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Photos: Livescribe Pulse Smartpen

Digital pens have been around for a while, without ever reaching the mainstream. Take a look at the Pulse Smartpen from Livescribe.
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1 of 4 Sandra Vogel/ZDNET

To write on paper or to enter text on the keyboard? That's often a difficult question to answer. Pen and paper lets you draw quick mind-maps and diagrams, and is less obtrusive in meetings than a clacking keyboard. On the other hand, input to a PC makes for easy manipulation later.

The Livescribe Pulse Smartpen aims to straddle both worlds. You write with it on (special) paper, and an infrared camera tracks what you write or draw for later transfer to a PC. A microphone makes sound recordings. And there's even a little computer on-board that can run applications.

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2 of 4 Sandra Vogel/ZDNET

The Pulse Smartpen is based on technology from Anoto, a Swedish company whose digital pen system made its debut in the 1990s. You have to write onto special paper so that the infrared camera that sits near the pen nib can record its progress around a network of tiny dots that help it recognise what you write.

The paper has 'cues' along its bottom edge that you use to give instructions to the pen. These include setting bookmarks, starting and stopping recording and moving through menus on the pen itself.

The pen comes with a docking station and software that you download from the Livescribe web site, which allows you to transfer notes onto the computer for later use.

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3 of 4 Sandra Vogel/ZDNET

There are downsides. The pen itself is rather more chunky than the average pen. You have to write on the special Livescribe paper for it to make recordings of your jottings.

If you want to turn those jottings into editable text, you have to buy an additional application. The pen can only interface with one computer, so if you use several computers you'll have to designate one as its machine.

Also, every element of using the Livescribe Pulse Smartpen has a price.

The pen itself comes in two versions, one with 2GB of memory and one with 4GB. It's available from places like Amazon and Play.com (more are listed at Livescribe's web site). At Amazon.co.uk, the 2GB pen was listed at £119.99 and the 4GB pen at £149.99 at the time of writing.

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4 of 4 Sandra Vogel/ZDNET

Then there is the special paper. Again at Amazon.co.uk, a four-pack of A4 notebooks of 100 pages each costs £21.89. A pack of four A5 notebooks costs £14.95. You can print your own paper too, and there are instructions online, but this has its own cost implications. In time, you'll also need to buy pen refills.

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