Sunday, June 26, 2011

Livescribe Echo 2gb Review

Do you ever feel like you can’t stop writing? For me it seems every thought I have, or thing I see needs to be recorded, whether that be on scraps of paper around the house, various notepads, on the back of business cards, anywhere. This results in notes everywhere, and some notes that make no sense later. So I was pretty curious to try Livescribe, a pen that records everything you write, and lets you record your own audio as well to make sense of it later. Can it help me make sense of my writing, and get my notes in order?

If you’ve got a hankering to start writing instantly, then the pen works right out of the box. Ingeniously the instruction manual is made of special paper, so as it runs you through how to use the pen, you can actually write on it and learn at the same time. You can do all the setup via the instruction manual, so setting the time and date is done by clicking buttons in the manual. You even choose right or left orientation in this guide.
In the box you get a USB cable to connect the pen to a PC / Mac, and some sample sheets to try the pen out. As Livescribe only works on specially formatted paper you’ll need to buy special notebooks or print out your own paper via a computer in order to use it. To get you started the few sample sheets are a nice inclusion, and we’ll come to the notebooks later. To complete the setup you visit an enclosed URL and download some software which takes just a few minutes. Then you’re good to go.

Using Livescribe
The notepad we used for Livescribe had the added bonus of including commands at the bottom and some nice extra features in the front and back covers. So there’s a full calculator, where you just click the buttons and the result is displayed in an LED display on the pen itself. Additional methods of setting up the pen are included on the inside cover such as changing microphone sensitivity for recording, and audio quality settings if you want to store more audio at a lower quality.

One of the things that is really impressive with Livescribe is that you can write on one page in the book, flick forward a few pages to write something else, and then flick back to the original page to write more and it remembers everything. It knows what page you are on and you can add and amend prior notes to have them updated. Everything you write is recorded visually, and then when you connect the pen to a PC you can see a static screenshots of each page that can be exported as a PDF.

This made me realise that the way I currently organise notes is wrong. I have notepads filed away with only a few pages that are useful any more. This isn’t very effective as it means trundling back through lots of old notebooks to find one bit of information. With Livescribe I just PDF the pages I want and can then store them on my PC in relevant folders. It’s clever stuff, and essential for a paperless office.

Another neat feature is that you can record yourself writing. So hitting the record button will save every stroke of the pen as it is made. Then when you load up the pen on a computer the recorded items are shown in green. Click on them and they will then be redrawn as you did them. So any artists can draw a detailed image and record the whole thing. This is made better by the ability to store notes on the Livescribe website so others can view them as you write them. It’s an optional feature (so work notes are still safe) but you can send files to various places, including Facebook via the computer interface.

The other core feature is the ability to record audio. This can be done either directly in to the pen as a dictaphone (with no need to write anything) or you can record and write at the same time. Wiggling the pen to write makes the audio less clearer than if you held it to your mouth but it’s still very clear on the default setting. Combine this with recording what you write and you can watch yourself write something and hear audio at the same time. So if you need to write important notes and add audio to elaborate you can do that. This has already been put to great use on the Livescribe site with video guides on learning Chinese, where the characters are hand drawn, with audio explaining their meaning.

If you want to hear audio back without connecting to a PC, then there’s a headphone slot in the pen, and you can also playback directly from the device with its speaker. Better yet the notepad has control buttons that let you jump from sound file to sound file (the date / time of the recording is also shown on the pen display for simplicity) or fast forward / rewind on your current file.

When you’ve finished all your notes, the pen is connected via a USB slot in the bottom. No seperate charger is needed and the pen is charged directly from your computer. There’s a battery light on the pen so you know when it’s finished – and if you need to check the battery charge left you just press the battery button on your notepad.

Once connected you can flick through the pages and save as PDF or store audio files as MP3. To combine the two together there’s the ability to make flash files, and if you want to share them with the world you just connect to a Facebook or Livescribe account.

Whilst logged in to a Livescribe account there are apps that can be purchased to add extra functionality to the pen. Included with the sample pen were ‘Piano’ (draw a grid of keys and play them) and a demo of the translator (write a word and it tells you that word in another language). Both showed extra potential but the best app of all is the one that promises to turn handwriting in to text. Whilst I didn’t feel the core features were lacking, it’s possible the app store may have just the feature you are looking for if you need the pen to do that little extra.

My main thought when the Livescribe arrived was how it could compare to an iPad. Whilst it’s certainly cheaper it doesn’t really try to be a direct competitor. That’s not to devalue what it can offer, but it’s more of an alternate to a dicataphone, or for people who want to organise notes digitally. It’s also a lot more user friendly than an iPad – we all know how to use a pen – and easier to carry around with a lower street value if you do lose it.

The other comparison is to the humble pen. As a writing implement Livescribe is bigger than most, and it takes a little getting used to when holding it. It feels like an indent or rubber edge at the tip would make holding the pen easier, by adding a little extra grip. It’s ok to hold, and you’ll adapt after a few uses but I’d certainly like to see that in a future version. You also have to apply more pressure than with a normal pen to get it to write but once you’ve applied that pressure it’s just like writing normally.

It hard to think of things that could make Livescribe better as it’s essentially perfect in all the things it attempts to do. It’s a shame you can’t do everything out the box, but the apps are added bonuses that are for more advanced users, so you can understand them not being included in this cheap entry level model.

This entire review was first written with the pen, then recorded and I simply wrote it up based on my notes. It seems even reviewing the pen was made easier, which may explain why I liked it in every way. For the cluttered writer like me it’s an essential tool, and well worth considering too for anyone who wants to digitize their notes be that at home or work.

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Every product on this site has been received for free, and given to me by the product manufacturer or their associated PR organisation in return for a review.

I have no other personal or business association with these companies, and all reviews are written truthfully and based on my own experience. If I hate a product I will say so (and have done on many occasions!).