The original Livescribe Pulse added some much-needed digital functionality to the age-old pen. Its successor, however, the Echo, is less of a revamp than a refresh. The solid core functionality of this device, however, along with such worthwhile upgrades as a better hardware design and an app store, makes for an especially compelling note-taking device.
How It Works
Like the Pulse, the Echo lets users simultaneously capture audio and their writing when taking notes. When the Echo is used on Livescribe's proprietary dot paper, the pen records a digital image of anything that's written, and if the internal microphone is enabled, the audio also syncs with the text. After recording, simply tap the pen or click on any word (once the page is uploaded to a computer) to hear what was being said at that time.
Physically, the Echo is slightly larger than a permanent marker--the tapered body features a rubberized grip at the bottom and measures 6.2 x 0.8 inches. Except for the pen's grip (which is about 0.1 inches slimmer), the Echo is marginally larger than the Pulse, but the extra heft actually makes the pen handle better when writing.
The Echo is also flattened on one side to prevent it from rolling around, which is a nice touch. Its hard plastic and rubber exterior is certainly durable. At the top of the pen, there's a microUSB and 3.5-mm audio jack. By comparison, the Pulse used a cradle for charging and a 2.5-mm jack for audio, so the switch to more common formats is definitely a plus.
On the side, the Echo also has a 96 x 18-pixel OLED display, a power button, speaker, and microphone. If audio and writing is being recorded simultaneously, Livescribe says that the rechargeable battery should last for more than five hours. For recording only audio or writing, the battery will go for more than 6 or 12 hours, respectively. The Echo comes in 4GB and 8GB models, but besides cost--the 4GB version retails for $169, while the 8GB pen costs $199--there are few differences between the two.
Note-Taking and Audio Playback
Writing and recording notes with the Echo is surprisingly straightforward. If you only need to save a digital copy of your notes, just start writing on a page. Once you're done, the pen automatically stops recording. It you want to record audio as well, simply press the Record icon on the bottom of the page. The recording process works both ways: if you record audio and then play it back while taking notes, the audio and written text will still sync together.
Livescribe's dot paper makes audio playback similarly easy. At the bottom of every page, there are a handful of control buttons for adjusting everything from volume and playback speed to skipping positions within a recording. The audio control panel also coordinates with the pen's display--for example, skipping a position in an audio stream brings up the same control on the screen. Admittedly, it's a minor addition, but small details like this make the Echo especially user-friendly. The company sells a variety of notebooks and notepads with the dot paper, and users can print out their own pages for free at home.
We tested the pen during a meeting in LAPTOP's midsized conference room. The Echo's internal microphone only records in mono, but the sound quality was surprisingly good; voices came through clearly, and it was easy to distinguish from one person to the other. If space is an issue, recording quality can be adjusted directly from the pen. While the Pulse included earbuds that could record audio in stereo, the Echo sells them separately for $29.95, which definitely seems like an oversight on Livescribe's part.
Compared to its predecessor, the Echo's biggest changes are with the Livescribe Desktop software. As before, plugging the pen into a USB port copies any notes and audio onto your PC and the program shows all of the pages in an easy-to-read display. New, however, are custom notebooks, which work similarly to playlists in iTunes. Users can pulls notes from several different notebooks into a single notebook. Being able to sort and compile multiple pages makes organization easy, but we wish this feature was available on the Mac version of the software.
In Livescribe Desktop, notes with audio (which the company calls "pencasts") show up in a different color; clicking on them cues up whatever the microphone recorded at that time. Livescribe has an online account service through its website that lets users upload and share pencasts with other Livescribe users. However, if multiple audio streams exist on a single page, each stream has to be exported separately if users want to share all the audio that goes along with a page of notes.
You can also convert your notes into editable text through Myscript, a third-party application which Livescribe recommends. Myscript is sold for $29.95 through the developer's website, and it's capable of converting 20 languages into text, including Arabic, Chinese, and Spanish. Myscript performs decently, although it's not spectacular--in English, the program occasionally misread text and punctuation, though surprisingly, it was considerably more accurate when we converted a sentence in Mandarin. It's definitely nice to have an application that's capable of text conversion, though we'd prefer to have a solution that comes with Livescribe itself.
Having an app store is practically mandatory for any device being released these days, and Livescribe is no exception. Available through Livescribe's website, the store has a decent variety of applications, ranging from games like Hangman to foreign language travel phrase dictionaries. None of these apps cost more than a few dollars. Users can currently purchase apps with a credit card, though there are a handful of free ones.
Though the app store is still in beta, it's being touted as a major part of the Echo. The pen even features a pseudo-command line option, which allows users to launch applications simply by drawing a line and writing the name of the application above it. But with the store still being relatively new (there are only 77 apps available since launching last November, though Livescribe says more will be released monthly), actually using applications tends to be a hit-or-miss experience.
The functionality in Livescribe's dot paper certainly adds lots of usability--the paper's control panel features a directional pad for scrolling through menus, for instance. It's still inherently limited by the platform, though, and the best applications didn't try to make up for that.
We tried a handful of titles, and the best ones tended to stress usability over features. Applications like a tipping calculator or Mastermind (a board game that revolved around code-breaking) required little setup and were extremely easy to operate. In particular, the calculator only required us to write out two things--the number of people at the table and the bill--before it produced the tip amount.
On the flip side, applications like Sudoku and a guitar simulator were exercises in frustration. The Sudoku app requires users to draw the grid and fill out each row individually before the game could even start. The guitar app was even more convoluted. After drawing out a guitar neck on the paper, it was hard to figure out what to write that would register within the application as a chord.
The Livescribe Echo carries over all of the same basic note-taking functionality that made the Pulse a solid device. While the app store and software aren't without their problems, the Echo's physical improvements and the strength of the Livescribe platform make it easy to recommend the smartpen for anyone looking to toss out their pencil and paper for something better.