Livescribe review: Finding out if the pen is mightier than the stylus

We've all heard that the pen is mightier than the sword, but Livescribe aims to make the pen mightier than the stylus with its recently released Smartpen 3.

Image: LiveScribe

If you've followed my mobility column, you likely know that I've been on a multi-year quest for a perfect digital note-taking solution. Like most knowledge workers, I'm in constant meetings, and the idea of a digital notebook makes perfect sense. Once digital, notes can be stored in multiple places, quickly shared with team members and colleagues and, in some cases, searched and manipulated once digitalized. My quest has taken me through traditional laptops, various Microsoft tablet options, an iPad with a capacitive stylus, and now the Livescribe Smartpen 3.


The concept of the Smartpen 3 is as simple as it is compelling. It replaces dealing with a finicky stylus and device that needs to be booted up, logged into, and loaded with the right application, taking notes with a standard pen and paper, and doing the digitalization after the fact. Conceptually it seems like the best of both worlds, and on the hardware side, it largely is.

The Smartpen 3 is a large pen in all dimensions, with a diameter that's probably twice as large as a standard pen. It's equivalent in size to a massive Pelikan fountain pen my wife gave me, and as I love that pen I was rather pleased with the Smartpen 3's size. But if you're not used to a large pen, you may be slightly shocked by its size. Twist the knurled ring in the middle of the pen and the writing tip appears, and the pen also turns on with a little beep. Charging is accomplished through a standard micro-USB plug, hidden under a rubber nub at the top of the pen, that also serves as a capacitive stylus, a neat additional feature.

Aside from the beep and flashing LED, the pen looks quite normal, albeit a bit large. In my week of using the pen during meetings, no one ever commented on it or seemed to realize it was anything more than a traditional pen, noteworthy since I was working at a technology company where any unusual gadget is usually a topic of immediate conversation. It is unlike a laptop that serves as a barrier between you and the person you're talking with, or a tablet device that often serves as a bit of a distraction. The pen uses standard ink, and while I've not investigated beyond a quick web search, apparently most standard ink cartridges of the correct size can be used, allowing you to change ink types. While the pen and ink don't feel and handle like a high-quality fountain pen, they look appropriate for a business setting, and work well enough that it's easy to forget anything special is happening as you take notes.

To actually make the note-taking process work, the Smartpen 3 must be used with special paper. The paper has a special pattern printed on it that's largely unnoticeable, save for giving the paper an off-white color, and the inclusion of several "buttons" on the paper, areas where you can tap the pen to activate features like recording or highlighting items in your notes. The device also supports recording in conjunction with a smartphone, allowing you to create "pencasts" with synchronized note taking and audio.

Software and syncing

The magic of the Smartpen 3 occurs through an app that can be installed on the iPhone or iPad, which pairs with the pen via Bluetooth Smart. After installation, the app walks you through the straightforward pairing process, goes through a long firmware update, and then lets you sync your notes with the pen. When connected with the app open, you can watch your writing appear a few seconds after you commit pen to paper, an amusing trick. Less technically exciting, but more helpful in the real world, is that the pen will save notes for later syncing and need not be connected to the iPhone or iPad in order to function. I took approximately three pages of notes in various meetings with my phone back at my desk, and the pen diligently synced all the notes over later in the day, complete with page numbers that mirrored the paper notebook.

To this point in the process, the Smartpen 3 does an exceptional job, faithfully reproducing paper notes with resolution and detail that few stylus-driven devices could match, all with the ease of traditional paper. However, getting your digitalized notes into a helpful format is a bit of a challenge.

Livescribe touts their ability to sync to OneNote, one of my preferred digital note-taking applications; however, the "sync" is strictly user-driven. To get notes out of the Livescribe app, the user must select the page or pages they wish to sync and then tap a couple of buttons to initiate the sync, effectively making the process more of an export than dynamic and automatic synchronization. Furthermore, I was initially unsuccessful at getting the sync to work. Livescribe tech support suggested I create a new OneNote notebook in the Microsoft cloud called "My Notes," which did not fix the problem until I deleted the app and reinstalled it on my iPhone. Notes will only appear in this notebook, and only there in the "Quick Notes" section. So to transfer notes to a useful location, you must rename the note and move it to the appropriate notebook after a manual export.

Notes appear in OneNote as an image, limiting your ability to modify the note after the fact. While the notes are easily readable, the OneNote search capability had more difficulty recognizing the text than with stylus-entered notes.

Another near miss

Like so many other occasions in my digital note-taking voyage, the Livescribe 3 nearly nails the challenge, but falls short in ways that make it less useful. The hardware is simple to use and far more user friendly than a tablet- or laptop-based solution. Standard paper and ink make the note-taking process simple, and the company sells a variety of notebooks that should fit most needs. However, the clunky export process makes the whole experience less useful. A joy of digital notes is the ability to quickly share them with others, but I found myself less compelled to share when confronted with a multi-step export and organization process.

If you're concerned primarily with having a digital backup of your notes and ability to quickly share via email, the Livescribe 3 is a fairly capable solution. If you're a OneNote user and intrigued by the ability to synchronize with OneNote, keep the Livescribe 3 on your radar, but wait to see if the app and sync process are improved before opening your wallet.

By Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a leading global professional services firm, where he helps companies rapidly invent and launch new businesses. He is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companio...