One minute review
Coming across vaguely reminiscent of a gadget that James Bond may have used decades ago, the Livescribe Symphony isn't the first smartpen by any means with Livescribe amongst many companies vying to make a great smartpen for users.
However, it is one of the few that seem to actually live up to their promises. Actually working very well, the Livescribe Symphony is an appealingly priced option – if of course pricier than regular a pen and paper. If you're keen to make your note taking a little more effective, this is a good solution.
It looks just like a standard pen, albeit a little chunkier, and it works much like one. Where it differs is that it has a camera pointed down at the nib so that it's able to record everything your pen writes before transmitting a digital version of the results to an accompanying app. At its simplest, it's 'just' a regular pen but that ruins the point if you're willing to spend the £119.99/$109.99 price tag that comes with it.
To get the most out of it, you'll need specially dotted paper too, with the Livescribe Symphony coming with a small notepad. But ideally, it's worth spending £24.99 on the executive journal pack so you have some dedicated paper ready for the task. It's possible to print your own out via the Livescribe website but if you're going to the expense of buying a smartpen, it makes sense to also chip in for a nice journal to use alongside it.
Setup is pretty simple. Simply plug the Livescribe Symphony into a power source so it powers on for the first time then download the app to pair it up with. We found the first method didn't work but the Livescribe app offers multiple ways to pair up and the second method worked very quickly. Crucially, when you do run into an issue, there always seems to be an alternative that means you soon get things working.
Once the app and smartpen are paired up, you can begin writing. It's just as simple and obvious as writing like normal. The only difference is that if the Livescribe Symphony app is next to you, you can see it appear on screen. The app and pen recognises when you're using different notebooks which is a great touch if you like to keep work and pleasure separate. The only downside is that seeing your handwriting appear on screen may soon remind you that it's not as pretty looking as it may have once been, but we're ok to skip vanity.
Once the information is on screen, you can choose to use the app's OCR function to switch it over to text or you can leave it as handwriting. It's also possible to share the content with multiple popular services like Evernote, Dropbox, Google Drive and OneNote.
You can record audio clips too although this is dependent on your phone's microphone as the Livescribe Symphony doesn't have one built-in, unlike earlier Livescribe models that automatically synced text with recorded audio. It's a useful bonus but, ultimately, you're probably considering this pen for its writing capabilities rather than anything else.
It works remarkably well at picking up your words speedily. The only real issue we came across was occasional pairing issues. Sometimes, after a while of not using it, we'd return to the Livescribe Symphony and find that we needed to repair the pen with our phone. It generally wasn't a big issue but once in a while, a hard reboot/putting the lid on the pen for a few seconds was necessary to get everything running smoothly again.
Overall though, we were quite impressed with the Livescribe Symphony. It might not be perfect and we have slight reservations upon the need to buy ink refills and (ideally) dedicated paper, but as this device seems best for note taking rather than essay writing, this shouldn't be an issue too often.
Price and availability
The Livescribe Symphony is priced at £119.99/$109.99 but you'll need to factor in additional running costs. Ink refills cost £9.99/$9.99 for a pack of 8 and notebooks cost from £8.99/$8.99.
The paper isn't vital as it's possible to print out the required microdot paper via the Livescribe website but it does help a lot. It's far more convenient to buy a notebook or journal and use that to write in than deal with the hassle of printing your own. Just bear in mind the added expense when budgeting accordingly.
The Livescribe Symphony looks like a regular pen. It's a somewhat chunky looking fountain pen but it still looks rather appealing and it's easy enough to grip onto, even with small hands and fingers.
Pull the pen lid off and you'll notice its fine nib looks like a more high-end pen than a simple ballpoint pen. That's reflected in how it writes. It glides across the paper well, not scratching at all, and feeling comfortable to use.
The other end of the pen is devoted to the USB connector. It's not the prettiest looking thing but you'll barely notice it in action, especially when you place the pen lid on that side. Ultimately, while you know this is a smartpen, you won't be punished with the sensation of carrying an oversized smart device when in the boardroom or taking notes in class.
