Review: Livescribe 3 Bluetooth smartpen and notebook

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It wasn’t long after the release of the original iPad that we started seeing capacitive styli showing up in retail outlets everywhere. There were already a handful available for phones with capacitive screens, but the iPad sparked interest in drawing accessories in a way that no phone up to that point could. Its 4:3 screen made it easy to use in portrait orientation, and its size and shape were reminiscent of a notepad, just in digital form. It seemed to beg for a quality stylus and a great digital ink app to make use of it.

Unfortunately, a good capacitive stylus is almost an oxymoron. There are a handful out there, but you have to do your homework to find them, and even the best have their limitations. Making matters worse, heading to your local big box retailer will give you somewhere between little and no chance of finding one of the good ones. We do finally have active Bluetooth styli with pressure sensitivity and the ability to filter out any other contact with the screen, taking things to another level. Unfortunately, since this feature isn’t built into iOS, compatibility with each pen has to be to added on an app by app basis. On the other side of the equation, the iOS apps that make use of digital ink have been improved and updated to help get users around the problems with stylus input, making life a little easier on those who prefer the pen. However, even the best of them still don’t come close to the ease of working with the printed page. This all means that a lot of users never even bother to try using iOS for digital ink, and those who do often come away frustrated.

Despite these small improvements to the stylus situation on the iPad, the top tablet on the market still isn’t the ideal platform for working with digital ink. That prize currently goes to Samsung, with their Note lineup of phones and tablets. I’m not the company’s biggest fan by any means, but I really have to hand it to them on this score. They saw a need in the marketplace and filled it with a solid initial product that took off and turned into an entire line. The Wacom digitizer layer built into the screen and active stylus set Note devices apart from other mobile phones and tablets, making them the most accurate and versatile when it comes to direct digital ink input. As good as the iPad is in most respects, this is one area where it just doesn’t measure up.

With all of this in mind, Livescribe has taken a unique approach to implementing digital ink on the iPad with their Livescribe 3 Bluetooth pen and notebook. Since the capacitive screen and the styli that go with it are the problem when it comes to accurate input, they have taken the weak link out of the equation. Instead of making a Bluetooth pen that inputs directly to the iPad’s screen, they have a created a system around a Bluetooth pen that is just that- an actual ballpoint pen.

 

The Livescribe 3 Smartpen, Notebooks, and Dot Paper

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The Livescribe 3 pen feels like one I would want to use, even if it didn’t have all of this nifty connectivity and capability. Its plastic body does not feel at all cheap. In fact, it’s quite solid and evenly balanced. It is a tad slippery, but not overly so. The textured band in the center, which is the twist mechanism to extend the pen and turn it on for recording, helps a bit with grip.

There is a single, multicolored status light above the clip to let you know that the pen is powered, whether it is paired with a device, and when it is syncing with your iOS device.It will also turn yellow and then red when the smartpen’s battery begins to run down.

The back of the Livescribe 3 also includes a capacitive tip, giving a sly nod to all of those styli out there that it is looking to replace.While it is adequate for navigating your iOS device and basic writing or drawing tasks, it was unfortunately a little bit of a letdown. I actually expected worse when I saw how big the tip is and how much give it has, but it did at least perform adequately. However, I had hoped that this pen might pull double duty for me as my go-to stylus, since its size and build are far more ideal for me than the majority of capacitive styli that I have tried. It’s in the ballpark, but can’t beat out the smooth and accurate tips on the TruGlide styli that I’ve tried.

Like any active writing device, the Livescribe 3 smartpen uses batteries to power its Bluetooth radio and memory. Unlike many of the Bluetooth styli that I’ve seen, it has a built-in rechargeable battery, rather than using AAA disposables. The micro USB charging port is hidden away behind the capacitive tip on the back of the pen.

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While I have not had any issues so far, there is some risk of losing the capacitive tip if it comes off without you realizing it. The clip on the detachable back has held securely so far for me, but it remains to be seen if it will loosen and become less reliable over time.

