In the lineage of the writing utensil, the Livescribe Pulse deserves a prominent place with the feather quill and Montblanc. Dubbed a "smartpen," the Livescribe Pulse, like a smart phone, adds loads of features to a once sole-purpose object.
Aimed at students and professionals, the Pulse captures what you write and what you hear simultaneously and synchronizes the writing and audio, so when you tap a particular word, you can hear what was being said when you wrote it. However, for its $199 price, we wish it came with optical character-recognition software or handwriting-to-digital text conversion software, typical of other digital pens on the market.
Design and Special Paper
The Pulse is about the size and weight of a highlighter; it has a ballpoint cartridge and includes three refills of black ink and a stylus tip. About 6 inches long and half an inch in diameter, the charcoal blue, anodized aluminum pen is easy to tote in its included case and fits into a shirt pocket or pen slot. On its spine the Pulse has a 96 x 18-pixel OLED display and a power button above it. Dual embedded mics straddle the screen, and a speaker lies below. The Pulse comes with a cradle that both charges the pen and syncs it with a PC; the pen clips to the cradle magnetically.
For the Pulse to record your pen strokes, you must write on the included digital paper, or dot paper, which has a background of tiny dots. A small infrared camera above the pen point visually records your strokes across this digital paper and stores it in the pen's 2GB of internal memory (which can hold up to 32,000 pages of text).
Included with the pen is a 100-sheet college-ruled notebook, but other 100-page notebooks come in packs of four for $19.95 per pack. The company promises that by the end of the year users will be able to print their own dotted paper with a free software download.
Smooth Writing and Recording Experience
Despite the number of controls on the page and on the pen itself, when we took pen to paper we were impressed with the simplicity of the process. Getting the pen to capture handwriting, simultaneously record audio, and then synchronize the two sounds complicated, but the Pulse makes it easy.
During a meeting, we simply began writing on the paper. There are no controls to start and stop the digital capture of handwriting; it begins when you power on the pen and press it to the paper. It stops capturing when you stop writing.
However, if you want to record the audio as well, you have to press the Record circle on the bottom of the paper; the recording timer will pop up on the pen's screen. After activating it, we no longer felt the pressure to write down every word spoken, which was a relief.
Three audio-sensitivity settings are available: Conference room, Lecture hall, and Automatic. Using the Conference mode, the Pulse did a great job picking up the presentation made in our company's conference room. However, we did hear the scraping of our pen against the pages in the background of the recordings. It wasn't too prominent and we could still make out the spoken words.
The pen's scraping noises went away when we opted to use the Pulse's included 3D recording headset, which plugs into the top of the pen. The headset functions like a normal pair of headphones, and on the back is a pair of binaural mics that enable 3D audio recording. If you are wearing the headset, the pen records from both mics, resulting in a surround-sound recording.
When we played back the audio recorded from the headset it sounded just like were in the meeting again; when a person to the right of where we were sitting spoke, we could hear them in our right earbud. The surround sound didn't transfer over to the 3D recording on the computer.
Livescribe Desktop and Web
You can play back recording in two ways. The first is to tap the pen to the paper where you've written something; the audio that was recorded while you were writing that phrase will automatically play back from that point. However, the best way to see your synchronized notes and audio is through the Livescribe Desktop program.
We were disappointed that the software didn't come packaged with the pen, but finding it on the Livescribe site was easy enough. Once we downloaded the software, the pen immediately syncs with the application and transfers over all the handwritten notes or drawings and audio currently stored on it.
Our three pages of notes appeared on our computer screen exactly as they did in our notebook, except our handwriting was now in green instead of black. (Green denotes text that was simultaneously written and recorded; words that do not have audio associated remain black.) Clicking on the green text turns the notes to a light green and lights up the words as the audio replays in sync.
Although we were thoroughly impressed with the audio and written syncing aspect of the software, we were disappointed that there is no transcription capability or way to turn your handwriting into digital, editable text. The pen, however, will work with a third-party service application that is sold separately. Livescribe Desktop also lets you upload your notes to the Internet and share them with your other Livescribe friends or the public Livescribe Community site.
Calculator, Translator, and Piano Mode
The Pulse has a number of other features that make it more than just a pen that records audio. Inside the included notebook is a page of interactive controls. Among them are a calculator, menu-navigation arrows, bookmarks, and replay, playback speed, and volume controls. When the pen is powered on, its infrared camera reads the dot pattern, enabling the use of paper-based applications; tapping on specific icons puts the Pulse into a given feature mode.
When we tapped the calculator app and tapped "9 + 4 =" on the paper, the Pulse spit out the correct answer of 13 on its OLED screen. The calculator not only does the basics, but it also has scientific signs and is capable of statistical computation.
With the translator, if you choose to translate from English to Spanish and write down the word "one," the Pulse will analyze the text and display the translated "uno" on the OLED, as well as repeat it aloud. These functions are just the start, as Livescribe plans to create additional productivity apps and open up the platform with an SDK.
The menu-navigator arrows (located on the bottom right of each notebook page and on the USB cradle and case) let you control the Pulse's main menu, which includes recording options and fun tools, such as a piano program. In piano mode (as indicated by the picture on the LCD screen), you can draw a keyboard on the paper and play notes through the pen's speakers. Maneuvering through the menu is smooth, but it did take us some time to get used to moving the pen right and left to go forward and backward through the different options.
Strong Battery Life
You can charge the pen through the computer or an AC charger ($14.95; not included), and battery life was very good. Frequent use of the pen during a week-long testing period didn't require a recharge, and we appreciate that you can check the battery meter on the OLED screen.
Livescribe Pulse Verdict
There is no denying that the Livescribe Pulse is one smart pen. It works as promised, recording audio as you take notes. Even better, the sound quality is superb for such a small device. Those looking for a digital pen that will turn your handwriting into editable text should consider the Logitech io2 Digital Pen or Iogear's Digital Scribe. However, those models don't offer additional features, such as the Pulse's calculator. For the complete audio/visual experience, the Pulse is the only way to go.