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Tech review: LiveScribe Echo smartpen

A few weeks ago I reviewed the IRISnotes Executive 1.0 smartpen, not entirely favourably. To my surprise, two days later I received an email from rival company LiveScribe, asking if they could send me one of their smartpens to review. Of course I said yes; how could I resist a free gadget? I thus arrived back from FantasyCon to find a LiveScribe Echo waiting for me…

Unlike the IRISnotes pen, the LiveScribe can record audio as well as handwritten notes, and comes in 2GB, 4GB and 8GB versions. Since I said I was mostly interested in the transcription and handwriting recognition side of things, they sent me the basic 2GB model plus a couple of extra notebooks. Current retail price of this model is £69.99, which is less than half the price of the new IRISnotes Executive 2 smartpen.

I tested the pen and software on OSX Mountain Lion, but it’s compatible with Leopard upwards and of course Windows (XP or better).

Getting started

Setup was very easy; I downloaded and installed the desktop software and followed the instructions in the Quick Start guide. One clever feature of the Echo is that it comes preloaded with audio instructions that can be triggered by pressing the nib on various “smart icons” in the instruction booklet. I didn’t find them particularly necessary—the pen is pretty intuitive—but they provide extra handholding for non-technical users without requiring a lengthy user manual. A similar system is used to set up the pen itself (language options and date/time). All of this makes getting started with the Echo very, very simple.

Using the LiveScribe Echo

The pen itself is chunkier than the IRISnotes but much lighter than its bulk suggests; still it felt a bit of a stretch compared to the regular pens I use. The higher capacity versions have a rubberised grip, which I think would be more comfortable for writing. I also found the supplied Fine refill a bit scratchy on the microdot paper, so I bought a pack of Medium Black refills which turned out to be smoother.

One major difference from the IRISnotes is that it relies on special paper for its transcription functionality, rather than a receiver unit. I was provided with three notebooks: the standard A5 lined, spiralbound starter notebook that comes with this model; a similar gridded notebook; and a 7.5 x 11.5 cm mini-notepad. A variety of notebooks are available from retailers, at prices roughly comparable with Moleskines; not cheap, but not extortionate either. You can use more than one notebook at a time as long as they are different types (so that the desktop software can keep track of them); when you finish a notebook, you need to archive it before you can use a replacement one of the same type.

Getting your notes out of the pen and onto your computer

Connecting the pen to the computer is also easy, and in fact uses the same type of micro-USB cable as my Kobo ereader, thus avoiding having to have a hundred and one cables plugged into my Mac. There’s no need for a separate ink-retrieval utility as with the IRISnotes—just plug the pen in, go to the desktop software and it is automatically synced. The pen has a rechargeable battery that charges via the same cable; according to their FAQs, the battery is good for five hours of combined audio and note-taking, or twelve hours of note-taking alone.

I have to confess that I find it slightly spooky the way the pen always knows which page of which notebook you are writing on. Obviously this is an important part of the functionality and down to clever use of microdot technology, but it’s uncanny nonetheless. The plus side is that you can stop and start, even go back and add to a page, and not have to worry about the software getting confused and overwriting a file (a very real problem with the IRISnotes). It’s just like an ordinary pen and paper, except that it’s dead easy to get your notes onto your computer and searchable. I wish I’d had something like this years ago!

Handwriting recognition is comparable to the IRISnotes pen, but this is hardly surprising since they both use MyScript. The big difference is that it is far better integrated into LiveScribe: you just click on the MyScript icon in the toolbar to launch the MyScript utility and then select the pages you want to convert. One minor gripe is that unless you buy the 8GB Pro pack, the MyScript handwriting recognition software has to be bought separately (I downloaded the trial version, which is good for 30 days), but since the pen is much cheaper it averages out in the end.

Tests

I’ve been a bit more methodical with the tests this time, although the handwriting recognition results are not dissimilar from what I got with the IRISnotes. In each case I’ve uploaded the input as a PDF (so you can see my handwriting) and then given the output as text, exactly as exported to TextEdit.

