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Pens in a Digital Age

New Accessories for Digital Note-Taking

By Jay Zeffren

Even as technology advances, it's generally accepted that media don't really become extinct -- they evolve. Radio, newspapers, and television have all changed radically over the course of their respective lifetimes, often in response to the threat of becoming obsolete. Now that everyone is carrying around smartphones and netbooks, pens and paper are in a similar predicament.

Livescribe 2GB Pulse SmartpenThe Livescribe 2GB Pulse Smartpen brings ink and paper to the digital age as a clever feature-filled gadget. Designed primarily with students in mind, the pen uses an infrared sensor built into the tip and specialized paper to record every note you take on the pen's on-board memory. You can then connect the Livescribe pen to your computer and all the stored notes will be available for organizing, editing, and clarifying.

The Livescribe pen also has a built-in microphone, letting you record lectures as you're taking notes. The noise-cancelling design makes for clearer recordings, and an integrated headphone port along with the packaged 3D-recording headphones lets you make sure that the pen is catching every word of the lecture.

The Livescribe paper has printed virtual "buttons" that provide the pen's interface. Touching them with the tip of the pen begins and ends recording. Pressing the tip to a line of notes you took plays back the segment of the lecture that was recorded as you took that note. This provides effective and intelligent syncing between your notes and recording. You can listen to the audio through the headphones or over the pen's built-in speaker.

The pen's USB cradle lets you connect to a computer to recharge the battery, and transfer your notes and recordings. The cradle is also used for simple, clean ink cartridge replacement.

For those who don't want to be tethered to a particular type of paper, an alternative is the Iogear Digital Scribe USB Digital Pen System for Windows. It comes with a sensor that you clip to the top of any paper, and connects to the computer via extendable USB cable. As you write, your markings appear on your computer screen. You can also switch to mouse mode and use the pen as a pointer device, so you don't have to continually drop the pen to use a mouse.

While it does free you from a particular type of paper, the Digital Scribe is limited in that it has to be actively connected to a computer in order to work. The Mobile Digital Scribe, however, can store notes on the go. A simple press of a button will start a new page of notes in the on-board memory. When you connect to a computer, the notes will be transferred over for you to organize and edit.

Digital Scribe USB Digital Pen

Mobile Digital Scribe USB Digital Pen

Both the Digital Scribe and its mobile counterpart come with MyScript Notes Lite OCR handwriting recognition software. The software will convert handwritten notes made with either device into fully selectable, editable text. The software supports handwriting recognition for twelve languages, including English, Traditional/Simplified Chinese, French, Spanish, Dutch, Italian, German, Portuguese, Swedish, Korean, Japanese, and Russian.

The packaged OCR software is meant for those using the handwriting recognition casually. If you're planning on using it more consistently, you can also purchase the Digital Scribe with Full Version OCR Software that includes extended language recognition and more accurate handwriting recognition.

The Livescribe and Digital Scribe products are primarily useful for personal note-taking, but the Canson Infinity PaperShow uses the same idea and applies it to presentations. The USB dongle plugs into a computer and communicates with the pen via Bluetooth, so as you write on the PaperShow paper all of your notes appear instantly on-screen.

Canson PaperShow Starter Kit
Canson Infinity PaperShow

PowerPoint presentations and other documents can be printed on PaperShow paper, and as they're being displayed on a plasma or projector screen to a meeting, notes you take on the printouts will be seen by all in real-time. Highlight and underline points you want to stress, or make annotations as people contribute ideas.

Another bonus of digital note taking in meetings is that the notes you take can be stored and sent by email to meeting participants after the presentation is done, giving everyone access to all the latest information.

For all the ways smartphones, PDAs, and netbooks make everyday life more convenient, they will never erase the pen, especially since there are enough options that combine the convenience of digital storage and presentation with the comfort, control, and freedom provided by pen and paper.


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