For a relatively niche company that has only been around for five years, Livescribe has grown quickly. Its smartpens -- which cleverly digitize handwritten notes and audio -- have already attracted a million users. However, just because these customers prefer to write their notes the old-fashioned way, that doesn't mean they aren't also obsessive about technological progress. In fact, many of them have been waiting on one new feature in particular: a totally wireless workflow, which would allow them to write a note with their smartpens and then -- without any docking or syncing -- see their scribbles appear in the cloud and on their mobile devices.
Well, as you've probably guessed by now, that is precisely the gap that the new Sky pen is looking to fill. The first half of its operation is identical to that of its predecessors, the Pulse and Echo: it contains a camera and microphone, which enable the capture of handwritten notes and time-linked audio files. (You can choose between 2GB, 4GB and 8GB of built-in storage.) But what happens next is totally different. You use "buttons" printed inside Livescribe's proprietary stationery, in conjunction with the pen's OLED display, to select a local WiFi network, enter the password and sync your files directly to Evernote. The popular online note-taking platform then handles everything else, automatically filing the text and audio in the cloud using a time stamp, making it available on whatever devices run Evernote's apps or web interface. What's more, it makes the note searchable through optical character recognition (OCR) of your handwriting.
If there's a downside to users getting what they've been asking for, it's that they are the ones expected to pay for it. The Sky's base model matches the Echo's $170 launch price, but that older pen came with twice as much internal storage, and can also now be had at a discount. Moreover, the 4GB and 8GB Sky pens rise to $200 and $250, respectively, which means this is only likely to be sensible if you really, really dislike writing or typing on a screen. Even assuming that you're totally stuck in your pen-and-ink ways, could a $170 pen ever be worth it? Read on to find out.
Livescribe Sky Wifi Smartpen reviewSee all photos
As ever, the Livescribe experience begins with that customized stationery, which is crisscrossed with tiny markings that allow the pen's camera to register its position on the page and thereby work its magic. There's no pressure sensor in the pen, so this isn't especially going to appeal to sketchbook artists or threaten the Wacom Inkling any day soon -- but then it's designed to be a tool for recording ideas more than art.
The notebooks come with printed buttons that work in tandem with the screen's OLED display to help you navigate settings and sync with available networks. In general, and aside from some syncing issues described in the software section below, this method of control is very intuitive -- the pen always knows exactly which button you're trying to tap.
You can print your own notebooks using any regular inkjet, but the off-the-shelf notebooks are good quality and desirable -- especially if you go for one of the premium options. Unfortunately, the 2GB pen we're reviewing here only comes with a single ring-bound, 50-page "Starter" notepad, which seems slightly mean considering how much the package costs. You don't get anything better than that with the $200 4GB version of the Sky -- but frankly the whole point of this smartpen is to benefit from cloud storage, so you probably shouldn't bother with the larger capacities anyway.
What you do get in the box is a spare nib and a couple of pen caps, plus a regular USB cable for charging the pen from a spare port on your PC. We'd really like to have seen a charging dock come in the box, such that the pen would sit more neatly on your desk, but this is another missed opportunity to give this product a sense of luxury befitting that $170 price tag. Even if you didn't mind spending extra, no such dock is currently available.
The 2GB pen only comes with a single ring-bound, 50-page "Starter" notepad, which seems mean considering how much the package costs.
There's one other big omission: you'll likely have to spend around $20 on top of the purchase price to pick up the so-called 3D headset and thereby benefit from the full power of this device. It's true there's a regular 3.5mm jack, which makes it compatible with common third-party headphones and headsets, but that's not the whole story. If you plug in your iPhone headset for example, you'll be able to record ambient noise free from the scratching sound of your pen (which does affect recordings made with the internal mic), but you won't be able to use it to record phone conversations. The proprietary 3D headset has this major advantage: due to the positioning of its stereo mics, it's excellent at recording both sides of a phone meeting without having to resort to speakerphone. The Pulse came bundled with just such a headset, but if you're ever likely to annotate a phone meeting then count on spending that extra score.
As for the oversized quill itself, it's around 14mm in diameter at the point where you grip it, and it feels a bit like a chunky permanent marker with a slightly rubbery coating. It's easy enough to hold if you have big hands, and this author used it to write 10 pages of notes without having cause to grumble. But be advised: another Engadget editor with smaller hands only managed a couple of pages before it started to grate.
A quick word on battery life: if you remember to switch the pen off, and also to disable WiFi when you don't need it, the pen should last for a couple of weeks between charges. Our pen was still at 30 percent capacity after 10 days, during which time we used it to record about 20 pages of notes and an hour of audio across multiple sessions.