The Livescribe 3 Bluetooth smartpen pairs with any compatible iOS device (iPhone 4S and above and iPad 3 and above running iOS 7) via the Livescribe+ app, but that’s where similarities to any other product I’ve seen or used ends. The pen works with notebooks containing special paper covered with tiny, barely visible dots. There is a camera at the end of the Bluetooth pen below the ballpoint tip that records everything you draw, and uses the dots on the page to accurately reproduce your work on a virtual representation page in the app.

While its ability to almost instantly convert your writing to digital ink in the Livescribe+ app for iOS is impressive, the Livescribe 3 is certainly no one-trick pony. The pen also has the ability to record anything you write in the notebook, even if you aren’t connected to your iOS device. Once you get back to your iOS device and open the Livescribe+ app, the pen automatically syncs any additions to its virtual copy of your notebook. Take a look at the video review below to see the Livescribe in action

 

Video Review

 

Livescribe+ App

 

Notebooks

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As described above, the Livescribe+ app is where all of the action happens. It stores your work in three different sections: Notebooks, Feeds, and Pencasts. The Notebooks section stores a digital reproduction of each page that you draw on in your physical notebook, just as they appear on paper. Not only that, since this isn’t just your average notebook full of plain ruled paper, Livescribe+ knows what page you are currently working on in the book, and stores them in order. It is also capable of storing and displaying information from multiple notebooks.

Tapping on a notebook image will zoom into that book. Tapping on a page will bring up a full screen version of that page. You can also scroll up and down to navigate to other pages.

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You have the option to select single or multiple pages, and either open them in another app as a PDF file, or share them via email, iMessage, AirDrop, Facebook or Twitter.

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This feature gives you the ability to backup your digital ink reproductions to any cloud service you prefer, or mark them up with your choice of iOS document apps that are compatible with the PDF format.

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Feeds

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The Livescribe+ app also has a couple of other features that make it more than just a digital ink locker. First off, it is capable of locally converting your ink to text using Vision Object’s MyScript technology. This is where the Feeds section of the app comes into play. Livescribe+’s Feeds feature takes your digital ink, and breaks it down into smaller chunks. You can work with these feeds in ink form, or individually convert them to text by swiping the feed to the right. This conversion is done offline within the app, so it can be done no matter whether you have Internet access or not.

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The Livescribe+ app also allows users to edit the converted text, add images, mark your work with tags, or even use the converted text to create tasks that show up in the iOS Reminders app.

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It is also capable of recognizing addresses, which can be opened in Maps, and phone numbers, which can be tapped to dial the number on an iPhone, or send an iMessage on an iPad.

Just like Notebook pages, Feeds can also be exported to other apps as a PDF file, or shared via email, iMessage, AirDrop, Facebook or Twitter. They can also be exported or shared either one by one, or in groups by using the select feature in the top right corner of the Feeds screen.

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As for the features offered with Feeds, the ability to edit converted text is absolutely essential. As well as the MyScript text conversion works, it isn’t perfect. Terrible handwriting like mine is especially challenging to any OCR or ink to text conversion system, so I certainly needed it. Also, since the only file format that Livescribe+ exports text in at this point is PDF, your options for editing text after the fact are limited.

The task creation feature in Feeds is also quite handy, especially for those who like to jot down daily tasks and to do lists on paper. The main limitation that I found in my testing was that the app doesn’t always break up your ink into feeds the way you might want.

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Unfortunately, there is also no way to edit the feeds to make them smaller or larger, either.

As you can see in the example above, Livescribe+ put two or three lines into each feed here instead of one. Because of this, each task that I create via the app ended up with the text for two tasks included. That kind of negates the value of this feature. You can get around this by leaving a line of space in between your tasks when writing them in the notebook, but it’s unfortunate that you have to. Remember that this is not normal notebook paper, and as such, it costs more. I hate to waste both paper space and money.

