capsule review

Livescribe Pulse Smartpen

At a Glance
  • Livescribe Pulse Smartpen

    PCWorld Rating

    A truly innovative and fun way to take notes and record audio.

Livescribe's Pulse "smartpen" is part pen, part voice recorder, and part nothing you've ever seen before. Remember Picture Pages? If not, watch this YouTube clip, and then imagine Livescribe's Pulse as the Picture Pages pen on a combination of steroids, hallucinogens, and time-travel pills. It's fun to use, and it could prove to be a groundbreaking, useful tool for students, meeting-hoppers, and journalists.

In Video: LiveScribe Digital Pen Talks Back

This isn't the first digital pen we've reviewed, but it is definitely the most advanced. (so far, at least; we haven't reviewed Adapx's Capturx pen ($350), which integrates fully with Microsoft OneNote, AutoCAD, and mapping software). It's also reasonably priced compared with the competition: At $150 for the Pulse with 1GB of audio/data storage and $200 for the 2GB version, the device costs only a bit more than the Iogear Mobile Digital Scribe ($130) but features a lot more functionality.

The Mobile Digital Scribe and the Livescribe Pulse are actually entirely different animals. Iogear's pen focuses solely on capturing handwritten notes and converting them to standard keyboard text, while Livescribe's Pulse records sounds (your voice, or that of a lecturer, say) through integrated stereo microphones and then creates audio notes that it "ties" to your written notes. The Pulse also lets you view handwritten notes on a computer interface, but it doesn't provide a way to convert those notes to plain text.

Unlike Iogear's Mobile Digital Scribe, the Pulse has a built-in OLED display that's about 2 inches long and displays one line of text. The Pulse also has a speaker and a 2.5mm headphone jack (earbuds come with the device). In spite of all those features, the Pulse is only slightly thicker than the average writing instrument, about the size and thickness of a Sharpie marker.

The Pulse requires special notebooks and ink cartridges. One notebook and three ink cartridges come packaged with the pen (a four-pack of replacement notebooks is available for $20 through Livescribe's Web site; ink-cartridge refills cost $6 for a five-pack). The notebook paper has barely noticeable dot patterns that provide a grid for the pen to reference. An infrared receiver in the tip of the pen recognizes unique dot patterns on sections of each piece of paper; this allows the pen to "jump" to specific moments in your note-taking history and play back lecture audio or any voice notes recorded at that time.

The IR/dotted-paper combo is the secret to navigating the pen's menus and adjusting its settings, as well. The notebooks have various tools printed on the inside cover. One is a printed calculator; tapping the buttons on the page makes the answer appear on the pen's screen. The page also includes various menu options for the pen, such as the screen's brightness controller, a lefty/righty selector, and the microphone sensitivity controls.

At the bottom of every notebook page, you can find additional navigation controls: audio controls, playback speed settings, bookmark selectors, a menu-navigation interface (which lets you select recordings for playback on the pen), and record/pause/play buttons. Using printed patterns in the notebook to control the pen's features takes a bit of learning, but figuring it out is easy after about 5 to 10 minutes of use. Following that, all you have to do is write. To record voice notes or lecture audio while you write, you tap the printed 'record' button at the bottom of your sheet of paper. When you're done recording, you tap 'stop'. The Pulse records audio with surprising clarity and directional precision; the pen's on-board microphones performed well in my tests.

Livescribe provides two ways to play back notes. The more straightforward way is to tap the printed crosshair pattern at the bottom of each page (Livescribe calls it the Nav Plus interface), which brings up the menu on the pen's OLED screen. You then tap the vertical and horizontal arrows on the Nav Plus crosshairs to navigate the pen's menu, where you can select the day and time of audio to play back.

The second, far cooler way to play back audio involves tapping on written notes in your notebook; when you do so, you can hear the audio that was recorded at the exact moment you wrote those notes. This is an extremely useful feature for shorthand notes and interviews, where you might not remember (or be able to decipher) what you or the other person really meant when you wrote your conversation down.

Another nifty feature becomes available when you've plugged the pen into your computer via the included USB dock. The bundled Livescribe Desktop software, which you install on your Windows XP or Vista machine (but not a Mac), offers an easy-to-use interface for managing your written notes and audio recordings. Once you plug your pen into its USB cradle and connect it to your PC, you can see a page-by-page archive of your notes. From there you can use the desktop app to listen to and manage your voice recordings and upload snapshots of your handwritten notes to Livescribe's online service, where you can share them and access them remotely. The software is well designed and intuitive, but it lacks an optical character recognition mode to convert your handwriting to text.

As good as the Pulse's pen-to-PC interaction is, you still need the external dock to connect the pen to the computer. A direct USB port on the pen would be great, but that's a really small nitpick given how much the pen already does.

The Pulse has other features that are extremely gimmicky but fun to play with. For example, a "Paper Piano" mode lets you draw an eight-key piano in your notebook and play it by tapping your pen on the keys. Silly and somewhat useless, but a good time, especially if you need to keep your kids quiet and entertained for a few minutes.

Also random are the two short "movies" that you can watch on the pen's minuscule monochrome display. Watching a movie on a pen definitely falls short of an IMAX experience, but since the movies are on the pen, I might as well review them: The plot lines, dialogue, and character development are mediocre at best. I recommend waiting until both on-pen films come out on DVD, and then refraining from renting them.

Does the Livescribe Pulse have limited appeal? Definitely. But if you're a starving student, a roving journalist, or just a gadget freak, you owe yourself at least a few minutes with this pen. It's an innovative and useful way to record and navigate lecture notes, interview dialogue, and your own audio recordings.

--Tim Moynihan

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At a Glance
  • PCWorld Rating

    A truly innovative and fun way to take notes and record audio.

    Pros

    • Useful, innovative pen and voice recorder
    • Excellent price for the amount of features

    Cons

    • Needs special paper and ink cartridges
    • No OCR software to convert handwritten notes
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