Review: Equil Equil Smartpen
Equil's Equil Smartpen ($150) is the second smartpen to make it to us this month, after Livescribe's Livescribe 3. Instead of relying on custom paper to beam notes and sketches back to compatible devices, this pen uses a special sensor that can clip onto any sheet of paper. Using an ultrasonic frequency, the pen and the sensor speak to each other to transfer your writing. The overall feel of the products isn't as nice as that of Livescribe's, and it's more complicated to set up, but you don't have to worry about buying and using the right accessories to go with the kit.
Our favorite part of this collection has nothing to do with the pen itself, but rather, how it’s stored and charged. Equil came up with a really clever travel case that holds all the pieces together, and allows them to charge at once. The battery lasts up to eight hours per charge. At the core is a 6.25” extruded triangle that’s 1.35” long on each side, and it’s wrapped in a cover that feels a lot like the polyurethane material Apple uses for its Smart Covers. It opens up to expose a holder for the pen along the top, with two small metal contacts for transferring power. There’s a similar but smaller opening at the bottom of the front for the sensor; an extra pen cartridge is hidden underneath. The case also has a Micro-USB charging port, as well as a pen cartridge ejector slot. On the opposite side you’ll find a pen cap, which pops up when you slide a lever along the back. It’s a really cool way to handle all the pieces cleanly and neatly.
Then pen itself is also triangular, half an inch on any side, and 6” long. It feels somewhat cheap for such an expensive product, perhaps because of how light it is. We find the shape less comfortable than that of a round pen. Mostly white plastic, it’s translucent at either end, and there’s a single button towards the bottom third. The sensor is even smaller — a block measuring 3” across, 1” deep, and almost 0.6” tall. It has a single button along its top right edge, and sensors on its face. A small magnetic flap on the bottom grabs whatever paper you’re using, holding it tightly.
Equil offers two separate, free apps for use with its system: Equil Note HD for writing, and Equil Sketch HD for drawing. Both work with the same hardware, but have different UIs and functionality. Regardless of which you use, the process is the same. Sync the sensor to your device, clip it to your paper, and launch the app. Once the pen is on, the pieces will speak to each other. Speak is the right word here, as there’s an annoying buzz that emanates from the pen. This is the biggest downside to the whole thing, as the noise drove us a little crazy.
Putting that aside, it’s impressive how well Equil works. Start writing on the paper, and your strokes will appear on the screen. There’s no need to write differently, or worry about where you’re writing on the paper, as Equil does a great job of keeping track of relative position. The only issues come within the two centimeters below the sensor, which is a blind zone.
Both apps are full-featured, rather than proof-of-concept skeletons. They allow for multiple pages, editing, sharing, and even automatically back up in the cloud with iCloud, Dropbox, or Evernote. We’re impressed with both. Another cool feature, found in each, is the ability to use gestures. Hold the pen button down and draw a clockwise or counterclockwise circle in the air, or double-click the button, and you can achieve quick actions. They come preset but are programmable.
If forced to choose between LiveScribe 3 and Equil Smartpen, we’d take the former, but by a small margin. It’s certainly easier to be able to start writing without having to set up special hardware, even if you do have to buy proprietary notebooks. That is to say, it’s a tradeoff: do you prefer ease of use, or scope? We also like certain aspects of both companies’ apps, with neither being the clear winner. Ultimately, the two balance out in many regards, and the truth remains that $150 is a high price to get your text from the page to the screen anyway. It’s a niche product at a high price, squarely fitting our definition of a limited recommendation.