The 10 Best Smart Pens – Immediate Analogue to Digital
Forget the easy to lose Cross pens, the overpriced Waterman pens, the even more overpriced Mont Blanc writing instruments.
Sure, they all feel good in your hand and leave a smooth stroke on your high bond paper, but they’re just so last century. If you’re going to spend more than £100 on a pen these days, it’s got to do more than just write. It’s got to be smart.
A Real Luxury Pen
The new luxury pens are smart pens, and it’s an emerging market, as people realise that typing on a laptop or tablet isn’t the best way to take notes. There are many of us who do our best creative thinking when we put pen to paper and scratch out a few points or sketch out our ideas.
Still, we eventually want that information scanned or transcribed into a more usable digital format.
The Apple Pencil for the Apple Pro
Steve Jobs hated the whole idea of creating a stylus pen, declaring it a terrible idea during the first iPhone’s keynote back in 2007, but yet in the 2015 fall keynote, Apple came up with a stylus called the Apple Pencil. It’s not against Jobs’ wish, though, as this stylus would be specifically for the new iPad Pro and not the iPhone.
The Pencil is expected to be released later in November, and though it won’t be on the same platform against ordinary smartpens that have been on the market for years, a shift in demand is expected, and we can’t wait to see how that happens.
The Best Smart Pens – Not a Graphic Tablet
Smart pens are different from the computer tablets that have been out for about 20 years. Those go directly from stylus to screen, whereas smart pens are functioning ink pens; you still get a hard copy of whatever it is you’re writing or drawing.
Another big appeal of the smart pen over graphic tablets is that they feel less like a piece of equipment and more like an ordinary writing implement.
The user experience is very similar to that of a regular old Bic pen. The difference is that instead of just getting a hard copy of whatever it is you’re writing or drawing, you also get a digital version.
Curious about smart pens? Here are the 10 best smart pens for you to consider.
1. Livescribe 3
The user experience of the Livescribe 3 is so smooth, and that’s a big part of why it tops this list and why I consider it one of the best smart pens.
You write your notes, it syncs with your iOS or Android device using BlueTooth LE, and it transcribes everything you put down.
Then, with the swipe of a finger, your handwriting is accurately converted into text, which you can then add to a text document, send in a text message or email, add to your calendar, or whatever.
The Livescribe 3 can also transcribe sketches, though it feels more like a note-taking smart pen rather than a sketching smart pen.
The device also records and plays back voice memos, even syncing the audio with when you wrote down a certain string of words.
The big downside?
You need Livescribe-specific paper; this smart pen doesn’t work on ordinary paper or any other writing surface. So, if you’re the type to jot down notes on scraps or cocktail napkins, your Livescribe 3 won’t pick up on it.
Livescribe is perhaps the biggest name in smart pens, and this is its most impressive and complete offering. It’s also the most expensive, but not by much.
There are two Livescribe 3 editions: the basic for £129.99, and the pro for £169.99. The Pro edition comes with more paper, a leather portfolio, an extra ink cartridge, and a year subscription to Evernote.
To buy more paper for your Livescribe 3, expect to pay around £20 for a four-pack of standard sized notebooks.
- Easy handwriting to text conversion
- Helpful voice memos that sync with writing
- Well regarded name in the smart pen market
- Only works on special Livescribe paper
- Ongoing costs to restock your paper supply
2. Neo N2 Smart Pen
This is a smart pen that looks like a direct competitor to the Livescribe 3. It’s got many of the same features: an ink pen that requires special paper to transcribe to digital, wireless syncing in real time, and handwriting recognition.
The N2 smartpen can also remember what you’ve written and transcribe it later, and it can also directly translate your handwriting into a handful of different languages. Whatever you write or sketch can be saved as a JPEG, PDF, SVG, or text file.
Consistent pressure is the key to successfully using the N2. Keep it even, and it does just fine. Light strokes, however, don’t register as well, making it less than ideal if you’re a sketch artist who uses varied pressure to achieve a certain aesthetic.
It can also sync with Evernote, and there is an audio recording feature, though it’s not as easy to use as the one on the Livescribe 3.
The N2 retails for $169 USD and can be found in the UK for around £160. When you run out of ink, you can buy a standard ink cartridge. Run out of its specialised paper, though, and you’ll pay around £15 for a pack of five notebooks.
- Can transcribe in real time or sync later.
- Several file format options.
- Can record audio memos.
- Only works on special Neo paper
- Ongoing costs to restock your paper supply
- Light strokes don’t register very well
3. Equil Smart Pen 2
This smart pen was an enormous Indiegogo success last fall, raising more than ten times its original goal of $50,000 USD.
It’s easy to see why the Equil Smart Pen 2 did so well, as it’s perhaps the most natural feeling smart pen. It uses regular paper, for starters, using a clip-on receiver to record your writing or sketching.
Handwriting recognition converts what you write directly to editable text, and if you’re a sketch artist, you’ll appreciate the smart pen2’s pressure sensitivity.
All of your work can be saved on the receiver and transferred via BlueTooth. Or, if you want a real time transcription, the smart pen2 can do that as well. It uses standard ballpoint pen cartridges and syncs easily with apps like Dropbox and Evernote.
All of the pieces come together in one convenient case that doubles as a charging cradle, and at £130, it’s very competitively priced. There’s no audio here, and it feels a bit more no-frills than some other offerings, but as an analog to digital conversion pen, the smart pen2 does a great job.
- Uses regular paper
- Impressive pressure sensitivity
- Can transcribe in real time or sync later
- No voice memo feature
- Clip-on receiver can get in your way on small paper
4. Wacom Inkling Digital Sketch Pen
Wacom is one of the more well known names in stylus-based computer tablets, so it makes sense for the company to jump into the smart pen market.
Like the Equil Smart Pen 2, the Wacom Inkling works on normal paper using a clip-on receiver. However, the Inkling is strictly designed for drawing; there’s no handwriting recognition, no text conversion — none of that.
The receiver is small enough so that it’s not intrusive, and you sort of forget about it after a while. It works great as long as there’s nothing obstructing it (like a ruler, for example).
You need to keep your paper size fairly small with the Inkling; it’s probably not a good idea to go larger than letter size, or the infrared transcription signal gets pretty weak.
For standard size sketchbooks, though, it’s perfect. And, with 2 gigs of storage in the receiver, you can sketch a lot before digitising.
No wireless functionality
Once you’re done, you need a USB cable to offload your drawings. The Inkling isn’t wireless, which seems antiquated, and you also need to use Wacom’s proprietary Windows or Mac software (it doesn’t work with a mobile app).
Once your sketches are on your computer, you can save them as vector or high resolution bitmap files and bring them into Illustrator, Photoshop, or Sketchbook Pro.
There are several pieces to the Inkling, but it all comes in a compact case that keeps everything together. It will cost you about £150, and if you’re a serious illustrator who works both on paper and on a computer, it’s a very cool tool to have.
However, if you mainly need to take notes and just scratch out a few rough sketches, this might not be the best smart pen for you.
- Uses regular paper
- Lots of useful features for illustrators
- 2 GB of storage on the receiverPros
- Not wireless!
- Transcription signal weakens on large paper
- No handwriting recognition
5. Moleskine Smart Writing Set
Moleskine is the maker of the blank notebooks and sketchbooks that are so popular with hipsters the world over, and now they’ve got a Smart Writing Set for their uses who are thinking of moving from analog to digital. When you buy the set, you get a Pen+ smartpen, which is actually a Neo smartpen with the Moleskine name on it, a Moleskine tablet of proprietary paper, and an ink tip refill, plus a USB cable to charge it up.
Like other smartpens, the Moleskine Pen+ can digitise your notes, your doodles, your random sketches, and your jottings in real time, thanks to the embedded micro camera that records your every stroke. Once captured, your notes can be transcribed to text, and you can colour in your sketches using the Moleskine Notes app. We should note that this app is available only for iOS for now; Android users need to use the Neo Notes app. Writings and drawings are easy to upload and share on Google, iCloud, Adobe, and EverNote.
Hard Copy Included
One of the big appeals of Moleskine’s Smart Writing Set is that it’s ink-based, so you’ll have your hard copy in a cool and pretty Moleskine notebook, plus a digital copy. The Pen+ can also capture audio, so you can include voice notes with your sketches and such.
