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Livescribe's Pulse smartpen store hands-on


There's little to add to my glowing review of the Livescribe Pulse smartpen I wrote for TUAW last year. This is one of those gadgets that you show people and it looks like magic. It kinda is magic, I think. But this year's model introduces an app store for the pen (plus some nifty paper products), making it a desirable platform for anyone who takes their notes seriously.

Read my review for the hardware scoop; the newer models now have an improved cradle. You can now charge and keep your computer asleep, for example. The desktop software, which allows you to sort and annotate your notes (plus many other tricks covered in that earlier review for the Mac version of the software) is similarly the same but slightly upgraded. What matters is what's in the pen, since that's what you'll be using every day.

The pen runs Java applications specifically made *for* the Pulse smartpen. Now, earlier there had been some tech demos for 3D audio (the pen records in 3D, and it is very cool) and what amounted to built-in utility apps. Stuff like calculators and a simple piano that you draw and tap to play. Like Apple launching the iPhone with a limited set of pre-built applications, the Pulse had only a few "apps" but that was fine. The app store for the pen opens the doors to a huge variety of other applications, much like Apple's store does for its mobile platform.

The Livescribe Store also looks and feels nearly identical to Apple's -- at first. There's more than just apps here; there are paper products (you use special paper with the pen) and pens themselves. When you go to check out, you notice the lack of polish. Every purchase, even the free stuff, requires about three times as many clicks at it takes to buy something on the iTunes App Store. I'm not sure why people don't understand this seemingly obvious notion that consumers want to consume quickly. Especially for a pen, you know? But the entire store is a website, really, so perhaps app purchasing can be streamlined later. For now, it is catering to the physical side of the store by requiring shipping info with your orders.



At any rate, kudos to Livescribe for mimicking the features of the iTunes store that are good, namely reviews and descriptions and images. Pricing is a simple affair, with plenty of $.99 apps but also a few pricier one, including an amazing app for learning Hebrew chants called MagicYad -- it costs $99.99 but appears worth the cost and is the most polished app I've seen.

There aren't a ton of apps on the store, as you might imagine. Some clever takes include a helicopter game that "flies" around the tiny screen as you scribble around in a box. The pen become a joystick, in a way. Guitar chord apps are there as well, although the free one I tried seemed to do little more than play a bunch of chords and show you where your fingers go. The other, which apparently allows you to write chords, got one 5-star rating and one 1-star rating. What do you do with that info? Time will tell, just as it did in Apple's store. A store they continue to tweak, I might add.

The apps are all quite small, so there's very little waiting involved. Once you dock your pen, it'll install immediately, although you can later delete it or turn off automatic sync. There's a handy meter indicating remaining memory, and of course this can affect your audio recording time. I don't think even heavy app users will have problems, since the apps tend to be small. Some notable exceptions would include the larger dictionaries with pronunciations. The American Heritage Spanish Dictionary, at $14.95, weighs in at 163MB. Still, it's not like the pen will be playing Doom or anything, so I doubt regular users will notice a hundred MB or so.

I didn't try the PC version of the desktop (which has a few extra tricks in it), but on the Mac desktop app there's a bit of a lag as you wait to log in to the account, and the other night I had trouble accessing their store (it appeared to be down time), but Livescribe's nascent platform shows promise. If you are a paper note-taker the technology is to drool for already, and the app store is really just icing on the cake.

Tags: app store, AppStore, gadget, hardware, hgg, java, pen, platform, pulse, reviews, smartpen