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.