How to digitize your regular writing
Digital pens have been around for a long time, but only in the past few years have we seen any that work smoothly. There are two basic types. Two-piece models utilize a receiver clipped to the top of a piece of normal paper. As you write, the receiver detects pen strokes and translates that to digital data. The problem is that these pens rarely detect strokes across the whole page and usually aren't very accurate. Solo pen models have a camera or other sensor built in and use special paper with tiny dots to accurately record strokes. The Echo and Sky Smartpens from Livescribe are the most popular and well-known of this type right now, for good reason.
Digital pens have been around for a long time, but only in the past few years have we seen any that work smoothly.
Both the Echo and Sky record pen strokes and audio simultaneously and sync the audio to what you write. With a tap, owners can start the audio at the exact moment of a pen stroke, no scrubbing back and forth to find the exact moment you need to hear. Livescribe makes it easy to transfer the smartpen data to a computer or to cloud services, where it exists as a digital copy of your handwriting as well as a synced file containing both the writing and the audio. The difference between the two models is that the Sky is Wi-Fi enabled and syncs directly to the cloud where owners can view and manage notes in Evernote. The Echo requires a wired USB connection to transfer data to a desktop app, and can then sync to Evernote, other note taking programs, and cloud services. While we appreciate the ease and mobile-friendly wireless component to the Sky, we still recommend the Echo over it. That connection to the Livescribe Desktop app and the ability to send to multiple third-party apps is the biggest reason why. Evernote is widespread, but it doesn't offer handwriting recognition (from smartpens) or ability to convert to editable text. MyScript for LiveScribe by Vision Objects does and integrates smoothly with Livescribe's app. This is particularly useful for students, researchers, and journalists.
Going digital is about more than just having access to your notes everywhere, it's also about what you can do with those notes that you can't by sticking to analog. Tagging, searching, organizing, and converting are all important features that digital pens bring to the equation, but key drawbacks often keep pen lovers away.
The Echo and Sky are limited to ballpoint pen tips; fast writers who prefer the smooth ease of gel ink or fountain pens won't likely find the experience satisfying. People particular about the kinds of pen and paper they use don't have to switch to a smartpen to get the benefits of digital enhancement. The best solution we've found is Evernote's new Page Capture feature. With Page Capture you can use a smartphone with a decent camera (5-megapixels at least, 8 or 13 is better) to scan a journal page and save it as a high resolution image. Evernote then scans page captures and attempts to recognize the handwriting and index the words so relevant pages show up when you search all notes. The recognition isn't as good as you'd get from a digital pen that records data about your pen strokes, so if your handwriting is somewhat messy the results won't be as useful. It's still better than any other non-digital pen based solution.
Page Capture will work with any piece of paper or journal. To improve the accuracy of the recognition you can buy special Moleskine notebooks made for Evernote. In addition to ensuring that the journal page is aligned correctly, the notebooks also contain areas for auto-tagging. These notebooks aren't necessary to getting a good capture. The key thing is a well-lit and straight on shot of the page. This can be hard to get by hand.
For the most accurate captures and scans, we suggest investing in or making a scan box for smartphones. Scan boxes hold a smartphone steady at a good length and at the right angle for accurately capturing pages, both handwritten and printed. Inexpensive, portable models like the StandScan Pro are easily folded up and stored away. The more bulky and less mobile ScanDock comes with a much higher price, but the great lighting and color accuracy make it worthwhile for people who need to capture or scan documents of all types at high quality using a smartphone.
(Read our in-depth comparison of ScanDock and StandScan.)