 

Pencasts

As impressive as the Livescribe 3’s digital ink reproduction is, this feature is definitely my favorite. It really sets the Livescribe 3 apart from other styli and digital ink products. It allows you to record audio with your iOS device, and synchronizes anything written in your notebook with the recording. Pencasts can be triggered from the mic icon in the bottom right corner of the app, or by tapping the Livescribe 3 pen on the record icon on any page of your notebook.

While the idea of having to buy special notebooks with dot paper can seem unappealing, the ability to trigger actions by tapping areas of the page is one of the advantages of such a system. Not only can you fully control the recording of Pencasts, but you can also flag or favorite pages for later reference, and tag them with searchable references via other shortcut icons printed on each page of the notebook. (Note: it is possible to print your own dot paper notebooks for use with the Livescribe 3, but you have to have a color laser printer to do it. Extra notebooks and paper are fairly reasonably priced, and can be found here.)

Once your Pencast is completed, you’ll notice that your digital ink taken during the cast is shown in green.

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When you begin playback, the green text will turn gray until the audio gets to that point. Then, you can see the text turn green in real time, synchronized with the point of the audio where you were writing.

This is an especially useful feature for anyone who needs to go back and find a specific part of a recording where a section of ink notes were taken. Being able to watch your ink fill in, and find the pertinent portion of the audio that goes with a section of your notes is a huge time and effort saver. Even better, you can tap on a word in your notes and the audio will automatically skip to that moment in the audio. This feature really sold me on the Livescribe 3’s tightly integrated system.

 

Conclusion

While there are some rough edges to be smoothed out, overall the Livescribe+ app is excellent. Receiving digitized ink from the pen is stable and reliable. The offline text to speech is also unique, even if the randomness of how Feeds are constructed hamstrings it a bit. And the Pencast feature, well that’s a game-changer for me. It is the best lecture review and study tool that I have ever seen, and it really demonstrates the power of the iPhone and iPad as mobile productivity tools.

However, as good as it is, Livescribe+ could be exceptional with a little more work. The biggest issue I had with the app was with the arbitrary nature of how Feeds are constructed, and the fact that they can’t be edited. Another weakness is the lack of options for file export. PDF is the most solid all-around choice for file output, but there are others that would be useful in certain situations. Primarily, I would like to see the ability to export ink notes to other apps or cloud services as image files. Also, since Feeds offer the capability to convert ink to text, why not allow converted Feeds to be exported as plain or rich text files? Microsoft Word’s docx would be a welcomed addition, as well.

And finally, since there are so many cloud services available that make it easier to work with and organize files, it would be nice to see Livescribe go beyond the Open In function of iOS, and actually add file organization and direct export capabilities to services like Evernote, Google Drive, Dropbox, and Box. iCloud file sync would also make a lot of sense for those who are all Apple, all the time. Again, the app already works very well. These features would just help it get to the next level.

As for the Livescribe 3 smartpen, I am very impressed with its performance. To start with, it does its primary job as a ball point pen very well. It writes smoothly, has great balance, and fits well in my hand. The pen also performs very well as a Bluetooth digital ink recorder. Livescribe came up with an excellent solution to the problem of capacitive and Bluetooth stylus performance writing directly on glass. They simply bypassed it, using the combination of the Livescribe 3’s camera and the notebook’s dot paper.

If there is one potential issue with the Livescribe 3 that could have negated all of these positives, it would be battery life. Fortunately, that was definitely not a problem in my experience. Livescribe states that, since the smartpen uses Bluetooth 4.0 low power, it should get 14 hours of use per charge. I can tell you that I have tested the Livescribe 3 for over two weeks, and I have not had to recharge it yet. That’s the kind of performance you need to make such a gadget useful.

