Best Smart Pen of 2020
Combining the most accurate text transcriptions in the test with our favorite app and a comfortable writing experience for most, the Neo Smartpen N2 wins top honors. The pen glides over the paper like a normal ball point pen but captures your notes and records audio like a tool from James Bond's arsenal. If you're connected to the app, you can watch yourself writing or drawing in real-time. If you take notes when you aren't connected, they automatically load the next time you sync up. The app is pretty great, pulling up each notebook or planner you're working with automatically and letting you scroll between them; it's like having a backpack full of notebooks in your phone. This app transfers writing to text more easily than the rest, one full page at a time. It's also intuitive to record or play back audio and share any page to a cloud service or email address.
The N2, like most of these smart pens, requires special micro-dot paper to record your writing using it's integrated sensor. (A sly benefit is that both Neo Smartpens work with the Moleskine+ notebook. Both brands offer a planner that syncs to Google Calendar, iCal, or Outlook.) The pen's triangular shape is meant to help you keep the sensor oriented correctly. It can take time to get used too, especially for folks with smaller hands. But we do find the positioning assistance helpful (spinning the pens can mess up the recording) and all of our testers got used to it. This pen has the shortest claimed battery life in the test, but you can use it while it's charging. If you need a reliable, comfortable smart pen to give you the best text transcription every time, this one's for you.
The Wacom Bamboo Folio Smartpad smart pen is the most comfortable and pleasant to wield in the test. It's also highly accurate, making it a delightful way to digitize your notes, doodles, and schematics. This is a three-piece writing and drawing system. You've got your (1) folding portfolio, which houses a signal receiver under (2) the notebook pad on the right, and then there's the (3) Folio pen itself. The pad tracks the pen's movements across the paper, eliminating the need for a senor in the pen itself, so you can use it (i.e., twirl it around) like a normal pen. It's compact and slightly triangular with a soft rubber feel that works well for all of our testers. The Folio pad recognizes and digitizes all but the faintest of strokes. You can change line thickness and color with app-based editing tools and send them on to Wacom's cloud or a storage or sharing location of your choosing with the Wacom Inkspace App. We also appreciate that you can use any A5 notebook that's not more than 50 pages and fits in the securing slot. The Folio turns on automatically when you open it. Since we forgot to turn on the similar Wacom Bamboo Spark a few times and lost notes, we appreciate that.
Downloading and sorting the information you capture can be trickier. The Folio works best when linked to the app so you can press the Folio's save button to record each page as you go. You can also take notes offline, but the device has no idea which page you're on at any given time. So when you upload multiple pages of scribblings after the fact, they show up as layers stacked on a single page. It's an alarming graphic. You then pull the pages apart with a clunky "split" feature, using a slider to pull out one layer at a time; not our favorite for offline use. The sensor pad is also small, limiting your space for expression. And you can't record audio or draw on the back of a piece of paper unless you rip it out to flip it over. It's not perfect, but this pen is our favorite to write and draw with, and the folder keeps your system organized and protected.
Though we prefer the Neo Smartpen app to the Livescribe version, the Symphony Smartpen offers top-tier transcription accuracy and very easy to navigate audio files. The pen is round, smoother and more comfortable than the Neo M1+ and somehow side steps that pen's slight loss of text transcription accuracy. The quality text, in-app editing capability, and easy sharing options at a lower price point are enough to make a strong argument for this pen. But, what we really appreciate, is how well the app organizes your audio recordings, which it calls "pencasts". Where the Neo app keeps your recordings tucked away in each notebook, Livescribe pulls them out in a separate menu, making them very easy to find. You can also download videos that show your writing in real-time along to the audio.
While the app makes it easier to deal with audio files, it makes it harder to transcribe larger stretches of writing to text than the Neo app family. You can only convert "snippets" of your writing to text at a time, by swiping left or right on a separate "Feed" screen tab. It's easy enough to accomplish, but it adds annoying extra steps. After transcribing the text, you can merge the sentences back together, if they were written on the same page. If you're more interested in recording your handwritten notes and audio files than converting handwriting to text, this is an excellent choice.
