Editors' note: Livescribe has updated the Echo smartpen with new software and capabilities, including integration with online services such as Evernote, Facebook, and Google Docs. The company has also introduced a new $99 model with 2GB of built-in storage. We've updated this review to reflect these changes.
The Livescribe Echo is an amazing pen. Priced at $99 (2GB), $169 (4GB) or $199 (8GB), one would hope this is the most fantastic pen ever devised by man. It may be.
In spite of all the laptops, smartphones, and tablets being thrown at consumers these days, a great deal of communication still takes place using pens and pulp. College lectures, corporate presentations, meetings, and interviews all thrive in the realm of the lined notepad.
Ultimately, though, any worthwhile idea committed to paper in the digital era needs to find its way onto a computer. Notes get retyped, voice recordings transcribed, drawings scanned, and hours are lost to tedious analog-to-digital conversion.
With the paperless, human-computer singularity still a few decades off, the Echo smartpen has arrived to address the lingering analog/digital dilemma of capturing handwritten notes and voice memos in a convenient digital format.
How does it work?
There are three main elements to the Echo: a ballpoint pen; an infrared camera concealed inside the tip; and a microphone integrated into the pen barrel. Put them together, and you have a pen that digitally records sound and handwriting simultaneously. The recordings are saved directly to the pen's internal memory and can be replayed through the pen's built-in speaker or transferred to any Mac or PC using the free Livescribe desktop software.
If you're the kind of person who often finds yourself lugging around a voice recorder and a notepad to lectures, presentations, or interviews, it's easy to understand the convenience of consolidating both items into a voice-recording pen that can intelligently sync your notes with audio (and vice versa).
There are a few catches, such as the special "dot paper" required for the pen to capture your handwriting (a 50-sheet spiral notebook is included, with additional notebooks available for around $5 each). Also, to fit an OLED screen, speaker, microphone, memory, and other electronic components into the reasonably-sized, 6-inch-long pen, Livescribe uses ink cartridge refills that are shorter than usual. Two ink refills come included, and five-packs can be obtained for as little as $5, but you do tend to run out of ink faster than you would with a conventional pen.
The Echo draws its power from an internal rechargeable battery, which will require regular recharging. Battery performance will depend on the quality of the audio recordings you're making, which are adjustable from low, medium, and high. Microphone sensitivity is also adjustable, with settings for room, hall, and automatic. Using automatic mic level and low audio quality, we had no problems getting through a workday's worth of testing from a full charge.
What can it do?
The core feature of the Echo smartpen is called Paper Replay, and it has a tendency to make people's jaws drop when they see it in action. The magic trick plays out like this: you arrive at a meeting, tap the record icon in your dot paper notebook, write down a few bullet points, and then perform an instant replay of the meeting by tapping your notes with the pen. Each note you tap causes the pen to play back an audio recording of exactly what was being spoken when the note was made. Tap a different word, and you'll hear a different place in the recording. Tap the doodle of the airplane you made when the boss was boring you with sales figures, and you've got a recording of all the yawn-inducing details in case you ever need them. Did you zone out completely? No problem. Even if the ink never meets the paper, the pen can still work as voice recorder, allowing you to review the meeting using the pause, skip, scrubber, and playback speed icons on the bottom of the page.
Yes, it really works--and it's smarter than you think. For example, when you go back to listen to a recording and have more ideas to jot down, the Echo will associate your new notes to the playback position of your old audio. If you fill up a notebook page and turn to a new one, the Echo recognizes the new page and notes it as a separate file in its memory. Overall, as someone with a lifetime of note-taking experience, there's very little you need to do to accommodate the Echo. Just turn it on, tap the record icon, and the rest of the experience is just like writing with any other pen.
The Paper Replay experience is also available on your computer, by way of Livescribe's free Mac/PC desktop software. Once files have been copied from the pen to your computer over the included USB cable, you can view your notes as animations with synchronized audio. Just like the notebook playback experience, the software also allows you to slow down or speed up the playback speed of the replay, jump to specific sections of the audio recording by pointing and clicking on the associated text, or use the timeline scrubber to jump around the audio in a linear way.
Notes can be exported from the Livescribe desktop software as audio, PDF, or a .pencast file, which combines both audio and video and can be played by anyone who downloads the free Livescribe desktop software to a computer. Pencast playback apps for iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad are also available. For mobile access outside of iOS, compatibility with Evernote, Google Docs, and Adobe Acrobat PDF support for pencasts should cover all the bases.
The Echo is a follow-up to Livescribe's first smartpen, called Pulse. The core components between both pens--the ink cartridge, infrared camera, microphone, and speaker--are indistinguishable. In both design and features, however, the Echo offers several important refinements.
Starting with design, the Echo uses a rubber grip, and a tapered, asymmetric body that offers better balance in the hand and stays put when placed on a table. An integrated Micro-USB connector is embedded in the top of the pen, doing away with the Pulse's required charging cradle. The headphone output at the top of the pen has been upgraded to a standard 3.5mm connection, compatible with most conventional headphones, as well as a binaural headset accessory for stereo recording (sold separately).
Existing applications for both pens, such as dictionaries, and translators, can be launched on the Echo using written Launch Line prompts, instead of navigating the pen's menu. The stored contents of the Echo can be encrypted with a four-digit password, affording some peace of mind should the pen ever go missing. And last, but not least, you can give your pen a name, which will display on the pen's 0.75-inch-wide OLED screen when it powers on, giving you a way to tell your pen apart from any other Echo pens that may be laying around.
Another feature unique to the Echo is the ability to use it as a USB-connected input device. This feature will not be available until this fall, but it will provide an interesting alternative to Wacom pen input, assuming you don't mind wasting a little ink in the process.
Update: (5/27/11) Livescribe has updated the Echo smartpen's features to include automatic uploading to Evernote, Facebook, and Google Docs (via the Livescribe Desktop software). Using launch line prompts directly from within your notebook, you can also designate particular pages to be automatically e-mailed or sent to a mobile device once the pen is connected to a computer. Another important (though subtle) improvement is the preservation of a pencast's unique interactive animation and audio playback when files exported as PDFs. This allows for anyone with a recent version of Adobe Reader to receive the complete experience of a pencast without downloading special software.
The Livescribe Echo is a great product for people who take copious notes (students, in particular) or journalists and recruiters who regularly record interviews and take notes simultaneously. It will not, however, give executives at Bic or Sharpie a single sleepless night. Nor will it turn back the hands of time and inspire people to put down their laptops and re-embrace the pen.
The Echo is a specialized product with a premium price and an appetite for specialized ink refills and custom paper. It's not for everyone, but it delivers on its promises, and for those who really need a 21st century pen, the Echo effortlessly bridges the divide between ink and pixel.