It's never a good sign when meeting attendees all bring their laptops, and sit with the screens raised protectively in front of them -- with enough people in a difficult meeting, it's like facing an Anglo-Saxon shield wall.
Apart from creating a negative atmosphere, bringing a laptop into a meeting is also a barrier to concentration: there's always the temptation to check your email, surf the web, or even play a bit of Fortnite during the boring bits. It's far too easy to concentrate on the screen rather than the people talking or the issues being discussed. Tablets create something less of a barrier, but still carry the risk of digital distraction.
But if you go old-school and rely on pen and paper or a whiteboard to take meeting notes, someone has to laboriously retype or redraw everything, which either gets done so slowly that it's not worth having or so badly that it's not worth reading.
Moleskine's Pen+ Ellipse smart pen, when paired with a smart notebook, tries to solve this issue by creating a bridge between the analogue and digital worlds: it allows you to take notes or make drawings with pen and paper, which are then digitised so that they can be shared or modified.
The system is made up of three parts; the digital pen, the Moleskine app for your smartphone or PC, and the notebook filled with specially marked paper.
The pen looks like the sort of stylus you'd get with a tablet, crossed with a standard (if sizeable) ballpoint pen. A light small LED at the base tells you the pen is on, and rather than the ballpoint being located in the centre of the pen's barrel it's set slightly higher to make room for the infrared camera that's key to digitising your notes.
After charging the pen, you'll need to link it (via Bluetooth) to the Molekine Notes app on your device. It's available for iOS, Android and Windows 10.
The Smart Diary/Planner looks pretty much like a standard black Moleskine planner, but uses Ncode paper: if you look closely the pages are covered in small marks, which the pen's camera reads to know where it is.
Once everything is set up you simply start writing or drawing in the notebook. It doesn't take long to get over the pen's slightly unusual shape, which switches on automatically when you start writing. Forget to charge the pen and you lose the ability to digitise your notes, although the ballpoint still works, of course. Depending on how much you use the pen you're likely to need to charge it every couple of days or so. It also works on normal paper like a normal ballpoint, but your notes won't be digitised.
The pen will store your notes or images until you sync with your smartphone if you don't have it handy. Once your notes have been copied from the pen to the app you can have them transcribed, or search them, or tag them with a particular subject.
You can edit, highlight and share your saved notes -- as an image or a PDF -- by email or other methods; you can even post them to Twitter if you feel the need. Tick the envelope in the corner of the notebook and your scribblings will be sent to the email address of your choice.
The transcription option worked pretty well if I used my best handwriting but accuracy dropped off if I returned to my standard semi-legible scribble. That's less of an issue if you are storing notes for your own information, as you can probably read your own handwriting anyway.
Perhaps the most fun is the replay option which allows you to re-run how your notes came together. This might not seem very useful for simple note taking, but if you are drawing or brainstorming it's really quite handy to see how an image or a set of ideas come together. The ability to share these replays would be a useful option. In particular, artists will find it useful to digitise images easily and then use the playback option to see how their pictures have evolved.
You can also record sound to go along with the notes if you have your smartphone to hand, which could be useful during meetings or lectures. When you replay a session on the app it will highlight the notes you took at particular times during the recording (a quill actually traces over the notes so you can see exactly what you were writing at any point, although I found this irritatingly cutesy).
It's not cheap: the Pen+ Ellipse retails for £179, while the paper notebooks -- which Moleskine calls 'tablets' -- start at £25.99, making the whole package about the same price as a decent mid-range tablet. If you aren't interested in sketching, or sketching out ideas, you may find this an expensive package. As such, this pen/notebook set will appeal most to an executive or creative audience -- the sort of people who probably already have a Moleskine notebook or two about the place.
In my experience, the notes and great ideas you jot down in a fancy notebook in a meeting often end up squashed between the pages and forgotten. The ability to digitise your notes offers the chance of their being remembered and acted upon.
The Moleskine Pen+ Ellipse and Smart Diary/Planner is an unexpectedly charming package. Digital distractions are one of the biggest challenges to productivity, and to sanity, in the modern office. It's remarkably hard to concentrate when you're being bombarded with emails or tempted to check out just one more news feed.
Having an option to look or step away from the screen and still be productive is appealing. I found that using the pen and notebook was a good excuse to take a step back from the usual rapid pace of a busy news room and think a bit more strategically than is usually possible. And taking laptops out of those meetings makes it much easier to focus on people and ideas, which is surely why you are there in the first place.
We're used to cramming ever more apps and functions into our laptops and smartphones to make us more efficient; the attractiveness of Moleskine's setup is what it leaves out.