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.