Bonnie Cha

Take Smarter Notes With Livescribe’s Sky Wi-Fi Pen

Call me old-school, but even in this day and age of laptops and tablets, I still take notes using pen and paper. It’s more convenient, and there’s something about writing things down that helps me remember ideas better.

But over the years my handwriting has gotten sloppy, and I’m not always quick enough to jot down everything during interviews, so I needed a new solution. And I’ve found it in the Livescribe Smartpen.

Livescribe is a digital pen that’s used for writing in a special paper notebook. Audio notes can be recorded on the pen, and these sync with handwritten notes. Launched four years ago with students in mind, Livescribe isn’t for everyone. But in professions such as journalism or law, where taking notes is often required, it’s worth a look.

Livescribe’s first set of pens required a clunky process of transferring notes to a computer via USB. As more people bought mobile devices, such as tablets, the company wanted to simplify the process and allow users to access and share their notes on multiple devices. The new Livescribe Sky Wi-Fi Smartpen does just that, with built-in Wi-Fi and automatic uploading to the productivity application Evernote.

With a starting price of $170 for the two gigabyte pen, it’s not cheap. And its integration with Evernote is a bit clunky. Still, for heavy note-takers, Livescribe is an invaluable device. If you don’t need the Wi-Fi feature and don’t mind syncing via USB, Livescribe’s previous model, the Echo Smartpen, is cheaper, at $120.

So, how does this magical pen work? First, there’s a small camera built into the base of the pen, and it “reads” the special paper. The pen must be used with Livescribe notebooks, because each piece of paper contains a unique pattern of tiny dots. The camera reads those dots to track all the notes and audio on that page, and then creates a digital version of the materials for Evernote.

The Livescribe Sky Wi-Fi Smartpen comes with a 50-sheet starter notebook. Additional notebooks are available from $9 to $25.

Each of the notebook pages and front and back covers also contain various icons, which perform certain commands when tapped by the point of the pen, such as starting and stopping recording and connecting to a Wi-Fi network.

The last one of these tasks is a breeze: By using the Wi-Fi setup commands and the pen’s small LED display, I was up and running in just a few minutes. During the set-up process, you’ll also be asked to enter your Evernote account login and password.

Once connected, you can start taking notes simply by writing on the paper. If you want to record audio, tap the “record” icon at the bottom of the paper.

The pen is bigger and fatter than your typical pen, so it takes a little getting used to. I kept having flashbacks to grade school, where we used large pencils to practice cursive. (Remember cursive?)

The Livescribe Sky Wi-Fi features a ballpoint tip and comes packaged with three ink cartridges (five-pack refills cost $7 each). The ink isn’t as smooth as I like. But that’s a very minor point, especially when Livescribe offers so many other benefits.

I used the pen for several work meetings, and knowing that I had audio backup allowed me to focus more on my interview subjects. I was more engaged and asked more questions, while still jotting down main points. It was an improved experience over traditional pen and paper, where I would be furiously writing, and probably missing out on important details.

Once you’re finished, tap the “stop” icon on the page and, as long as Wi-Fi is on, the Livescribe pen will automatically upload your written and audio notes to Evernote. If Wi-Fi is off, the pen will sync your notes the next time it has a Wi-Fi connection.

When I first used the pen, the written notes and audio recordings didn’t sync to Evernote at the same time — only the audio clips showed up. But when I checked back about 15 minutes later, my written notes were there.

Knowing that this wasn’t how the feature should behave, I checked for a software update by tapping the appropriate icon in the starter notebook, and saw that a new update was available. After installing it, the syncing worked fine, and I haven’t had any problems since.

Once uploaded to Evernote, each note is filed under the “A5 Wifi Starter Notebook” by page number, date and time; clicking on a specific page brings up the digital version. Audio recordings are filed under “Livescribe Recordings.” Be aware that Livescribe and Evernote don’t transcribe your handwriting into text.

All my notes and drawings came out clearly in Evernote, but I thought the audio playback function could be better integrated into the app. As is, you have to click on the note to open another window to hear audio. I would prefer being able to do this all within the same window. I tried it out on the Evernote iPhone app, and the same is true there.

That said, the recordings synced up with my written notes. You can jump to another part of the recording by clicking on a different word or line. The top of the pen also has a built-in headphone jack, so you can listen to the audio straight from the pen. Audio recorded in smaller rooms were easy to hear, but if someone was sitting far away, I did have to increase the volume.

Livescribe says the 2GB model offers about 200 hours of audio recording, while the 4GB and 8GB versions offer 400 hours and 800 hours, respectively. The pen’s battery life is estimated at up to five hours with Wi-Fi on, and up to 12 hours with intermittent Wi-Fi use. I’ve been using the pen for the past week with occasional Wi-Fi usage, and have not had to recharge yet.

The Livescribe Sky Wi-Fi Smartpen is pricey, but for students and business users who take a lot of notes and want to be thorough, it’s a worthy investment.

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