Take better notes with the Echo Smartpen

This is not your average pen. Find out how the Echo Smartpen syncs audio with handwritten notes and digitizes them -- and learn a few tricks along the way.

Sharon Profis Vice President of Content
Sharon Profis is a vice president of content.
Sharon Profis
5 min read

Watch this: Take better notes with the Livescribe Echo Smartpen

Many mobile apps and desktop programs have offered intriguing note-taking capabilities, but the truth is: nothing beats handwritten notes. Typing might be more efficient, but even experts will tell you that writing by hand allows you to learn better, retain more information, and stimulates your brain.

For these reasons, subconsciously or not, many students and professionals still choose analog notes over the speed of a keyboard and searchable, typed words.

But if you're a handwriting romantic who embraces technology, you don't have to choose between the conveniences of technology and the comfort of the pen. Meet the Echo Smartpen by Livescribe.

While the Smartpen allows you to take traditional ink notes, it simultaneously makes a digital copy of everything you write. And here's when the real magic happens: the Smartpen also records everything you hear or say as you write. Later, if you tap a word, the Smartpen will play back whatever was recorded at the time those notes were taken.

Recorded audio is anchored to the notes. Now that's useful.

The Echo Smartpen isn't new, but with the school year on the near horizon, now's a good time to take a deep dive into this impressive technology. Follow this guide to find out how the Smartpen works, how to set it up, and a few tips and tricks I learned along the way.

Take better notes with the Echo Smartpen (photos)

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The basics

The secret to the Smartpen is its proprietary dot paper. Every page in your specialized notebook is mapped with thousands of dots that the Smartpen uses to track your writing, digitize your notes, and anchor the audio.

To take notes with audio, simply tap the "record" button at the bottom of any page and begin writing. You can pause to take a break, and stop entirely to end that note-taking session.

Then, if you tap any given word, the audio recorded at the moment that word was written will play back. This way, you can go back and clarify what you wrote, or even catch up on anything you might have missed.

This process of taking notes with audio and playing them back is the primary way the Smartpen is used. Its functions go well beyond that, but for this introduction, we'll focus on this activity.

Using the LiveScribe Desktop program

The beauty of the Echo Smartpen is that its capacity goes well beyond paper. The Livescribe Desktop software, which can be downloaded for free, brings in the element of digitized notes.

When you connect the Echo Smartpen to your computer using the provided micro-USB cable, the Livescribe software will quickly sync your notes with the associated audio. Notes can be viewed, played back, exported, and organized into new folders.

Notes with associated audio appear in green. Emulating the on-page experience, clicking on a word will prompt the audio, and a real-time playback of your notetaking. These interactive notes are dubbed "Pencasts."

Screenshot by Sharon Vaknin/CNET

Exporting digitized notes and audio
Whether you want to share your notes with a classmate, upload them to your cloud account, or save them on your computer, Livescribe lets you export audio recordings, Pencasts, or just the written notes with its desktop software.

To export notes, Ctrl-click to select all the notes you want to export. Then, right-click your selection and choose "Send X Pages to..." You'll then choose the destination, like Evernote, Computer, Google Docs, and more. Finally, you'll choose to export the notes as .PDF, .Pencast (a special PDF format), .m4a (audio), or .PNG.

If you want quick access to the idependent audio recording, go to the "Audio" tab at the top. You'll follow the same process to export those audio files. This is great for sharing long lectures with friends.

Echo Smartpen tips and tricks

Now that you know the basics of the Echo Smartpen, check out these little-known tips and tricks for making the most of this remarkable pen.

Make an audio-based study sheet

Where was this when I was in college? If you need to memorize terms, you can create an audible study sheet using the Echo Smartpen.

First, write out all the terms you need to study on a single sheet. When you're done, record definitons for each term. To do so, tap Record, tap the word, say the definition, and hit Stop. Repeat this process for all the terms.

Not only is this faster than making flashcards, but you might also find that you benefit more from hearing the definitions.

Upload notes to the cloud with the Launch Line
In the sidebar of the Livescribe Desktop program, you'll see a list of connectors. The idea is that you can sync your uploaded notes with any of these services, if you use them.

Well, there's a faster, more efficient way to do that using something called the "Launch Line."

Before you do this, though, make sure that you've connected your cloud accounts with your Livescribe account. You can do this by double-clicking any given cloud service in the sidebar of the desktop software and logging in using the respective username and password.

Now, when you're taking notes and you realize you'll want to sync them with a cloud service, draw a short horizontal line back and forth (overlapping) on that page of notes. Your pen will say, "Command?"

Above the line, write the service you want to sync those notes with, like Evernote. Then, tap each page (anywhere in the notebook) you want to sync. When you're done, double tap. The next time you sync the pen with Livescribe Desktop, those notes will automatically be uploaded to the selected cloud service.

Add notes to previously recorded audio
Here's a quick tip not many users are aware of. If you're playing back audio, either by searching for it on the pen, or by tapping the notes written to it, any notes you take during the playback will also be associated with that audio.

Use the pen as just an audio recorder

If you're out and about without a notebook, and want to use the Smartpen as just an audio recorder, you can do that by long-pressing the power button. A couple seconds later, the pen will beep to indicate your recording has begun. To stop recording, just tap the power button once and the file will be saved.

You can play back this file later on by tapping the menu button (the cross with four arrows) on any given notebook page. Go to Main Menu > Paper Replay > Play Session and find the recording. While you play it back, any notes you take will be synced with that recorded audio. Neat!