The Neo Smartpen M1+ is one of the few we tested that is rounded, like a normal pen, making it very easy to write with. Other than the pen shape, the M1+'s functionality is largely indistinguishable from the Neo N2 and it costs less. They both turn on when you start writing or press power and upload new writings to their shared app in real time when connected or whenever they are paired after the fact. You can transcribe your writings into text one page at a time, edit your line strength and colors in the app, and record audio to sync with your notes. Scribblings are handily arranged by notebook (as well as Google Calendar or Outlook-synced planner) to easily distribute around your digital world.
Unfortunately, if you forget that you're writing with a smart pen, you're apt to absent-mindedly spin it in your fingers. Writing with the pen upside down can affect accuracy since it records and digitizes your writing using an integrated sensor. We suspect that's the reason that the M1+ was less accurate than the top performers in the test, the Neo Smartpen N2 and the Bamboo Folio. All told, this is an excellent option at a lower price point. You'll just have to do a little more editing in post.
The Wacom Bamboo Spark is nearly identical in form and function to the Folio, using the same three-part system but with a snap-in spot for an iPad Air 2 (which we didn't use). The pen is pretty good, a normal size and shape, and easy to use. You don't have to hold it in a particular orientation since it works by communicating with the sensor pad instead of an integrated sensor. And you charge the folder, not the pen. That also means that the pen is more durable than many of the other options. Just like with the Folio, you get 5GB of free storage on Wacom's cloud or you can share files to a storage location of your choice. You can also edit art and digitize text in the app and use any A5 notebook paper you'd like.
Unlike the Folio, you have to turn the Spark on to start recording text. We forgot that a few times and lost data. But if it's the only smart pen you're using, it won't be a problem. The bigger issue for us is that the power button blinks blue everytime you pick your pen up from the page. It's bright enough to disturb our eyes, but isn't anything that a piece of tape won't fix. Like the Folio, it works best when you're paired with the app and remember to press the upload button after each page. If you don't, you'll have to peel the layers of writing apart in the app, which is both very doable and very annoying. For this price, a little loss of accuracy, a less comfortable pen, and a few hacks to cover an annoying light and to remember to turn the power on may be well worth it.
The Rocketbook Smart Notebook and Pen is reusable in a way that actually saves paper. It's a notebook/whiteboard mashup with sneaky tech features. Recording your notes, drawings and charts is a three-step process — write, scan, and send. The pen is small, easy to grip, and feels like writing with a thin-tipped Sharpy on plastic. Its eraser works perfectly, and you can buy all sorts of pretty colors or just edit them in with the app. The app scans your pages by picking up the corners of the Rocketbook, cutting out any background. Then you can send pages to cloud storage or set up the shortcut symbols at the bottom of each page to do so automatically. You can also capture whiteboard notes by placing reusable stickers that Rocketbook calls Beacons in each corner.
The plastic pages don't feel like normal paper and they have a toxic plastic smell that hangs around for a few weeks. Like with most slick writing surfaces, it takes 15 seconds or so for the ink to dry, so it's easy to smudge if you're not careful (part of why we love that eraser). The notebook pages don't rip easily, but the notebook will need respect to last. If you forget to wipe the pages off for about a month, the ink may stain. Rocketbook recently added a Optical Character Recognition (OCR) feature to convert writing into text. It's the least accurate in the test, but, hey, for this price, it's a start. If you don't need high-quality text translations and are okay with whiteboard level optics, this is a great product that could be super useful for kids, especially when learning remotely.
Moleskine brings its trademark quality to the Pen+ Ellipse and its entire smart writing ecosystem. The pen itself is sturdy and writes well, picking up fainter lines than most in drawings. The Moleskin Notes App is powered by NEO Smartpen, so it's the same impressive app that both the M1+ and N2 use. While writing, you can bounce between pages (which the pen recognizes with sensors) as you wish, sync audio recordings to writing, and edit your drawings or writings in the app, changing colors and line thicknesses. Just like the other pens, you can search your notes by date, keywords (if you have transcribed the page you are looking for), and tags if you added them after the fact. Moleskin also offers a compatible notebook built to pull your illustrations directly into Adobe Creative Cloud and a planner that syncs with an online calendar, like Google Calendar.
