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Smart Pens

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Update 2017-01-03: Interesting comments pro and contra smart pens on my reddit thread

Kevzettler asked me in a Disqus-comment of my article about todo-management on paper:

Have you considered a Smart Pen as a medium? I think they have some hand writing-to-text apps. I've been thinking about hooking up a Livescribe 3 to org-mode output. Check out http://www.livescribe.com/

Good question. Here are my thoughts.

What are Smart Pens?

So called «smart pens» are a category of devices which looks like normal pens. They write like normal pens do. In addition, you get a digital representation whose content is the digital version of the stuff you wrote with the smart pen.

Sound complicated but in reality, it's really simple as that: you write on a piece of paper with the smart pen. Then you get a JPEG image or a PDF document that contains the text and the drawings from your paper.

The technical manifestation varies: for some devices you have to use a special kind of paper which got more or less visible marks on it to help the smart pen find its location. Others require a special kind of pad you have to put your paper on. Other devices even need some kind of antenna or camera that hovers over the paper on top of the pad.

Disadvantages

So why not use a smart pen to digitize my hand-written notes instead?

My main argument against smart pens is that I do have to adapt to the tool.

I don't like to use a special kind of tab because it's not always in my hand when I want to write something down.

Special kind of papers are not an option since I can not put them into each printer (in office) or force any other co-worker to use special paper (which is quite expensive) for any paper they hand over to me.

Smart pens tend to need device drivers or software which are not available on GNU/Linux, MS Windows, and macOS. Therefore, I can't use it with any operating system. As usual, there is hardly any open source software and there are no open standards for smart pens.

And then there is the usability-issue: whenever I work with paper, it's usually not only one sheet of paper at a time. I switch between minutes of meetings, notes on pre-printed papers, and post-its. With most smart pen systems, I would have to stop doing that or I would have to switch my digital paper accordingly in order to append to the correct digital paper.

So far, I did not see any smart pen system provides me a satisfying user experience without making sacrifices to my normal workflows.

I met a couple of guys who own smart pens that were put in the closet after a couple of weeks. No one continued to use smart pens over a longer period of time. Maybe I should ask them if I could test them to get first-hand experience?

Alternatives

As I mentioned in the todo-management article on paper, a new class of devices is hitting the market: a combination of big e-ink displays (13") and tablet technology.

However, there are still disadvantages with these devices as well: slow change of pages/documents, anything «pre-printed» has to get on the device before starting to annotate it, you have to have a bulky device around you, and so forth.

I am not convinced whether or not those devices provide a great advantage to my workflows. For testing purposes only they are way too expensive.

The DPT-S1 by Sony seems to be a great device but it is too expensive and is limited to PDF files only.

The Good e-Reader (Indigogo) seems to offer a better price-value-ratio and runs on Android OS which allows many apps to extend the default functionality. Be careful: not all Android apps are working properly with 13", an e-ink display, or the touch-sensitive display.

Then there is the Icarus A4 which is also called Onyx BOOX Max, PocketBook CAD Reader or PocketBook CAD Flex, and so forth. If you prefer smaller devices, take a look at the Boogie board, smaller Boox devices, or similar. There is an interesting comparison table at Wikipedia.

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