Review: Equil Smartpen 2, a Bluetooth-connected ink pen with real-time syncing

Posted:
in General Discussion edited November 2014
Smartpens have long been seen as the ultimate savior of cultures struggling to make the digital transition. AppleInsider took a look at the Equil Smartpen 2, one of the leading competitors, offering compatibility with both iOS and OS X.




This review didn't start out as a mini-treatise on the plight of the smartpen; it only devolved into that after much consideration and time.

Using a smartpen -- any smartpen -- for any serious pursuit will quickly make their flaws stand out. Some are uncomfortable to write with; some fail on the basic premise of "being a pen"; and many just don't work.

Most people born in the last 30 years grew up with computers. Once we leave school -- and often, while we're still there -- we simply don't hand write things. This leads many of us to have handwriting that isn't simply bad, it's downright illegible.

Smartpens don't alleviate that plight very much, which severely curtails their usefulness. Despite decades of research, optical character recognition technology remains in its nascent stages; excellent for recognizing already-typeset text but nearly useless in other situations.

So what are smartpens good for? In short, people who take lots of notes that include lots of diagrams -- think designers, architects, and the like.

That's not to say others can't benefit, but anyone hoping that a smartpen will make their Catalina Wine Mixer sales notes available on a Google search appliance without some additional effort will be disappointed.

How about those who fall within the target market? We usually save these recommendations until the end of the review, but we'll make an exception here: you should buy the Equil Smartpen 2.

The package




The E2 (we'll call it that for the sake of brevity) comes in a beautifully-designed, extruded, triangular dock/charger/storage case. It's made of Apple-like smooth white plastic, and boasts a wrap-around cover that is obviously inspired (in a good way) by Apple's iPad Smart Cover.

Contained within are the pen itself, a spare ink cartridge, a USB cable, a cap -- in a clever pop-out cavity -- and the receiver, which is the heart of the system. We'll talk about that later, but first: the pen.

As alluded to earlier, smartpens must first and foremost be able to assume the utility of a pen. This means that they should be comfortable, and ideally able to write on any kind of paper; the E2 meets both of these criteria.

The pen is a comfortable triangular plastic piece, much like a smaller version of its carrier. One button on the side serves to turn it on and off, and a small LED built into the translucent butt end acts as a functionality indicator.




The included ink cartridge is perfectly serviceable, similar in constitution to those found in Bic pens. We would've preferred a Pilot G2-style model, but that's entirely down to personal preference.

We do have one gripe: the pen makes noise. Truthfully, it sounds like we're shaving the piece of paper we're writing on; as though a tiny person is operating a Braun razor inside the pen.

The sound is not noticeable if you're using it in an environment with even the smallest amount of background noise, but it becomes positively maddening in quiet places. We hope this will be rectified in future versions, lest aspiring writers be driven prematurely 'round the bend.

Now on to the receiver, which makes the entire thing tick. It's a small device, smaller by half than a typical pack of gum, which emerges from the main carrier with its own magnetically-latching bottom cover that serves to hold it on to a piece (or pieces) of paper.

It seems slightly annoying to be forced to clip a receiver to your paper, but it's quietly genius: it means that you can write on anything you choose.

Like Moleskines? You're good to go. Large artist sketchbooks? No problem. This is a welcome change from challengers that require special paper, which is inevitably expensive and usually only available in unattractive notebooks.

So, how does it work?

In a word: great. We're fans of taking physical notes, since you simply can't type as fast as you can write in meetings, and we will never, ever turn to another smart pen until someone manages to equal the Equil.

Connecting the receiver to a Retina MacBook Pro was flawless, and provided us with picture-perfect copies of our notes. We had trouble achieving the same on an iPad Air 2, though we eventually made it work -- some additional troubleshooting would be helpful there.




Equil provides two apps for use with the pen; Equil Note and Equil Sketch. The imagined use case for each one is obvious, and both worked well. They sync with a number of services, including Evernote, and we won't waste your time detailing their functions: suffice it to say that they do exactly what they say on the tin.

