Livescribe Smartpen 3 Might Upend Your Workstyle, in the Best Way

REVIEW: Livescribe's newest smartpen brings written notes to life by lifting them off the page and making them sharable. Results vary, though.

Livescribe Smartpen 3

Rows of journalists with laptops teetering on their knees and meetings in which eye contact is sacrificed for the efficiency of typing while we listen and talk are commonplace. And for good reason.

The information our lives are organized around is largely housed in machines and apps and clouds. Writing on paper is slower and less efficient: a modern two-step in which the information, if important enough, will eventually need to be typed in somewhere.

There are, of course, holdouts—those of us who persist in keeping physical datebooks, or in hand-writing lists or reminders or first drafts, nudged by some tic of the brain while guiltily knowing there's an app for that.

But the research bears out for the pen-and-paper lovers. The physical act of writing by hand has effects unrelated to the content on the page.

"The practice of writing can enhance the brain's intake, processing, retraining and retrieving of information," Dr. Judy Willis, a neurologist and educator, wrote in a 2011 blog post that's received renewed attention, as the shift from pencils to keyboards in classrooms is nationally reconsidered.

Studies involving MRI brain scans have shown regions of the brain related to thinking, language and memory light up when people are writing, in ways that aren't replicated when they're typing or even tracing letters.

While these studies have largely focused on how children learn, any adult who has grasped for a word and found it missing may welcome the opportunity to strengthen the "nets"—Wilson's word—in his or her neural architecture.

Livescribe Smartpen 3

Livescribe makes zero brain-boosting health claims around its Livescribe 3 SmartPen.

What it offers is an iPhone- and iPad-compatible pen, a mobile app and special paper that enables business users and consumers to capture writing—and more—and share it with others, email it to themselves or share it with apps such as Evernote or OneNote. (Livescribe directly integrates with those two.)

The fountain-style pen has a camera beneath its tip that records each pen swipe, and the paper has very subtle dots. Every 3-square millimeters of the paper has a unique pattern that the words are connected to, enabling the software to perform searches and tell you where—in which notebook, on which page, on which line—you wrote something.

In the iOS app, a user can view his or her writing by Page or by Feed—a close-up version of the page that's broken up into what the company calls "snippets." Each snippet can be swiped at: Swiping in one direction offers the option of deleting the snippet, and swiping the other way converts the handwritten content to type. Snippets can be copied and pasted, tagged, turned into reminders or edited.

The option to edit (or correct, really) is an important one, since the transition from handwriting-to-type was, in my experience, rarely perfect—not because the software isn't very good, but because I have terrible handwriting that gets worse when I'm writing quickly to keep up with someone's speech.