Imagine this: You attend a meeting or lecture, and for once it's actually quite interesting. You don't want to spend your whole time scribbling notes, because that'd get in the way of actually paying attention. So you switch on your Sky pen, tap "record" on a page and then only jot down the occasional keyword. When the meeting is over, you tether the pen to your phone's internet connection and hit the Sync button. Then you promptly forget about everything that just happened.
Six months later, while you're lying on a beach in American Samoa, it suddenly dawns on you that something pivotal was said at that meeting -- you know, er, what was it? -- something about pomegranates. Your Livescribe notepad and pen are at your office a million miles away, but it doesn't matter. You jog back to the hotel, hook your phone or tablet up to WiFi in the lobby and search your Evernote app for "pomegranate" and, boom, there it is. You tap the note and listen back to exactly what the fruit expert told you. Problem solved.
Well, almost. In fact there are quite a few steps involved in making this happen, and they might not all be to your liking. For starters, there's the pen's own interface, which takes some getting used to. On the face of it, it's fast and powerful -- you can quickly check your storage status, change audio recording quality if you need to start conserving space and even create a lag in the time-linking if you always tend to write a few seconds after the conversation switches to a new subject. But as you'll see from our video review above, it's the syncing part that's the weak link, because too often the pen fails to show you the right information.
The Sky pen often fails to alert you to problems with your connection.
In particular, the Sky pen often fails to alert you to problems with your connection. People on the move are bound to encounter weak connections with public hotspots or tethering, but the pen often pretends everything is okay when it actually isn't -- it just goes on forever saying that it's "syncing" with no indication of progress. On occasion, it'll wrongly say it's connected to a network, with a big "tick" shown beside the SSID, and then the tick will be replaced by a "question mark" when you try to sync.
When your notes are finally in the cloud, you'll also have to deal with Evernote and the Livescribe player. For a start, Evernote's OCR is pretty shocking, even when applied to relatively neat handwriting. The video above shows a typical failed search for some words (like "Engadget" and "review") which had just been written, and which -- even if the most recent note hadn't yet fully synced during the filming -- were repeated in other, older notes and so should have been found. In the end, OCR only worked with any reliability on words in block caps. Matters would be vastly improved if Evernote made suggestions (i.e., "could this be the word you're looking for?").
Moreover, handwriting and audio are filed into separate notebooks in Evernote and are only recombined when you click on a particular note. This launches a new tab or browser window showing Livescribe's own cloud player, which gets the job done -- you can click on individual words to hear the relevant fragments of audio -- but it's basic and kind of ugly, especially on a smartphone. Since Livescribe and Evernote are partners, and Evernote's logo is all over the Sky smartpen's packaging, it feels like the software could have been better integrated.
None of these issues are deal-breakers, because in the end the pen always ends up completing its primary goal -- you're notes will appear in Evernote eventually, and you'll be able to locate them one way or another. It's also likely that future firmware updates will improve matters significantly -- in fact, the first update we received seemed to remove a couple of visual glitches we had seen earlier on. However, it's worth remembering that there are other, more consistent ways of achieving the same or at least similar end results.
What are those options? Well, there's the Echo Smartpen, which requires docking but at least functions in the same reliable manner every time. And it deserves to be reiterated that, if you were able to leave aside pen and paper, you'd be able to achieve all of this at a much lower cost. In fact, if you happened to own an HTC One Series smartphone you'd get it free -- because the excellent pre-installed Notes app can time-link writing and audio in just the same way, and automatically sync the data with Evernote. Finally, you could just take a laptop or decently-sized tablet to a meeting and put words and audio directly into the note-taking app of your choice -- although this wouldn't necessarily give you any time-linking between the two types of media.
No matter how much we complain about the Sky's price or imperfect UI, it's nonetheless a genuinely useful product. For those who prefer to write with ink and paper, but who want to preserve and organize their notes in the cloud, it offers a simplified workflow that no other product can match. The most intense rivalry actually comes from Livescribe's other product, the Echo. If you're an organized person who doesn't mind a few extra steps, and if you're confident you'll never forget to carry your pen everywhere, then be quick: snap up a $120 Echo before it's too late. If you already own an Echo or the older Pulse pen, think twice before upgrading to the Sky, because you might miss the reassuring nature of your old docking habits, even if they were sometimes inconvenient. The Sky's wireless syncing is a nice feature, but it's not a game-changer.
Then again, if you're less than impeccably organized, and you're still convinced the Sky smartpen could fit in with the way you work day-to-day, then you shouldn't be afraid to take the $170 leap. You may have to deal with a few syncing hiccups on occasion, but perhaps that's better than needing to carry a USB cable and laptop, or remembering to dock the pen to a PC. Funnily enough, during the course of writing the review, this editor lost his notebook -- likely it was misplaced at a recent Nikon launch -- but he was saved by the smartpen, which had already uploaded his notes about the new Nikon camera to Evernote's servers. It's hard to put a price on things like that.