The Digital Pen Isn't Mightier

Logitech Io Digital Pen review

First Published: Washington Post
Date Published: January 12 2003
Copyright © 2003 by Kevin Savetz

If you want to jot down a few notes, you'll whip out a pen and paper -- that combination has a pleasing simplicity absent in such computerized equivalents as handheld organizers. But if you want to share or reuse those notes later on, you're going to have to get them into a computer somehow.

The Logitech Io Digital Pen tries to square this data-entry circle, letting you write with a regular pen while still providing a digital copy of your writing for your PC.

As you wield the pen, it remembers what you put on paper. It uses a tiny, built-in optical sensor to track its position by measuring its movement across tiny dots on special paper. When you park the pen in a special USB docking station, it sends a copy of everything you're written to the computer.

At less at two ounces and without wires, the Io (Win 98 or newer, including Win 2000 and XP) is portable in a way that no other computer peripheral is -- although it's also a bit thick, about three inches in diameter, which takes some getting used to at first.

Its pricing, however, is more in line with computer gadgets: List price is $200, and street prices hover around $180. Then there's its special paper: A three-pack of 40-sheet "digital notebooks" costs $25, or $9.99 per notebook, and a stack of 75 Post-It notes costs $15. No other paper sizes are available, although Logitech says others may be available at some point.

In the notebook, the pen works more or less as a pen should -- you can flip back and forth between pages, tear out sheets of paper, and doodle in the margins. The Post-It notes aren't as flexible: Once you check a box that indicates you're done with that page, you can't go back to it.

After your scribblings have been copied to the computer, you can view them in a word processor or drawing program, e-mail them or turn them into calendar items in Microsoft Outlook or Lotus Notes. But -- here's the biggest of several catches -- Logitech's software leaves most of your writing as a graphic file instead of converting it to text. This limit is one of the first things Logitech ought to address in Version 2.

For example, in its note-taking mode, this program will try to convert whatever you write in the "subject" and "to" fields at the bottom of each note, then add that text to the file's description in Windows.

Similarly, selecting an "e-mail" check box at the bottom of the page causes the software to attach the page to an e-mail message, addressed to whatever e-mail account you wrote in the "to" field. Your odds of having the address recognized correctly are poor, even if you remember to write in all uppercase letters, as the software requires in this field.

On the notebook's appointment pages, you can print the name, date and time of an appointment, then have it converted into a calendar item in Outlook or Notes.

In all three scenarios, most of the end product remains a largely uneditable JPEG file. So your notes can't be edited in a word processor without tedious retyping, and e-mail messages that you jot on paper are sent as attached files.

Furthermore, the accuracy of even Logitech's limited handwriting recognition is iffy. A training session to help the pen recognize your printing only takes a few minutes, but the training doesn't seem to stick. After this practice the pen turned a "MEETING WITH ADAM" on Jan. 10 into a "MEE+ING W,TH ADAM" one year before.

With better handwriting recognition and cheaper paper, the Io could be a useful way to jot down notes, compose e-mails and compile to-do lists away from the PC. But right now, it's just an expensive, less-than-useful toy.

And if you feel a burning need for the Io's pen-to-pixels capability, you can do almost the same thing with a regular pen and $50 scanner. Just jot your notes with a cheap Bic on any scrap of paper, then use the scanner to digitize your scrawling. You'll have to file your notes and insert them into your calendar or e-mail yourself, but is that really so hard?

Articles by Kevin Savetz