Echo LiveScribe Smartpen

This review is just a rant caused by frustration. Please, be aware of that. You have been warned.

I know that this device is quite old, but I felt the need to type this review, as an escape valve for my rage.

Background story: I bough this Smartpen as a gift for my wife. She was a PhD student and it was supposed to help her digest the large amount of information given by her research supervisor. Indeed, it did, so the device actually works.

It has a camera that records everything that you write, while also recording the audio. A voce recorder meeting a stylus that recognize the handwriting, but in paper. The only problem is that it requires a special paper, which is provided with the package. Adittional notebooks with this paper could be ordered, but after 2 years if weekly meetings, my wife still have plenty from the original packaging. For daily use, I guess it will become a bit expensive.

The device is quite simple. The paper has recording controls printed on it and you need to tap the pen tip on those controls in order to start/stop the recording. It is organized internally, according the the page number on the notebooks. And the playback could be done directly with the pen and the paper. You want to know what that guy was saying when you wrote that word? Tap there and you’ll hear it. Quite simple. And so far, so good.

The device uses a Desktop interface(only Windows and Mac) to download the info from the pen into the computer. It produces a pseudo PDF kind of document with the audio embedded, that can only be opened through the software. The issue is that my wife installed the software on my Win7 partition, because her laptop at the time was having some problems. She uses the peb and paper playback, and never connects it to the computer. Today she wanted to download some stuff from the pen and it was impossible. The notes were downloaded from the pen, but getting them out from the computer was not possible. Sharing files is cryptic. The interface is horribly designed, the options are not clear, and it seems that the only thing that you can do is playback of the notes. And all of this after the reboot cycle from Windows due to the required updates. The software needed update, the firmware of the pen also, which also trigger Adobe AIR updates, which required some other Win 7 updates, plus multiple reboot. I think it was like 1 yr since the last time I booted Windows on that computer. After that, the struggle with the LiveScribe Desktop interface was too much. 2 hours wasted trying to save the damn files, or upload the pages to their cloud storage service (which is being phased out). So she decided to install the software in her computer, to download the notes there. For some reason, the pen didn’t like her computer. So she had to take the physical notebook with her,in order to do the playback of her notes. She was traveling and wanted to travel lighter, but it was not possible, due to the limitations imposed by the LIveScribe Desktop.

Verdict: the device is fine. It works as intended. It is really helpful if you are student taking courses, working in research or have lots of meetings, and take notes during them. Listening to the voice of the person talking while you write that specifc word, symbol, equation, etc, is very helpful. The only problem is the frustrating experience of the Desktop software, which apparently allows you to share your notes, or do online backups, but in reality, at least, we couldn’t do any of those tasks.

I know there are most recent versions of the smartpen, but as for myself, I would probably wait until they support Linux (which I don’t think they will anytime soon). Meanwhile, keep using the voice recorder if your cellphone

I used the original LiveScribe smartpen myself back in 2009, and at that time I remembered having no problem syncing with the Desktop software running on Windows 7 (I felt frustrated too by the lack of Linux support – or heck, just an open API so we can develop one ourselves).

Incidentally, the notebooks that LiveScribe sold are cheaper than similar-sized Moleskines (though that’s more of a reflection of how expensive the latter are), and you can print your own micro-dot paper from the provided templates (again, not sure what the running cost of that is unless you have an economical laser printer).

I wouldn’t be surprised if the desktop software has languished since then. They seem to be doing a heavy push to target smartphone users at the moment - for that, read iOS users (sigh again). If they support Android and produce one with a more reasonable form factor I might be tempted.

To be fair, my problems were caused by lack of experience. I’m not the primary user, and my wife seldomly uses the Desktop app. She asked me to “download” the penscribe data so she could use it in a trip, without taking neither the pen or paper, 2 hours beforing getting into the cab for the airport. After all the updates in Win7 and the desktop app, that left me with like 30 min to try to do the intended task, without success. I was trying to do the things the way I think they should work, based on my average user experience with other software. If she had asked me update my iPod, probably I’ll be rambling iTunes.

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