There is one area of worry with any smartpen, and that's battery. The last thing you want is to run out of juice while taking down your CEO's most recent epiphany.

Try as we might, we couldn't run the receiver or the pen out of battery, even while penning (yes) this review entirely by hand. With several rounds of revisions. Several.


Conclusion

Again, don't depend on the E2 -- or any other smartpen -- for high-fidelity transcriptions of handwritten notes. Do depend on the E2 to capture anything and everything else you can write on a piece of paper, keeping digital copies handy for review later on.

Score: 4.5 out of 5

image

Pros
  • Great, Apple-like industrial design.
  • Excellent performance at the most important job: being a pen.
  • Ability to work with any kind of paper is a major plus.
Cons
  • The pen buzzes while you write.

Availability

The Equil Smartpen 2 is available from MyEquil.com or Amazon.com for $169.99.
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 28
    Sounds nice, but I truly wish there was a pen that enabled me to write -- e.g., make margin comments, circle data points, draw arrows, etc. -- on a Keynote, Pages or Numbers presentation. Actually, on top of anything I have displayed on my Mac or iPad screen.

    Anything at all out there?
  • Reply 2 of 28
    MacProMacPro Posts: 18,254member
    This sounds fun. Alas it is too late for me. Once I was a pretty good artist and could hand write with the best of them. 30 years later with Apple Keyboards and I am now unable to draw a rectangle and barely sign my name. It is fascinating how a skill such as penmanship can deteriorate so much over time. For me at least it isn't like riding a bike!

    As an aside, Don't laugh, but I never learned to type either I still use two fingers and a thumb but can keep up with a modest typist. I can still remember in late 70's having to look all over the keyboard to find letters while playing with an Apple ][ ... ah ... integer BASIC and Applesoft BASIC such memories.
  • Reply 3 of 28
    MacProMacPro Posts: 18,254member
    Sounds nice, but I truly wish there was a pen that enabled me to write -- e.g., make margin comments, circle data points, draw arrows, etc. -- on a Keynote, Pages or Numbers presentation. Actually, on top of anything I have displayed on my Mac or iPad screen.

    Anything at all out there?

    I'd add I wish these kind of things were iOS AND OS X...

    OT a bit but related: It seems to me it would be fun to have an iPad simulator app for the Mac kind of like a VM almost with copy and paste between.. I know there is one in the dev's Xcode but I mean a commercial one that translated gestures to mouse and track pad input. I realize many iOS apps wouldn't translate and would be pointless or impossible but some would be useable.
  • Reply 4 of 28
    "We're fans of taking physical notes, since you simply can't type as fast as you can write in meetings..."

    I easily type 2-4 times faster than hand writing. It's not even remotely close to being a competition. Once you get over 50 words per minute (which isn't even that fast) there's no way hand writing can keep up. Maybe using shorthand, maybe.

    That being said this looks like a neat product and this was a good review.
  • Reply 5 of 28
    Only available in the US........
  • Reply 6 of 28
    Oops! I complained too soon. The pen's web shopping page says its only available in the US, but the Apple Store in The Netherlands carries it for %u20AC 149,95.
  • Reply 7 of 28
    cpsrocpsro Posts: 2,461member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by digitalclips View Post



    I'd add I wish these kind of things were iOS AND OS X...

    It works with iOS and Mac (and Windows). The receiver can also be clipped onto an iPad and the pen used with a plastic nib to draw on the display.

     

    The original Equil can be found at close-out price of $100.

  • Reply 8 of 28
    Been looking for a device like this for years, keeping my eye out for them as they arrive. And even tried some products out, to the waste of good money. Sounds like this product might do it.

    It uses BlueTooth, it says. Which Bluetooth? Requires LE? Or does it support 3.0 also. Some of us have older machines (like from 2011).

    I would like to read their user guide before I consider buying this product. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem that the company makes the user guide available on line.
  • Reply 9 of 28
    cpsrocpsro Posts: 2,461member
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by waldobushman View Post



    It uses BlueTooth, it says. Which Bluetooth? Requires LE? Or does it support 3.0 also. Some of us have older machines (like from 2011).

