If you want to bring your sketches and notes into the twenty first century with a smart pen or a digital pen, or already have one and want an update, this list will help you find the best pen for you.
We’ve already brought you the best styluses for Android and the best styluses for iPhone. Now, you can get the best of the buzz of instantly transferring everything you write or draw on paper to your phone too.
No matter how quick your thumbs or good your enunciation for Siri is, we often revert to handwriting when it comes to quick note-taking or sketching. Many of us do our best creative thinking with a pen in their hand and evidence says that handwriting helps you remember content.
Far from banishing handwriting to the past, the digital world has reinvigorated the ancient practice. Styluses are an increasingly good match for real pens and, in some areas, overtake them – for example, in the ease with which you can switch from a ‘pencil’ to, say, ‘charcoal’.
And smart pens take the technology one step further: you can now write or sketch as you normally would on paper, and it will be instantly digitised. No longer will you have to type up or photograph analogue sketches or notes. You can combine the flexibility and control of a pen with the communication and shareablity that comes with digital information.
Most smart pens (apart from Wacom’s Bamboo Spark, but we’ll come to that later) work via an almost invisible grid of tiny dots on the paper - which is why you often need special paper as well as a special pen. A camera within the pen tracks where the ink is in relation to those dots - and transfers that information to an app with Bluetooth.
As it is so early for the technology, smart pens differ widely in quality. Here, we’ve scoured all that’s on offer to find the best smart pens for designers and artists.
Neo smartpen have prioritised getting as close to a normal pen as possible – and not a cheap, sponsored biro, but a comfortable-to-use, luxury experience. It is light (less than 0.8 ounces), thin (less than 12mm) and the length of a normal pen (at just over 15cm). Plus, made of aluminium and stainless steel, it is probably one of the most durable pens you will ever own.
Cool features include writing and drawing in 8 different colours with 3 different thickness options, recognising pen pressure in 256 steps, storing up to 1,000 pages of handwritten notes on the pen itself, being able to transcribe hand-written notes and its compatibility with standard ink refills. In the Neo Notes app, you can organise your pages, sync with services such as Google drive and Evernote, and customise your notes and drawings.
So, the gorgeous design out the way - it did win a 2015 iF Design Award – and easy use, how well does the Neo smartpen actually work? Mainly well. Use continuous pressure and you should be okay, but light strokes don’t always register. Simple doodles and notes will usually transfer brilliantly, but intricate drawings and designs are less likely to be transferred accurately. It could be perfect for your early doodles and ideas though.
Buy for $USD169/around £120. Notebooks start at $9.90 (Neo smartpen is only compatible with special paper).
Moleskine’s new writing set offers the shape and feel of their mind-blowingly popular classic notebooks – and now the brand is firmly in the twenty-first century. Just like its competitors, you can edit notes, transcribe handwritten notes into digital text and share your notes and sketches.
Its standout features, though, are writing colour options, page detection (write on any page and the pen will know which one) and that the pen also takes standard refills. Just like the notebook, the pen is beautifully built - with an aluminium body. Moleskine’s pen’s features (such as storage up to a 1,000 pages) overlap with the Neo smartpen - unsurprisingly, as they Moleskine's was made using Neo smartpen tech.
Find out more about Moleskine’s Smart Writing Set in our feature.
Buy the whole set for around $USD280/£199.00. Replacement notebooks cost $USD33.74/£23.95
Wacom’s Bamboo Spark's coolest feature is that it can be used with any paper due to a transmitter inside its pen and a receiver within the folio that comes with it.
Within the app (to which you can transfer pages in only a few seconds via Bluetooth), you can ‘rewind’ your drawing line-by-line and export at any point. Though the case only holds 100 pages (unlike Moleskine’s and Neo smartpen’s 1,000), you can easily store pages to the cloud, and share through the typical platforms. Unlike competitors such as the Moleskine Smart Writing Set and the Neo smartpen, you can’t refill with standard cartridges.
You might have come on here expecting the Inkling –but the Bamboo Spark is Wacom’s second, better attempt at a smart pen, and makes the Inkling pretty irrevelant. You can check our hands-on review to find out why the Bamboo Spark is better.
The Livescribe 3 might take some getting used to, as it’s thicker than normal pens - but it’s definitely worth getting to know it, as it works with precision and ease. Just like its competitors, the Livescribe 3 offers transcribing, sharing and organising notes - but the app also lets you record sound while scribbling.
Not only does it have great write-ups when it comes down to actually using the pen, but the Livescribe 3 might save you some money as it doesn’t necessarily require special paper: you can print Livescribe’s variety of paper if you have a 600dpi (or higher) inkjet printer. However, you can’t use standard ink cartridges with it - only Livescribe ones.
Buy the Livescribe 3 from around $USD183/£130. Replacement notebooks start at $USD8.95/£6.34.
BLCK INK is newer to the game - and, as a result, is less tested and known. If its marketing videos - which are unique in that they concentrate on art, rather than note-taking - are anything to go by, this is the best pen for drawing and can produce truly beautiful results with greater precision and accuracy. It offers much the same features as other pens on the list, such as sharing and instant transfer, but we’re hoping it lives up to its promise of transferring drawings to such quality that they look just as good on your phone as they do on paper.
Buy the BLCK INK set here for $USD199/around £138.31. Notebook replacements are $USD24.99/around £17.69.