Gadgets: From the pen to the computer

In gadget-head circles, one of this summer's most buzz worthy new products is the Pulse pen: A ballpoint that simultaneously records your handwriting and the sound of the words you are transcribing. Both are transferred to a Windows PC when you return home – seemingly perfect for lecture-hall students, journalists and note-takers of any kind.

Well, perfect except for one thing: The Pulse pen doesn't work unless you write on special paper. Thousands of tiny microspeckles tell the pen's tiny camera where it is on the page as you write, but limits you to writing in notebooks that you buy from the Pulse company.

Pity, then, the two entirely buzz-impaired cordless digital pens from other companies that can write on any paper at all. The Mobile Digital Scribe (from Iogear) and the ZPen (from Dane-Elec) can capture your notes no matter what you're writing on. The notes appear on your Windows PC as a digital image, which you convert into typed text for copying or e-mailing.

To be fair, these pens are not as sophisticated or ambitious as the Pulse pen; they don't have microphones, cameras or little screens. They don't record audio and don't accept add-on programs. But if you just want to capture notes and drawings in the field and then transfer them to your PC when you get home, the “any paper, any time” feature is attractive.

Now you can go to meetings or classes without having to fool around with the heft and fragility of a laptop – and still wind up with your notes safely ensconced on the computer.

You also create a safety copy of everything you write. If you lose your class notes, you won't care – you've got the whole thing digitally backed up in the receiver in your pocket.

Each comes with a tiny receiver that attaches to the top of the page. It's a plastic clip, like the clamp at the top of a clipboard, that exchanges acoustic and infrared signals with the pen as it moves. The Digital Scribe's receiver has a screen with a digital page counter; the ZPen's slightly bulkier receiver has a power button, a pause button and three illuminated indicators.

Both receivers bear a tiny pen icon that flickers to confirm that it's receiving and storing your scribbles. Each contains a battery that recharges from your computer's USB jack. The pens, which are slim and attractive, contain hearing-aid batteries that are supposed to last for 40 hours to 80 hours.

After your day in the field, you connect the receiver unit to your PC's USB jack. Software retrieves the written images, organizing them by date and time. At this point, you can export a page as a JPEG or PDF graphic.

Alternatively, you can click a Convert button to perform handwriting analysis – the kind that turns the handwriting into typed text.

By a curious coincidence, both pens come with exactly the same software, called Vision My Script Notes. It's easy to use, but the recognition accuracy is a disaster. Even if you specify the kind of writing your sample contains – block letters, print or cursive – it usually mangles quite a few of your words.

The Dane-Elec ZPen makes the Iogear Scribe look like an amateur. The ZPen's receiver has a spring-loaded, clipboard-style clip that snaps easily and firmly onto just about anything: legal pad, notebook, bar coaster, whatever. The Digital Scribe's receiver has three clips, one intended for each possible place on the page where you might fasten it.