As a child, I excelled in most school subjects, but when it came to handwriting, I was the problem child. My schoolteachers would collect my crooked-cursive-filled papers and hold them up to the light, examining the jagged lines for meaning. Sometimes they would sigh.

Smart option: You can play the audio back from the pen.

I’ve had to rely on pen and paper, and my handwriting hasn’t gotten much better.

Enter the Livescribe Pen. The so-called “smart pen" made its debut in 2008, and the California, US, based company that makes it has pitched it as a good tool for college students and anyone else who takes lots of notes or draws on paper.

I bought a Livescribe Echo, a $150 (around 4,495) device—they vary in price from $99 for a basic 2 GB edition to about $250 for a deluxe 8 GB version—that I hoped would make my scribbles and audio recordings more manageable. So far, I’ve been impressed.

The Livescribe pen can record audio while you write on specially coded “Dot Paper". You can transfer everything you write to software that allows you to see your words on screen and to hear audio that is synced up. Tap on a part of your notes and the exact point in the audio that matches with it plays. You can also play the audio back from the pen, which has a tiny screen and speaker.

When I showed it to my editor, she asked if it might be from the future (a steampunk future, to be sure, where they still carry writing instruments).

There is something a little magical about the Livescribe and all that it fits into a slightly oversized pen package. The pen uses regular ink, but that’s about all it has in common with a ballpoint.

It can run downloadable apps that can look up spellings, translate things you write into Spanish (the translated word appears on the screen) and even look up Oscar winners when you write down on paper a year or award category.

The audio recordings, I find, are clear enough to make out my interview subjects’ speech even when we talked in loud, crowded rooms. The Livescribe can now send pages of notes to online services such as Google Docs, Evernote (a year of Evernote’s premium online service is included with Livescribe purchases), email or Facebook.

Animated versions of so-called “pencasts" (audio plus visuals of the notes) can be viewed on iPhones and iPads. The pages of notes can even be exported as PDFs.

But it’s not all perfect. When you run out of the paper that comes with the device, you have to buy special Dot Paper. It’s not an expensive proposition—for $20, I bought a pack of four large, spiral-bound, college-lined notepads.

Belinda Acosta, an Austin, Texas, based novelist and freelance writer who uses a Livescribe, says she’s not thrilled with how much thicker the Livescribe is than a regular pen and wishes there were an option for unlined paper for artists. She also wishes that the software sold separately to recognize your handwriting and convert it to typed text (called “MyScript") worked better.

“The program cannot translate my scribbles into readable, typewritten text," she said in an email. “But capturing the image of my notes is kind of cool, actually."

Neither of us has found a good way to use Livescribe to record phone interviews.

My biggest complaint is that Livescribe is not wireless. Transferring notes to a computer or sending pages to an online service requires plugging the pen into a computer with a USB cable and waiting.

It’s also troubling that earlier this summer, the company announced it was shutting down its app developer programme, which means we won’t be seeing new, innovative apps for the Livescribe unless they come from the company itself.

For a reporter, it’s been a pretty ideal tool. I was able to ditch my Olympus digital recorder. My disorganized pile of old notepads has transformed into one pen and a set of digital audio and notes files I can access whenever I need.

I imagine the pen would make a great tool for students who take notes in class as well. It seems tidier than dragging a laptop to class and using a separate smartphone app or digital recorder to capture the audio, as I’ve seen some students do.

Being able to record pages of notes and doodles along with hundreds of hours of audio on such a small device, and being able to share those notes with classmates online, seems like a smarter way to do things.

©2011/The New York Times

(Omar L. Gallaga writes for the Austin American-Statesman).

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