Electronic Notepads

Drawing tablets and tablet PCs have been around for some time now. However, new products that allow the use of pen and paper to transfer your notes to the computer for storage are relatively recent. In doing some research, I’ve seen these products:

1. SolidTec Digimemo
2. Adesso CyberPad
3. Livescribe SmartPen

Does anyone have experience with any of these or similar products? I’m looking to write shorthand quickly and store it in the PC without scanning.

11 comments Add yours
  1. I'm a working journalist who's been using the SmartPen for the last year or so. Although it certainly has a few limitations, for someone like me, who only writes shorthand at about 100 wpm on a good day, the pen's worth every penny of the $140 or so it costs. Basically, the SmartPen is a small computer. It combines a digital recorder with a tiny camera that takes a picture of your notes as you write and then links that information together. Using the tip of your pen, you can tap anywhere in your notes and the pen will play back whatever was being said at the time your wrote (or drew) that note. So, even if you only got half the quote, the recording plays back the whole interview. Also, because these are now digital files, the whole thing can be downloaded onto your computer via a USB port. The desktop software is free. Once it's on your computer, you still have the same functionality, except you use the cursor instead of the pen to tap around in your notes.

    It's worth noting, though, that the SmartPen only works with a proprietary paper, which is covered in almost microscopic dots (that let the computer know where the tip of the pen is on the paper as you write.) Although not that much more expensive than typical notebooks, it does require a little foresight to make sure you don't run out. Also, although Livescribe, the company that makes the SmartPen, has many different kinds of paper, for some reason they don't carry steno pads or reporter's notebooks, or, in fact, top-bound notebooks of any kind. Moreover, all their lined paper is college-ruled, which makes for cramped notes.

    Nevertheless, for anyone who writes a lot of notes, and has to refer back to them frequently, SmartPen is amazing. Longhand writers can even take advantage of character recognition software to convert notes to text files. But there are serious advantages for shorthand writers, too:

    1. Never miss a quote.
    2. Visually scan notes to find quote you're looking for (rather than scrolling through a recording.)
    3. Easily and automatically archive old notes.
    4. Record interviews without the disruption of a digital recorder (thought there are legal issues to secret recordings.)
    5. Ability to post notes online for others to use.

    Of course, there are disadvantages besides the paper issue:

    1. Pen is somewhat bulky. Old models tend to roll off desk.
    2. Limited ability to manipulate files in desktop software.
    3. Small ink cartridges run out of ink too quickly.
    4. No blue tooth, so all syncs are over wire.

    Most of these issues have apparently been remedied by the SmartPen's successor, the Echo, but I haven't upgraded yet, so I can't comment. That said, SmartPen technology is a brilliant mix of old and new tech, and a great tool for any note-taker, especially journalists and students. As an added bonus, shorthand students can use it for dictation practice.

  2. Thank you for this thorough review of the Livescribe product. I saw it at Best Buy and was intrigued by it. The lack of a Gregg ruled notebook is indeed a limitation, and skipping a line would hinder speed. If they would make such a product it would be sweet. Imagine the possibility of combining shorthand with the actual spoken word!

  3. College ruling definitely slows down my shorthand – maybe 10 or 15 percent – but the real problem turns out to be the lack of a top-bound notebook. As a reporter, I often have to take notes while standing or walking (already not ideal for shorthand,) and the inability to flip the pages out of the way as I go can be a real hindrance.

    Also, the 'controls' for the digital recorder feature are actually just printed on the paper. For example, to start recording I simply tap button-like icon on the bottom of the page. Similarly, there are buttons for audio controls and bookmarking and even to move forward and backward when you play back. That's highly convenient most of the time, particularly when transcribing notes. It's also very impressive for the people you're interviewing. In fact, the pen itself is almost always a topic of conversation for the first 10 minutes or so. First, they're surprised to see someone writing shorthand. Then there's this high tech pen.

    The problem for a shorthand writer, though, is that these control 'buttons' are printed across the spread of the notebook – on two facing pages, in other words – so, to have access to all of them, you can't just fold the notebook completely open and carry it in one hand like a steno pad. So the notebooks are definitely the Achilles heel of the SmartPen as a shorthand tool.

    All in all, though, the technology is worth the trouble. As you note, there's nothing like being able to combine shorthand and the spoken word. In addition, Livescribe, the company that makes the pen, is a small, customer-oriented company. They seem to be responsive to user complaints and suggestions. As I mentioned, they've already made some fairly significant upgrades to the pen with this new Echo. And I'm not the only person to have suggested at least introducing a steno pad to the line of paper products. My guess is that it's on their list (along with more obvious choices like legal pads, day planners and loose leaf paper for a three-ring binder.) We'll see.

  4. The pen itself is a little bulky for my taste (about like an old fountain pen) but not so unwieldy that it interferes with writing. The new Echo is supposed to be slimmer and has a gel grip for more comfort. But, even though I was a little concerned about the pen's heft when I bought it, that really hasn't been a problem.

