Livescribe 4GB WiFi Propack

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These days, many of us take notes on a laptop or a stylus-friendly tablet like Microsoft’s Surface or Samsung’s various Note devices. But in a lot of ways, it’s still tough to beat the speed, simplicity, and reliability of traditional pen and paper. The problem with old-school notes, though, is that they’re tough to take into the digital age, unless you’re willing to take a photo of every page.

Livescribe’s Sky WiFi is a smart pen that bridges the analogue and digital world nicely, offering the speed and ease of traditional note-taking, while making it simple to share and keep a digital backup of all your notes via the popular Evernote platform, which is available for all major mobile operating systems, as well as the Web.

Like previous versions of Livescribe’s pens, the Sky WiFi can also record audio with a tap, and keeps your recordings linked to your notes. So finding that important moment of audio is as easy as tapping the word or phrase that you were writing when the speaker uttered that key point.

At $225, the Livescribe 4GB WiFi Propack is certainly pricey for a pen. But if you’re frequently in range of WiFi, the pen will automatically sync its contents to the cloud. So most users should be fine with the 2GB model of the pen, which is much less expensive, and should still be able to hold about 200 hours of audio recording, according to its specs.

I’ve used every form of note-taking device from traditional pens and notebooks to laptops and tablets, to my current smartphone, a Samsung Galaxy Note 4. But Livescribe’s smart pens are the simplest, most reliable, and most versatile way to take notes that I’ve ever used. Any student, journalist, or office worker who needs to take lots of notes should consider adding one to their arsenal.

Sky Pen Setup WiFI

Don’t Forget the Dot Paper

The main downside of the Livescribe’s pens, including the Sky WiFi, is that you can’t use standard paper. In order to capture accurate images of your notes on the fly, the pen needs to be used with the company’s proprietary Dot Paper which, as the name implies, is covered with tiny, barely visible dots that let the camera in the tip of the pen orient itself on the page.

With a decent printer, you can make your own Dot Paper. But the simpler solution is just to buy one of the company’s many notebook and paper products. They’re not much more expensive than traditional notebooks (a three-subject notebook is about $10, and four single-subject notebooks can be found for under $20). The company also makes smaller notebooks, flipbooks, and even sticky notes.

Of course, if you find yourself in a pinch without a Livescribe notebook or any Dot Paper, the Sky WiFi pen will still function as a standard pen. The pen won’t record a digital image of your notes without the proprietary paper. But you can record audio at any time by holding down the power button on the pen for several seconds, until you hear a chirping tone, which indicates recording has started. Power off the pen when you’re done, and the next time you’re connected to your WiFi, you can upload the audio to Evernote.

What’s in the Box

Included in the Livescribe 4GB WiFi Propack that I’m looking at here is the Sky pen, with 4GB of storage, a medium-sized 50-sheet notebook with a nice leather-like portfolio, as well as two tip caps for the pen and two additional ink cartridges.

Also included in the package is a code for a free year of Evernote Premium (normally $5 a month or $45 a year), which gives you more room to store notes and audio, and adds other features, like the ability to annotate PDFs and share your notes more easily.

There’s no getting around the fact that the Sky Pen itself is larger than a regular pen. At about 15.5cm long and 1.5cm wide, it’s roughly twice as bulky as the average pen. But it weighs just 36 grams, and doesn’t feel heavy when writing at all. So its bulk looks a lot worse than it actually is. The company also smartly flattened one side to keep it from rolling off the desk—a serious issue when your pen is expensive and loaded with electronics.

Sky Pen with Regular Pen

The Sky Pen is also nearly bereft of any buttons or controls. There’s a power button on the front, near the top. Below it is a tiny one-line OLED display, which tells you when the pen is recording or syncing, but otherwise usually shows the time. The microphone and speaker are also on the front, about halfway down the pen. At the top sits a standard headphone jack (for listening to the audio you recorded when you don’t want to broadcast it through the speaker) and a Micro USB port, used for charging and syncing when you’re away from WiFi. Most of the pen’s functionality is controlled by tapping buttons printed on the Dot Paper notebooks.

Setup and Use

Setting up the Sky WiFi pen isn’t exactly simple, but it’s not overly complicated either, once you get a hang of the basics of how the pen works. First, you’ll need to head to livescribe.com/setup and create an account. The Livescribe site will prompt you to create or log in to an Evernote account, authorize the pen to access Evernote, and enter your key for the free year of premium service.

Livescribe evernote

Then, you’ll need to power on the pen and enter in the code shown on its one-line display, to link the pen to your Livescribe and Evernote accounts, then plug the pen into your computer (PC or Mac), to install any required updates.

Next, you’ll need to connect the pen to your Wi-Fi network, which is done by tapping buttons that exist on the inside cover of the included notebook. You scroll through available hotspots, select the one you want to connect to, and then tap out the password via a printed keyboard. All this sounds like a lot, but it’s actually fairly easy and doesn’t take much time. And if you always sync your notes at home or work, you’ll only need to go through the WiFi setup process once.

