For a lot of people, there's no substitute for taking notes with a pen and piece of paper. You can draw, annotate, write, and organize your information in a real notebook. The problem comes when you want to get some of that information into a computer, at which time you usually have to transcribe your handwritten notes and then try to recreate your drawings or scan them. Well, the Equil Smartpen 2 (US$169, pre-order on Indiegogo) wants to change all that by giving you a comfortable ballpoint pen that captures all of your writing and sketching on plain paper, moving it to either a Mac app (Equil Note, free) or one of several free iOS apps (Equil Note HD for iPad, Equil Note for iPhone, Equil Sketch HD for iPad, and Equil Sketch for iPhone.
The Equil Smartpen 2 reminds me of some pens that I've received as handout promotional items ... and I mean that in a good way. It's triangular in shape, wider than your usual "stick ballpoint pen", and has a good feel to it. The point where your fingers hold the pen is made of a translucent white plastic that tapers down to the pressure sensitive tip, while the rest of the body is made of a white plastic.
Looking close up at the pen, you notice several things that clue you to the fact that this is not just a plastic pen. There's a small grey rectangular button on one side, and near the top you'll find a glowing white LED and a pair of charging contacts.
The entire pen fits into what's called a "Charging Cradle and Convenience Case" that holds not only the charger for the device, but the receiver for the pen. That receiver is a small 3-inch long rectangular box that slides out like a drawer from the charging cradle. Folding around the triangular charging cradle is a magnetically-secured cover similar to Apple's Smart Covers. There's even a pop-out cap for the pen, which should help the pens last longer as they won't dry out.
It's a very attractive package. Equil will be selling the devices singly or in two-packs; we received a two-pack (two pens) for the review.
For me, the real test of the Equil Smartpen 2 was going to be on how well it worked. I've tried a lot of "smart pens" over the years, and to be honest I was pretty skeptical about how well this device would capture text and sketches.
My first test was with my iMac, which is running OS X Yosemite beta. Upon pulling the little receiver out of the charging cradle, I noticed a previously hidden switch for setting modes. It has three positions: one marked with the Bluetooth symbol for shutting off Bluetooth and just capturing pen motion with the pen alone, one marked "Other" for Mac OS X, Windows, and Android, and another marked iOS.
The receiver is clipped to the top of the page of whatever you're writing on. If you happen to be using something like a Field Notes notebook or Moleskine, you can just clip it to the page, write and draw, turn the page, and clip it onto the top of that page. That receiver is able to determine the bounds of the page and tells you when you're getting too close to the top or the bottom by flashing a red light. I believe it's using some sort of infrared connection with the pen, as there is a function in the Mac app to determine if you're getting either radio frequency or infrared interference.
Pairing the device to my Mac was simple - it just required holding down a power button until a tiny blue LED flashed, then using the OS X System Preferences to complete the pairing. At that point, I fired up the Equil Note app.
The app design is flat and very "Yosemite-like", with individual documents combined in collections. The piece of paper you're writing on is represented by a blank piece of "paper", and there are on-screen buttons for changing the ink width and color, switching between a pen, brush and highlighter, selecting or "lassoing" a section of transcribed writing or drawing in order to delete or move it, a tool for typing notes or annotations onto the page from your Mac keyboard, a tool for grabbing a small photo of yourself to insert into the notes, and another tool for selecting the color of virtual paper you want to write on.
For any note, you can add as many pages as you want. You can select the paper size (Letter, A4, A5, B5, B6 or custom), add tags to a note, name the note, or share it with a number of services.
Equil Note has built-in integration to Evernote, and devices can be synched via either Dropbox or iCloud as well. One interesting in-app purchase for Equil Note is the addition of handwriting recognition packages for a number of languages. Those packs run $5.99 each, or all languages can be installed for a single $19.99 purchase.
I did seem to have some issues with getting the receiver to stay paired and connected with my iMac - I'm not sure if that's an issue with OS X Yosemite or if the app just isn't happy with my Mac, but twice I had to eliminate a pairing and re-pair to get things working again.
After trying out the Mac app for a while, I switched over to the iPhone version of Equil Note to give it a try. It's similar, and the app is very well done. I actually had an easier time getting the iPhone app to pair with the device and then connect to the app then I did with the Mac app, but both worked equally well, providing almost instantaneous "reflection" of my writing and drawing on the screen of the Mac and the iPhone.
What I was able to ascertain during my testing of the Equil Smartpen 2 is that it works, and it works very well. Most of the other devices I've tried either required expensive special paper, had a pen that didn't actually write on the piece of paper, or were so slow in transmitting the pen strokes to the computer or device that they were worthless. Not so with the Equil Smartpen 2.
One thing I really find to be useful is that you can shut off the Bluetooth connection altogether and just capture your writing with the pen and receiver. Later, when you're near an iPad, iPhone or Mac (or those other devices...), you can sync up the receiver to them and transfer the captured writing to your computer for sharing.
I was not able to test the handwriting recognition, so I don't have any idea of the accuracy of the software that's used. There are some gestures that can be turned on in the software to make your life a bit easier; one lets your double-tap the wake button on the pen to get a new blank page started, while two others let you navigate back and forth between pages by holding down the button and circling the pen clockwise or counterclockwise.
Right now, as part of the Indiegogo funding campaign, you can get an Equil Smartpen 2 for $60 off of the regular retail price of $169. For $109, you're getting a single pen with the very cool charging/receiver dock. They also have a $199 special that gets you the 2-pack, so you'll always have a pen charged up and ready to write. By the way, the pen is supposed to last about 8 hours on a charge.
The Equil Smartpen 2 is the first pen-to-computer input device that I'd actually consider purchasing. Between the well-designed and implemented hardware and the incredibly well-done Mac and iOS apps, it's obvious that a lot of hard work and thought went into the creation of this accessory. There are a few small annoyances with Bluetooth pairing that should get fixed, but otherwise, this is a solid product right out of the starting gate.
Rating: 3-1/2 stars out of 4 stars possible