    Livescribe does carry an array of accessories that go with the pen. For example, you can buy ink cartridges in three colors and in both medium and fine point. It writes fine, maybe not as smoothly as some of the ink gels today, but well enough that it doesn't slow down my shorthand. Like most ballpoints, it doesn't really do dots well, so you sometimes lose H's and ing's, but that's rarely a problem in transcription. (After all, if you're worried about a quote, you can just tap on it and listen.)

    They do have unlined paper, which I've considered instead of the college-ruled stuff. The problem for me is that Moleskin makes the unlined notebooks for Livescribe, so I think they're a little too expensive for someone who writes a lot of notes. On the other hand, an attractive, nicely bound notebook is just the thing for people who want something more attractive.

    I forgot to mention, it's also possible to print your own paper if you have a laser printer. That would certainly save money and could potentially solve the notebook problem if you want to take them to a Kinko's or someplace like that for binding. Then you print to suit your needs. But I go through a lot of notebooks, and am probably not enterprising enough to manufacture them on my own. It's a possibility, though.

    For anyone interested in the SmartPen or the Echo, it's worth browsing the Livescribe website (http://www.livescribe.com/en-us/). Make sure to check the store to see if they carry the paper and accessories you need.

  5. That's true. If you don't want the audio, you can still transfer your notes directly from the pen to the computer. (Although, you might as well get the audio as well. You don't have to listen to it if you don't want to.)

    The desktop software, while not perfect, is more than adequate for my needs. Basically, it sorts your notes by notebook. When you open a notebook on screen, all the pages are visible as tiled icons. You can click on any page to select it. There's also a little scrolling device to enlarge it to whatever size you need. (Useful when transcribing quickly written shorthand scrunched up in college-ruled outlines.) Actually, the pen is pretty accurate in reproducing the notes onscreen. My shorthand is pretty sloppy, especially when I'm recording more than one person at a time, but I rarely have trouble reading my notes on the computer.

    Another interesting feature is that when you play back a recording, the software will gray out the text and you can watch your shorthand appear in real time as you listen to the recording (or don't.) That would be a useful training tool for a shorthand teacher. You can also send your notes as a 'pen cast', which is like a pod cast, but with notes attached.)

    It's probably worth mentioning that the digital recorder on the pen makes remarkably clear stereo recordings, so it's possible, if when you're playing back the recording of a conference, for example, to tell which direction a voice is coming from. Useful in keeping track of who was speaking at board meetings or seminars.

    Also, the pen was designed with 'open source' software to encourage developers to create apps for it. There are quite a few of apps available already on the Livescribe website, though most of them are goofy games. Some show promise, though. For example, a translator app lets you write a word in English, and the pen will say the word in Spanish. I often break the ice at interviews by demonstrating a silly piano app that comes with the pen. Basically, you can draw a keyboard on the page, then tap the 'keys' to play a song. Not terribly useful, but impressive. Besides, it's an easy way to let them know I'm recording the conversation.

    Anyway, although I have some reservations about certain features of the SmartPen – especially the paper – I'm still a big fan. If I'm recording a single, normal speed, speaker, I rarely have to play back the audio for my transcription. But if I miss something, or am just worried about getting a quote exactly right, it's nice to know I'm only a tap away from hearing it again. Plus, I now have the notes from hundreds of interviews archived on my computer. And that part has apparently improved because the latest software upgrade is supposed to let you edit and control your SmartPen files better.

    In short, almost everyone is impressed by the pen when they see it in action. Not so long ago, I interviewed the State Auditor here in Hawaii. After I left, she ordered SmartPens for all her investigators. That's pretty typical. If only I could get a commission…

  6. Gee. I don't know the native format of the pen. I believe that pencasts, which contain both the audio and the image, are Flash files, and you can email those, post them to a website, or even add them to a Facebook page. I guess my impression was that the pen itself used some proprietary format. But I do know that the new version of the software also allows you to e-mail files as PDFs and MP3s. So, regardless of the native format, you can still get the files out of Livescribe's software if you want to.

    Typically, though, there's no reason for me to need a PDF version of my notes. I guess that could come in handy, though, if you wanted to post notes on a website, for example. Which reminds me: when you buy the SmartPen, that entitles you to some space on Livescribe's website where you can post notes. Of course, you could just post them on your own website, too.

  7. I see your point about the side binding of the notebooks and the frustration of turning pages. That's a big problem.

    How does the pen feel? Does it glide easily on the paper? What's the width of the nib? I like fine point so that I can make the "e" really small.

    Also, do they make an unruled pad? That could also work for shorthand.

  8. OK, so this is sounding much better. You don't need to use their notebooks unless you're recording audio, correct? If I'm not interested in the audio, I could use a blank piece of paper and download what I wrote to the computer. Is that an option?

  9. Pdf's are a breeze. Just use the print command and select pdf instead of a printer. Voila. Now, if they would just add Bluetooth to the pen, you could send it via your I-Phone without even opening your computer. I suspect that's coming.

    The pencast is another story. The truth is, I've never used the pencast feature. But as I mentioned, I've always thought it might be a useful tool for shorthand instruction. Even more so as a way to teach Chinese characters, which are much more complicated and whose strokes should be drawn in a particular order. Imagine, though, a video of someone taking shorthand notes in the background, with a pencast of those notes also playing in the foreground.

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