Unveiled to the press a couple of weeks ago under conditions of strictest secrecy was the Sky Pen, the latest addition to Livescribe’s stable of recording writing implements. The lid comes off the product today, so now I’m free to tell you about it.
Just as well I wasn’t allowed to talk last week. Because as a keen user of the earlier Livescribe offerings I was disappointed to the point where I saw this as the beginning of the end for the company. Yes, it was that bad. Livescribe, Deadscribe.
The new Sky pen is the same form-factor as the earlier Echo
I didn’t start out with such negative thoughts. The launch demo showed us that the new Sky pen – in shape and size identical to the earlier Echo, even down to the ridiculously loseable pill-sized pen cap – ticks a feature box we Livescribe users had been missing ever since we first picked up the original Pulse pen nearly five years ago. Instead of a clunky USB cable to upload the audio and ink data the pen has collected, the Sky uses WiFi. You still need a cable to charge the pen’s internal battery about once a day with normal use. But other than that, the pen’s a free agent, syncing automatically over the air to your personal central repository.
If you’ve never used one of these things you’re probably wondering what all the fuss is about. Imagine you’re sitting in a lecture, or interviewing a celeb, or taking notes in a business meeting. You scribble away trying to keep up, and later when you try to untangle the sense of your scrawl you find yourself wishing you’d brought some kind of audio recorder with you. Next time you turn up with notepad and recorder and come away with a scrawl and a long audio recording with some useful sections in it if only you knew where to find them. What you want is some way of making your handwritten notes an index into the audio recording.
You could look at your watch and jot down a timestamp every now and again. Or you could slap down a hundred quid or so and get yourself a pen with a built in microphone, the ability to record not just audio but also every penstroke you make, and — here’s the killer feature — synchronise the two. That is Livescribe’s USP.
The ink image in the Livescribe Web app. Green ink indicates associated audio
Earlier versions of the pen connected to your PC or Mac by way of an application called Livescribe Desktop. This handled USB transfers between the pen and computer, and also offered a useful way of organising all your Livescribe data. You could pop up an image of a page of scribble, move the mouse cursor to some point on the page, and have the computer play back the audio recorded at that point in time. A mouse and screen combination working more or less the same way as the Livescribe pen and its specially patterned paper.
The company later offered an extension in the form of a separate app, that could relay the data up to the Cloud – to Evernote or Google Drive, for instance. Another very valuable feature, added last year, was the ability to create Adobe PDF “pencasts” that would allow anybody with the latest version of Adobe Reader to play back combined audio/ink data in the same way as Livescribe Desktop.
This suite of capabilities around the Pulse and Echo versions of the pen was less than perfect, but it worked well enough, and rewarded the effort needed to master and tailor it. You might have expected – we did expect – any new version of the pen to build on this. A WiFi pen that connected into the Livescribe desktop without the need for a USB cable would have been a natural next step.
But it wasn’t to be.
Top to bottom: The new Sky; the Echo; the original Pulse. At the very top is what I’ve described as the “pill-sized” pen cap, which fits the Sky and the Echo.
I can only think that the same person who designed the utterly daft pen cap (two come in the box, so they must know you’re bound to lose them) was responsible for the change in the accompanying software suite. I say “change” – actually what they’ve done is get rid of it altogether. Now there’s no way of organising the pen’s data on your PC or laptop. Connected directly to the Internet by WiFi, the data is swept straight up to Evernote, and you have to rely on Evernote’s features to manage it. Unfortunately Evernote can only display the ink page or play back the audio – it doesn’t implement the pen’s crucial function of being able to sync the two.
Livescribe kluges round this by getting Evernote to transfer the audio and ink data to a Web application. In Chrome it works well; in Firefox it struggles to maintain sync between audio and ink. In Internet Explorer it fails to work altogether.
I’m a Cloud fan — I’ve been using Google Docs and Evernote for several years now. But the Cloud has its limitations, as this new Livescribe implementation makes clear. If you want to transcribe a interview, for example, you need the audio and your handwritten notes on a local machine. The earlier Pulse and Echo pens put the data there, under the control of Livescribe Desktop. The new Sky pen sends it all straight up to the Cloud, where Evernote ponders on it for an indefinite length of time (doing clever stuff, admittedly, like create an ASCII index into however much it’s able to discern of your scrawl) before syncing it down again to your computer.
The WiFi symbol (below) animates when the pen is looking for a network, and stabilises when it’s able to attach to one. The question mark shows failure to connect. But behind the scenes the pen’s still trying.
The complete dependence on WiFi is a distinct Achilles heel. There’s no way at the moment (it’s a feature promised for next year) of transferring data across the USB cable that comes in the box. But WiFi can be dodgy, especially when a low-powered version is crammed into a small device. I found the Sky reluctant at times to hook up to my WiFi access points, while my laptops and tablets were having no problem at all. One limitation I found is that – in common with a lot of US products – the Sky pen only does 2.4GHz on channels 1 to 11. A wireless access point on Channels 12 or 13 will be invisible to it. Worse still, if your access point is set to hop among channels looking for the best one, as many do by default, it could be mysteriously only intermittently visible.¹
Livescribe is working on these bugs and niggles, and a firmware update issued just a day before today’s official launch, has smoothed off some of the rougher edges. The pen is useable, and good to use. But in practical terms I’ll probably be sticking to the previous USB-tethered Echo pen until Livescribe’s software comes up to speed.
for official details, spec and UK prices see: http://www.livescribe.com/uk
¹ This was only true of the Sky pen in the UK running the English firmware, which made the assumption the device was being used in the US. A subsequent firmware update has fixed this for UK users.