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Gadgets

Hands-on with the Neo N2 smartpen

This Kickstarter phenom, which digitizes handwritten notes directly to your phone or tablet, looks and feels like a traditional pen -- but is it markedly better than the competition?

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The Neo N2 smartpen, shown here with the Livescribe 3 and Equil Smartpen 2. Photo by Rick Broida/CNET

The NeoLab Neo N2 smartpen debuted on Kickstarter about eight months ago, where it smashed its $20,000 funding goal and raised nearly $360,000. Although backers have already received their pens, the N2 officially went on sale earlier this week.

The big question: How does it compare with the two other most popular smartpens already on the market, namely the Livescribe 3 and Equil Smartpen 2? To find out, I spent some time scribbling with the N2.

The write stuff

The idea behind a smartpen is simple: Ink notes scrawled on paper get simultaneously captured in digital form, then transferred to a PC or mobile device for easier organization, storage, sharing and the like.

For this to work, the Livescribe 3 relies on special paper, while the Equil Smartpen 2 employs a sensor that must be clipped to the top of whatever you're writing on -- but that can be anything (legal pad, cocktail napkin, or what have you).

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The Neo N2 requires special paper. Photo by Rick Broida/CNET

The Neo N2 is not, sadly, the first smartpen to do away with these requirements. Like the Livescribe, it requires special graph-like paper, the only source of which is NeoLab. In my tests, the N2 worked really well on that paper, but it's still a hassle -- to say nothing of an ongoing expense. (A 5-pack of spiral-bound notebooks, each 152 pages, runs about $20; a 5-pack of pocket-size memo pads, about $15.)

Meanwhile, while Equil offers companion apps for both Android and iOS, the Livescribe 3 remains -- for the moment -- an iOS-only device. (This despite the announcement in January of Android support.) The Neo N2 is also cross-platform compatible (Android and iOS).

Physically, the N2 is the smallest of the three -- not quite as sharply triangular as the Equil, but not quite as luxurious-looking as the hefty Livescribe, either. It's attractively sleek, with a cap instead of a retractable tip.

As for pricing, all three products fall within a few dollars of each other: $150 for the Livescribe 3, $170 for the Neo N2 and Smartpen 2. Again, though, only the latter can work with plain paper. With the Neo, plan on having ongoing consumable costs.

Pen and sync

I tested the Neo N2 with an iPad Air and the included Pocket Note notebook. You don't have to use a mobile device at the same time you're writing, though, and it was pretty cool to see my written notes magically appear inside my digital notebook immediately after the two established a connection. How the pen can tell which page I'm writing on at any given time, I have no idea.

That said, there are some confusing aspects to both the pen and the app. For example, the latter is supposed to automatically start "recording" when you start writing, but this didn't work in my tests; I always had to press the power button. What's more, the app lets you create multiple digital notebooks (each with a fancy, colorful cover), but it's not clear how to associate any of them with a real-world notebook. Every time I tapped a new notebook, it merely said "There is no page in this notebook."

Finally, the Neo N2 can record voice memos in real-time as you write, but I couldn't find any information anywhere on how to actually enable this feature. (The included quick-start guide barely covers setup, and if there's a more expanded manual online, it's not readily apparent.)

But there are some other decidedly cool features I did figure out, like transcribing handwritten notes into text (in your choice of languages) and quickly emailing a page. This last option is launched simply by drawing a check-mark on the mail icon in the corner of the page. In short order your mobile device creates a new outgoing email with the page attached as a PDF. Similarly, the app can automatically sync new notes to your Evernote account.

Writer's block

The need for special paper will undoubtedly limit the N2's appeal, at least to some scribblers. In that respect, it's similar to the Livescribe 3, just a little thinner and able to work with Android out of the box. But is that enough to justify a price tag that's $20 higher, especially when Livescribe users have the option of printing their own pen-compatible graph paper? (That option is coming to the N2 as well, according to a company rep.)

Given the existence of two very competent (and competitive) smartpen alternatives, I'm a bit surprised the Neo N2 was such a Kickstarter darling. I like it, but to me it's not a standout product in the category. That's too bad, because I would totally buy a smartpen that worked on plain paper, didn't require a separate receiver, and costs under $100.

Your thoughts?