Setup is fairly straightforward with the Livescribe Symphony. We simply plugged it into a power source then switched over to the iOS app to sync up. Its syncing process isn't like with usual Bluetooth devices as you have to do it via the dedicated app, but it's intuitive enough and tells you exactly what to do. A backup sync method has you holding your finger to the pen tip which is a bit uncomfortable but you should be fine with the conventional method of tapping on the 'device pairing' icon on your notebook or pad of paper.
We needed to re-sync a few times during use as the connection was occasionally lost after not using the Livescribe Symphony for a short time, but this wasn't too fiddly. Crucially, we didn't lose any information as the Livescribe Symphony promises to be able to store a whopping 1,200 A4 pages of content without needing to sync up. That's arguably where the Livescribe Symphony works best - with the idea that you don't need the app very often.
In a typically 21st century way, the pen needed a firmware update when we first synced up but it only took a few minutes and we can't see this occurring very often.
Once set up, you can get on with writing as if using a regular and conventional pen. It's no more complicated than writing in the normal manner with the Livescribe Symphony app doing the hard work for you.
Features and app performance
Much of the Livescribe Symphony's features are tied into how the Livescribe app works. As almost ordinary as it sounds, the Livescribe Symphony itself simply just works like a pen. It's not until you sync it up to the app that you can see where the magic happens.
For instance, the Livescribe app rather smartly divides up content according to which notebook you used to write in. We tested it across the bundled in notebook along with a chunkier lined journal, and found the app and pen correctly divided things up according to the different notebooks used as well as individual pages involved.
If you're trying to be more organised or you simply want separate notebooks for separate projects, this is immensely useful. Also, it's simply rather fancy that the pen is able to identify things so well.
If you'd rather view things according to everything the pen has recorded, you can always tap the Feed button and view the text en masse saving you the need to remember which notebook contained which information.
When you've written something up, you can simply double tap the resulting piece of text and the Livescribe app will use OCR to convert it to text. We found it was fairly accurate even with our dodgy scrawling handwriting but if you do come across an error, you can easily correct it yourself.
With each piece of text, you can also add tags or create reminders tied to it lending the Livescribe Symphony perfectly to making shopping or to-do lists so much more effective than before, allowing you to easily search through your notes.
There's a fair amount of flexibility here with the Livescribe Symphony even able to pick up drawings in many cases, not that this should be considered a replacement for a graphics tablet by any means.
Being able to record audio via the app is a useful bonus but it's not exactly a dealbreaker. If the Livescribe Symphony had a built-in microphone, that would be a different matter but we reckon the audio recording features are more there to supplement what you're writing, rather than as a key feature.
Similarly, the Livescribe Symphony is able to pick up handwriting recognition in 27 languages, but you'll need to switch between them rather than have the app pick things up on the fly and convert accordingly. Still, it's a nice option to have.
Should I buy the Livescribe Symphony
Buy it if...
You love the tactile experience of writing
We all spend much of our time these days typing but if you miss writing, this is the best of both worlds. You can enjoy writing again while still being able to easily move that information across to key cloud services.
You want an easy way to collect notes
If you're an avid notetaker or journal writer, the Livescribe Symphony enables you to continue to do this while also having a permanent record of what you write rather than relying solely on a physical item.
You need to write notes often for work
Regularly scrawl down notes in meetings and can't type instead? This is great for those moments when you need to simply write down a few words to be reminded of something crucial later on, and the pencast/dictaphone style feature backs that up if your phone is nearby.
Don't buy it if...
You don't write very often
It might sound obvious but if you simply don't like writing, this won't convert you. Stick to typing frantically on your phone or laptop during meetings.
You need a dictaphone
Being able to record voice messages is useful but it depends on your phone being present. This isn't a replacement for a full device with a built-in microphone.
You're on a budget
We don't think you'll need ink refills too often, or more paper too frequently, but it's something to consider. This isn't a one-time only purchase. It's like buying a printer and you'll need to replenish stock from time to time.
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