The scoop: Pulse Smartpen, by Livescribe, about US$200 (for 2GB version; 1GB version costs $150).
What it is: Making its debut at DEMO 08 earlier this year, this digital smartpen is able to record users handwriting on special paper (tiny dots on the paper record the pen's position), which can then be transferred to a computer via USB for review later. Unlike others in this category, the Pulse includes extra features, such as the ability to record audio alongside the handwriting, making this a great device for students taking notes during a lecture, or anyone taking notes during a long meeting.
Why it's cool: It's the additional features and applications on the pen that make it more interesting than similar devices. The pen's digital audio recorder makes it easy to record the audio of a presentation or lecture, which then synchronizes the audio with the handwriting on the page. When reviewing your notes, you can just click on your handwritten notes and the audio replay will jump to that point of the presentation. Gone are the days of fast forwarding or rewinding tapes to get to the 10 seconds of audio that you're looking for.
Once your notes have been uploaded into the Livescribe Desktop application, you can review them and listen to the audio, and even upload them to Livescribe Online to share. The community of Pulse users has uploaded several different "pencasts," which offer cool alternatives to the traditional Webcast. Need to explain how to do something to a colleague? Write it down with the pen and talk about the procedure, then upload it to Livescribe and e-mail your colleague the results. Notes without audio can be sent via PDF file.
The extra applications on the pen are interesting but are included only as an example of the pen's potential once developers start building applications for the pen. For example, the language-translation demo lets you write out some sample words in English and then receive the translation in Spanish, Mandarin, Arabic or Swedish. But you can only write the sample words, it doesn't provide the entire dictionary available yet. Similarly, the piano (draw a piano keyboard on the paper and the pen plays the notes when you touch the appropriate key on your drawing) and movies application are cute but not the pen's primary purpose.
Some caveats: Because the pen is relatively new, there are a few bugs with the software and online aspects of the community. For example, I would have liked the ability to get my audio recordings in MP3 format, but there's no way to access the raw files. Similarly, any "pencasts" that I create, while done in the Flash video format, are inaccessible anywhere other than the Livescribe Online site. As far as I can tell, there's no handwriting-recognition application yet that takes your notes and digitizes it into a Word processing application, for example.
Your overall enjoyment of this will depend a lot on how often you are taking notes or listening to presentations that you then need to share with colleagues or have stored in digital format. For college students and business users who have lots of meetings, this is a no-brainer. Casual users may want to wait until there are more applications for this pen.
Grade: 4 stars (out of five).