Road Worrier Road Tests The Livescribe

It's a pen, it's a voice recorder — and it's useful enough to warrant a place in my list of technology travel essentials. Road Worrier gets hands-on with the Livescribe.

As a working journalist, a voice recorder is an essential tool of the trade for recording interviews and conference presentations. Over the course of my career, I've moved from micro-cassettes to MiniDisc to entirely digital recordings, either on a SanDisk C240 handheld recorder and recorder or (in emergencies) on my BlackBerry. Those have several obvious advantages: I can back them up onto my PC, they don't chew through batteries, and I can store several days worth of recordings on them. And it takes up a lot less room, especially since there's no need for separate media.

Despite those benefits, there are still few tasks less entertaining than transcribing selected quotes from interviews, so I'm always looking for ways to speed up the process. In conference sessions, my favoured approach is to type notes directly onto my PC: in most cases, I can get all the material I need without having to check back on the recording. That doesn't work in face-to-face interviews, though.

It's in this context that I've found the Livescribe pen to be particularly useful. Shaped like a normal pen and not weighing much more, the Livescribe has a built-in recorder for storing voice recordings on its internal memory. (You can get better-quality results by using the supplied headset as a microphone, but in general I've found the built-in mic to be fine.) There's 2GB of storage in the standard model, which sells for around $240 in Australia.

The really neat trick is that when you take notes with the Livescribe while recording, what you write is linked to that moment on the audio recording. In playback mode, you can touch the pen on the relevant sentence and instantly have that moment played back.

Given that there's often only a handful of remarks I want to transcribe directly from any given interview, this makes the process much faster — a couple of key words scrawled on the page are all you need. I've been using the Livescribe in this way while on a business trip across the US and UK, and it has worked like a charm. (OneNote performs a similar trick if you use it to record, though it's never worked that well for me when I've tried it.)

The downsides? To take advantage of the Livescribe, you need to use special 'dot paper', which features a special pattern (more or less invisible to the naked eye) which helps the software link the voice recordings to what you've written. You can print your own, but the simpler method is to use one of the various notepad combos Livescribe sell. These aren't spectacularly expensive by designer notepad standards, but for someone who has subsisted for several years using nothing but free notepads from conferences and hotels, it's an added expense.

The Livescribe also uses a non-standard USB connection, so you need to carry around its own USB dock. This isn't ludicrously large, but my ongoing minimalist approach to packing forces me to weigh up every extra dongle that gets added.

Despite these minor quibbles (and a few battles with the installation process), the Livescribe is useful enough that it has been added to my list of gear that needs to be packed for every work excursion. I haven't talked about the pen's ability to run extra applications either, which is an area I'll explore another time.

While I've been mostly testing the Livescribe for journalistic purposes, I can see plenty of uses for it in the wider world. University students carefully taking notes in lectures are an obvious target. In workplace meetings, it would also be a useful way of building a to-do list, noting down key tasks assigned to you and knowing there's a recording of exactly what you were instructed to do if you need to double-check.

Got your own Livescribe tale to tell? Share it in the comments.

Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman is not surprised that the Livescribe's limited handwriting recognition was defeated by his illegible scrawl. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.


    I've started using mine for study - while I dont necessarily capture audio (I study remotely) - its great for creating a backup of my study notes that i can access at work or god-forbid if I was to lose them.

    I do a lot of consultancy work with organisations getting them to adopt social media and embed it in their working practices.

    The lifescribe is an amazing way of catching people in full flow of their passions, you can then either transcribe the "sound bites" or often actually replay the audio as part of the feedback session.

    People love the "seriousness" the fact you are recording them adds to their interviews. What was a "chat about training" becomes a possibility to influence the future of the company, and they rise to the occasion. I haven't had one person yet who refuses to be recorded.

    And essential tool for engaging staff in change. It gives everyone their say. Literally.

    I wouldn't be without mine.


    This is one of those gadgets that you can't quite believe until you see it and try it. It's fantastic to instantly recover the exact words spoken at a meeting months ago. Ideal to nail those who conventiently "forget" what they have agreed to do.

    It's also fantastic for producing quickie tutorials on various topics, where you draw stuff on a page and speak to it.
    You can then upload the result on the net, and share it with the world. Like This.

    You could also capture it, and put it on Youtube.
    cheers, Eric G.

    This has the potential to become a fantastic lifelogging tool! I'm very happy with my 4GB model and wish that I could use it daily. However, I feel that while the hardware is incredible, as a company they seem to be dropping the ball with the software. By locking you in to their Livescribe Desktop and not releasing the hardware specs there may never be the Linux support that a lot of us need or the flurry of third party apps that could have made the Pulse Pen a big social media hit with integration to services like Evernote.

    Will apps like SoundPaper etc. that allow notetaking and recording on the iPad make Livescribe less fantastic or eventually replace it?

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