Talking tech since 2003

Back when I was a reporter in upstate New York, I received a great birthday gift from my friends: the original Livescribe Smartpen. It was an amazing piece of tech that visually recorded what I was writing while also making an audio recording. I could transfer those files to my computer, then zoom to the exact moment in the meeting I wrote something, meaning I could better use my notes to help me keep everything organized. Though I haven’t used one in years (more on that in a bit), I could help but notice the company’s latest product announcement. Two days ago, Livescribe just announced the third iteration of its flagship device, the Livescribe Smartpen 3.

Take a look at this demo:

From what I can tell based on this video, some things have changed. For one, the first Livescribe pen was an all-in-one device. Yes, you needed the special dot paper (which the pen’s camera used to record your penstrokes), but other than that, the only other accessory you needed was a PC. But even that wasn’t too necessary, as tapping a spot in your notes would provide live playback from the pen’s built-in speaker.

This new Livescribe Smartpen, however, seems to work in conjunction with a smartphone or tablet for the audio recording duties. Offloading some of the work to another device like that might limit the ease of adoption among potential users—especially considering that the Smartpen 3 will only support iOS devices at launch. But ultimately, it’s probably a good move for the health of the device itself. Now, to explain what I mean by that, I will tell you the story of why I stopped using my gen-one Livescribe Smartpen.

I mentioned above that I was a reporter, and the Smartpen was a great tool that helped me stay organized, and allowed me to get accurate quotes. But then there was the day the pen got ridiculously, blisteringly hot for no discernible reason. The pen was made of multiple components, but sealed up tight. There was no way to replace any parts, open it up, replace the battery—nothing. The power button stopped responding. It wasn’t working, and it was getting hotter and hotter. I didn’t know what to do. So I called customer service.

After we got through the standard “did you try this; did you try that,” the customer service rep told me to try something that I never would’ve imagined.”

“Put it in the freezer,” he said.

“Excuse me?”

“Put it in the freezer?” he said again, apparently as confused about the suggestion as I was.

I did what he recommended, the pen cooled off, and I was able to power it up again. But the files on its internal hard drive were lost or corrupted. The Smartpen was forever changed after that; it seemed unable to work reliably, and I was afraid of being lulled into a false sense of security by depending on it for anything.

When I eventually moved on from that job, the need for the Livescribe diminished, but the damage to my estimation of the device had been done. It’s possible that the company has worked out the kinks since then (as this was way back in 2009). There’s been a Smartpen 2 out for a while now, so chances are good that the Smartpen 3 works like a dream—and as I said, giving the audio-recording job to another device might help keep everything working right in the pen.

I’m intrigued, but feeling cautious. Anyone out there have Livescribe stories with happier endings?

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