Smart Pens for smarter note-taking

The ease of jotting notes by hand with the power of saving them digitally.

Smart pens are the perfect compromise for when you want the ease of taking notes by hand and the convenience of digital record keeping. Typing out notes on a laptop might be faster, but physically writing something down helps you remember and learn more. Some of us prefer putting real pen to paper, but having a digital backup is convenient for on-the-go organisation and studying. 

A smart pen lets you write by hand and instantly have a digital file. You can save files as PDFs, images, Word Docs, or transcribe to a text file in Google Docs, to make all your notes searchable. Some smart pens can record, too, which is great for lectures and interviews. 

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How Smart Pens Work

When you buy a smart pen, you’re actually getting a pen, a notebook, and an accompanying app. An infrared camera near the pen’s point tracks your writing strokes. As you write in the notebook, dotted grids plot the pen’s movements. You then use a Bluetooth connection or USB port to transfer the files to your computer.

These days, smart pens are designed with different purposes in mind, whether you want to convert handwritten notes into digital images, capture audio recordings, or mark up photos and documents. So if you’re a student taking notes in class, your needs might not be the same as if you were an artist working on sketches.

Smart pens can …

  • Transcribe your notes into text files, making them easier to read and manipulate.
  • Export files from the app as PDFs, Google Docs, Evernote files, and more.
  • Be used without opening the app. Just make sure the pen is on. You should be able to transfer data later, but transfer frequently so you don’t run out of storage (or in case you lose the pen).

Remember to keep your pen charged and ready, so you don’t run out of battery mid-sentence. The pen will still write, but it won’t digitise anything.

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 uncomplicated 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 sync 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).

Some of the Smart Pens available in the market

  • Livescribe Symphony Smartpen
  • Rocketbook Core Erasable Smart Pen
  • Wacom Bamboo Ink 2nd Gen
  • Neo Smartpen N2
  • Apple Pencil (2nd Generation)
  • Moleskine Pen+ Ellipse
  • SyncPen 2nd Generation

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