Review

Dane-Elec ZPen Review & Competition

These days, more and more gadgets are being released to try and help make life easier. People and businesses are moving away from using paper based products, and everything is digitised. But for those of us that sit around in meetings day in, day out, a pen and paper is absolutely essential if you want to make a decent amount of notes as to what is going on. And you can guarantee someone else is going to want copies as well! The task of writing up those written notes is probably one of the mosted hated out there. Students who attend lectures sit with laptops in front of them instead of keeping a pen and paper because writing up the notes afterwards is a royal pain.

There are several companies out there that have cottoned on to this fact, and have released "Digitising Pens" that record movements on a piece of paper and help you record electronic copies of your notes - and the DaneElec Z-Pen is the latest in this range of gadgets. Neowin has been lucky enough to secure a unit for review.

The first thing to note is the decent price. A quick look on Google's shopping page shows that the average retail price is around £75 in the UK. The device comes with a 1GB USB Receiver, which contains your notes, and the relevant software to read them and convert them in to written format automatically for you, and a pen which can take normal shop-bought pen refills. You are also able to use the receiver as standard USB Storage. Little documentation is provided in the box apart from a quick-start sheet, however full PDF documentation is held on the USB Receiver that you can view at your leisure.

The technology itself is fairly simple - the receiver clips on to the top of the notepad you're working on, and it records the motions of your pen as you push down on the piece of paper. And the Z-Pen does this flawlessly. As you'll see from the shots shown later on - the pen records everything written down without a problem and it looks great on screen.

Plugging the receiver in to your computer allows you access to various items of software to view or convert, and at this first stage I'm afraid to say that enough thought wasn't really given to the process. Installing the conversion software asks you to navigate through the DaneElec interface, click a button, and then double click a Setup.EXE program in a folder that gets opened in Windows Explorer. For must users this won't be a problem, but for someone who's not overly tech savvy it can cause great confusion. You also have to register the conversion software online to use it for more than 14 days. I really don't understand why this is necessary, and just introduces an un-necessary and potentially confusing step for the non tech-savvy.

It's also worth noting that the receiver has a re-chargable battery, which you are required to keep attached to your computer for 6 HOURS before you use it for the first time, and a great deal of emphasis is placed on this in all the literature that comes with the product.

Viewing notes is very simple, but unfortunately the conversion software falls very short. It converted a simple test very easily but for those of us with not so perfect handwriting, the software makes a lot of very simple mistakes. This could quite easily be solved in a later upgrade, or even by using seperately available software.

But, once you get used to these nuances, it can make your life an awful lot easier. Provided you take your time to write your notes fairly neatly - the software converts it in to editable text very easily - and what spelling mistakes DO exist are usually picked up by Microsoft Word's built in dictionary and corrected for you without too much issue.

You need to exert a decent amount of pressure for the pen to function correctly however. Light pen strokes can occasionally be ignored as the pen only transmits data when the tip is depressed. If you write very lightly, or want to use it to digitise a drawing - this can be quite difficult to come to grips with.

Overall, the pen does pretty well with what it aims to do, and for the price you can't complain. But for busy business people or students who want accurately digitised and converted notes - there are better products available. If you're willing to take the time to write neatly, then the Z-Pen is an amazing tool that can make your life quicker and easier.

Neowin is also lucky enough to be able to offer... COMPETITION TIME!!

If you would like the chance to win the Zpen used in this review simply comment on the review of the Zpen to be entered into the free prize draw. A winner will be drawn at random on Monday 21st July 2008.

View: ZPen Package
Screenshot: ZPen Note Viewer
Screenshot: ZPen Software Bundle Interface
Screenshot: Quick test of handwriting conversion
Screenshot: Bigger test of handwriting conversion

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89 Comments

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Love these types of products, always thought the anoto idea was great and has taken a long time to take off.

I imagine that some who contribute here recognize dane elec as a licensee of a device developed by epos and presented at CES back in 06.

