I find it disconcerting to see my own sloppy handwriting turned into a pristine digital object, but unfortunately, it's an unavoidable experience while testing out Montblanc's new Augmented Paper. This €650 notepad-and-pen announced at IFA converts every scribble into a digital facsimile stored on your smartphone. It even turns your jottings into text notes, using the same handwriting-recognition technology found in Samsung's smartphones. But while it looks like a seamless experience in marketing shots — turning elegant, executive-class handwriting into elegant, executive-class notes — I'm not sure if it's ready for every day use.
The product itself is lovely. Montblanc is best known for its luxury pens, watches, and leather goods, and Augmented Paper certainly plays the part. You get Italian paper in an Italian notepad, which you slip into an Italian leather envelope. Most of the product's price (around €400) is taken up by a modified StarWalker pen, which Montblanc calls a writing instrument. The whole thing feels assured and classy, but I don't think it'd fare well in my backpack for a week or two.
A power button on the top switches it on and a discreet micro USB port on the bottom is used to charge it. There's also a button to the side of the pad which you press to transfer notes via Bluetooth onto your phone, and a pair of LEDS that signal various states — whether there are notes to be saved, notes being transferred, whether the battery's low, and so on.
The technology that actually does the note-saving isn't Montblanc's, but Wacom's and is called electro-magnetic resonance or EMR. A weak electromagnetic field is generated by the leather envelope and is used to detect the movement of the pen's tip. It's the same tech used in Lenovo's new Yoga Book, and Wacom has its own (much cheaper) digital notepads — including the newly-announced Bamboo Slate and Folio "smartpads." You can use any type of notepad or paper with these products, but they only work with the right modified pens. You can't just whip out a Bic and expect it to work.
This technology has been around for years, but for a first-time user like myself it's wizardry. It's fast, accurate, and charmingly indifferent to what you're writing. Are you making an important to-do list? Fine, it'll digitize that. Are you just writing the word 'poop' over and over, and then doodling something obscene in the margin? Cool, because that's now stored in your smartphone.
Montblanc's notebook is lovely, but the note-taking app is far from smooth
But unfortunately, your smartphone is where the system falls apart a little. Montblanc's app for Augmented Paper has some useful features, including a search function that works with assigned tags or just the content of your notes (hand writing is digitized as soon as it's transferred to the app, and is available to search straight away). But there's no option to organize by folders, and it's confusing to scroll through reams of pages, which often contain just a single note. That's because every new note get its own new page in the app — even if it's on the same page in the notepad itself. You can merge these notes in the app, but it's still hassle. And unlike the Yoga Book, there's no live conversion feature where you can take notes in the pad and watch the digital counterpart appear as you write.
For an inveterate note take like myself, all this seems like a tax on productivity. I create new to-do lists every couple of days, performing triage on the old list to re-prioritize my tasks. I use cheap A4 binder notebooks and nice pens, but they're not Montblanc-nice, and I'd hate to be stuck using (what feels like to me) a chubby ballpoint. I'm intrigued by digital note-taking, and am going to persevere with the Augmented Paper a while longer. But my first impression is that I'm better off with paper, a pen, and my messy scribbles.