Italian firm Moleskine is keen to keep our connection with writing alive in a digital era where we've become separated from the tactile wonder of ink and papyrus; this noble venture has gained the company a legion of fans who won't go anywhere without their fashionable Moleskine journal in tow. However, it also knows that you can't fight progress, and has made attempts in the past to bridge the gap between the humble pen and the smart device – the latter being perhaps the biggest threat to paper-based notebooks yet seen, especially with stylus-packing iPad Pro tablets grabbing headlines.
Moleskine jumped onboard the E-Pen revolution with the Smart Writing Set in 2016, but now the company has returned with a stand-alone device which is more flexible and versatile.
Price and availability
The Pen+ Ellipse doesn't come cheap – it's $179 (approximately £130) just for the pen itself, and you'll need one of Moleskine's $30 (approximately £20) "Paper Tablet" notebooks as they're the only ones which feature the Ncode smart paper required. You can order both direct from Moleskine itself.
The Pen+ Ellipse certainly feels like a premium product; the body is constructed from metal, and it's only the cap and the end which are made from plastic; the latter contains the Micro-USB charging port, power button and LED power indicator. The Pen+ Ellipse feels quite chunky in the hand, primarily because the nib houses not just the actual pen itself (you get a refill in the box), but also a small camera which tracks the Ncode paper, recording your scribblings.
Because of its rectangular body shape, the pen takes some getting used to; it has to be held in precisely the correct way for the camera to properly trace your movements, so there's little room for adjustment. Having said that, once you become accustomed to holding it in the desired manner, it's quite comfortable to use for prolonged periods.
The cap features a metal clip which is designed to slide onto the cover of your notebook – naturally, it's a perfect fit for Moleskine's own products, but it will clip onto any reasonably thick cover.
Performance and battery life
While you can use the Pen+ Ellipse as a "normal" pen right out of the box, it's reliant on two other elements if you want to fully harness its "smart" abilities – and let's face it, you're unlikely to have dropped this much money on something you're going to use in the same fashion as a pen that costs pocket change.
First up is the aforementioned Paper Tablet, which is Moleskine's fancy name for a notebook featuring specialised Ncode paper. This has small dots running across its surface which the Pen+ Ellipse tracks; it commits your doodles to memory and then, once connected to the M+ Notes smart device app, regurgitates them onto the screen. The pen is capable of recognising what page you've written on and even which book you've used, thanks to Ncode – Moleskine clearly expects you to buy into this ecosystem fully and fill tens of these journals with your handiwork.
Unlike Moleskine's previous attempts at smart writing sets, you don't need to have your pen connected to the M+ Notes app all the time for this magic to work. Instead, you can jot down some notes in your Paper Tablet and then sync the pen with the app later on the in day; this is incredibly handy for those moments when connecting to your phone simply isn't convenient, such as when you're in a meeting or on a busy train.
Your work is even recorded in real-time, so you can get the app to 'playback' what you've written or drawn. It's even possible to edit your notes and add audio, and there's a transcription option which does a moderately acceptable job of turning your notes into text which can then be copied and pasted into other documents. Finally, a small email symbol in the top-right corner of each page of the Paper Tablet allows you to quickly and effortlessly send your notes to other people – just point the pen's camera at it and M+ Notes app will automatically open your phone's desired email app, leaving you to fill in the address.
As a bridge between the paper and digital worlds, the whole thing works brilliantly – the only issue is that we're not entirely sure how much anyone would use such a system. If you're taking notes during a meeting then it's unlikely you'd want to send your rushed, near-illegible scribbles to co-workers, especially if you have particularly poor handwriting or write in shorthand. The transcribe feature obviously helps here, but it's not perfect and it might even be easier for you to simply use your notes to create an entirely fresh email, rather than trying to salvage what had been recorded by the Pen+ Ellipse.
The pen makes a lot more sense if you're an artist, and is an easy way of turning rough sketches and diagrams into high-quality digital files you can send. However, even then you'd have a hard time arguing that it's worth dropping so much cash on this – plus the cost of the Paper Tablets – when smartphone cameras are so good these days that a simple photograph of the page would suffice (assuming you don't want to edit the image afterwards, which is something you can do with the Pen+ Ellipse).
Another issue is battery life; the power cell inside the Pen+ Ellipse lasts for around 4 to 5 hours, which doesn't give you a lot of time in-between charges. If you're looking to take notes for an entire day, then you'll most likely find that the pen has run out of juice before you've finished. Charging time isn't excessive though, so you can always plug the pen into your laptop when you're not working to keep it topped-up.
Because you don't need to have the companion app running during use, taking notes with the Pen+ Ellipse soon becomes second nature. You don't really have to think about it; you use the pen as you would any other, writing and sketching on the Paper Tablet notebook the old-fashioned way – which, if you've become totally disconnected from the analogue world, is quite appealing in itself. Once your pen connects to the M+ Notes app all of your work is uploaded instantly and can be edited and shared in digital form. There's a real elegance to this setup, and you're able to turn roughly-taken jottings into informative notes using the built-in transcription system.
The battery life is really disappointing; during one day-long meeting we discovered that the Pen+ Ellipse simply couldn't stay the distance, even on a full charge. It's also very awkward to hold when you initially begin using it, due to its unorthodox shape – something that can't be helped as the pen has to make room for that all-important Ncode camera. Speaking of which, the Pen+ Ellipse comes with an added cost: it can only be used with Moleskine's Paper Tablet notebook, so don't expect to get jotting straight out of the box unless you have one of those.
Using a computer and phone on a daily basis does mean we're less likely to pick up a pen and just write, so a product which seeks to bridge this gap is a welcome one. However, as nice as it is to reacquaint yourself with pen-and-paper note-taking, it does sometimes feel like the Pen+ Ellipse is a solution in search of a problem. If you want to send notes to a work colleague then you can use apps which turn documents into PDFs and are entirely free to use, making this expense seem a little extravagant. It's arguably a much better option for artists who want to quickly turn their sketches into digital files they can share with clients – but even then, this is a purchase which requires some serious consideration, given the high cost involved.