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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Taking Notes With The Livescribe Echo


This post isn’t about anything new, but I get asked about this every time I use it so I thought I would write about it. For the past two years I’ve been using the excellent Livescribe Echo recording pen to record my class lectures. I’m a painfully slow writer and I often just can’t keep up with what professor is saying as I furiously try to take notes. The Livescribe Echo has allowed me to take far fewer notes and concentrate to a much greater degree on what is being said in class. It does this by recording every pen stroke I make on paper, as well as capturing every sound that is made as I write. After class, I can transfer the recording to my PC and watch myself taking notes as I listen to the lecture at the same time. I can skip ahead to any point, or even play it back at 2x speed (yes people will sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks if you do the latter).

How does it accomplish this voodoo?


The Echo smartpen has an infrared camera in the tip, just above the rollerball of the ink cartridge. This camera records the passage of micro dots on specially designed dot paper as the pen is moved across it. At the middle of the pen’s body is a microphone that is capturing all of the audio as well. This gets dumped onto the internal memory which can store hundreds and hundreds of hours of recorded audio and notes. The recording time will vary by model (2, 4, or 8GB) and recording quality, but any model will easily hold enough to make it through a semester of classes. The 8GB model that I use is so capacious that I could probably store a year of classes on it.

The infrared camera is visible just above the ballpoint tip. 

Another great feature of the pen is that it has a built in speaker. At any point, I can tap the tip of the pen to a word I have written on the paper and hear the audio (from the point I wrote that word) played back directly from the pen’s speaker. As long as the audio file is still in the memory of the pen, I can even play back audio recorded weeks or months ago.

The same dot paper used to record my pen strokes, has controls that allow me to start and stop recordings, change pen settings, check the time and date, or even perform calculations by using a calculator printed on the inside cover of my notebook. All actions that I take, as well general status messages about the pen, are displayed on a small OLED display at the top of the pen (seen in the title image above).  Take a look at some of the controls below. If you look carefully in the first image, you can see the micro dots used by the pen to record your strokes.

Pen controls printed right on the dot paper

Calculator embedded in notebook cover

The feature I love the most is the ability to archive all of my written notes and the audio associated with them to an Adobe PDF file. I can then store this file for future reference (I throw them up on Google Drive) or even distribute certain pages to sick classmates that missed a lecture. It wouldn’t be ethical for me to post a professor’s lecture on here, but click here to download an example of a file I recorded just for this purpose. Note: You will need the latest version of Adobe Acrobat Reader to play the embedded audio. Download Acrobat Reader here.  You can also see/hear other “Pencasts” that people have uploaded to Livescribe Online here, or even play them back on your iOS device with the Pencast Player app.

As with any cool piece of tech, there are caveats. In my opinion however, they are all worth it for the benefit I get from it. Here is a list of some caveats that come to mind:

  • The Livescribe Echo is expensive, and certainly a heck of a lot more expensive than a standard pen. At the time of this writing, the price varies from $115 to $130 depending on the model. I recommend the 8GB model here.
  • Special paper is required for the pen to work its magic. A single notebook runs about $5 (buy a 4 pack here). On the bright side, I write so much less that I can use a single notebook for up to four classes.
  • The ink cartridges are small, hard to change out, easy to lose, and don’t last as long as a normal pen (they’re only 2 inches long). I strongly recommend carrying a spare in your bag. Spares are available in a 5 pack for $5 here.
  • The cap is very easy to lose. So easy in fact that they sell spares of that too. It isn't strictly necessary though if you lose it.
  • The microphone is very sensitive. While that can be great for capturing the professor’s words, it will also pick up every pen stroke, page turn, and shuffle of your hands.
  • It needs to be charged. Who remembers to charge their pen? I typically see mine at about 50-70% power remaining after 4 hours of use. I've never really run it dry though. My solution is after every class session, I plug it into my PC to upload the files and let it sit there for a while to charge.
  • You can export files for easy sharing using Livescribe Online, but they only give you 500MB of space with no way to increase it (at the moment). Instead, I use Google Drive or Dropbox.  
  • Exported files can be large. I mentioned above how great it can be to archive entire classes worth of audio, but keep in mind a 25 hour recording can be 300MB or more when saved to PDF.  
  • This is really a fat pen. I love svelte pens and this is certainly not svelte by any sense of the imagination. It is amongst the chunkiest of pens I have ever used. It may take you a while to adjust to writing with it.
  • Lastly, people can react with offense to being recorded. For that reason, I haven’t mentioned using this in the office. In most business settings, I have found people to be too sensitive to the idea of being recorded, so I don’t use it there. Even in class some professors may not wish to be recorded. I haven’t had an issue there so far, but I always avoid pointing out that I am using one of these lest the professor ask me to stop.


Wow, that’s a lot of caveats right? Keep in mind once again that a bullet point stating simply, “it lets me digitally record all of my notes and class lectures for playback at any time,” might not seem like much, but to me that outweighs all of the negatives. Some of you might be thinking that you can just use your smartphone or tablet as a recording device. Yes you can, but I feel that the addition of written text in conjunction with the audio makes the Livescribe shine far brighter.

One more thing to note is that the Echo was released in the Summer of 2010. That means it is ripe for replacement at any time. Personally I am hoping they will make it thinner with a retractable tip so I don’t have to worry about losing the cap.

I’ll leave you with a video about the Echo’s predecessor, the Pulse, that still conveys many of the great features shared by both of these pens: