Review: Echo Smartpen and MyScript

So I write. Most people who write do it on the computer, typing directly into their word processor or other software… Well, I do that sometimes, but I often find that I’m more creative, more connected to my work, if I write longhand, real pen on real paper. Sometimes it’s the only way I can get past places where I’m stuck.

Of course, what this led to was a lot of pages, written out on paper that all needed to be transcribed into the computer. Bleh. No fun. Lengthy. A waste of time. What’s a writer to do?

This writer bought a smartpen, specifically the Echo smartpen by Livescribe.

So what’s a smartpen? It’s a pen that knows what you’re writing. The Echo needs special paper. Each page is covered in tiny dots, small enough to simply give the paper an appearance of texture rather than pattern. Each page has a unique pattern of dots and the pen looks as it writes and can keep track of what you write (and draw!) on each page. You can have as many as 8 unique notebooks at a time and the pen can keep track of all of them individually. The paper is reasonably priced, imo, at 4 spiral notebooks for $24.95 from livescribe and a little less from amazon.com.

Not only that, but the echo has a recording feature. This would be really useful for students or anyone who might be taking notes at a talk or a meeting. Set the pen to record and it will store an audio of whatever you’re listening to. What’s more, it syncs the audio to the text, so if you tap the pen on a particular section of your notes, you can hear what was being recorded as you wrote that section.

With an app, you can also listen to music on your pen as you write. How cool is that?

Wow, right? Well, there are a few downsides to the Echo too. The ink isn’t as nice as I might like, though that may be a function of how opaque or not it should be. I’m not sure. And the ink cartridges (also reasonably priced at 6.95 a 5-pack; amazon.com is less, but only sells mixed packs of black or blue with one red cartridge) are pretty small. This is a function of the way the pen works. There has to be room inside it for hardware.

Neither of these problems bothers me much. The only thing that really drives me crazy is that the Echo has a cute little cap, very small, very adorable, and there’s no way to deal with the cap when it’s off. You just have to put it down somewhere. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone frantically searching for that cap when I’m done writing. I wish there were some way to attach it to the pen. The cable that hooks to the computer is at the top of the pen, where you’d post the cap of an ordinary pen and I assume that’s why you can’t put it there. However, you can’t write while the pen is hooked up, so why not let the cap cover the cable connection when writing? I don’t know. There’s probably a technical reason, but it does drive me crazy!

Overall though, I love my pen and I recommend it to anyone who might see a situation in which it would be useful.

Now, I’ve told you all the cool things the pen can do, and I would never part with mine, but it was a solution to a specific problem for me. I wanted to get editable text transferred onto my computer from my written page. The Echo doesn’t do that by itself. You need an extra app.

That app is MyScript by VisionObjects. After I upload my written pages from the pen onto my computer, I use MyScript (which—very nicely—has a button integrated into the livescribe software). Now I have terrible handwriting. Terrible. No. Really. People who have known me for years, have read my writing over and over, still have trouble reading my handwriting. Sometimes I have trouble reading my handwriting. MyScript can read it, usually. It isn’t perfect and occasionally I have paragraphs of gibberish. It’s inevitable. But overall, MyScript is surprisingly good.

I had my doubts when I got it (and you can get a 30 day free trial, which I did) but it surpassed my expectations (which wouldn’t have been hard) and turned out to be quite good. Fixing the mistakes and the occasional paragraph of total nonsense still takes a lot less time than transcribing written pages. And my handwriting is so poor that others are likely to get much better results than I do.

The one irritating thing for me is that MyScript puts a hard return at the end of every (fairly short) line, meaning I have to go in and remove those manually. I know it’s probably a necessity, since MyScript can’t know if I’ve changed paragraphs or not. It’s still a small price to pay for the amount of time I’m saving.

So, there you are. I recommend Livescribe’s Echo smartpen and the MyScript app to go with it. Neither is perfect, but what in life is?

I’m back!

Okay, so Nano kicked my butt and I’ve not kept up here and I took a little break from all writing for a fortnight. Words hurt there for a little while.

I beat it in the end though and came in with 50,031 words, but it was skin of teeth time at the old home front. The book just got away from me for awhile and I felt like I was wandering in circles looking for it. But I found it in the end and it’s where it should be—for half(ish) of a first draft. I’ll re-work the first half after the holidays and then write the second half. It’ll be a sort of draft 1.5.

I’ve been looking at apps for writers, both for computer and for mobile devices (read iPhone in my case). I’ve found some interesting things, but I wonder if it would be useful for me to learn a new application—something that claims to have more functionality for novel writing than a word processor—or if I will become bogged down in features and not just write… Who can say until I try?

I’ve looked at ScrivenerStoryist and StoryMill so far. Scrivener has both Mac and Windows versions. As far as I can tell, StoryMill and Storyist are Mac only, though Storyist has an iPad version. I won’t get to them right away (write away?) but I’ll get to them soon and I’ll let everyone know what I think!

Has anyone used any of these apps or have another they swear by? Tell me about it in the comments.