What’s missing from your collection of smart-ified things? You already have a battery-powered book and wallet? How about your pen? I thought not.

LiveScribe will be happy to remedy that problem for you. And while it may sound a bit silly to stick batteries in a pen, the LiveScribe Echo Smartpen is a pretty cool tool, even if it comes with some notable drawbacks.

What the LiveScribe Echo does

The Echo’s killer feature is its ability to tie recorded audio to written notes. It does other stuff, too, like you can draw a piano and play notes by tapping on the “keys.” This may be fun for prolonged settlement negotiations, but it’s just entertainment.

When you click the record button, the pen records what you hear and tracks what you are writing at the same time. Then, you can play back what you were hearing at the moment you were writing something just by tapping the word on the page. So, for example, you might be looking over your notes and see “Follow up RE [illegible].” If you go get your smartpen and tap those words, the Echo will play back what you were hearing as you wrote them (you can fast-forward and rewind, of course).

Since you are recording audio, you can even get lazy. While taking notes on a conversation with a client, I stopped writing down any of the substance of our conversation and just put a check mark on the page with a few keywords whenever we were discussing something I thought I might want to review later.

The included software basically backs up the pen and extends its storage. Plus, it (optionally) syncs your notes to the cloud (like pretty much everything does, these days). When you sync up your pen, you get a copy of your notes, plus the audio recording that goes with them. You can click on the page with your mouse cursor to access specific parts of the recording just like you can tap the page in your notebook with the pen.

What I like about the LiveScribe Echo

The LiveScribe Echo is kind of like that scanning mouse I reviewed, meaning it sounds goofy, but turns out to be so well done that, after a few minutes of playing with it, you just stop and giggle at how amazing technology can be. I mean, there are flaws (keep reading), but the Echo is just an amazing gadget. It can perfectly replicate everything you write and connect it to what you hear, and it’s still just a slightly-larger-than-normal pen. Plus, it’s a calculator, toy piano, and more. That’s pretty amazing.

Plus, it works exactly as advertised. Just pull it out of the box and go. You don’t even need to install the software until you run out of storage on the pen, which you won’t for a while, because each gigabyte of storage is good for about 100 hours. In other words, with the 8 GB unit I reviewed, I could record 8 hours each weekday for nearly four months before running out of room.

The camera (aided by the special paper, I assume) records your writing with astonishing accuracy. I really didn’t expect it to work nearly so well. And there is no need to scan your notes, because they are being scanned as you make them. When you do sync up your pen with the software, you get your notes, reproduced exactly as you made them, along with the audio.

So, what good is it? As someone who often looks at my notes and wishes I included more detail, the LiveScribe is really useful. With it, I can take notes as I usually do, and get more detail if I need it. Remember just how your client characterized her emotional distress at your first meeting? Or how the witness explained why he didn’t notice the stop sign? If you used the Echo to record the meeting or the testimony, you could easily find just what was said. (Of course, recording things creates some issues, which I will talk more about below.)

What I didn’t like about the LiveScribe Echo

You could infer from the lack of competition in the smart writing instrument sector that there is not a lot of demand for smartpens. I don’t think that is because everyone is just ignorant of the life-changing properties of smartpens. No, there are some very real downsides.

First, the price. The LiveScribe 8 GB Echo Smartpen Pro Pack I reviewed runs just under $180. The basic 4 GB Echo is about $118. You can get a pretty nice dumbpen for those prices — and it won’t run out of batteries.

About those batteries. I’m not worried so much about running out, but about the size and weight they add to the pen. The weight is not well-distributed, first of all. Worse, the Echo — especially the grip — is just too fat. Not only is it too fat, but the ballpoint is off-center to give the camera room to see what’s going on. All in all, writing with the Echo feels sort of like writing with one of those comically large colored pencils you get at the fair.

Living with the LiveScribe requires some hoop-jumping, too. If you want to use its fancy features, you have to buy special paper. While the prices are not exorbitant, you can’t just pick it up at Target along with your toiletries. Oh, and LiveScribe doesn’t make any legal-style pads.

Finally, you probably can’t use the LiveScribe’s best feature, the ability to tie recorded audio to your notes, in the place where it would be most useful: court. Not without permission from the court, anyway. Of course, you might not want to use a smartpen to record client meetings, either, as that would create a piece of evidence. Even if it is protected from disclosure in most cases, that might be a headache you don’t want. Same goes for board meetings, where the attorney-client privilege is not always so clear. That basically leaves depositions, and even there, your state laws may require you to get permission from everyone before you start recording things.

In other words, recording without explicit permission can be a minefield, and that’s the biggest problem with a smartpen. Do you really want to go around asking permission to record all the time? You realize how creepy that will sound, right?


LiveScribe Echo Smartpen

Reviewed by Sam Glover on .

Summary: The LiveScribe Echo Smartpen is a pretty cool tool, even if it comes with some notable drawbacks.

Score: 4 (out of 5)