To some people, a pen is just a pen and any pen will do. But there are many who feel that a pen is a tool that has to have that right feel. It’s a comfort and design thing – why use it if you don’t like it?
That’s been one of the common complaints about many ‘smartpens’ available on the market. There is more focus on the ‘smart’ and less on the pen. Considering how popular titanium made pens are on Kickstarter, it just shows that design can mean more than function. But if you want to have the best of both the digital and analog worlds, the Neo Smartpen N2 does a fine job.
Design & Connectivity
If you don’t really like the feel of plastic writing instruments, you’re going to love the Neo Smartpen N2. The aluminum exterior is smooth, uniform through the length, and the barrel is tapered in a way that is ideal for writing. The pen has a rounded triangle shape, not unlike those pencil grips used in school (but a much more refined shape). The very ends of the Neo Smartpen N2 are tipped with plastic, but you never end up touching these parts while writing. I consider the look of this smart pen to be very refined with nothing flashy or garish about it – the way I prefer my writing tools. Thumbs up for the durability factor of metal.
For my average-sized hands, I find the Neo Smartpen N2 quite comfortable to hold in terms of bulk and diameter. It’s lightweight, definitely lighter than it appears to be, which is very nice. As for size, If I label 1 as a skinny chopstick and 10 as a jumbo marker, then I would judge the Smartpen N2 to be a 5.8 for me.
Even though it’s slightly larger than ‘perfect’ (for me), it’s small enough that I completely forget about it once I start writing. Compared to the handling of other smart pens out there, this is a big deal. And the ink? It writes nicely.
The construction is brilliant. Other than the cap, the ink refill, and the power button, there are no moving parts. And the only sound you’ll hear (aside from low-power or connectivity beeps accompanied by a flash of the LED) is that of ink scribbling on paper. With it’s single piece body, there is nothing to twist open or apart.
Replacing the ink refills is as simple as pinching and pulling the existing one out and sliding the new one in. It fits well with no wiggle. The other end of the Neo Smartpen N2 has the micro USB port to recharge the internal battery. Power and Bluetooth connectivity toggles through – yup, you guessed it – the power button.
Bluetooth is required to pair the Smartpen N2 with a mobile device in order to take advantage of all it has to offer. The setup is quick, with the pairing part taking less time than the installation of the Neo Notes app. After that, continual Bluetooth connectivity is optional as the Neo Smartpen N2 stores written data to upload later.
So you can have your smartphone tucked away until the end of the day, when Bluetooth is activated and all your notes update within the app. Pairing makes this gadget tied to one device at a time, unless you want to go through the hassle of switching (it’s a lot of work that is not worth it at all, trust me).
The package also comes with short instructions, a charge cable, two pen cartridges (one installed and the other a refill), and an N pocket notebook. These N notebooks are key elements for having the Neo Smartpen N2 record handwriting accurately. Each page (front) of these N notebooks feature a very fine grid of dots that the pen’s hardware uses to determine page and location. As such, the Neo Smartpen N2 will only work with these notebooks, making it a proprietary good.
Thankfully, these replacement N notebooks aren’t outrageously priced. I wouldn’t consider them to be premium, but they’re not cheaply-made either (thankfully). In the end, the decision of price versus quality versus need/convenience is left to each individual. I don’t think the pricing is unfair.
Neo Notes App (Android) & N2 Performance
I really like the style and design of the app (available on both Android and iOS) and the way the interface flows between the available options and notebook/writing components. It’s clean, responsive, yet doesn’t skimp on the functional aspect.
Once the Neo Smartpen N2 has been paired and the N notebook has been initialized, you’re set to go and write. Although this pen turns on and starts recording as soon as you start writing, give it a second before you go full throttle. Sometimes the first couple of letters written can be missed.
