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Best smart pens 2020

Best smart pens 2020
(Image credit: Livescribe)

The best smart pens are a handy way to digitize your notes and sketches while still maintaining that all important tactile feeling of putting pen to paper - something that a screen and a stylus just can’t quite match up to. They’re a relatively niche product though, and many people prefer the convenience of just writing on their tablet with a stylus, or even just typing up notes on a laptop or home computer.  So, why should you consider choosing a smart pen over the alternatives?

As we’ve already mentioned, the best smart pens (also known as digital pens) let you actually draw on a physical paper pad, they just also create a digital copy of that drawing. Some people are just far more comfortable drawing on paper, which has its own unique feeling and feedback as opposed to running a stylus over a screen. Smart pens are also weightier and feel more like a pen in your hand than a stylus, so they will more accurately translate your natural writing and drawing style.

Some smart pens require their own specific notepads to write on, while others use an external sensor that can be attached to just about any paper or notepad. Pieces vary from a low of $125 all the way up to $360 for the most expensive model we tested. 

Our top choices all performed well overall, but some handle individual tasks better than others though, so the best smart pen for you will depend largely on what you need it for. Drawing or notes? Does it need a long battery life? Do you prefer a thick or thin pen to write with? With that in mind, here are our choices for the best smart pens in 2020.


1. Livescribe 3 Smart Pen: Best smart pen overall

Livescribe 3 Smartpen Review

(Image credit: Livescribe)

Livescribe 3 Smartpen

The best smart pen we’ve ever tested

Most accurate pen we tested
Comfortable round design
Heavier than most smart pens
Requires expensive Livescribe notebooks 

The Livescribe 3 Smartpen is the best smart pen we tested thanks to its phenomenal accuracy in both writing and drawing. It’s also comfortable and easy to use thanks to its soft-rubber grip and round design. We were suitably impressed with the breezy 30-second setup time. Syncing the pen was effortless once we installed the app on our smartphone. The Livescribe 3 Smartpen didn’t record a single inaccuracy in either our writing or drawing tests. The Livescribe app also impressed us. Digitizing your handwriting is as easy as swiping left or right.  You can also start or stop audio recordings using the app or the navigation icons printed at the bottom of Livescribe’s notebooks, which is a neat feature.

This Livescribe 3 Smartpen has an impressive battery life, lasting for up to 14 hours of continuous use. It is charged via a micro-USB port at the tip of the pen. Though Livescribe 3 Smartpen is one of the fattest and heaviest that we tested, the round design was surprisingly comfortable to use, especially when compared with some of the triangular digital pens we tested. Overall, the competitive price and advanced features of the Livescribe 3 Smartpen earn it the top spot in our rankings.


2. Wacom Bamboo Folio Smartpad: Best for artists

Wacom Bamboo Smartpad Folio A5

(Image credit: Wacom)

Wacom Bamboo Folio Smartpad

The artist’s choice, as it translates drawing very well

Smartpad works with any paper
Great accuracy with writing and drawing
Paper must be aligned with the smartpad
Short battery life

Whether you’re a casual doodler or a professional artist, or anyone in between, the Wacom Bamboo Folio Smartpad is the ideal smart pen for your needs. Thanks to the accompanying smart pad, you can use any type of paper with the smart pen, which is perfect for artists who need their ideal canvas.

During our writing and drawing tests, the Wacom Bamboo Folio Smartpad was almost perfect with only one small error across both tests. It’s also one of the most comfortable smart pens we’ve tested and features a simple twist mechanism to turn on. The pen itself doesn’t need charging, while the pad itself will run for eight hours before needing to be charged via micro-USB. It took us just over a minute to set up the smartpad and pair it with our smartphone.

Using the smartpad is simple, you just place a sheet of paper over the smartpad and start writing. When you’re finished, you can easily upload your work by pressing a button to synch the smartpad with your smartphone. This instantly saves your work to the Wacom Inkspace app. From here you can directly view and even edit your masterpieces. If you’re serious about drawing, then Wacom Bamboo Folio is the smart choice.


