I've never used a digital stylus before with a computer, so I was intrigued when NeoLAB Convergence offered to let me try out its brand-new Neo smartpen N2 device that allows users to write on a special pad of paper and capture their words or drawings onto the screen of a smartphone.
I installed the accompanying Neo notes app from the Google Play store on my Samsung Galaxy S4 smartphone, hit the "on" button on the N2 smartpen, and as I wrote on the special pad of paper, I watched my doodles and hand-lettered words appear on the display of my phone. That was very cool.
Next I clicked the screen to activate a transcribe function in English, which promised to capture my words and transcribe them into text that I could capture and share with others as text. At first, the app didn't want to transcribe words I had already written, so I started a new page and watched as the transcription was done. But when I wanted to correct a misspelled word, it allowed me to highlight the text but refused to bring up my keyboard so I could make the changes.
A NeoLAB spokesman checked it out with me over the phone and was able to duplicate the issue on an Android device at his end, although he said it worked fine on an iPhone he tried. In the iOS version of the app, users can edit the text and then copy, paste or export it. On Android, instead of making edits on screen, I would have to save the text file, export it and then make corrections in a program such as Microsoft Word, he said. That certainly was not what I expected from the unit.
Not being able to make changes on the fly was a significant drawback, and it certainly dimmed my enthusiasm for the $169 device, which just went on the market on Amazon.com on March 25.
Yes, it was intriguing to be able to capture handwriting and drawings through the pen and place them immediately onto the smartphone screen. However, I experienced some other annoyances as well with the device. I may be whining here, but as soon as I slid the accompanying flip-up pad of paper into the plastic sleeve used to store the pen and its paper supplies, the cardboard backing attached to the tablet tore off, meaning the special paper no longer stays in place within the sleeve. It's a pet peeve of mine when pads of paper come apart so easily from their backings.
I also found the pen to be a bit thick to hold in my hand, which made it slightly unwieldy. The electronics are obviously stored inside, so maybe one gets used to the thickness of the pen over time. I hope so.
The N2 smartpen, which works with Android or iOS smartphones or tablets, was launched through a Kickstarter campaign in late 2014 and allows users to organize, share and upload to third-party applications like Evernote, Dropbox and Illustrator, according to the company. Text can be saved in 15 languages, and the special pages can be easily emailed to friends and colleagues as needed.
It also allows users to record audio content for playback later, but it does not transcribe the audio recordings it captures. One cool thing about the audio recording capability is that it is automatically synced with the user's pen strokes, which is useful if you are following a presentation and want to record audio while taking notes.
As I experimented with the N2 smartpen, I really wanted to like it for its useful features that opened up new possibilities in my everyday work as a technology journalist. So far, though, I think it still needs more development work, particularly in getting the app to allow instant content edits on the screen of an Android smartphone or tablet on the fly.
The N2 also comes with a small side-opening notebook filled with special paper that also slips into the outer protective sleeve, as well as a spare "pen" tip, a charging cable and a brief user guide. Replacement pads of paper are available from Amazon for $22 for five, while replacement notebooks are priced at $15 for five notebooks. The special pads of paper include tiny printed dots and other marks that are used by the smartpen to track its location on the paper as the user writes, so the movements can be replicated exactly as images or letters on a smartphone or tablet display. The company said it hopes that in the future users will be able to buy replacement paper through office supply stores around the country.
The smartpen contains enough onboard memory to store up to 1,000 pages, according to NeoLAB Convergence. When connected to a smart device, the Neo notes app is capable of automatically archiving the notes by date, location and page.
Is the Neo smartpen N2 perfect? No, not yet, but it certainly offers some compelling possibilities. In the meantime, I hope that the company improves the app for Android users and continues to develop more capabilities for this interesting and easily portable input tool.
I'd love to hear if you have a favorite digital input tool that you use. Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I can share your experiences with our readers in the future.