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Livescribe and the Pulse Smartpen on the Mac


The Pulse Smartpen has been around for a while, but until late last month the desktop software from Livescribe was Windows-only. The pen captures what you write, and the desktop app allows you to store and playback your writing and captured audio on your computer. I had a chance to test drive the Pulse and the beta version of the Mac app, and now we're giving that demo unit to one lucky TUAW reader. Details on the giveaway at the end of the review.

I was informed that some of the folks who had a hand in creating the Mac app for Livescribe were honest-to-Jobs former Apple employees and the app is written in Cocoa -- a refreshing change of pace in a world beset by hasty Mac ports. Livescribe Desktop on the Mac certainly looks and behaves as a Mac app should, but unfortunately the Mac version doesn't yet have all the features of the Windows version. Now there's a familiar refrain.

On the Mac, you can print your pages but to save as a PDF you drop into the Print dialog. That's pretty normal. You can export audio recordings as AAC files. What you can't do is marry the animation of your drawings (that is, the replay of your writing) with the audio for export. On the Windows version you can export a Flash file that shows you drawing and plays audio as it was recorded. Of course, the app is still in beta, and the feature is coming, but this is a limitation for some. There are other features "coming soon" I'll describe in the main review.

Check out the gallery for lots of screenshots and close-ups of the pen. If you're the impatient sort, I can say that I really like the pen and the software. There's a "gee whiz" factor when you see your notes "playing" on the screen, with audio, and the pages turn as it progresses. If you need digital copies of everything you write, or want to capture a lecture with written notes, there's simply nothing this compact and efficient. Read on for the full details.


Hardware
The pen is remarkably light, although really tiny hands may find it slightly uncomfortable with prolonged use. You'll also have to keep your fingers from covering the sensor/scanner window near the tip, but the design itself ensures that gripping the pen that low isn't comfortable. What impressed me was the balance of the pen. It is clearly intended for real use. The tiny LED display is bright and readable, and there's a built-in mic and speaker, both of which are adequate for general use. The pickup on the mic is quite sensitive and amazing, and I had little trouble recording audio while writing with minimal interference from my scribbling. There's also a set of headphones with a mic, which I'll cover in a moment.

The dock is nifty, featuring a magnetic grip on the pen to ensure the four contacts are connected and allows sync with the Mac. Like a Magsafe power connection, the pen doesn't snap mechanically into the dock -- magnets do the work. There's also Pulse's version of a main menu (essentially a 4-way arrow system that you tap and it brings up a menu on the LED screen with audible cues) on the dock (see the gallery for more info). While I would like to have a more standard USB connection from pen to computer, the dock is pretty small and works perfectly. The pen comes in 1GB and 2GB versions, and the tech specs claim around 100-200 hours of recording time depending on your model. You would likely run out of battery before you run out of recording time. Point is: you won't need the dock in your backpack.

The headphones are a combination of earbuds and a microphone. When plugged in, the audio recordings are in 3D, which is pretty cool to experience, even if I can't come up with a practical use. I guess you could record some interesting radio dramas, and the pen comes with just such examples. There's a clever short story about a mosquito in a hair salon to demo the 3D audio, with the mosquito flying around your head. Again, fun but maybe not useful. Unfortunately, the headphones are 2.5mm, which means standard headphones don't fit. That's doubly unfortunate because the ear bud-style headphones are a tad large. If you have trouble with iPod earbuds, you can bet you'll have trouble with these. Luckily the mic in the pen does a decent job of recording audio, even if it isn't in 3D.

Perhaps the one hitch in all of this, and there's not really a way around it, is that you have to use special paper for recording. Tiny dots on the page allow the pen to track what you're doing. There are spiral-bound notebooks, and Moleskine-style journals in lined and unlined versions. Of course, you can buy replacement ink cartridges. Unfortunately, PC users can print their own paper (on laser printers that meet the minimum spec), but Mac users cannot. There's that beta rearing its head again.

Software
I mentioned the application's Mac "feel" and if you've used any iLife apps you'll be familiar with the concepts. On the left you'll see whatever notebooks you're using, both active and archived. You'll also see any audio recordings, which are always recorded with the paper recordings, but you can play them back without paper playback (that's where the app draws what you wrote just as you wrote it an in-sync with the audio). There is even an iPhoto-like zoom tool for pages.

When you choose a notebook, you browse through those pages just like in iPhoto. Unfortunately, I couldn't find any capacity for adding tags or other metadata. A method for adding notes on the page within the app would be welcome. There's no built-in conversion of your handwriting to text, so I have yet to figure out how the search tool works. PC users can try OCR software from VisionObjects, but so far there's nothing for the Mac. One way or another, a way to mark pages for quick retrieval or search is essential for power users, so I'm hoping Livescribe adds this at some point.

Similar to how iTunes indicates memory on iPods, there's a handy meter below the main viewing window that allows you to view memory use on the pen. It shows you how much memory each of the following occupies: system, applications, files and of course capacity.

Adding to the mess of unsearchable pages you'll wind up with, there's one other organizational nightmare lurking in the Pulse implementation: notebook management. In order for the pen to manage the various notebooks you're using, there's a way to "register" your notebooks by number. You can have up to 8 notebooks "active" at a time, but if you want to use more you'll have to "archive" one, essentially making those pages read-only in the app. The Mac public beta does have a section named "Archived Notebooks," but you can't actually archive notebooks using the beta. I'm sure this will get fixed soon, and there's really no other way to manage multiple notebooks, but I can't help but think the implementation of archiving notebooks is a little clunky.

Honestly that's about all there is to the desktop software! While Livescribe talks about an API and the ability to create apps for the pen, that's stuff that goes into the pen, not on the desktop app. Apps for the pen are Java, so there is potential. For example, the pen ships with a simple piano app. You draw a basic keyboard on the paper, and you're then able to "play" the keys by tapping on them. It's very cool and scary accurate, but it's just a tech demo.

In addition, there are cards with calculators, preferences, etc. on them. The keyboard app wasn't working on my model, but I couldn't think of a use for it anyway. I'm guessing you'd need an app for that. Check out the gallery to see these things.

Bottom Line
This is perfect for college students or anyone who takes a lot of text notes but winds up scanning them into the computer. Students are really ideal since the pen automatically records audio as you write. The playback sync of writing and audio is like being back in the lecture, and for that reason alone it's a great study tool. If you're an inveterate mind-mapper, this thing is a dream come true.

Unfortunately the Mac beta lacks a few key features for some: printing your own paper, archiving and exporting Flash animations are possible deal-killers. If you can live with those in the short-term (assuming Livescribe will rapidly update the software), I would certainly recommend the hardware.

Giveaway!
I have to admit I'm smitten with this thing, but our rules prohibit me from keeping it. So, we're giving this demo unit away! Just leave a comment telling us how you're likely to use the pen and we'll randomly choose a winner. See the basic rules below. UPDATE: Changed the comment portion (but previous entries are still valid).

  • Open to legal residents of the 50 United States, the District of Columbia and Canada (excluding Quebec) who are 18 and older.
  • To enter leave a comment telling us how you would use the pen.
  • The comment must be left before December 8, 11:59PM Eastern Time.
  • You may enter only once.
  • One winner will be selected in a random drawing.
  • Prize: Pulse Smartpen ($149)
  • Click Here for complete Official Rules.

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