3. Neo Smartpen N2: Best for comfort

Neo Smartpen N2 Review

(Image credit: Neo)

Neo Smartpen N2

Impressive comfort at an affordable price

One of the most comfortable pens we tested
Quick setup
Shortest battery life we tested
A bit on the heavy side

The Neo Smartpen N2 is easy to set up and feels comfortable in your hand, but it does require special notebooks and writing pads to function.

The pen itself is one of the longest we tested, but the metal body and elegant design offer an attractive alternative to many of the triangular digital pens on the market. It's also incredibly easy to use; all you have to do is press a button on the bottom of the pen to turn it on. You can also toggle the Bluetooth and pairing settings using buttons on the pen. When we put the Neo Smartpen N2 through our writing and drawing tests, it performed better than average but there were a couple of errors in both the writing and drawing tests. 

This Neo Smartpen N2 charges through a micro-USB port located on the top of the pen. The lackluster five-hour battery life is the shortest of any pen we tested, so it will require frequent charging if you're a heavy user. Set up was quick though, only taking around 30 seconds to pair up the pen to our smartphone. If you’re looking for a sleek, metallic smart pen that works well and feels great, the Neo Smartpen N2 is a solid choice.


4. Moleskine Pen+ Ellipse: Best for accessories

Moleskine Pen+ Ellipse

(Image credit: Moleskine)

Moleskine Pen+ Ellipse

Comfort and elegance come at a cost

Stylish design
Excellent writing and drawing accuracy
Only works with proprietary notepads
Poor battery life

The Moleskine Pen+ Ellipse is part of the Moleskine Smart Writing System, a collection of high-quality products by the famous Italian paper maker. The Smart Writing System includes the Pen+ and Ncoded Paper Tablets.

Like many of the smart pens we tested, the proprietary paper to work properly, but of the pens we tested, the Moleskine Pen+ Ellipse requires proprietary notebooks to function. However, we can comfortably say that Moleskines are the best, as they don’t sacrifice style or practicality. You pay a hefty price for these fancy notebooks though. The pen itself is sleek and weighs about as much as five regular Bic pens. It's comfortable to hold and easy to write with, sporting a triangular design and slender profile. 

In our handwriting tests, however, the Pen+ recorded only one error when we wrote out the full Gettysburg address. Likewise, transcribing the written words to the app had highly accurate results, even with messy handwriting. But it didn’t fare as well in our drawing tests, so it’s not the best choice for artists. 

Despite that, the great handwriting accuracy paired with the app’s ability to record audio make it great for note-taking during lectures or meetings.

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5. Livescribe Echo

Livescribe Echo

(Image credit: Livescribe )

Livescribe Echo

Has a built-in audio recorder for additional functionality

Incredible accuracy for writing and drawing
Built-in audio recorder
Chunky
No voice-to-text transcription

The Livescribe Echo almost has it all. It delivers fantastic accuracy for both writing and drawing which is vital for a smart pen. It also comes with a built in audio recorder, allowing to you to record interviews and lectures so that you can write them out later. It even has a great battery life despite these added features.

Sadly where the Livescribe Echo falls down is in the comfort department. Because it has an audio recorder stuffed into its casing alongside all the other technology, Livescribe have had to make the Echo extraordinarily bulky to accommodate all this tech which makes it cumbersome to use.

With all that said, if you're looking for a combination smart pen and audio recorder, the Livescribe Echo is still a fine choice.


Why should you trust us?

We conducted our own hands-on tests with each smart pen – writing, doodling and taking notes for over 16 hours in total. We scoured  other review sites and consumer reviews to see what other people had to say the pens and took their ratings into consideration. We wrote out the Gettysburg Address with each pen to get a feel for the comfort and accuracy of each one. We also sketched at least two pictures to see how well the smart pens could replicate finer details and shading. We weighed the pens using a high-quality scale in our test lab and took careful notes as we wrote with each pen. We have been reviewing smart pens for several years as well as countless other digital products.

Because smart pens are such a niche device, the market is small. We tested all the major pens that are currently on the market and that you can buy today, even some that may take you weeks to ship from Amazon. We also scoured Kickstarter to look for any up and coming products. The pens we reviewed are the ones you’ll see on Amazon or in box stores.