    If it doesn't say, then it probably doesn't matter. The pen and receiver likely communicate using LE or some other low-energy radio system. Syncing with your iOS or desktop is a fast, transient activity in which energy efficiency wouldn't be a concern.

  • Reply 10 of 28
    techlover wrote: »
    "We're fans of taking physical notes, since you simply can't type as fast as you can write in meetings..."

    I easily type 2-4 times faster than hand writing. It's not even remotely close to being a competition. Once you get over 50 words per minute (which isn't even that fast) there's no way hand writing can keep up. Maybe using shorthand, maybe.

    That being said this looks like a neat product and this was a good review.

    And if you type with short hand, it's really no contest.
  • Reply 11 of 28

    Anyone have an idea why it makes a noise?

     

    I checked their site FAQ page and didn't see anything. Just curious.

  • Reply 12 of 28
    tmaytmay Posts: 3,762member
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by TechLover View Post



    "We're fans of taking physical notes, since you simply can't type as fast as you can write in meetings..."



    I easily type 2-4 times faster than hand writing. It's not even remotely close to being a competition. Once you get over 50 words per minute (which isn't even that fast) there's no way hand writing can keep up. Maybe using shorthand, maybe.



    That being said this looks like a neat product and this was a good review.

    I see this for mixed text and graphics, so typing wouldn't be suitable for that task. What would be nice is an app that would push any classroom graphics to a smartphone, tablet or notebook so that everyone has the same starting points for their notes overlay.

     

    For the record, my notes on a green engineering pad back when I was in school had barely a few days shelf life before I couldn't decipher them. In retrospect, I should have been more disciplined in my writing and sketches, but that's all water under the bridge now.

  • Reply 13 of 28
    And if you type with short hand, it's really no contest.

    Mind. Blown.
  • Reply 14 of 28
    tmay wrote: »
    I see this for mixed text and graphics, so typing wouldn't be suitable for that task. What would be nice is an app that would push any classroom graphics to a smartphone, tablet or notebook so that everyone has the same starting points for their notes overlay.

    Yeah you are right, that's really the best use case. And that's a great idea you have about the classroom app. Could be the same for business. Great idea.
  • Reply 15 of 28
    cpsrocpsro Posts: 2,461member
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by tmay View Post

     


    For the record, my notes on a green engineering pad back when I was in school had barely a few days shelf life before I couldn't decipher them. In retrospect, I should have been more disciplined in my writing and sketches, but that's all water under the bridge now.

    One of these smart pen systems (one that requires specially printed paper with dots) has an option for recording audio. When you go back to your notes and tap around on what you wrote, it begins replaying the audio recorded at the time.

  • Reply 16 of 28
    iaeeniaeen Posts: 588member
    cpsro wrote: »
    One of these smart pen systems (one that requires specially printed paper with dots) has an option for recording audio. When you go back to your notes and tap around on what you wrote, it begins replaying the audio recorded at the time.

    You're talking about the livescribe pen. I have one and love it.
  • Reply 17 of 28
    MacProMacPro Posts: 18,254member
    cpsro wrote: »
    It works with iOS and Mac (and Windows). The receiver can also be clipped onto an iPad and the pen used with a plastic nib to draw on the display.

    The original Equil can be found at close-out price of $100.

    Oh I missed that. Thanks for info.
  • Reply 18 of 28
    I have one and like it. Mine doesn't make a noise.
  • Reply 19 of 28
    cpsrocpsro Posts: 2,461member
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by leesmith View Post



    I have one and like it. Mine doesn't make a noise.



    Is yours indeed a version 2 device?

  • Reply 20 of 28
    I do this all the time in my presentationmagic.com workshops, using software installed on the Mac and iPad called Doceri.

    It does much more than annotate your slides or mac's desktop, such as recording your actions for later playback and storage.

    Now finding a home in educational circles, I've been a beta tester a few years and have yet to find a better solution to this common want.

    Les Posen
    Melbourne Australia
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