For the past week or so, I've been taking all of my notes for meetings, interviews, to-dos, and more in a Moleskine notebook. That's not unusual at all – I've been jotting notes down in Moleskine's notebooks for years. What is different is that all of those notes are now on my iPad, exported to my Evernote account, and fully searchable from any of my digital devices. I've been using Moleskine's new Smart Writing Set, a $199 pen and notebook set that lets me capture thoughts in an analog fashion, while retaining the benefits of digital archiving and searching.
The center of the Smart Writing Set is the Pen+, a slender aluminum writing instrument with flat sides and a sensor to pick up anything I scribble down. It connects to an iPhone, iPad, or Android device via Bluetooth to transfer anything written into a digital format. The Pen+ is actually a rebranded Neo smartpen N2, a device that was launched with a Kickstarter campaign back in 2014.
The notebook in the set is called the Paper Tablet, and is roughly the size of Moleskine's large notebooks, but with more rounded edges. I cannot, unfortunately, put the Paper Tablet in my pocket like I can with the small Moleskine notebooks I usually use. (Moleskine said it is "evaluating new formats continuously and considers the technology very suitable for expansion into other formats" when I asked about other size options for the Paper Tablet.) Inside the notebook is a specially textured paper that the Pen can recognize and capture written text or doodles from. Replacement notebooks are available for $29.95 a piece.
The Set consists of a smart pen, notebook, and mobile app
Moleskine's new Notes app for iOS and Neo Notes for Android are where the hand-written notes get captured to a digital device. The apps can continuously capture notes on the fly, or later if the pen isn't connected while writing (the Pen+ can store up to 1,000 pages in its memory). Written notes can be transcribed to text, colors can be changed, and notes can be shared to iCloud, Google Drive, Evernote, and Adobe.
The Smart Writing Set is far from the first digital pen and notebook available. It's not even the first of this kind of system that Moleskine has attached its name to: the Livescribe 3's notebook is made by Moleskine and Moleskine has sold Evernote-branded notebooks for years (and will continue to do so). But in my tests it does work well: the battery in the Pen+ lasted all week, notes transferred to my tablet quickly and reliably, and the text transcription was able to mostly make sense of my crippled chicken scratch. My only complaint with the Pen+ is that it takes a moment to turn on automatically and start capturing my notes when I start writing, leading to a few dropped words from the start of the note when it's transferred to the tablet.
Of course, with devices like the iPad Pro, Galaxy Note 5, and Surface Pro 4, the question remains: does one even need this kind of (fairly convoluted) system when they can just jot down notes directly on their phone or tablet? I think there is room for the Smart Writing Set and its ilk: even though digital styli have gotten much better over the past few years, writing on glass still doesn't feel natural, and it's easier for me to jot something down in a notebook than to use my tablet or phone. And studies have pointed to possible benefits of hand-writing notes over typing them on a computer, such as greater memory retention.
I'm still not sure if I'm ready to plunk down $199 for a set of my own, however, as a $15 notebook, disposable pen, and my phone's camera essentially do the same thing, albeit with less flair. If you can get over the price, the Moleskine Smart Writing Set is available online and in stores starting today.