The overall design is, of course, lovely and minimal, in keeping with the Moleskine aesthetic that’s made it so popular in the first place. The Pen+ is made of aluminium and is fairly lightweight, so writing is as effortless as it is with an ordinary ink pen. Finally, the battery should give you five hours of use and 125 hours of standby on a single charge.
The Moleskine Smart Writing Set is currently available for pre-order for $199 USD (about £139), with the first units shipping very soon. However, as with other smartpens that require special paper, you’ll need to buy more Moleskine smart tablets for $29.95 (£21) each — more than twice the price of the same size (13cm by 21cm) ordinary Moleskine notebook that you’d probably buy. Still, if you’re a Moleskine fan who’s been wanting to get in on the smartpen action but has been reluctant to do so because it means you’d potentially be giving up your favourite sketchbook, this is a great set. You can go digital and still keep your hipster cred.
- Looks great, feels great, Moleskine cool.
- Ink copy plus digital copy.
- Audio recording capability.
- Needs special paper, which is sort of expensive.
- Essentially a Neo pen, rebranded.
With the Phree (pronounced like “free”) smartpen, you can “make the world your paper,” as their slogan goes. It can, quite literally, write on any surface — paper, wood, the sofa, your arm, whatever — and Phree will record it via compact 3D laser interferometer, the proprietary technology that drives this smartpen.
The app has handwriting recognition for instant transcription, though Phree is also useful for digitising drawings and doodles. However, there’s no ink in it at all, so you won’t get any hard copies of whatever it is you’re writing or sketching; this is strictly digital. What you capture with Phree can easily sync with a number of different apps, like EverNote, Google, and many more.
As a Phone
Phree does more, like act as a phone handset when synced with your mobile device. Yes, you can literally talk into this pen as if it were a phone. There’s also a small screen to see any texts that come through. To text back, just use the Phree to write your reply, then send it.
The pen has an interesting oblonged shape, but it’s still slim and lightweight, so there’s no unnecessary stress on your hand as you write. The battery should last between two and seven days, depending on how much you use it.
Phree is in demand and hotly anticipated: it raised over $1 million USD in crowdfunding campaigns a few months ago. However, like many crowdfunded projects, it’s just a touch behind schedule. Pre-orders are currently being taken, with the pens likely to ship in fall 2016. And, contrary to the way the name sounds, this smartpen isn’t free. The pre-order price is $198 USD (£138), or $249 (£173) with the optional case; those numbers go up to $249 and $299 (£208) once it’s available.
- Writes on any surface and works with lots of apps.
- Works as a phone handset.
- Write to text feature is really cool.
- No hard copy.
- Won’t be able to get your hands on one for at least a few months.
7. HP Pro Slate 12
If you’ve got a fistful of money to spend on a smart pen and you’re also in the market for a corresponding tablet, you’d do very well to consider the HP Pro Slate 12.
It’s a 12-inch touchscreen device that comes with what HP calls a Duet Pen — Duet because it’s both a smart pen and a stylus.
You can write on ordinary paper, you’ll see the ink, and the Pro Slate 12 will immediately digitise it to the tablet. The process seems to work best when you’re writing on a flat surface, but that’s probably not going to be an issue for most users.
The Pro Slate isn’t the fastest tablet on the market, and other tablets have crisper looking screens and better resolution, but the use of the Duet Pen with the Pro Slate is so helpful for automatically digitising notes.
As for cost, it retails for £349, which is definitely more than a smart pen, but then again, you’re getting a good smart pen plus a whole tablet.
- More than a smart pen — a whole tablet system
- Tablet is highly responsive to the Duet Pen
- Pen doubles as a stylus
- A more expensive option
- Not the fastest or best looking tablet on the market
8. Livescribe Sky Wi-Fi Smartpen
Sky Wifi Smartpen is the third in line of a series of smartpens from Livescribe. Being wireless and sporting the exclusive Livescribe audio recording technology, the pen is way more than just a tool for taking notes. It’s a dictionary, a speaker, a microphone, a calculator, a mouse, a piano and a lot more. With this pen, you can make digital notes out of your sketches on paper, sync audio to your notes and download the numerous apps it’s compatible with to entertain or increase productivity.
