When Livescribe introduced its first unique smartpen back in 2007, its core feature — the ability to take notes on special paper, with synchronized audio, and then transfer everything onto a computer — was cool. And the fact that you did the syncing with a USB cable and special software (available at first only for Windows, and then the Mac) seemed only natural. That’s how you tended to get data off a gizmo in those days.
But an awful lot has happened in five years. These days, busy people of the sort whom Livescribe targets don’t always spend as much time at a PC as they once did; they might want to get their notes and audio onto a phone or tablet instead. And we’ve come to expect that most gadgets can connect directly to the internet, without a computer as a mandatory middleman.
Now Livescribe has a smartpen in tune with the times. It’s introducing a new flagship model, the Sky, and the major improvement to the hardware is that the pen now incorporates built-in wi-fi, eliminating the need to do transfers via USB.
The Sky also introduces a software change which is just as significant: Instead of depending on its own proprietary software, it simply plunks everything into Evernote, the omnipresent note-taking app/service which Livescribe says a majority of its customers already use. If you’ve got a device that Evernote supports — and it supports just about everything — your Livescribe notes, sketches and recordings will just be there once the pen has synced, which it does without your intervention.
The basic smartpen concept hasn’t changed. As before, the pen is a cigar-like ballpoint with an OLED screen on the side and a Micro USB port for charging. I found the review unit Livescribe provided to be comfortable enough to hold despite its bulk, but its odd cap is surprisingly tough to put on and take off.
You use the Sky with paper printed with a fine grid of dots, which lets the pen capture and digitize what you’ve written and/or drawn. (It comes with a 50-page notebook; more paper is available from Livescribe, and you can print out pages on a color laser printer.) It doesn’t convert your handwritten jottings into editable text; everything is saved to Evernote precisely as you wrote it, in your handwriting.
The pen is also a capable audio recorder, and you can capture sound as you write. It all gets synchronized, so if you’ve been taking notes during a class or meeting, you can tap on a word and listen to the recording for that precise moment. The Sky can also interact with printed or hand-written controls on its special paper, such as “Record,” “Play” and “Stop” buttons.
In short, Sky is still aimed at folks who’d rather write with a ballpoint pen than type on a real or on-screen QWERTY keyboard, and who don’t find the need for special paper to be too much of a hassle. But the wireless syncing and Evernote integration make the ink-to-digital transition far more seamless than before. It feels like more of a convenience and less of an additional complication.
In my tests, setting up the Sky on my home network was a breeze: You use a special page in the notebook that lets you tap on icons and a printed keyboard to connect and enter the password, which took less than a minute. The only catch: You can’t sign onto networks which involve a special web page for logging on, such as many public ones in coffee shops and hotels. Livescribe suggests using a computer to share the wi-fi, or tethering the pen to your phone’s data connection.
A few of Sky’s features aren’t going to be available at launch. One, called Wifi Share, which will let you send Sky notes and audio directly to e-mail, Google Drive, Facebook and Dropbox, will follow along later, as will Livescribe Helper, which will let you do old-fashioned USB cable syncing as an alternative to wireless transfers. Livescribe is also still working on a way for existing customers who upgrade to the Sky to get stuff out of the old Livescribe Desktop software and into Evernote.
And the company is also getting ready to release an SDK which will let third-party developers create iOS and Android apps that can talk directly to the Sky. The creators of the iOS PDF program iAnnotate, for instance, plan to add features which let the app incorporate annotations that users create on paper with the smartpen.
The Sky is available in three versions: a $169.95 version with 2GB of storage (about 200 hours of storage); a $199.95 one with 4GB (400 hours); and a $249.95 version, available only at Best Buy and Livescribe.com, which has 8GB (800 hours), a portfolio and a one-year subscription to Evernote Premium. A 2GB version of the previous model, the non-wi-fi Echo, stays on the market as a $119.95 entry-level option.
Smartpens still aren’t for everyone; while I’ve always admired their ingenuity, I’ve never liked my own handwriting enough to be excited about the notion of preserving it. But the wi-fi is slick, and I store my notes in Evernote anyhow — so this is the first incarnation of the idea I can see working its way into my everyday routine. I’m going to give it a try, anyhow.