The accuracy of recording and duplicating pen strokes is extraordinary, matching both the digital and analog lined paper when you compare side-by-side. As long as you’re pressing down with intent to write (a very gentle hand can lay ink without triggering the recognition, but then that’s just silly isn’t it), you can see the marks appear on your connected smartphone/tablet in real time. The Neo Smartpen N2 has some pressure sensitivity, so the digitized writing portrays more of that ‘natural handwriting’ characteristic when you’re looking at it.
If you choose to write and cross compare the analog versus digital, the differences found are going to be very negligible. All the ones I’ve been able to pick out from my handwriting – and we’re measuring in millimeters and fractions of – have been as the Neo Smartpen N2 leaves the paper from an end stroke. Your beautiful or ‘un-beautiful’ handwriting will have a nearly-accurate immortalization in the digital world within the Neo Notes app.
Just be sure to mind the margins and the pen’s orientation. Strokes can be recognized to each page edge as long as the tip precedes the camera. So if you draw a line going up to the top of the page, you’ll see the app correctly reflect it. Now draw a line down to the bottom edge, and you’ll notice that the app misses out on that last centimeter. Flip the N Notebook upside down and do the same thing once more. Now you see that as long as the pen tip ‘exits’ the page before the camera does, everything gets recorded.
Oh, and it doesn’t matter what orientation the notebook page is; the Neo Smartpen N2 still knows up and down from left and right. You’re not going to trick it that easily!
Being the smart pen that it is, the Neo Smartpen N2 needs none of your help to figure out which page you’re on. You can’t even fake it out (I can’t either, and I spent a good time trying). A new page is no longer ‘new’ as soon as you put a mark on it, even if it’s a single point. Flip back and forth as much as you like, and this smart pen follows with alacrity. Each new page you physically write on becomes the next page in the sequence in the digital notebook.
Now, you could try to be super cute and hop around to different pages in the N Notebook. But that only makes things difficult for you. If you choose to write on the very last page of the notebook as the second entry, the app is going to see that as page two. Most people typically use the page under the first page as page two. Again, all up to you.
There are eight colors and three stroke thicknesses to choose from within the app. It’s a global selection, so all the digitized writing will look like that until manually changed. This setting is saved, regardless of powering on/off or Bluetooth connectivity or not. The thicker strokes are merely a digital expansion – a fattening – of the original.
I like how, when you are in individual page view within the Neo Notes app, the screen automatically jumps to the page you continue writing on. And if you’re within the notebook view, where you’re able to swipe left/right to overview the pages, a small circle in the corner shows any new strokes you make. Click it and the app will jump to that page, full-screen. It’s both easy and intuitive.
Once you’ve collected a bunch of notes, there’s more that can be done. Want some organization? Create and add tags to label on each appropriate page. You can also create an audio recording to annotate a completed page. Or maybe you decided to start the audio before writing so you can revisit everything later. Replaying strokes only shows the marks made from beginning to end. Replaying the audio does that while also showing the progression of strokes during the same time. This is helpful if you want to revisit trains of thought, say, during a lecture. Or maybe a pencast or something.
If you happen to have jumped to a new page in the middle of all this writing and recording, the audio continues. So no matter which page(s) you choose to replay that audio, it will start at the very beginning and show all the strokes that went along with it. The only downside it seems is that once a page has an attached audio recording, you can’t record anything in addition to that page. But it’s still smart, so long as you remember this aspect. It would kill to lose a whole section of recorded audio because you may have accidentally pressed the wrong button.
The top right corner of each page of N Notebooks has a little email icon. Touching it with the Neo Smartpen N2 pops up the option to send an image of that specific page through whatever email clients are available on your device.
It’s just a snapshot, and no audio files are included. You can also opt to ‘share’ the page via the dropdown menu. It can be done as an image or a PDF, and destinations include cloud storage, like you’re exporting. It’s more streamlined than taking a screenshot and texting it.