There are three different models of the Sky Wifi Smartpen to choose from; 2GB, 4GB AND 8GB. The three vary in price according to storage capacity, of course, but that’s not the only significant difference. The 8GB model is offered with a one year Evernote Premium subscription. Evernote is an app that lets you sync your sketches, notes and pencasts with your other devices.
- Wifi syncing
- Downloadable apps
- Audio recording
- Requires special paper
9. E-Pens Mobile Notes Pro 2
The Pro 2 digital pen resembles something you would find in a classy executive pen set. It utilises Bluetooth to connect to your computer, and this way your notes get to be captured and saved in digital version.
With this pen, unlike most of its competitors, you don’t need a special notepad to facilitate storage of notes. You can use just about any paper or notebook and still realise perfect results as the pen has a built-in receiver which scans everything you jot down as you write. Additionally, you won’t need to pair this pen with a tablet or smartphone while using it. Instead, the pen relies on its memory to store notes of up to 100 pages before they can be transferred to another device later.
- Doubles as a computer mouse
- Doesn’t require special paper
- No tablet or smartphone apps
- Does not work well for left-handed people as the receiver will be obstructed
- Long to set up and connect with PC
10. Livescribe Echo Smartpen
Something so special about this digital pen is that it has a camera in the tip that uses the microdots on the special writing paper to track the movements of your hand, effectively recording your handwriting on a digital page. The digital page’s accuracy when compared to the physical copy is less than a millimetre of spatial difference, which makes it perfect for sketch digitisation.
The Echo also records audio. By hitting the record ‘button’ at the bottom of your paper, a built-in microphone on your pen records the audio in your surroundings. In case you’re in a large lecture room or do not want the movements of your hand to affect the recording, you can switch to another set of microphones present in the earphones.
Other features include preloaded apps that allow you to use the pen as a stock ticker, calculator, translator, piano and other utilities ranging from education to entertainment.
- Syncs audio recordings from lecturers and meetings to your notes
- Battery charges every time you sync with a PC
- Has two sets of microphones for clear recording in different environmental conditions
- Requires special paper
- Is relatively large (as big as a marker) and uncomfortable
What to Look For in a Smartpen
If you’re in the market for a smartpen, there are certain things that you’ll probably want to look for. However, there are also a lot of either/or options, so you’ll want to spend some time thinking about how you want to use this new device and what you hope to get out of it. You’ll also want to consider your budget, as smartpens can get fairly expensive, depending on the features you want.
1. Easy to Use
For starters, you want a digital pen that’s comfortable to use. This means about the size and heft of a standard writing implement, with no buttons that dig into your fingers and no top-heaviness. It should also have at least one (and ideally more) way to easily sync with a computer or mobile device so you can digitise your notes and sketches.
Finally, your smartpen should probably be wireless and use BlueTooth for syncing and transmitting; although there are wired smartpens, they are few and far between, and they’re for specific and specialised uses.
2. Essential Smart Pen Features
And then there are the options. Most smartpens will create digital transcriptions in real time, but some also have onboard storage to sync everything later. Another useful feature you may find you want on the corresponding app is character recognition for instant text files.
Next, do you want a smartpen with ink or no ink? The former allows you to create hard copies as well as digital files, while the latter does not. Finally, some smartpens will work only on its own proprietary paper, which means you always have to have a stash of special notebooks, while others will work just fine on any surface.
There are a few other capabilities that you may want to consider, depending on your personal needs and preferences. There are smartpens that are pressure sensitive, a great thing to have if you’re going to use the device predominantly for sketching, but less important for regular note taking.
Some smartpens can record audio, which is ideal for voice memos and capturing small snippets of sound. Again, it’s not a feature that everyone will need or want, but it is available on several models. The smartpen that’s right for you will have the combination of features that you deem important and will fit in your price range.
Goodbye, Scanning and Transcription
If you prefer the tactile sensation of writing your notes rather than typing them, or if you like to sketch but don’t like to scan, a smart pen is a handy device to have in your proverbial toolbox. You get both analog creativity and digital conversion in one fell swoop, and you don’t pay much more than you’d pay for a luxury pen that has no digital capabilities whatsoever.
Like a lot of devices that fall under a “smart” umbrella, the market for the best smart pens is in its beginning stages. The five devices listed here are top choices for 2015. It will be fun to watch as more developments are made and more features are added to make these smart writing implements even better.