Unfortunately, Moleskine also brings its trademark high prices into this brave new writing world. The pen only works with specific Moleskine+ notebooks, so you'll have to keep up the habit. The pen is awkward at first, with a smooth, rectangular surface that feels unnatural. Most of us got used to it after a while, but it's easy to accidentally tilt to get a good grip. Written and text transcription accuracy is still pretty good, though not top-tier. The battery life is one of the shortest in the test. If you remember to turn the pen off every time you stop using it (otherwise it powers off after 20 min) it makes life easier. It all works well enough, but there are better options particularly since the Neo pens are less expensive and still work with the Moleskine+ notebooks.
The Livescribe Echo is a cool concept that's been surpassed by more streamlined tech for all but a very specific set of needs. It's saddled with real logistical hurdles that keep us from recommending it. The pen is big. It works well for our testers and feels like writing with a shapely marker, but we can imagine others finding it uncomfortable. The Echo's most unique and intriguing aspect is it's integrated ability to record and playback audio. You control the audio and playback by tapping symbols on proprietary paper. When you point to any section of your notes or doodles, the audio recorded while you were writing automatically plays. It's a neat trick for auditory learners or interviewers.
You can also export the audio as video files (replaying your writing as you listen) or on their own, but since the audio quality isn't top notch, they aren't super useful. The built in microphone works well in small settings, like a small board room or a one-on-one interview, but they pick up so much white noise that it's unlikely to be useful in a lecture hall. Mostly, we hear our own writing when using this feature. This pen doesn't pair with an app, so you have to download desktop software, which is hard to do since the quickbook guide takes you to the wrong website. We had to email the company to find the right site. Our first upload yielded a number of corrupt files, which we needed more help to fix. It seems like support for this tech could fall off the edge of Livescribe's universe quickly. With no text transcription and tech features on life support, this pen is not a good idea for those who don't need the integrated playback.
The NewYes offers a lot of the same features as it's competitors, but it doesn't deliver the same standard of performance. Like most of the pens that use your phone to record audio, it does a good job. And when you play the recording, the app replays your note writing in real time, helping you navigate the audio file. Alongside the record button are editing tools to add to or erase your notes. They are easy to get wrong at first, and we accidentally erased a large portion of a page before we got used to them. When taking notes, the pen lets you bounce around your notebook like the top tier options, but it's not flawless, and one of our sentences found its way into the middle of our drawing test. It is fairly accurate if you hold it correctly, but that's a big IF.
This pen is just so darn hard to write with. It's a slippery, cumbersome triangle and you have to hold it fairly upright to get the camera to capture text correctly. In fairness, the pen is easier to hold when straight up and down. But it's not natural, and writing with our type-trained hands is hard enough. This alone ruined the NewYes for our testers. The app can also feel glitchy. It doesn't automatically sync your notes you took while offline like its competitors, and it's not intuitive to figure out how to do so manually. Sharing data is also harder. It's even difficult to turn this pen off, you have to replace the cap just right, and there is no good guidance for how to do so. The other options do it better.
Why You Should Trust Us
For the seven years that Clark Tate has been writing for a living, and the six she spent as a restoration ecologist and coordinator before that, the woman has taken a lot of notes and ripped through a scary stack of notebooks. She's always torn between the storage benefits of typing notes and the joys of leaving home without a laptop and taking breaks to draft hand-written articles sprinkled with sand on remote beaches. She's basically been dreaming about digital pens her entire life, and could't wait to get her well-developed writing hands on a large selection of them at once. As a journalist, she uses a toolbox of devices to record phone calls and interviews and demands seamless tech — because the robots should work for us, not the other way around.
To test these pens, our write-happy testing team toted them to all of our favorite outdoor scribbling spots. We took notes during meetings, conference calls, and interviews for weeks. We drew and journaled and packed the pens up in bags to see how they handled themselves in the real world. To test accuracy, we (1) wrote out Maya Angelou's famous poem "Still I Rise" in our normal, sloppy handwriting, converted it to text, and counted the number of missed words, (2) did the same for a short Hafiz of Shiraz poem that we wrote carefully and clearly. To test audio recording functions, we took notes on Sir Michael Caine's reading of "IF" by Rudyard Kipling.
