When was the last time you hand-wrote something? Maybe you don’t remember. Maybe you do, but your hand started to hurt after one paragraph. Maybe you didn’t even recognize your own handwriting.
For some people, handwriting feels like a lost art in the age of touchscreens. Well, fortunately, there are tools that let you jot, write, sketch, paint and even record audio notes on a glass tablet or smartphone. Gone are the dorky utility styluses of the PDA era.
For the past week I’ve been using three new “smart” pens that work in conjunction with mobile devices, so you can jot things down by hand but still view and share your notes in digital format. My favorite of the three is actually not a pen: It’s a $60, Bluetooth-connected pencil, made by a startup company called FiftyThree, that works with an iPad app to turn your amateur sketches into print-worthy works of art.
I also liked the new Livescribe 3 from Livescribe, mostly because it’s an actual pen — you write on real paper, and your script is almost magically transferred to an app on your smartphone or tablet. But at $150 this pen is pricey.
My last pick would be a $75 stylus made by Adonit called the Jot Script. It works with Evernote’s Penultimate app. It has a super fine point, but writing with this pen didn’t feel natural at times, and my palm sometimes left squiggles despite the promised “palm recognition” technology.
I should note that all three of these are geared toward Apple’s iOS devices. There are smart pens that have Android solutions — like Livescribe’s Sky Wi-Fi pen. Some Android-based smartphones and tablets, such as Samsung’s Note line, come with their own styluses, as do some Windows 8 tablets. But I tested these accessories on an iPhone and iPad.
Here’s a breakdown of these pens (or pencil).
Pencil is a just-launched product that works with an iPad app called Paper. If you haven’t used the Paper app before, I recommend it. The free-to-download app offers sketchbooks and an artists’ palette, with different tools available for purchase with the app. Even if you’re not an artist or designer, Paper can help most creative attempts look legit.
The compatible Pencil is a flat, carved walnut pencil inspired by the design of a carpenter’s pencil. On one end, there’s a soft rubber tip that “draws” on the Paper iPad app. On the other end, there’s an eraser that intuitively erases your work from the app. Pencil charges via USB, and the company said it can last up to a couple months on a single charge.
You connect the low-energy Bluetooth Pencil to the app by pressing the pencil tip on a small circle in the artist’s palette. In my experience, this took a few seconds. By using the $59.95 Pencil, you automatically unlock all of the tools in the palette, which normally cost $1.99 apiece. When you toggle among sketch, write or outline in the app (the watercolor paintbrush is my favorite), Pencil will draw accordingly. It’s basically an alternative to using your finger — one with more precision.
Using Pencil, I drew fall trees, cartoonish basketballs and crude sketches of interior design. Pencil offered the most familiar, natural experience of the three “smart pens” I tested.
I will say that Pencil and Paper wouldn’t be my go-to app for taking notes in a meeting, though. It’s really more of a productivity suite for creative types than it is for people looking to write text documents or scribble calculations.
The Livescribe 3 is actually the company’s fourth pen. This one is supposed to be more elegant than previous models, like a high-end pen. It works in conjunction with the free Livescribe app, but only on iOS 7 devices.
I liked this pen, mostly because it’s a real pen that writes on real paper (albeit special Livescribe notebooks, which come in a four-pack for $13. There are other products, like sticky notes and leather-bound journals, available as well.) The pen has a tiny infrared camera in its tip, which reads the pattern of dots on the Livescribe notebooks as you’re writing and sends that data, via Bluetooth, to the app.
If you’re out of range of your mobile device, the pen can also store up to 2 gigabytes of notes — about 20,000 pages — and sync it later.
It was kind of cool to watch my handwriting appear in the Livescribe app on my iPhone, right as I was writing it down on a separate piece of paper. Of the three, the Livescribe 3 was the only pen I really wanted to use when I had to take a ton of notes, whether in a grad school class or in a work meeting.
The Livescribe app also records audio notes as you’re writing, and will hyperlink the corresponding text to let you know when you’ve attached an audio note to that part. Lastly, Livescribe converts handwriting to type-text, which I found remarkably accurate despite my sloppy penmanship.
But it’s expensive — $150 for the Livescribe 3 pen and a starter notebook. It’s also bigger and bulkier than a standard pen, feeling more like a wand. Lastly, while most of my notes synced to the iPhone app immediately as I wrote them down in the paper notebook, notes I wrote during a phone call didn’t sync to the app during that call, and they wouldn’t sync after I ended the call, either.
The new Jot Script from Adonit is also a low-energy Bluetooth pen, but it takes a different approach from Livescribe. It doesn’t write on analog paper; instead, it lets you write directly on the tablet glass to jot down notes.
The $75 Jot Script is the fifth in the company’s product line, and is the first iOS stylus with a super-fine-tip point (1.9mm pixelpoint, compared with the 6.0mm point of some other stylus pens). It was also designed to work with Penultimate, a notebook app made by the popular productivity company Evernote.
It takes a single AAA battery, and is activated by pressing a small button on the side of the pen. Unlike the Livescribe pen, the Jot Script is slim and sleek, and is the only one of the three I tested that could be mistaken for a “regular” pen in a drawer full of them.
I took notes in class with this pen, using an iPad, and also tried to jot down key notes during a long interview I had with a source. The experience wasn’t great. Something felt off about the writing function, like there was a very slight latency in communication between the pen and the pad. My handwriting looked messier than usual.
I like Penultimate and happen to be a regular Evernote user. But I didn’t like that I couldn’t select which Penultimate notes I wanted to share with Evernote and which ones I didn’t. Once I opted into sync, all Penultimate notes — like my grocery store list — were sent to my Evernote.
However, handwritten notes in Penultimate become searchable in Evernote by keyword, which is useful and sure beats thumbing through pages and pages of handwritten notes to find that one thing you wrote down two months ago. Which, of course, is supposed to be the beauty of all this digital note-taking — whether with Pencil, smart pens or otherwise.