If Watson, IBM's cognitive computer and "Jeopardy!" winner, were taking notes while working with students at Ohio State University this summer or dreaming up another barbecue sauce recipe, it'd probably reach for a Livescribe 3 smartpen.
In human hands unaccustomed to a technologically adroit writing tool, however, the Livescribe 3 instantly dazzles with its sleight of pen. This faux fountain pen, with an actual ballpoint tip, records handwritten notes and transfers them, in real time, to a compatible Apple device synced via Bluetooth. It adds corresponding audio when the note-taker touches the ballpoint to record-pause-stop icons on special Livescribe "digital" notebook paper, activating the iPhone-iPad-iPod Touch microphone.
Livescribe 3 can't work alone. It digitizes, shares and archives the notes and audio only with a must-have assistant: an iPad (third generation or later), iPhone (iPhone 4S or later) or iPod Touch (fifth generation) running iOS 7. It stores facsimile notes and audio in a free app, ready for printing or exporting by email to Microsoft's OneNote or, recently, auto-sending to Evernote accounts.
Yet without the special notebook paper and an Apple device, Livescribe 3 — $149.95 for the base model and $199.95 for the Pro edition — is no better than a $1.38-a-dozen Bic Round Stic.
When the technological wonderment wears off, Livescribe 3 becomes more than a novelty. This smartpen follows Livescribe's still-available Sky for Android users that sends notes from pen to Evernote via Wi-Fi and the Echo that connects directly to a computer. Its secret is an ARM9 processor, an infrared camera that captures printed words, a force sensor that activates the iDevice's microphone and a micro-USB port at the top of the pen for charging. With energy-efficient Bluetooth 4.0, the rechargeable lithium-ion battery should last about 14 hours.
The "digital" notebook paper contains barely visible dots that the pen uses to track the precise location of whatever is written, drawn or doodled. (Livescribe sells dot paper, but it's cheaper to make your own with a color laser printer that can accommodate at least 600 dots per inch and works with Adobe PostScript.)
Once Livescribe 3 is charged, the app downloaded and initially paired with a Bluetooth-activated Apple device, its routine starts with a twist of its ribbed midsection. The ballpoint emerges, and a tiny light on its clip illuminates green, then blue when automatically paired.
I experienced its value, and shortcomings, when using it to take notes during a presentation at a local long-term-care facility updating patients' family members. With the pen paired to my iPhone and the Livescribe app open, I watched the letters appear, one by one, on the screen a second or two after I wrote them on paper.
I made several recordings, or pencasts, during the presentation that automatically synced with my notes. When viewed in the app, the text that corresponds to the recordings appears as green ink. Tapping the green text plays the audio.
Each note-taking session creates a notebook copy of the paper version that can be shared, supplemented with photos (or text or audio), archived or deleted. In Livescribe's new Feed view, my notes appeared as chronological snippets.
Livescribe 3 also attempts the impossible: Transcribing printed scratch into typed text. Watson, never mind Livescribe 3, couldn't translate my printed notes. But the app tried whenever I swiped a snippet of type from left to right.
Sometimes it knew that I wrote "all residents evaluated." Just as often, it would translate something like "work in progress" as "uerkm pro grey."
It is, indeed, a work in progress. If only I could write more legibly.
Livescribe is still the mightiest pen this note-taker has ever seen.
Livescribe 3 Smartpen
Cost: $149.95, $199.95 for the Pro Edition (with a leather smartpen portfolio, extra ink cartridge and a one-year subscription to Evernote Premium).
The good: Ink-to-app note-taking, editable and sharable.
Not so good: Bulky, dependent on Apple device and special paper, superior penmanship recommended. No Android support, though it's coming.