Analysis and Test Results
Smart pens have been evolving rapidly over the last decade. Some are falling behind the tech curve while others continue to rise to the occasion. Here we explain what we learned about how accurately they convert our scribbles to text, how easy they are to use, and how long their batteries hang in there. Overall, these are super useful tools when in the right hands.
Handwriting can make studying more effective and experts laud the mental health benefits of journaling, and of journaling about gratitude in particular. According to the Mayo Clinic, reducing screen time can help you lose weight, improve your health and relationships, free up time to try new things, and put you in a better mood.
These pens are, for the most part, good at picking up pen strokes. All of the award-winning options transfer your writing and art faithfully. The Moleskine did cut out a line or two of our art challenge, part of the reason it didn't earn top marks. They also offer options to adjust the pen pressure required to record its movements.
What we mean by accuracy is how well each pen's app translates your writing into text. This has a lot to do with how easy it is to use your pen correctly. If it's hard to maintain the orientation and angle necessary for the pens to properly capture your handwriting or drawing, accuracy will suffer. We break down how easy each pen is to hold and wield in the next section; here we're just talking results.
The Neo Smartpen N2, Wacom Bamboo Folio, and Livescribe Symphony earn top marks here. All of these systems perfectly recorded our drawings and only missed a few words here and there in the transcription tests, even the one where we wrote in our normal (read: terrible) handscribbles. Impressively, the N2 correctly recognized the title of the work, which we underlined just to be twerpy. The extra marking threw most of the pens off.
There's a big asterisk on the Folio's success, however. It works best when it's connected to the app and you press the folder's upload button between every page. In the first writing test, we wrote offline and then uploaded all the data to the app. Somehow, we lost a middle section of the accuracy test. This could have happened while we were teasing apart each page of text written offline, which the app piles on top of one another on a single page. We did the test again with everything connected, and it worked great.
The Moleskine Pen+Ellipse and Bamboo Spark both performed well, but missed more than 10 words, whereas the top performers missed no more than five words in our transcription accuracy tests.
Ease of Writing
The better your handwriting, the more accurately your words, drawings, and charts will be recorded. This can be challenging in our keyboard culture. Luckily our testers are analog and like putting pen to paper. We wrote out notes for weeks to find out that some of these smart pens are much easier to hold and move with precision than others.
The Bamboo Folio is an absolute dream in this regard. The solid black pen has a false cap that you twist to reveal an ink cartridge. It's coated with smooth, easy to grip rubber and is vaguely triangular, calling to mind a charcoal. It puts you instantly in an artistic state of mind. Because the sensor is in the pad, not the pen, you can hold it any which way you want, making it the easiest pen to use in the test. Similarly, the Rocketbook option is as simple as a regular marker. As a bonus, you don't have to worry about this one getting wet, breaking, or holding a charge.
The Livescribe Symphony, Neo M1+, and Bamboo Spark are next in line. All are round, like regular pens. As such, they are easy to hold. Of them, the finish on the Symphony is the most pleasant. The problem with these pens being round, is that it's easier to let the sensor in the pen rotate sideways or upside down, making it less accurate. (This seemed to be less a problem for the Symphony.)
To combat the twirling issue, pens like the Neo N2, NewYes, and Moleskine Ellipse take on unconventional shapes. The first two are triangular, and the Ellipse is rectangular. The issue is that writing with these feels weird for everyone at first. The N2 is the easiest to adjust to, with better proportions and a silky but easy to grip finish. The Moleskine gets there eventually. The NewYes does not.
Is the App User-Friendly?
Between syncing to pens, uploading notes taken offline, editing and sharing files with friends and cloud storage services — we put each smart pen's app through its paces to find out which is the easiest to navigate. All of the app-based pens provide tools for you to edit your text and images. It's a fun and useful feature that works well in our award winning field.
