Scribbler’s Saga #40 – Note Capture Pens

Posted: June 15, 2017 in Uncategorized

The Livescribe 3 next to a trusty ballpoint pen…

© 2017 G.N. Jacobs

After many months of finding excuses to do other things interspersed with brief moments of high usage, I’m ready to call it about my experiment with note capture pens. Even at their best, a good idea for someone not named me. Since I didn’t cut my professional teeth selling used cars, I think I’m stuck with a novelty that I’ll bring out every so often because I feel guilty when I don’t use the crap that I buy. 

When buying Livescribe 3 ink cartridges make sure that you don’t buy shorter one to fit earlier pens…

Sometime last year, I wandered into a Barnes & Noble and see a Moleskine branded box offering a pen and notebook kit. Reading the box I get excited because of my regular attacks of Luddism where I bust out a notebook and pen. For these times, knowing that handwritten pages still have to migrate into digital files eventually, I want anything that cuts the interim step of typing from your notebook out of the process. I buy the first of two pens that promises I can write normally on special paper, save this as a PDF and/or run it through a text transcriber so I can save the one thing everyone wants more of…time.

First up, the Moleskine pen. It turned out a crap buy because the pen wrote, the paper took the ink well, but the capture software just didn’t work. Words on the page didn’t always show up on the capture screen, especially if I picked up the pen. I took it back. The manager tried to resist citing that I had written in the book, but I doubled down explaining about the flawed software and that you can’t discover this without writing. I got my refund.

I wait about six weeks and get the Livescribe 3 off of Amazon. This capture pen has nearly the same design as the Moleskine pen with the curiously offset ink cartridge. I download the app to both of my mobile devices. I shop online for more ink cartridges. I buy the wrong ones mislabeled from earlier versions of the Livescribe pen that are exactly an eighth of an inch too short. I remember that I had previously purchased lots of red and black ink refills for a Cross Tech 3 pen. They fit and nothing about being labeled Cross instead of Livescribe interferes with anything. I pat myself on the back and get busy.
In comparison to the otherwise indistinguishable Moleskine branded pen (really? I’m thinking industrial espionage), the Livescribe pen works exactly as advertised as a capture pen. Pair up a notebook, pen and app and your words appear on the screen unlike the Moleskine pen, which had many words that dropped out off the screen and thus never stayed with the document until the end.

My initial concerns involved that the offset placement of the ink nib to make room for the accelerometers in the pen’s barrel might make for an uncomfortable writing experience. I had read a few comments to that effect probably on Amazon. When I use a pen too much, I feel it in my elbow. Using the Livescribe was no different, my elbow wanted to kill me the first few days.

When I switched back to my good pens I found the feeling about the same as a full day with just a good pen (also by Cross). I repeated the experiment and found that my elbow protested almost the same way each time, though getting less with each usage. So the question of – does a Livescribe write worse than a regular well-designed pen? – pretty much punts to “I don’t know, didn’t seem that noticeable. Ask a professional at ergonomics.”

For most of my time in possession of the pen, it sits near my sound system or chess set (same side table). Dust collects. I wipe it down. I type on other devices. I use the to see if it still works. I send the file to myself both as a PDF and as a TXT file. I put the pen sized roughly like a Churchill cigar down and go back to those other devices. Rinse and repeat.

I guess when the guys that name products came up with note capture pen they meant it. The good version (Livescribe) of that technology captures the written page very well thank you very much. And sending the indicated pages from the control app proves to be a breeze, the PDF reads like any other file of that ilk. My mostly neat printing (I don’t moan the loss of cursive as part of a proper education the way others do) carries through to wherever the PDF needs to go.

The system pairs up the pen with a notebook with embedded markers that tell the electronics where it is and from whence it came. The pen talks to the app over Bluetooth recreating the written page almost exactly. The paper is proportionally more expensive than the spirals available at the grocery store or Office Depot.

During this time, I put in a red cartridge from Cross. The screen still gives me black text. I test out the shorter ink nibs and found that the eighth of an inch makes it impossible to a get a writing point to seat far enough above the slot when open to make writing comfortable. So I twist open the pen and yank out the short nibs with my pliers, for the longer nibs for the newer pen switching out ink can be done with fingertips (an eighth of an inch matters) and put the original cartridge back in.

The pen promises several other neat features like the ability to record audio through the nearest paired device’s microphone. Uh, no, I just need to cut down on the labor intensive part of typing from my notebook. But, the important feature says that I can choose to send transcribed text files that I can then cut and paste into a digital text file, an email, text or, in my case, a paragraph. And now we get to the part where the makers of the pen might not have thought about my whiny selfish needs to cut down the middle step of typing from the notebook.

When I write with a pen, I naturally indent and move to the next line trying to make my text look readable, at least. But, the transcription software makes the text come out as seen in the accompanying photos looking more like my poetry stanzas. I can’t be sure if the result in the TXT file is unintentionally in iambic pentameter or not (I don’t really do IP, ten syllables per line while trying to tell a story might just kill me).

Some of the other paragraphs come out as thick Justified ugly blocks of text where if I hadn’t written it and can refer to the paper version, I might not ever find a paragraph or sentence break ever. I’ll admit to the transient symbols and hash caused by cross outs being a fact of life when writing with a pen, but after a while I still really can’t read this text and have it make sense.

Once you have text a writer can Cut and Paste into a document, but the text doesn’t like dropping into a template. Nothing wants to appear in the font built into the format. The handy first line indent goes by the wayside until fixed much later on a desktop version of Word. And I still have to rediscover the paragraph breaks in the original text.

The point of going to from pen to text with no typing in between is to go straight to the second draft to work on creating better words the second time. I found myself feeling like I spent more time on fixing margins, fonts, spacing, sentence and paragraph breaks than on reading my almost there first draft text. My low tolerance for wasted steps would typically get me typing from the notebook anyway.

So no time saved where I need it most. Sounds like I rooked myself out of $200 and a few notebooks for no appreciable gains in productivity. And my pattern of use for a day and a half, put it away for four weeks essentially means I missed Amazon’s return/refund window. Well, I don’t have to buy a second one…

In the spirit of find something nice to say about all reviewed products (a basic trick to review writing drilled into me in my Extension-based J-school), I will say that the note capture part of what the Livescribe does is as cool as advertised. My printing comes out as clear as wrote it and moves around just like any other email attachment. If I were the sort of writer willing to hire administrative help, the extra pair of human eyes would figure things out way better than a computer trying to guess where to find the readable language, I could see using this cigar. Or I think a college student paid to take notes in class for other people might love a Livescribe; I’m thirty years removed from class.

But, if I become such that I won’t or (as I age) can’t type for myself requiring paid assistance there are cheaper ways to go from notebook to book. Printers with scanners. Photocopiers and envelopes. Siri and other dictation apps. A pen that tries to but doesn’t quite shorten the typing needed for the first official digital draft seems like it should be a distant last in my purchase priorities.

So I own a metal tube that may or may not cause a mild uptick in my repetitive elbow strain. It doesn’t quite transcribe well enough for a famously impatient writer. I still have to type, but it captures very well. And it’s more expensive than other methods to get to the same place. Sibling, can I interest you in this handy pen similar to a case of Military Aid rifles…practically never fired and only dropped once?


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