Livescribe Echo Smartpen review

Price when reviewed

The launch of the Echo ushers in the next phase for Livescribe’s Smartpen technology, bringing with it significant upgrades to both the Desktop software suite and the firmware for all the pens in the range. So while the Echo itself is not much more than a sensible reworking of the original Pulse, it’s the obvious partner to the new features on offer.

Livescribe has listened to feedback from Pulse owners, so the Echo has a tweaked shape: it’s thinner and rubberised, with a flat underside to stop it rolling off your desk, uses a standard 3.5mm jack for headphones, and has a micro-USB port rather than the old docking station. All are welcome improvements, as is the addition of a much-needed lid to put an end to pocket stains. The capacity has also been upped to 8GB, which Livescribe claims will hold 800 hours of audio.

It’s compatible with existing Livescribe notepads and paper, and a quick look on Amazon shows various pads ranging from £10 for four flip pads to £18 for a pair of hardbound journals. Yes, the costs will mount if you put the Echo to serious use over a three-year university course, but you can always print your own dot paper using any 600dpi PostScript-compatible colour laser if needs must.

Every page features the necessary quick buttons – icons and words that control the pen with a simple tap of the nib. So tap the ‘Nav Plus’ to navigate the Echo’s on-pen menu or tap the record icon to begin writing and recording linked audio. Used simply, it provides a complete audiovisual recording of a lecture or meeting, so you needn’t scribble every tiny detail to the detriment of your concentration.

Load it up on your PC afterwards and you can click anywhere on your digitised handwriting to bring up the audio recorded at the corresponding moment. Better still, keep your courses organised in the newly customisable folders and it becomes a search repository – yes, your handwritten notes are searchable, effectively indexing your entire course. As long as you’re not an incomprehensible scrawler it’s revision heaven, particularly for more complex courses involving formulae and diagrams.

LiveScribe Echo Smartpen

But it’s also far more than that. Livescribe Desktop can now do some pretty impressive things with your recordings, from moving them to 500MB of free cloud storage and optionally sharing them with the community (there are some odd things on there), to sending an interactive Flash “pencast” to a friend by email. Right now they receive a link and need to download LiveScribe Desktop to view the pencast, but that will be rectified in the coming months with an update allowing for pencast PDFs – effectively the full interactive pencast viewable in Adobe Reader.

It’s one of several key features in the pipeline. An iPhone (and presumably iPad) app is on the way, allowing you to view and interact with your pencasts on the move, and eventually Livescribe plans to let you use the notebook like an input tablet for Photoshop. Shorter term, you’ll soon be able to send your notes to email and the likes of Facebook or (intriguingly) Evernote, simply by drawing the new “launch line” on the page and writing “send” above it. This already works with the existing functions, so write ‘piano’ to play the built-in instrument on the page, or write the name of a downloaded app to fire it up.

The app store is an interesting accomplishment for Livescribe, as we have to admit we were sceptical of it when we first used the Pulse. It’s still not exactly awash with must-have apps, but there are some very useful ones, such as the Spanish dictionary that translates your writing, and quirky ones, such as the guitar app which has you strumming a drawn six-string to play chords. There are also a few we didn’t expect, such as one (rated “M” for mature, incredibly) which talks naughty to you – it seems it isn’t just smartphone app stores that get their share of tat.

There are areas for improvement, though. Our main gripe is with the online component of the Desktop software, which is painfully slow, poorly laid out (there isn’t even a Back button) and, as yet, has too few users for the rating system to help you find the good stuff. Right now the Top Rated section is dominated by five-star religious sermons, while some genuinely fascinating academia sits buried in pages of unrated files with no preview facility.

Aside from that we love the whole idea of the Smartpen, and there’s no doubt the Echo, with its nicer design and higher capacity, is the best one yet. As it stands, however, the fact that the now-£84 exc VAT 2GB Pulse gets all of the same current software upgrades means we’re not convinced we’d pay the steep £153 exc VAT price for the Echo. The older pen has become the real bargain.

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