Test 1 – handwritten text

For my first test, I just wrote a page of thoughts about the pen, making it up as I went along:

InputA5 Starter Notebook p. 1

Output:

TEST 1
This is the Livescribe Echo 2GB smatpen. J’ m testing it for a blog review, for comparison with the IRIS notes Executive, which uses a receiver rather than this dotted smatpaper. J’ m mostly interested in transcription and handwriting recognition rather than audio, but J will also be trying it out at a convention later this month to see how well it works in the context of a panel, which can be quite noisy. Im interested in the possibility of using it for things at work, so that s can record proceedings that haring to take too many written notes.
I have to say that J find the large size of this pen a little uncomfortable, but then s’ m unaccustomed to writing longhand fur etensive periods. Perhaps if J start doing it more often, my hand will no longer cramp up!
J shall be interested to see how well this transcribes. My experience so far has been quite post positive, but I’m dihberatehy not trying to be too neat, as a test for the software. After all J won’t always be in a position to write slowly and dearly.
J’ m also not impressed by the ballpoint refill. Maybe it’s well-used, but it feels scratchy and the ink flow is a little uneven.
Well, that’s enough for starters-time to upload!

As you can see, the main problem I had was with my cursive capital ‘i’, which looks more like a ‘j’ or an ‘s’ to the software. I guess I’ll have to be a bit less fancy with my handwriting in future! Also, MyScript recommends not crossing out errors but correcting them after conversion; if you compare the PDF to the transcript, you’ll see that the stray ‘post’ before ‘positive’ is me doing the former because I hadn’t read the help file before doing this test.

Test 2 – handwritten fiction

Since prose with long sentences and normal vocabulary tested well on both pens, I thought I’d also test the Echo on fiction with plenty of dialogue and punctuation, and for good measure some odd character names. I therefore grabbed my Kobo and copied out a page or so from the final chapter of Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie (warning: minor spoilers).

InputA5 Starter Notebook p. 2

Output:

TEST 2
Tnl nodded. “You’ re the chief. We’ve all agreed it.”
”Uh,” said Grim, not even looking up.
“Ninefingers gone,” said Dow, “and Threetrees gone, and that leaves you.”
Dogman winced. He was waiting for shivers to say ”You what? Him? Chief” He was waiting for them all to start laughing, and tell him it was a joke, Black Dow, and Tue Dura Thunderhead, and Harding Grim, not to mention two dozen carls besides, all taking his say-so. Stupidest idea he ever heard. But shivers didn’t laugh.
“That’s a good choice, I reckon. Speaking for my has, that’s what I was going to suggest. I’ll let ’em know.” And he turned and made off through the trees, with Dogman gawping after him.
“But what about them others?” he hissed once Shivers was well out of hearing, wincing at the stab of pain in his ribs. “There’s twenty fucking Carls down there, and jumpy! They need a name to follow!”

As you can see, the software did a pretty good job, apart from a couple of badly-written words and punctuation marks (e.g. “has” instead of “lads” and some pairs of quotes instead of double quotes). Only Tul Duru gave it a real problem, though it also didn’t capitalise ordinary nouns like Shivers unless I made the first letter big enough. You can add words to the software’s dictionary, however, so accuracy can be improved with time.

The recognition on this test was better than the IRISnotes, but I’m not sure if that’s because I was copying from an existing text rather than composing it myself on the fly and therefore wrote more neatly; I will have to experiment further to find out.

Conclusions

I’ve only scratched the surface of this smartpen’s capabilities in this review; if you are interested in audio recording options, how to share your recordings as “pencasts”, its ability to send files to Evernote, Google Docs, etc. or the many apps (dictionaries, games, etc) that can be loaded into the smartpen, you’ll have to search online for more!

Pros:

  • Wide price range – the low-end model is attractively priced compared to rivals
  • Simple to use – no fiddling with a receiver unit, just switch it on and start writing
  • Intuitive desktop software, well integrated with MyScript
  • Send your data to other applications with only a couple of clicks
  • Handwriting recognition is pretty good (as long as your handwriting is neat!)

Cons:

  • The pen is a bit bulky for my liking (but then I do have smaller hands than most people)
  • You have to pay extra for handwriting software
  • Having to rely on special paper is always going to be a bit irksome – but on the other hand it’s a good excuse to buy more stationery!

Overall, I think that if you are going to get a smartpen, the Echo is a great choice. I would suggest going for the mid-range 4GB model with the rubberised grip plus a few extras, unless you plan on doing a lot of audio recording or want even more accessories bundled with your pen.