Transcribing. If you write like a doctor or an engineer, you’re probably better off just retyping whatever you wrote. The character recognition of the Neo Notes app may be effective, but it’s no miracle worker. My writing looks sloppy both before and after, haha. However, if I slow down and improve my penmanship, I’m met with far greater success. If your handwriting is good enough, you can select up to the entire block of text and copy it to the clipboard to paste elsewhere.
At worst, the likely corrections are capitalization and the common culprits of eo, 1l, rn, and so forth. While single pages can be transcribed in their entirety, you can’t do multiples. Or the whole notebook. But you can send the entire notebook as a single PDF file.
There isn’t much for archiving and organization of notes within the Neo Notes app itself. It leaves that job to Evernote, which I find to be a pretty smart decision.
It lets the Neo Smartpen N2 stay focused and streamlined unto itself, and all the recorded notes and writing can be categorized through Evernote’s capable hands. Evernote is likely most users’ end-all for creative collaboration from various sources anyway. All you do is open the main side menu and hit the icon to sync with Evernote down at the bottom. Boom. Updated. You can also think of Evernote as a safety backup, because reinstalling the Neo Notes app ends up deleting all existing content saved within.
Tags added to notes within the Neo Notes app aren’t passed along when they sync with Evernote. Neither do any of the audio recordings – it seems that there is no separate access to the recordings to do anything with them either. I think that the user experience would benefit greatly from being able to retain the audio (they’re working on it). Although it’s convenient to have the recording done in the same app, I can use a separate app to record while writing notes and be able to have both to use later on.
If you want to check the battery life of the Neo Smartpen N2 and/or the amount of internal data storage left, there is an icon in the top right corner of the app that does just that. The app even pops up warnings when the battery drops down by 10 percent increment.
The pen itself doesn’t provide any information, except for low-battery warning beeps. The battery life is good for at least a 14-hour period with almost non-stop writing before needing a recharge (maybe about 10 to 15 percent charge left). That’s a seriously long day to be buried in the books. If you stretch writing longer than that before plugging the Neo Smartpen N2 back in, keep in mind that data stops recording as soon as the battery runs dry.
The low light performance of the Neo Smartpen N2 is incredible. If you woke up in the middle of the night with an idea that had to be written down before your mind forgot, just write away. The camera is sensitive enough to work in the dark. Maybe not pitch black darkness, but dark where you’d barely be able to see your mad scrawling even if you leaned and squinted (true story). You’re far more likely to have more problems in broad daylight outside than inside by the light of a candle.
I was a little apprehensive going into the review of the Neo Smartpen N2, expecting the hardware to be great but not knowing a thing about the app. I’ve had recent experiences where the physical device performed well only to be undone by a dismally performing app. NeoLAB Convergence has both surprised and impressed me.
The most striking aspect is the form factor. The decision to use a metal body for the Neo Smartpen N2 means all the difference – you’re using a tool and not a toy. The size is right, the feel is that of quality, and there is a beauty in this pen’s streamlined simplicity. Other than the appropriate notifying beeps while the pen is on, there is no other sound: no clicking, no vibration, no humming, or any other non-pen nonsense. The Smartpen N2 is a pen you’d be happy to use even if it had to technological guts.
You also get a great user experience with pen’s hardware and the Neo Notes app. The analog pen strokes are digitized quickly and accurately, even when parallel lines have merely a hair’s width in between. It captures those small details and does it in such a way that’s very fluid. Aside from a one second pause after the pen first touches the paper (turning itself on), I haven’t given the writing process a second thought. I don’t have to, because the hardware and app just work (and I’ve tried my best to find failure, without success). You just write as you normally would, and you end up creating a digital duplicate.
The Neo Notes app and pen hardware stay true to purpose by not overflowing with useless features. And that’s what makes this product a great one. The only downside is that you’re a captive to the N Notebooks and can’t just use any paper you wish. But what you get in trade is the Neo Smartpen N2’s speed, accuracy, and smarts to know what page you’re on when you flip there and continue scribbling. If you want to own a smartpen that measures up to the money paid for it, the Neo Smartpen N2 is the one to buy.