get a handle on that big thing. The N2 was the right thinness and shape that I never had to consciously think about the physical act of writing. It also looks nicer, which matters to some extent. For me, Evernote sync in the Android app is a big advantage for Neo as well, even if Livescribe has plans to match the feature. The N2 also boasts more configurability of notetaking within its app, with the ability to change colors and sizes.
I think Livescribe's analog-to-digital process works just a hair better, as I never had anything resembling an issue with it. Neo does extremely well, but the few minor issues I had give me a tiny amount of worry. Livescribe's app is also more refined and I found the documentation clearer and more helpful. Livescribe also has more of a retail presence in the USA, whereas NeoLAB's products can only be purchased on Amazon. This may or may not be an issue. They each have a similar selection of paper products, though Livescribe has a nice Moleskine partnership but also costs a bit more.
Prices are roughly equivalent, with both offering pen and notebook bundles at around $170-$175.
I'm happy to report that the Neo Smartpen N2 is more than just a "me too" product coming in after Livescribe essentially created the market. It has a beautiful, sleek build that makes it a pleasure to write with. The hardware and software combination creates faithful reproductions of your analog writing. You have a variety of ways to view your writing, between Neo Notes, Evernote sync, and the ability to share as PNG, PDF, SVG, or raw transcribed text.
You are going to have to buy and use NeoLAB's proprietary paper, which is the obvious and biggest drawback. I think this is reasonable, due in part to the fact I can't think of a much better way to do it. I've seen some other methods and they just don't work. The benefit you get in return is perfect digital text and no need to organize your notes, since the software automatically does it for you thanks to the paper.
If you seriously want a smartpen, and I don't think you're crazy if you do, I'm not afraid to recommend the N2.
It can be purchased at Amazon in the graphite color you see here or a white one, both for $170. You get an extra pen tip, the pocket notebook, a charging cable, and for a limited time the fancy pen holder/padfolio pictured earlier in the review. You can learn more at Neo Smartpen's website.