The Best Smart Pens for More Intelligent Note Taking | IGN

Smart pens combine traditional writing implements with modern digital technology. The result is a pen that helps capture what you’ve written in digital form, turning what’s traditionally a messy analog medium into organized, structured data that you can keep forever. Some smart pens record what you’re writing using tech in the pen itself; others rely on special paper, your tablet, or your smartphone to capture the information.

Because there are so many options – and because they work quite differently from one another – you may need a guide to the right smart pen or stylus for you. Depending upon your note-taking or sketching needs, you might want something like the Livescribe, which has a built-in audio recorder, or a Rocketbook with a Frixion pen which is super inexpensive, but focused on capturing images of your notes. We’ve rounded up the best smart pens and styluses for your reading pleasure. And at the end of the article, you’ll also find a buying guide that highlights the most important criteria to look for when shopping for smart pens and styluses

TL;DR – These are the Best Smart Pens

1. Livescribe Echo Smartpen

Best Smart Pen

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The Livescribe Echo gets its name from the fact that in addition to capturing what you write with the pen, it has a built-in microphone that can record audio as well. The pen itself is a ballpoint pen with a camera integrated into the tip, along with a microphone for capturing audio. When paired with special paper – which you must use – the Echo records audio with your notes, so when you later read back what you wrote, you can hear exactly what was said as you were writing. Called a “Pencast,” this is perhaps the Echo’s most intriguing feature. You can “play back” a note-taking session exactly the way it originally unfolded, complete with audio synchronized to when you took each note.

There are a lot of different paper products available for use with the Echo; you can get journals, full-size notebooks, weekly planners, and more. They all look almost exactly like ordinary writing products, except that they are filled with microscopic dots that let your pen know where they are within the book.

All these notes – both your text and drawings as well as the audio – can be uploaded to your PC or to a cloud service like Evernote or Google Docs. And while your handwriting isn’t converted to digital text using OCR, your notes are fully searchable using Livescribe’s Echo Desktop software. You can also share your notes via PDF, and you can play the audio from your notes as well.

2. Livescribe Aegir Smartpen

Best Budget Smartpen

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You can think of the Aegir as an updated version of the Echo that incorporates things Livescribe has learned from its older smartpen. The result is a less expensive device that dispenses with some of the features and complexity of the Echo, but remains a thoroughly useful smart pen that can copy everything you write or draw to the Livescribe desktop or mobile app, as well as upload to cloud services like Evernote. Like the Echo, the Aegir requires you to use special micro dotted paper, which comes in a wide selection of products to choose from.

To sell the Aegir for under $100, removing the microphone was the biggest compromise that Livescribe had to make. Even so, you can record audio with your notes, and even play back “pencasts” that sync audio with your handwritten notes. To do that, though, the pen requires you to keep your mobile device nearby – because it’s recording audio through your smartphone, it’ll need to be out and able to hear its surroundings if you want to record.

The Aegir can record up to 1,200 pages between syncs, which means that even if you’re not diligent about uploading notes after each session, you’re unlikely to run out of space on your pen.

3. Rocketbook Core

Best Erasable Smartpen

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Also a contender for best budget smart pen – it costs just a couple of Hamiltons – the Rocketbook system is a clever and slightly different approach to the smart pen category. Here’s the deal: When you buy a Rocketbook, you get a pad or notebook made of special, erasable paper, as well as a Frixion erasable pen. The pen is just a pen – one that’s filled with erasable ink. The technology is in the paper and the mobile app.

There are all sorts of books to choose. The Rocketbook Core is an ordinary notebook, while the Fusion has pages for calendars, to-dos, lists, and general-purpose notetaking. There’s also a mini notebook, letter-size and executive-size books. (There’s also a book called the Wave which you erase in the microwave, but this notebook wears out pretty quickly. You can’t erase it more than a few times, so it’s a poor value.)

Each book is filled with dots, an array of icons across the bottom, and a QR code. When you’re done with a page of notes, you can use the Rocketbook app to scan the page and upload it to the app, or send it to a variety of destinations like OneNote, Dropbox, Google Docs, and elsewhere. You can choose the destination manually, or let it happen automatically based on which icons at the bottom of the page that you mark with the pen.

And here’s the best part: When you’re done, you can erase the page with a little moisture and a microfiber cloth, and then reuse it. The book lasts essentially forever, and you’ll only need to replace the inexpensive Frixion pens.

