Replacing the Bic: Smart Pens Turn Handwriting into Digital Text

VIDEO: ABC News Tech Editor puts the Livescribe 3, Equil Jot and the Galaxy Note to the test.

Despite the fact that I carry around a phone, a tablet, a laptop and a bunch of other gadgets in my bag every day, I still drag around an old-fashioned pen and paper. With those non-digital tools, I take daily notes at meetings or write down to-dos, but then I regularly leave those notes at my desk or in another bag.

That's where a number of new digital pens hope to turn the page, so to speak. Sure, companies have been trying to make digital pens or styluses catch on for a long time – remember the many Palm Pilots or Apple's Newton – but these new options are looking to make your notes accessible from every device. And in some cases they can turn your handwriting into editable text.

But can they really replace the tried-and-true pen-and-paper combo that's worked just fine for hundreds of years?

PHOTO: The Livescribe 3 smartpen requires special paper to turn handwritten notes into editable text.
Courtesy Livescribe
Livescribe 3

Livescribe has just released the third edition of its smartpen: the Livescribe 3. The $150 pen is thicker than your average pen and has regular ink, but inside is a computer and a Bluetooth radio. But you need more than just the pen to get things working. You'll need the Livescribe app and some special paper to get started.

When the pen is paired with your iPhone or iPad as you write on the special paper, your notes begin to appear in the app. It takes just a second or two for the notes to transfer over. From the app (there is no Android app yet), you can then email those notes or upload them to Evernote, which is an application that syncs your notes across all devices. It works really well and Livescribe has a feature that lets you convert small parts of your notes to editable text. However, within the app you can only convert small snippets of your handwriting to editable text; you can't convert a whole document. The conversion, however, works quite well, even recognizing some of my sloppy handwriting. You can also record audio of a meeting or lecture using the pen.

And if you never want to put the pen down, you can then flip it around and use it as a stylus on your phone. But the downside of the Livescribe has always been that you have to remember that special paper for it to work. It's a lot of pieces to remember to just take some notes.

PHOTO: The EquilJot smartpen turns handwritten notes into digital notes.
Courtesy Equil
Equil Jot

The Equil Jot doesn't require special paper, though. Instead this $150 pen comes with a special Bluetooth attachment that you clip to the top of any regular piece of paper. That attachment then talks to the pen and then to your phone. Pair the attachment with your iPhone, download one of Equil's Sketch apps, and you will see your notes or drawings appear right in the app. Equil also doesn't offer Android support.

The Jot is much more focused on sketches than notes; there is no way to convert your handwriting to editable text. And it is even more of an inconvenience to use than the Livescribe. Not only is the clip hard to attach but every time you run out of room on a piece of paper, you have to take it off and reattach it. Also, notes or sketches appeared very small within the app.

PHOTO: Samsung's Galaxy Note 3 comes with a stylus.
Courtesy Samsung
Samsung Galaxy Note

Both the Livescribe and the Equil Jot use paper and then transfer them to your phone, but if you've already got the phone or tablet, why not just put a pen to it?

Samsung's Galaxy Note 3 and 10.1 come with what it calls the S-Pen – it's really just a stylus -- and the phone was made for taking really precise notes. The S-Pen is better than just an average stylus for the iPhone. It is pressure sensitive and more accurate.

In Samsung's S-Note app you can take notes and export them. You can't convert your handwritten notes to text in every app, but you can when sending a text message and other apps. And you can do all sorts of other things on the big-screened phone, like doodle on the screen or sketch.

The Galaxy Note 3, which has a 5.5-inch screen, costs $299 with a two-year contract at various carriers, including Verizon and Sprint. The $430 Galaxy Note 10.1, which has a larger 10.1-inch screen, lends itself better to taking notes.

PHOTO: The Livescribe 3, Equil Jot and Galaxy S Pen.
Courtesy Samsung, Livescribe, Equil
Bottom Line

All of these options allowed me to have my notes with me at all times, whether on my phone or tablet or computer, but each of them had specific drawbacks. The Livescribe required me to remember a special pad of paper, the Equil Jot was complicated to use, and taking the receiver on and off the paper is a big inconvenience.

The Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 was one of the best choices, but I still prefer the iPad Mini for other tablet functions. A new stylus released just this week for the iPad called the FiftyThree Pencil does sound interesting, but I haven't tested that yet.

For now you can call me a technophobe -- I'm sticking with my tried-and-true pen and notebook.

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