Pen 2.0: Your scribblings go digital

Are these high-tech pens mightier than the laptop for taking notes?

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Lightscribe Pulse
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Adapx Penx
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IOGear Mobile Digital Scribe

CONYNGHAM, Pa. (Fortune Small Business) -- As founder and creative director of Art Street Design, a graphic-design studio, I'm pretty familiar with pens and computers. (We make all sorts of marketing materials for companies, from invitations to Web sites.) But in my 13 years of running the company, I hadn't seen anything like a smartpen until recently.

Smartpens are pen/computer hybrids that can remember everything you write or sketch in a meeting, then upload it to your PC afterward. Most require you to use special paper with tiny dots on it, which helps the pen's infrared sensors read what you've written. Some of the latest models can automatically record audio to go with your notes.

Because I type faster than I write, I generally take my laptop into meetings. While this is convenient for me, my constant clacking on the keyboard annoys some clients. What's worse, not every meeting room gives me enough space to type comfortably on my 17-inch laptop. So in my quest for a meeting-friendly solution, I decided to give three of the latest smartpens a try.

Adapx Penx ($350) is designed for all-weather use. It features Capturx software, which makes it compatible with Microsoft (MSFT, Fortune 500) Office. You also get a 160-page waterproof journal called Journalx (replacement cost, $22), a USB docking cradle and waterproof pen inserts.

The Penx can go where most laptops and phones fear to tread. One great thing about Capturx is that it converts your sketches into graphics files and turns what you write into text that gets uploaded to Microsoft OneNote, a $100 piece of software usually included with tablet PCs. Your scribblings don't upload to Microsoft Word, unfortunately, or to any software on a Mac.

The pen can be registered with a protected password for a specific user. Although light, it's a little wider than your typical writing instrument. I found it slightly awkward to use, but not so much as to cause writer's cramp. Character recognition was excellent -- only a word or two came in wrong.

You can create and print out custom business forms; anything written on the forms is uploaded to Microsoft Excel. This feature would be great for a company with technicians or salespeople in the field who are all uploading their data into a centralized database at the same time. Just send each of them a pen and some premade forms, and you can track their reports in a nice, tidy Excel file. Very cool.

Livescribe Pulse ($100 for the 1GB version, $200 for the 2GB) isn't weatherproof like Penx, but it has a built-in LCD screen and takes audio notes. Because the stylus is somewhat larger than a conventional pen, I found it uncomfortable to write with for an extended period. But what it lacks in comfort it makes up for in gadgetry.

The "Getting Started" guide makes setup easy. You turn on the pen and tap the buttons illustrated in the guide. There are buttons for right- or left-handed users, for adjusting the microphone's sensitivity and for setting the date and time. You can return to this guide at any time and tap additional buttons to track battery life or call up the calculator on the pen's screen.

The custom Livescribe paper comes in a 100-page journal (a replacement journal costs $13). Icons printed at the bottom of the pages control the audio-notes function, known as Paper Replay. Tap RECORD when you start taking notes and the pen automatically links the notes and audio from that session until you tap STOP. You'll never miss a key point in a meeting again just because you were thinking about lunch or dozing off (which, of course, none of us owners ever do).

You can push the buttons on the page to provide audio replay before you upload. The buttons control playback speed and volume; you can also jump 10 seconds forward or back, or bookmark a particular moment in the recording. There's a headset included that does double duty: The earbuds contain microphones to help you make clear recordings from a distance and listen to them privately. You can even transform notes and drawings into Flash movies.

The company's Livescribe Desktop companion software, which is included, works with Windows or Mac. Simply place the pen in its dock and it automatically imports all of your written and audio notes. The MyLivescribe feature lets users share notes as movies on the company's Web site.

Text import is a little slow, however, and it won't convert your scribbling into digital text unless you also purchase MyScript for Livescribe ($30). Although I can certainly read my own writing on the screen, I would not be able to share my notes with others without this add-on.

Of the smartpens I tested, the IOGear Mobile Digital Scribe ($130) was the most comfortable for writing. It looks and feels like a regular pen -- and best of all, it doesn't require special paper. However, I had a hard time getting the pen to pull text into MyScript Notes Lite, the software that comes with it. After several attempts I became frustrated and stopped trying.

The Digital Scribe also comes with a base unit that lets you use the pen instead of a mouse when connected to a PC. The pen runs on two watch batteries; it doesn't recharge when you connect it to your computer. Its software runs only on Windows machines.

BOTTOM LINE: Despite its clunkiness, I found the Livescribe to be the best tool because of its audio features. I'd love to use it to replace my laptop in meetings -- as long as my clients are okay with being recorded.  To top of page

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