Livescribe 3 Smartpen review

The Livescribe 3 brings digitized note-taking to your iPhone or iPad, while preserving the company's useful synchronized audio recordings, but it's not as easy to use or as reliable as previous iterations.
Photo of Livescribe 3 Smartpen

The Livescribe 3 Smartpen ($149.95 direct) is a curious left turn for the company, which until now has specialized in making “smart pens” that record your writing and synchronize it with your audio recordings. The Livescribe 3 works with an iPhone or iPad, letting you digitize copies of your notes for archiving or converting into text, and you don’t have to sync it with a PC anymore. Unfortunately, the Livescribe 3 needs the iPad or iPhone in order to operate. That makes this product a two-gadget solution, which isn’t as useful as Livescribe’s earlier, self-contained pens—and calls into question just how smart this pen is on its own. Plus, it didn’t always work reliably in my tests. Overall, the Livescribe 3 is promising, but tough to recommend wholeheartedly.

Design, Accessories, and Hardware
The Livescribe 3 measures 6.38 by 0.59 inches (HW) and weighs 1.2 ounces. Like earlier Livescribe pens, it feels bulky, although it’s lightweight enough to write with for hours at a time. It’s a little lighter than earlier models like the Sky and Echo, and it’s definitely more rounded, which I prefer. The standard tip is just a regular ballpoint, which isn’t as fluid as a rollerball.

If you’re a pen snob of any kind, you likely won’t be thrilled with the Livescribe 3; it’s slow and feels a bit scratchy to write with. The tip is hidden when not in use; you have to turn the middle ring on the Livescribe 3 to extend the ballpoint, which also activates the pen. The top of the pen has a capacitive stylus nub you can use to control the Livescribe+ app (more on that later).

The package contains the pen, a micro USB charging cable, a 50-sheet starter notebook, an integrated stylus nub at the top that covers the charging port, a Tungsten-Carbide ink cartridge (Black Medium), and a printed Basics guide. There’s also a Pro Edition ($199.95 direct), which adds the Leather Smartpen Portfolio, a 100-sheet Dot Paper Journal, an extra ink cartridge, and a one-year subscription to Evernote Premium. Livescribe sells plenty of paper types on its site; to cite a few examples, you can buy extra 4-packs of flip notebooks for $12.95, a 4-pack of spiral notebooks for $24.95, and a rather nice set of two-lined journals for $24.95. You can also print your own dot paper as well, if you want to save money.

Inside the pen is an ARM 9 processor, an infrared camera, Bluetooth 4.0, and a rechargeable lithium-ion battery that lasts for 14 hours per charge—way more than the Livescribe Sky, which has a power-hungry Wi-Fi connection that limits battery life to about six hours. But there’s no built-in microphone or internal storage on this model; the iOS device acts as the Livescribe 3′s conduit for recording audio.

Setup and Livescribe+ App
The Livescribe 3 pairs with up to four devices; it works with iPhones (4s or newer), iPad minis, iPads (3rd generation or newer), and iPod touch models (5th gen or newer). All iOS devices must be running iOS 7. To get started, you must install the new Livescribe+ app, which you can find in Apple’s App Store. Then pairing is as simple as twisting the middle ring on the Livescribe 3, which activates it and prompts the app to pair with the pen via Bluetooth. Unfortunately, the pen sometimes lost pairing in my tests, and I had to twist it off and on again whenever that happened. If you don’t have an Apple device, you’re out of luck; look at the Livescribe Sky for Android support.

The Livescribe+ app collects digital versions all of your pages and notebooks. The Notebook View brings up your physical notebooks; tap a page and you can view it on the phone. New to the Livescribe 3 is the Feed View, which organizes your notes into a timeline; swipe a snippet to the right, and it will convert it to digital text you can tag, send to your calendar, or otherwise edit later.

Pencast View brings up audio recordings that are timed to your notes; you can start recording at any time by tapping the microphone button in the app, or by pointing the pen at the controls printed on each Livescribe notebook page. A menu bar on the left side gives you shortcuts and access to various Settings for the app and Smartpen.

Finally, you can share your notes to Dropbox, Evernote, Kindle, or another note-taking app on your phone or tablet. The app comes with English built in, but you can download other languages as well.

Performance
Using the pen together with the app was generally enjoyable in my testing. I liked having immediate digital copies of my notes, plus the ability to record at will. But here’s the thing: My handwriting isn’t great to begin with, but it looked considerably worse when transcribed in the Livescribe+ app. It was still readable (barely), but it looked sloppier.

Audio recordings are excellent, though, and much clearer than before. That’s because you’re using the phone’s internal mic to record, which isn’t as subject to picking up the scratches of the pen while you’re writing. Plus, the iPhone’s built-in mic is much higher quality.

I ran into some issues, though. The first several times I tried to record pencasts, it didn’t seem to work; it popped up a red bar in the app that said it was recording, complete with a timer, and the status LED on the pen changed from solid blue to solid red. But once I stopped recording, the audio file just disappeared; Pencast Mode remained grayed out at the top. It turns out the pencasts were still available via the menu bar on the left, but they were standalone files that weren’t synced to my writing like they were supposed to be. Other times, it synced just fine, and I enjoyed the experience of watching my digitized handwriting turn green as we got to the point in the pencast that corresponded to it.

The Livescribe+ app also needs a refresh. Sometimes it would freeze up for a few seconds before letting me regain control. In one case, I took a 40-minute-long meeting, recorded the entire thing, and made some notes. But when I went to stop recording, the app froze and never recovered. I gave it several minutes, just in case it was busy saving the audio file, but it wasn’t. The app eventually crashed; when I started it again, the entire pencast was gone, and all I had were my (sparse) notes.

Conclusions
But the biggest problem with the Livescribe 3 is that it’s no longer just a pen. Now you can’t stand and take notes with the notebook and pen anymore, or just have the notebook on your desk; you must also have your phone or tablet out and listening. You can’t leave the phone in your pocket, because the mic won’t hear anything.

To give just one example, I was in a meeting where I didn’t need to take notes at first, and then decided that I did. So I pulled out the pen and paper. But that was it; unless I took my iPhone out of my pocket, sat it on the table, woke it up, put in my passcode, and fired up the Livescribe+ app, I couldn’t trigger recording. That would have completely disturbed the flow of the meeting (not to mention having to ask about recording it). You can’t just tap the Record button on the paper at the bottom left; you need the phone awake and ready to go.

Don’t get me wrong: Livescribe pens are very cool, including this one, and watching your notes get transcribed and recording all audio is a nifty new feature. But while Livescribe’s clunky desktop software needs improvement, I’m not sure relying on the phone at all times is the best option. An ideal Livescribe pen would have a built-in mic, internal storage, and also have the option of hooking into your phone. And hopefully, it would also work more reliably. For now, if you know you’ll always be taking notes at a desk with your phone on the table, the Livescribe 3 is worth a close look—just be prepared to put up with some bugs.


Verdict
The Livescribe 3 brings digitized note-taking to your iPhone or iPad, while preserving the company's useful synchronized audio recordings, but it's not as easy to use or as reliable as prior iterations.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc