Image: LiveScribe Pulse
Mark Lennihan  /  AP file
The LiveScribe Pulse records audio as you're writing. Later, you can tap a place in your notes, and the pen will play back what it was hearing when that was written.
updated 6/6/2008 1:05:55 PM ET 2008-06-06T17:05:55

The pen, once mightier than the sword, has been getting trounced by the keyboard in the computer era. Now and then there's a push toward "pen-based computing" that doesn't get very far.

But in a test of the latest crop of pens that combine ink with digital technology, at least one stands out as a useful tool and a complement to the keyboard.

All three pens I tested record what the user writes, and can transfer an image of those notes to a PC. The standout of the group is the LiveScribe Pulse, which also records audio as you're writing. Later, you can tap a place in your notes, and the pen will play back what it was hearing when that was written.

As you can imagine, this is something of a Holy Grail for journalists, who run around with notepads and voice recorders. A classic problem for us is finding the right place in an audio recording without listening through the whole thing. The Pulse solves this problem.

Students also should pay attention to this pen. There is probably no better gadget for taking notes in class, except perhaps a Tablet PC, which allows you to write on the screen. But Tablet PCs are expensive and more difficult to use than the Pulse, which works with standard Windows PCs. You can also use it in a more limited fashion without a PC.

A Pulse with 1 gigabyte of memory costs $149 from LiveScribe's Web site. A model with twice as much memory costs $199, but the cheaper model has room for 35 hours of audio at the highest quality setting, or more than 100 hours at a lower setting, so it's a good value.

The greatest limitation of the Pulse is that it only works with special paper, preprinted with a pattern of dots. These are picked up by a small camera in the pen (this is the reason the pen is about as thick as a cigar), which lets it figure out where it is on a page. The pen comes with a 100-sheet college-ruled notebook. You can buy a four-pack of additional notebooks from the site for $19.95. Later this summer, LiveScribe hopes to make it possible for users to print their own paper.

The dot-sensing technology in the pen comes from a Swedish company, Anoto, and has been incorporated in a number of pens from other companies.

Another example is the Nokia Digital Pen SU-27W, which uses Bluetooth technology to transfer notes to a cell phone. Dash off a message on one of the small notepads that come with the $299.95 pen, and you can send it as a text message or as picture message through the phone.

The utility of this is hard to grasp. For your note to be converted to a text message, the phone needs to guess at what your handwriting means. If you use block letters, it does a decent job, but any sort of cursive will confuse it, and no wonder — even powerful computers can have a hard time interpreting handwriting.

You can bypass the text conversion by sending the note as a picture, but you really don't need a $299.95 pen and a special notepad to do that, just a cell-phone with autofocus camera. Write your note on any kind of paper, photograph it and send it off. Not as legible as text message, but more personal, for sure.

The Nokia pen can also transfer the notes to a PC, and does a decent job of this, but I really missed the audio-recording feature of the Pulse.

The third pen, the Iogear Mobile Digital Scribe, uses a completely different technology. It doesn't need preprinted paper. Instead, you attach a small "clip" with an LCD screen to the notepad you're using. The pen, which is the size of a regular ballpoint, signals its position to the clip using ultrasonic pulses and invisible infrared light. Connect the clip to your computer to transfer the notes.

The major virtue of this is that it can be used with any notepad. But as with the Nokia pen, the utility is questionable. If you need to save your notes on the PC, you can photograph them or scan them without using a digital pen. The pen does make the process easier, and the notes are clearer, but here and there I found that the clip missed part of a letter.

By tethering the clip to the computer, you can use the pen to control your mouse cursor, much like the dedicated pen tablets graphics artists use. This looks fun, but again, it's not very useful, and dedicated tablets do a better job.

The software that comes with the $129.95 Digital Scribe had the supremely annoying habit of launching when the computer started, and sending up an alert bubble every time, saying that the clip was not connected. This feature could not be turned off.

The LiveScribe Pulse software also had some odd limitations. I was unable to install it on my work computer because the "My Documents" folder was on another computer in the network. There's no way to convert the notes into a text file, or turn notes into e-mail, but you can upload your notes to LiveScribe's Web site to share them, with audio included. The LiveScribe, like the other pens, comes with Windows software only.

But at least the Pulse demonstrated that pens can still be relevant. Sure, you can bring a laptop to a lecture to take notes, but that means you need one eye on the screen. When writing by hand, it's much easier to pay attention to the speaker (and you can draw diagrams too). This is even more important in interviews, where taking notes by hand allows you to maintain more eye contact. Even in a digital world, that's important.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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