Digital Pen Gives Boring Note-Taking a Modern Kick

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Looking for a way to give your note taking routine a 21st-century kick in the ass? Have a gander at the Echo.
Livescribe’s latest smartpen comes with all the insanely cool tricks of its predecessor — the Pulse —albeit in a slightly redesigned package. Packed with the same ARM 9 processor, an infrared camera, a built-in speaker and mic, the Echo lets you write, record and then seamlessly transfer all your notes (with the help of the company’s free desktop software) to your Mac or PC. Of course, you’ll still need that dot-speckled smart paper to perform this magic trick. But with a huge variety of notebook sizes and bundled options, the average student shouldn’t have to part with much beer money to get a semester’s worth of high-tech scratch pads.
While the overall system remains the same, there have been a few design tweaks to the pen itself. The Echo now comes with a smooth rubber grip plus flattened surface. This, presumably, is for added comfort and to keep your $200 super pen from rolling off your desk. Livescribe has also packed the Echo with either 4- ($170) or 8-GBs of flash memory, a much-needed boost as there’s now a host of apps to choose from in the company’s app store (many of which eat up a significant amount of space).
In lieu of the Pulse’s charging dock, the Echo now has a micro-USB connector at the top of the pen. This lets you both charge and sync your notes and recordings with your computer using the included cord. There’s also the ability to name and password protect your pen.
But the real allure of the Echo remains the way the software and hardware work together to make your life easier. Yes, there’s something immensely satisfying in seeing your deranged scrawlings rasterize onscreen. And for college students and journalists in particular, the Pencast option is quite simply a Godsend. Simply hit the record icon on the included paper and start taking notes as you usually would. Once you’ve finished the lecture/meeting/interview, you can not only replay the entire recording, but also instantly move from one section to another by simply tapping on a specific note. The pen will automatically play back the audio from that precise moment. This has the obvious benefit of helping you navigate long, meandering lectures, but it also frees you up to write random or tangential thoughts without the fear of missing important information.
Once your notes have been transferred to the Livescribe desktop software, you can choose to export them as PDFs, audio, or as a .pencast file, a hybrid format that combines both audio and video. Livescribe says that iPad, iPod Touch and iPhone apps are in the works that will allow for Pencast playback, too.
As with the Pulse, plan on recharging your Echo daily. For us, battery life varied significantly depending on the quality (low, medium and high) of the audio recordings we chose. On average, we coaxed about 7 hours of low-quality MP3 audio on a full charge. Not spectacular, but not horrible either.
Our other quibble had to do with the pen itself. While there’s undoubtedly a lot of tech stuffed into it, the pen remains bigger than your English professor’s ego. Spending an afternoon scribbling notes is not a cramp-free experience, at least for us. Furthermore, listening to the recordings you’ve made on the Echo can be, well, echoy. While there are three pre-settings (room, hall and automatic), open spaces with a lot of ambient noise can make recordings particularly hard to decipher regardless of the setting you choose.
Also unfortunate is the fact that budding artists or graphic designers won’t find the Echo of much use. While the smartpen works fine for rudimentary drawings, illustrations and note taking, anything more detailed fails to translate when transferring to the PC.
Still, as a go between for the analog and digital world of note taking, there’s simply no beating the convenience and ease of the Echo. Just don’t lose it.
WIRED Ideal for students and journalists who want the best of both note-taking worlds. New 3.5mm headphone jack is now compatible with most headphones. Tons of dot paper options that are relatively cheap. Echo comes with a 50-page notebook. Learn foreign languages, perform rudimentary math, play hangman with a growing portfolio of Livescribe apps.
TIRED Pen is still bulky and awkward. Plan on sitting in the front class if you want clear audio records. Wireless uploading would be nice. Still no built-in handwriting-to-text conversion.

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