Once it’s all set up, and you’re using a Livescribe notebook or dot paper, the pen works remarkably well. You can tap buttons on each page to record or stop audio, and everything you write will be saved in the pen and will sync to Evernote either automatically, or when you tap a button on the page to tell the pen to upload to the cloud. Images of your notes, along with any audio you’ve recorded, can be viewed within the Evernote app or on the Evernote site. The pen’s microphone does a good job of picking up spoken audio, at least as good a job as a decent dedicated voice recorder. I’ve used it to record interviews with three or more people at once, and the quality was good enough that it was easy to distinguish individual speakers.

The ability to tap anywhere on your notes (either with the pen, or within the Evernote app with your finger) and instantly hear the audio that was recorded when you were writing that specific word can save a huge amount of search time. It’s also great for transcribing, as you can tap to play and pause instantly. As a journalist, I’ve used Livescribe’s pens numerous times when reporting and they’ve never let me down.

You May Want to Consider Other Models

While the cloud-based options of the Sky WiFi pen make the pen easier to use in certain ways, its integration with Evernote is far from perfect. Rather than saving all the notes you take in your physical notebook as a single note in Evernote, it saves each page separately, which gets messy and confusing pretty quickly once you start taking a lot of notes. You can rename them to keep things straight, but that’s a tedious task.

Also, many WiFi connections at hotels and schools require that you log in via a Web page, which you cannot do with the Sky WiFi pen. Yes, you read that right. You won’t be able to use most hotel and school WiFi hotspots with this pen. You can, of course, plug the pen in to your laptop and sync your files over a USB cable. But if you have to do that, what’s the point in having a WiFi-enabled pen in the first place? You can always sync wirelessly when you get home or somewhere else with a compatible hotspot. But if you need to view or share your notes on a device immediately after taking them, that won’t help you.

Also, the page that’s printed with the pen’s controls in Livescribe’s notebooks also has buttons for sharing via Facebook and Google Drive. Unfortunately, these features have not been implemented yet, and there’s no real indication when or if they will be. This is quite unfortunate, given that the controls are already there, likely leading many customers to believe that they work.

For those who like the Sky WiFi pen’s note-taking features, but don’t want or need all of your notes to be housed in the cloud, the older Livescribe Echo will also record and link audio and backup digital copies of your notes. And instead of Evernote, the Echo uses Livescribe’s own software to save your notes and audio on your PC or Mac. You will have to plug the pen in to your computer via USB, but that’s hardly difficult. Livescribe’s software also does a much better job of collating your notes into one cohesive notebook, and lets you search for text within your handwritten notes—a feature that I sorely missed in Evernote.

It should also be noted expressly for anyone who’s owned a Livescribe pen in the past that the Sky WiFi pen does not work with the company’s own Livescribe Desktop software. Essentially, if you opt for the Sky pen, you’ll be tied to Evernote in the cloud, and both the limitations and convenience that comes with that.

Conclusion

The Livescribe Sky WiFi pen is a very impressive piece of tech that delivers some of the best benefits of both traditional handwritten notes and digital memos. Its reliance on the cloud means you can access your notes on nearly any modern mobile device via the Evernote app, from tablets to computers to smartphones.

But the Sky pen is also limited due to its reliance solely on Evernote. Business users may need to skip this pen, due to the fact that Evernote files can’t be encrypted. And those who need to upload their notes while at school or traveling will be frustrated by the fact that the pen can’t log on to many public and commercial WiFi hotspots.

If that sounds like a problem, you should consider one of the company’s other smart pen models. But many will still prefer the convenience of the cloud over the slight nuisance of having to plug the pen into a computer to get your notes off the pen. You can, of course, access your notes and audio at any time with the paper notebook, as well.

If you like the idea of wirelessly syncing, but worry about always having access to WiFi, you should consider the company’s newest pen, the Livescribe 3. It connects to your smartphone or tablet via Bluetooth, and so can sync your notes and recorded audio to your mobile device even when there’s no WiFi available. The catch with this newer model is that, at least for the moment, it only works with Apple’s iPads and iPhones. Hopefully the company will launch Android and Windows compatibility sometime in 2015.

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Livescribe 4GB WiFi Propack
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Matt Safford

Matt Safford spends his days testing gadgets and writing about technology. He has written for Popular Science, Smithsonian, Consumer Reports, and Wired.

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1 Comment

  • Rubens February 13, 2016 at 9:09 pm - Reply

    Hi Mark, I have a Smart Pen Pulse that I used to use with a PC when at work. I now have a Mac and I work from home. Am I able to set up the pen on my Mac? If so what do I need to know? I’m not sure I still have any serial nubmres or the like.

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