Each smart pen ecosystem requires you to write in their branded notebooks, excepting the two Wacom options, which work with any standard A5 notebook paper. The branded notebooks have faint microgrid patterns that help the pens map their movements . The Neo, Moleskine, Livescribe, and NewYes apps all recognize and automatically register each new notebook you use, so they record your notes on the appropriate page and in the appropriate book. If you're synced with the app while writing, they do all this in real time. The first three apps accomplish this flawlessly. We ran into a few hiccups with the NewYes.
We liked Neo Notes and Moleskine Notes best. Both apps are powered by Neo Smartpen and are virtually identical. The app format services the Neo N2, Neo M1+, and Moleskine Ellipse pens, so we got plenty of practice using it. We found it to be the most user friendly and seamless for every task (other than downloading audio files, which we cover in the Features section).
The app is quite similar to Livescribe's, which also makes it easy to navigate your notes and share them. The difference is that Neo's option is more visually appealing and streamlined, and that it lets you transcribe an entire page of notes into text at a time without much fuss. Livescribe breaks your text into "snippets" in a separate tap and has you swipe them into text one at a time. Then you have to merge them back together or send them to your email or cloud service separately. It's not hard. It's not elegant either.
While the Neo app shines at transcriptions, the Livescribe makes it easier to find your audio files, calling them out separately from your notebooks in the main menu. You can tag your recordings in the Neo app to make them more searchable, but it is an extra step.
The most important feature in this test that not of all the smart pens share is the ability to record audio. If you're taking notes at a conference, in a meeting, or during an interview, it's so much easier to relax and take in the information if you know you can go back over it later. The Neo, Livescribe, Moleskine, and NewYes pens all offer this feature. Of these, only the Livescribe options differ substantially from the competition.
The rest of the field provides an easy to activate microphone on the app screen whenever the pen and app are connected. Once you press the record button, your phone will pick up any audio around you and sync it to the notes you take. When you go back through your notes on the app, you can tap words to jump to the associated audio. The Windows version of the Neo app does download audio files, but the iOS and Android versions do not. But, we don't often find the need to share audio files and app-based recording worked well for most note taking purposes.
The two Livescribe pens, make it much easier to export audio files. The Livescribe app employed by the Symphony lets you download a video of your notes, using your note-taking as a visual and the lecture as a soundtrack. Riveting. The Echo pen, which employs desktop software, lets you choose between a video or an isolated audio file. The Echo is also the only pen that has an internal microphone and speaker, allowing you to playback any portion of a lecture by tapping on the physical page of notes.
If you get into the habit of plugging your pen into your commuter in between meetings or lectures, you won't have to worry much about battery life. If you need your pen to last through long days with few breaks, it may be very important to you.
The Rocketbook really wins this one. Since it doesn't require a battery to operate, you'll never run out of juice. Second in line is the Livescribe Symphony, which claims that it offers up to 10 hours of writing time. While we didn't write with it for 10 hours straight, we did power all the pens up and kept waking them up every 15 minutes (most of them shut off automatically after 20 minutes) for 7 hours. Then we checked their charge. While the batteries will drain faster when you're using them, this gave us some extra evidence to weigh alongside our day-to-day experiences.
The Symphony still had 99% of its battery left. It also has a very rapid auto shutoff. Since it doesn't have a power button, it turns on automatically when you start writing and goes to sleep within a few seconds of being set down, this makes for very efficient charge preservation.
The Wacom Bamboo Folio claims 8 hours of charge time, but we're skeptical. We ran down the battery a few times during testing. There is no way to check charge levels until the low battery warning light is blinking, though, and this didn't happen in our 7 hour test simulation.
Most of these pens are powered by lithium-ion batteries. Remember that they shouldn't be tossed out in household trash. You can easily search online to find a battery drop-off site near you. You might have a collection point near you.
The Neo Smartpen N2 and M1+ only claim 5 and 5.6 hours of continuous writing time, respectively. So you know you can't expect more than that. After 7 hours of activation every 15 minutes, the N2 was down to about 50% and the M1+ was still at 91%. We still love the N2, especially since it works while you're charging it.
So there you have it, the smartest pens money can buy. We hope this thorough review helps you find the perfect fit for your fingers and the right system for your notetaking needs.
— Clark Tate