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Livescribe Echo 8GB Smartpen review: Livescribe Echo 8GB Smartpen

Livescribe takes a fantastic idea and makes it even better, introducing a new app platform to its outstanding recording devices.

Joseph Hanlon Special to CNET News
Joe capitalises on a life-long love of blinking lights and upbeat MIDI soundtracks covering the latest developments in smartphones and tablet computers. When not ruining his eyesight staring at small screens, Joe ruins his eyesight playing video games and watching movies.
Joseph Hanlon
4 min read

Design

A pen with a voice recorder built into it sounds like the sort of gadget you'd discover on late night television, perhaps as a bonus gift for the first 50 customers who call now to purchase a magical set of kitchen knives for only eight easy payments. But if you assume that is all the Livescribe Echo is, then you're in for a very pleasant surprise. As anyone who collects information for a living will tell you, the recording is the easy part, it's pinpointing those crucial moments in a recording quickly during playback that makes all the difference, and this is exactly where the Echo excels.

9.2

Livescribe Echo 8GB Smartpen

The Good

Excellent mic and speaker quality. Records audio and pen strokes. Can output as PDF. Features an app platform.

The Bad

Ballpoint tips aren't great. No travel charger included.

The Bottom Line

Livescribe takes a fantastic idea and makes it even better, introducing a new app platform to its outstanding recording devices.

Bundled with the computerised Echo pen is a pad of ruled paper covered in thousands of tiny dots, which are positioned on each page in a non-repeating formation. These spots act as reference points and collect keyframes of the recording, so when you're playing back your recordings you can fast-forward or rewind the audio by touching the tip of the pen on the corresponding part of the page you took notes while recording. For example, a doctor writes the word "sneezing" as their patient describes cold symptoms during a consultation. All this doctor would have to do is touch the word sneezing with the pen during playback and they'd hear the patient describing these symptoms again from exactly that moment on the recording.

The top of the pen features a 3.5mm headphone socket and a micro USB port.
(Credit: Livescribe)

The Echo pen itself is about the size of a large permanent marker, which is probably larger than most pens you'd choose to write with, but it's not uncomfortable to use. On the top of the pen you'll find a 3.5mm headphone socket and a micro-USB port for charging and connecting to either a PC or Mac. On the front of the pen, under its OLED display, you'll find a pinhole for the microphone and a tiny grille for the external speaker. We didn't expect much from either the microphone or speaker, and we were pleasantly surprised when we found both performed extremely well.

Animaniac

To create an accurate collection of keyframes for the audio recording, the Livescribe pen is also creating a visual representation of the movement of the pen at the same time. When you view this data in the Livescribe desktop software you end up with an interesting multimedia clip; your handwriting appearing on screen just as you wrote it, with the audio recorded playing back at the same time.

For some one collecting data this may not seem like a particularly useful feature, but what about someone trying to share their data or knowledge. A maths teacher could find an interesting use for this feature, solving complex equations while recording a voice-over of their process as they attempt each step of the sum. Alternatively, teachers could ask students to do the same and watch their process to spot shortcomings in their knowledge.

The Echo pen records pen strokes and audio simultaneously, creating improvised animations.
(Credit: Livescribe)

Livescribe calls these multimedia clips Pencasts and hosts its customer's work on its Pencasting site, sort of like YouTube for Echo owners.

But wait, there's more

Recording audio while you write is nice, creating animations on the fly is fantastic, but we're still just peering at the tip of this techno iceberg. Out of the box, the Livescribe Echo has a built-in scientific calculator, a demo for a language translator, a poker video game and — wait for it — a piano. All of these tools require pen and paper input, with the computer inside the pen interpreting your keystrokes to perform the different tasks. The piano, for example, has you draw nine short, vertical lines connected by two long, horizontal lines, then tap inside the rectangles you've drawn to play the notes.

LiveScribe has followed in the footsteps of smartphone manufacturers and created a system that allows third-party developers to take advantage of the tools on offer. Yep, we're talking about apps, and even in its infancy the app store for Livescribe pens is filling up with some truly mind-boggling utilities. There are apps that turn dots and lines into musical notation, currency converters, as well as things you'd expect to see, like an app that transforms your handwriting into digitised text for word processors.

The Livescribe desktop interface.
(Screenshot by CBSi)

Nit-picking

After a few weeks with the Echo we can't fault the software or features of this marvellous gadget, but we did notice a few simple oversights. Firstly, there's no travel adapter bundled with the pen. The Echo has a micro-USB port on top for data transfers and charging, but if you're away from a computer collecting data it'd be nice to have an alternative to PC charging.

Though we looked hard to find flaws in the technology aspect of the pen, our other major gripe was about the quality of ballpoint on the pen itself. Livescribe gave us a box of replacement nibs and we're lucky it did, the pens had a tendency to clog up with ink and we replaced them more frequently than we felt we should have to. A five-pack of ink cartridges costs AU$14.95.

Overall

The Echo smartpen comes in two storage options, a 4GB model for AU$259 and an 8GB pen for AU$299, with Livescribe estimating about 100 hours of recording per gigabyte. When you can buy a Dictaphone for under AU$100 and a pad and paper for about AU$10, the RRP seems steep, but the bonus functionality definitely wins us over. The time you'd save not scanning through hours of recording for a handful of important sound-bites is worth its wait in gold, but then you add the pencasts you can create, the apps you can install, the ability to use the Echo as a tablet input for your PC, and you have a powerful tool for people in a range of professions.