November 6, 2008


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The mighty pen
Take digital notes and more

By John “jaQ” Andrews

Do you lose paper notes? Do you find yourself writing text messages to yourself rather than writing anything down? Does information anywhere but on a screen confuse and frighten you?

You might be part of the digital generation. It’s OK. Like you, I have vague memories of holding a short stick in my hand and leaving behind dark marks on thin pieces of wood, but finding and using those marks later is always a challenge. What font is that? Why does it take so much physical space to store what surely could be a few kilobytes of data at most?

Sometimes typing is just not convenient and you’re forced to write with a pen. With a particularly fancy pen, though, those writings, scribbles and drawings can be transferred to a computer, either instantaneously or later on. Some pen devices have other functions, too.

• i-Pen: The cheapest of the bunch profiled here, i-Pen models don’t actually lay any ink down. They’re designed to be tethered to a computer — either with USB for the basic $50 version or wirelessly for the $100 model — and act as both a mouse and a handwriting capture device. They purportedly work on “almost any surface,” but a mouse pad is included in the standard package. Curiously, they require Microsoft Office XP to convert your writings to editable text. That could explain the relatively low price.

• IOGEAR Mobile Digital Scribe: For a retro ‘80s look, try IOGEAR’s $100 entry. It consists of an electronic pen and a small module that clips to the top of whatever paper you’re using. The module captures your drawings and text for later PC transfer, or concurrent display if it’s already hooked up. The dull gray-on-green LCD is pure style.

• Livescribe Pulse Smartpen: This one, in $150 1GB and $200 2GB iterations, just started showing up at Target. Its target market seems to be high school and college students, or anyone who listens to lectures and takes notes. It combines an audio recorder with a digital pen so you can play back audio from a certain point in your recording just by tapping the notes you took at that time. Your notes are also transferred to your PC as text for searching. You need special “dot paper,” though, because the infrared camera that reads your writing depends upon it as a frame of reference.

• FLY Pentop Computer: A desktop sits on your desk and a laptop sits on your lap, so a pentop sits on your pen, right? Wrong. It’s just a clever-sounding name that falls apart if you think about it too much. The $70 FLY is similar to the Livescribe Pulse in that it requires special paper to work, but it’s definitely going for a younger demographic. (The Web site features tweens dressed in impossibly hip and eclectic in-your-face fashions, and you can’t turn the sound off. Much like real tweens.) Rather than recording voices, it integrates a bunch of applications — games, calculators, a scheduler and a much-vaunted ability to draw a drumset and play it. Woot. In addition to FLY Paper (yes, they call it that), you can purchase additional programs on cartridges that attach to the end of the pen.