Ever since the first caveman scrawled on a wall with stone, people have been looking for a way to improve the writing process. This eons-long evolution has brought us to the Livescribe Echo—a pen that moves handwriting into the digital domain.
The Echo, which sells for $199 (8 gigabytes) or $169 (4 gigabytes), is the second generation of Livescribe's so-called smartpens. It writes like any other pen. When applied to special paper, however, it digitally captures a precise image of your handwritten notes, sketches, and doodles. It also has a sound recorder for meetings and lectures.
Setup is a breeze. Connect the pen to your computer using a USB cord—accompanying software supports both Windows and Mac OS X—and your uploaded handwritten notes will appear exactly as they did on the page. They'll be arranged in an iTunes-like application called Livescribe Desktop that lets you read, organize, share, and print them. If you were recording sound simultaneously, the page is presented as a "pencast" on your screen with your words highlighted in synchronization with the sound.
Echo has invited third-party developers to create apps. Some of the more than 75 available are useful for composition (a translator), while others are more suited for procrastination (blackjack). I tried the dictionary app, which worked as advertised: Every time I wrote a word, the definition appeared on the pen's tiny display. With the app priced at $15, though, I'd almost rather lug a paperback Webster's.
To save your handwritten pages, the Echo requires paper with a faint pattern of powder-blue dots—a technology developed by Anoto, a Livescribe partner. (The tiny camera below the nib uses those dots as reference points.) Livescribe offers on its site—and at retailers such as Best Buy (BBY)—special notebooks and Moleskine-style bound journals, usually sold in two- and four-packs for between $8 and $25.
Sure, $199 is a lot for a pen—particularly one without a GPS to keep you from losing it. That said, it's a useful tool for doctors, executives, and academics (as well as college students) who still need to write things down. The pen is also handy for tech reviewers who commute. I wrote this column with one. My handwriting was sloppy, but I was amused my scribbles could be digitally preserved for posterity.