Ok, so we know that the Livescribe 3 works. In fact, I would say that it does an exceptional job at handling digital ink. With that said, the biggest consideration on whether to buy this smartpen or not is going to be value. The Livescribe 3 comes in two different versions. The standard package, which I tested, comes with a pen, starter notebook with 50 pages, an extra ink cartridge, and a micro USB charging cable at a price of $149.95. The pro package adds a leather cover for the pen, a hardbound journal with 100 pages, an extra ink cartridge, and one year of Evernote’s Premium service ($45 value). The pro version also includes a slightly different pen with dark chrome highlights. This package goes for $199.95.

No matter how well an accessory works, $150-$200 is a lot to ask. In fact, I would say that price is without a doubt the biggest limiting factor with the Livescribe 3. If this system was $100 or less, I would recommend it to any potential buyer without any equivocations. However, at the current price, a little qualification is required. If you prefer the ease of using a pen and paper, but find yourself going through the trouble of using a stylus to gain the advantage of having your ink digitized, then you should consider the Livescribe 3 as a possible solution. I personally think it would be very suited to the needs of many students for lecture notes, or for those who prefer using pen and ink for meeting notes. And if you are already an Evernote user who prefers working with digital ink, the included year of premium access in Livescribe’s pro package is a nice addition.

One thing to consider in this value proposition is the performance offered by competing products. Decent capacitive styli can range anywhere from $20-$50, but don’t even come close in terms of performance. You will also need to factor in another $10-$20 for the apps you’ll need to accomplish digital ink tasks on the iPad. If you step up to a Bluetooth stylus, then you are looking at somewhere between $75-$100. These offer much better performance than a capacitive model, but you still need apps, and you are still dealing with writing on glass, which some people never quite get used to. On the other hand, the Livescribe system gives you everything you need to make your notes, and the ability to use other apps, to boot. Considering the high level of performance that I’ve seen in my testing, the additional $50-$100 in cost will be justified for many users.

Again, performance isn’t an issue with the Livescribe 3 smartpen. It works just as well as described, if not better, and is the best digital ink solution for iOS that I have tested. It all comes down to value and affordability. If you prefer to take notes using a pen and paper but would like to get the benefits of digital ink, and you can afford to supplement your iOS device with a $150-$200 accessory, then look no further. The Livescribe 3 should be a perfect fit for you.

 

Pros

1. The combo of the smartpen’s camera and the dot paper produce flawless digital reproductions of your ink.

2. The smartpen is easy to use, feels good in the hand, and has solid battery life.

3. Bluetooth pairing is a snap, and the pen syncs to the Livescribe+ app quickly.

4. The ability to use the smartpen and notebook to take notes without your iOS device, and upload your work to the Livescribe+ app later is very handy.

5. The use of custom paper and notebooks makes useful features, like on-page controls and shortcuts, possible.

6. Pencasts are a potential game-changer for many certain users. Really sets the Livescribe 3 apart from competing products.

 

Cons

1. Pricey

2. You are locked into using Livescribe’s ink cartridges, and for the most part, their notebooks and paper.

3. The Livescribe 3 smartpen only digitizes ink into the Livescribe app.

4. Feeds are broken up into arbitrary groups that cannot be rearranged or edited.

5. Limited to only PDF file format for export.

6. Livescribe+ relies on native iOS sharing and open in for sharing and exporting. Would be nice to see some cloud services integrated into the app.

 

The Livescribe 3 standard package is available from Livescribe, Amazon, Apple Stores, and Paradise Pen for $149.95.

The Livescribe 3 Pro package is available from Livescribe, Amazon, Apple Stores, and Paradise Pen for $199.95.

 

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  • Steph Diaz

    Wow! This pen looks way better than the Echo! But I do want to know if you can hear the pen when you are writing on the recordings.. that the one thing I hate about the Echo.. I can hear everything!!

  • James Rogers

    With this pen, your iOS device is actually doing the recording, so that shouldn’t be an issue. The one limitation with that is you will have to have a device with you anytime you need to record. However, you can pair the pen with multiple devices, so as long as you have your phone, you’re good to go.

    Do you like the Echo, other than the sound issue?