4. Wacom Bamboo Folio Smartpad Digital Notebook

Best Regular Paper Smartpen

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Designed with executives and working professionals who attend a lot of meetings in mind, the Wacom Bamboo Folio Smartpad Digital Notebook has most of its brains in the folio itself. You can use any sort of paper you like with the device, so there’s no need to use special micro dotted paper, and running out of paper at a critical moment is never a concern. You do still need to use the special Wacom stylus pen, though – if you use another pen, you can write on the paper, but the folio won’t recognize your input.

Everything you write is captured by the folio, which you can sync with the desktop or mobile app, and can be shared with cloud services like Dropbox and Google Docs. Wacom also offers the ability to convert your handwriting to digital text, though that requires an ongoing monthly subscription.

While the folio pairs with your mobile device via Bluetooth to sync your notes and the folio itself needs to be recharged occasionally, the pen never needs charging, which is a welcome convenience. In addition, the folio is available in two sizes: full letter-size and half-letter size.

5. Neo Smartpen N2

Best Smartpen for Microdot Paper

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The concept behind the Neo Smartpen N2 should be familiar to anyone who has used a smartpen before. The pen itself has all the brains, which includes a battery, camera, and processor. You need to use the N2 with special micro dotted paper, and on that front the selection is huge – perhaps the largest of any smartpen. You can choose from among memo books, pocket-sized mini books, planners, spiral-ring notebooks, and many other options.

The pen uses standard D-1 type pen tips, which means you can replace the ink with any standard refill so you’re not tied to refills supplied only by Neo. It contains 90MB of storage, which means you can take extensive notes without synchronizing it with your mobile device and not worry about running out of memory. Yes, other pens have more memory – like the 2GB Livescribe Echo – but a lot of that storage is committed to audio. The N2 captures text only.

When you sync the pen with your mobile device, your notes and sketches are stored in the Neo mobile app, and you can also share the files with cloud services like Evernote, One Note and Google Drive.

6. Apple Pencil (2nd Generation)

Best Smartpen for iPad

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The Apple Pencil isn’t your ordinary smart pen; it’s a stylus that turns an iPad into a device that you can write and draw on. Apple has created an almost Microsoft-level amount of confusion around the Pencil by giving two different products – the Apple Pencil and Apple Pencil (2nd Generation) — the same name, barely even distinguishing them on the web site, despite the fact that they’re incompatible with one another.

The 2nd Generation pencil works with the latest iPads (the 12.9-inch and 11-inch models) and is a refined, powerful tool for writing and drawing. It is finished in matte white and is flat on one side, which prevents it from rolling around. There’s no Lightning port for charging; its battery charges when it’s attached to the iPad (which is does magnetically).

Like many of the other smart pens in this list, the Apple Pencil lets you write and sketch – though only on compatible iPads. There are a wide variety of apps that work with the Pencil; you can take handwritten notes, mark-up documents, and even edit photos. The downside? It’s a single-use accessory that is designed exclusively for your iPad.

What to Look for in a Smart Pen

Smart pens and styluses are fairly niche products – and probably always will be. For many people, a stylus like the Apple Pencil is just one more thing to lose, which is why a lot of people don’t want to carry it around. And when it comes to the other smart pens, the thought of using technology to write notes that’ll sync with a PC can seem needlessly complicated – even if it’s not. The real trick, then, is finding a solution that’s as straightforward and un-complicated as possible, while at the same time solving the most problems along the way.

To that end, it’s helpful to understand what problems you’re solving. Presumably you need to capture text and images to a phone or PC. But how easy does the device make it to get your notes to the cloud, or to share it with others? Does it sync automatically, or do you need to do it manually? And if so, is there sufficient memory, or will you need to worry about syncing the pen too often?

If you don’t want to synf often, look for a pen that has a lot of memory; the Livescribe models have generally large amounts of storage, while the Wacom Bamboo Folio will run out of space quickly. And if you’re comfortable syncing pages manually, consider the Rocketbook.

Most smart pens have special features that distinguish them from similar models. Some can record audio, for example, and store it on the pen itself. That’s convenient, but it can also exhaust the pen’s memory, so other pens do the same thing by connecting to your phone, relying on both the phone’s microphone and storage.

Lastly, think about how you like to work, and what kind of smart pen suits your workflow. Are you okay with the danger of running out of specialized paper, which may smart pens rely on? If not, consider a pen that can use plain paper (like Wacom), or reusable, erasable paper (like Rocketbook).

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Dave Johnson has been writing about gaming and tech since the days of the Palm Pilot. See him shout into the Twitter void @davejoh
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