Our testing procedure

To test the writing accuracy of the pens, we wrote out all 272 words of the Gettysburg Address with each pen and then compared the written copies with the digitized versions. We looked for extra lines and incorrect strokes that were incorrectly inserted by the pen. Incorrect lines counted as errors in our writing accuracy test.

When testing the accuracy of each smart pen when used for sketching and drawing, we drew a simple house and attempted to draw a horse (we say attempted, because it wasn't pretty) with each pen. We looked for missing lines and incorrect shading when reviewing the digitized drawings for accuracy. As with the writing accuracy comparison, each missing feature was counted as an error in the sketching accuracy test.

How much do smart pens cost?

Most of the smart pens we evaluated cost about $130, though a few are upwards of $300 like the Livescribe 3 Smartpen. Other things to consider when calculating cost are the prices of consumables, including ink refills and paper. A few of the pens we tested work with any paper, but most require specially coded paper to work properly. These papers are proprietary for each company. The Moleskine Pen+ Ellipse is one of the cheapest smart pens in our comparison, but the Paper Tablet notepads it uses are the most expensive and the costs can mount up quickly.

Why buy a smart pen?

Smart pens are rapidly becoming obsolete. If you own an iPad Pro, the Apple Pencil offers better accuracy and better functionality than any technology that digitizes physical pen and paper.

However, certain use cases, like taking notes in a college class or wanting to share your handwritten meeting notes, could make smart pens a smart buying decision. Be warned, however, that if your penmanship is sloppy, digitizing them won’t do you any favors.

If you're looking for a smart pen that doubles as an audio recorder, then we recommend the Livescribe Echo, which has a solid voice recorder built in. If want the clearest quality, though, a dedicated voice recorder will get much clearer audio. The smart pens in our reviews are best used for digitizing your handwritten notes; recording audio is more of an additional feature.

But if you’re a true pen and paper aficionado, a smart pen could be a great way to digitize and keep track of your handwritten notes and drawings. The high price and questionable quality makes choosing the right pen an important decision though, as they're quite an investment versus a normal pen and paper. Read more in our reviews to determine which digital pen might work best for you.

Stylus for touchscreen tablets & phones

The smart pens we tested digitize handwritten notes and drawings and send them wirelessly to mobile apps on a phone or tablet. If you prefer sketching or taking notes on mobile devices by touching a pen directly to the touchscreen surface instead of to a conventional notepad, a stylus is the best option. Here are some of our favorite styluses for mobile devices.

Apple Pencil (2nd Gen)

If you’re looking for a premium stylus to go with your iPad Pro, then the second generation Apple Pencil is the obvious choice. It won’t work with other devices though due to the way it records and sends its position to your tablet. In fact, it won’t even work with other Apple gadgets like Macbooks, just the iPad Pro 12.9-inch (3rd and 4th generation) and iPad Pro 11-inch (1st and 2nd generation). 

The Apple Pencil syncs and transmits positioning data to your iPad via a Bluetooth signal. This might seem like a needlessly complicated way to make sure it only works on Apple devices, but in reality this system allows for much more sensitive data collection. 

When using the Apple Pencil, it can detect how hard you’re pressing down and input accordingly, allowing you to accurately shade digital images just like you would a real drawing. When you draw on the pressure-sensitive screen with the side of the tip, it creates wide strokes perfect for shading. For handwritten notes, the tip has a fine point that’s extremely accurate. It’s pricey, but you get what you pay for.

Adonit Switch
This stylus is a handwriting solution for digital and analog surfaces. On one end there’s a fine-point stylus surrounded by a clear plastic disc that works on all iOS phones and tablets and most Android devices. On the other end is a 0.8-millimeter ballpoint pen for writing on paper. The stylus syncs via a Bluetooth connection and is compatible with popular note-taking apps like Notability and GoodNotes. This hybrid stylus doesn’t have the same creative painting and drawing features as the Apple Pencil, but if you take notes on tablets and paper, it is a great option.