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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 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.
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
- 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.
- The pen buzzes while you write.