My Personal and Professional Love Affair With My Echo Smart Pen

The Livescribe Smart PenCredit: Peter Samis Flickr Creative Commons

About a year ago I was asked by my boss if I was interested in using a smart pen for taking notes.  Being a gadget geek and never one to turn away from new technologies (especially when they are free), I accepted.  I was presented with a set of three black spiral notebooks and a black pen that said “echo” on the front and “8GB” on the back.  I was intrigued.  Then, I was given a short introduction to the features.  I was hooked.  My love affair with Livescribe had begun.

The tagline on Livescribe’s website says “Interactive notes on the go”.  What the heck does that mean?  Let me go over this, feature by feature:

Audio recorder

The first thing I noticed about the Echo Smart Pen was the tiny speaker in the middle of the pen.  There is also a tiny microphone just above the speaker.  This enables the pen to record audio while jotting down notes.  This is incredibly useful for taking minutes during meetings, which is one of the main ways I use it for work.  Every word is remembered and nothing is missed.  The pen can also play back the audio, either through its speaker or through the headphone jack at the top of the pen.

Sure, recording audio is cool, but is that it?  Not by a long shot.

Smart pen = Camera pen

Livescribe Pen CameraCredit: Anoto AB Flickr Creative CommonsThe Echo not only records audio, it records your writing.  It can reproduce exactly what you draw or write, bad handwriting and all, on your computer.  How the heck can it do this?  There is a tiny camera at the bottom of the pen, adjacent to its tip.  This camera “sees” what you write and records it.  When I first started to grasp this idea I had to pause… for a long time.  How could it reproduce each distinct page with a single, tiny camera?  Read on.

Teeny tiny dots

Tiny dots of the Livescribe notebookCredit: colin.jagoe Flickr Creative CommonsThe other half of the Livescribe system is its notebooks.  If you look really closely you’ll see extremely tiny dot patterns covering the pages.  They are hardly noticeable at normal distance, but a magnifying glass will make them more distinct.  Each page has a unique dot pattern.  The pen’s camera can tell precisely where it is on a specific page by picking up these dots.  I would go more deeply into this fascinating process, but that is about as much as I understand.  All I know is it works really, really well.

Livescribe Command ButtonsCredit: fishgirl7 Flickr Creative CommonsCommand button diagrams are present at the bottom of the pages, including commands to record, pause, stop and bookmark.  Placing the tip of the smart pen on one of these diagrams causes the command to be executed.  Pressing the record button begins the audio recording.  The pen can simultaneously record the audio and what is written.  The result is what is called a pencast.


A pencast is a digital version of your notes.  Playing back a pen cast allows you to see your notes come to life as they were written and recorded.  On your computer screen you are be able to see the notes being written as the audio is played.  Clicking on any point of the written notes will jump the audio to the exact time when that particular note was being jotted down.  Also, additional notes can be jotted down as the audio plays so you can have a more complete set of written notes.

Livescribe Connect

The Echo pen has a USB jack that connects to a computer or laptop and transfers the data, charging the pen as well.  The data is transferred to Livescribe Connect, the desktop software that organizes the notes by notebook, and plays the pen casts.

Livescribe Connect also enables the sharing of pen casts.  Pen cast notes and/or audio can be forwarded via email or shared on platforms such as Facebook, Google Docs, Microsoft OneNote and Evernote.  There is even a smartphone app that allows you to see and hear your pen casts when you are on the go.

My experience

Sketching with the Livescribe Smart PenCredit: aforgrave Flickr Creative CommonsProfessionally I have used my Livescribe pen to create extremely accurate and complete minutes of my weekly project meetings.  They were also very effective at capturing seminars and classes.  Oh, how I wish I had this back in college!

In my personal life I have used Livescribe to create mind maps, make to-do lists, journal, sketch and create art.  I don’t think I have even scratched the surface. 

Good and bad

Besides the great features I have just gone over, other plusses of the Echo smart pen include:

  • Long battery life (I’ve gone over 8 hours of recording before recharging).
  • Ample memory (The 8GB model holds up to 800 hours of audio).
  • Good variety of notebook styles, including mid-sized journals that remind me of Moleskines.

A couple of bads (well, not really bad, just not that good):

  • The ink refills are small and don’t last too long.  They are also not the best quality, as far as writing on the page.
  • The pen is a little bulky (I’m getting nitpicky here).

In Summary

The Livescribe Echo Smart Pen is an awesome digital note-taking and audio recording tool.  Notes come alive with the same audio and handwriting they were taken in.  Meeting minutes, lecture notes, diagrams, sketches and collaborative documents can easily be shared and relived.  It has joined the short list of my cannot-live-without tools for work and for my personal life.