After a two year wait I purchased the pen. Within a matter of 4 weeks I RMA'd 3 of them. One actually exploded on my desktop within 25 minutes of being plugged in. This technology is impressive and deserves market support IMHO. However, it is wise to note that dane elec refuses to provide any semblance of customer service in the face of legitimate need and consideration.

Was a response warranted in my case? (no pun intended). Yes in all fairness it was.

After paying my money, I had struggled again and again with the limitations of the PEN (not the software scriptnotes). That is to say it would not produce notes in the typical lecture hall where I work. These rooms are populated by a fair number of devices communicating via IR and wireless networking. The *.eli file that appears in 'My Notes' only contains random lines and illegible marks. As this has been replicated on 3 of the pens (on two of them before they went dead), I believe it can be reproduced in the lab.

Please notice that I am putting aside the phenomenal lack of reliability I experienced. This was not the main issue for me. I realize that any new technology has to have dedicated users if it is to develop.

Thank goodness the corporate culture of the retailer is totally end user-centric. Otherwise I would be out +100 dollars US. I don't dismiss the impressive accomplishment of epos. I simply wish they had chosen a company to produce the pen whose doctrine had a measure of mature consideration for the end user.

More can be found on the actual legacy of my experiences in my post on Gottabemobile.com. Search for zpen.

This is a great idea - a couple of generations down the line and I expect that devices like this will be seen everywhere...

The flaws described don't sound totally unexpected - OCR struggles with my joined up capital letters, maybe I should learn to write again!

I have always fancied getting a tablet to use mostly for notetaking (using OneNote) but this could well be a cheaper alternative as the text can be added directly to word templates for meeting minutes etc.

I look forward to seeing how this market develops!

I've been fascinated by this digital pen technology for years, but the one product I got my dad we never got working. I'm usually put off by requirements of special paper or notebooks and concerns about spending money on something that doesn't work for me due to something like the light writing mentioned in this review.

I'd love the chance to win one free though and test it out.

I've never thought of using something like that, but if the technology comes along it may be better for me than something like a tablet PC.

This pen does require the special paper to work, so I favor the stand alone units that write on any paper such as the Digital Scribe from IO Gear, but it also requires a sensor to pick up the signals, so there may be a trade off. However, the special paper is relatively expensive, and the Digital Scribe use rather inexpensive batteries which are readily available at most discount stores. The proper comparison may be, however, this pen with the Logitech IO2. The recognition software is now pretty standard. In its newest version, it is accurate in printing, but less so in cursive, unless you are the rare soul who still uses the Palmer method of cursive. The refills are easily changed, but may not be generally available.

I am embarrassed. I confused this with the Pulse pen. It is more like the Digital Scribe or the Pegasus note taker, or the much older Seiko InkLink pen, I will apologize by saying I use the Mobile Digital Scribe and it works well with the one exception of the clip working with only one sheet at a time. It have used some velco tape to affix to the top of a legal pad to make it work more smoothly for long note taking sessions. The comments on the software and refill availability stand.

This is the first one I've seen that's looks like a real pen... i.e. not excessively thick or bulky.

I've actually been thinking about buying one for work... Mainly for meetings.

+rm20010, the Tablet PCs are very expensive, so for me this is one of the best solutions... Some of them cost +2000€ !

I think this little gadget looks great!
Wouldn't mind picking up one for everyday use as I am forever scribbling notes and then losing them. Also recommneded them to our PS groups over in Australia. With this little gadget meeting minutes will become 100% less time consuming.

For £75 I think it should have better software or better documentation. This might be useful when I go into college.

Thank for the review, I was looking into getting one of these, however I hadn't started reading reviews on one. Thanks!

Excellent idea for collecting information on the move. It would be interesting to try with other OCR software programs which claim ability to read handwriting. Sounds much better than Anoto rival system as does not need special paper. I would love to try this. Thanks for review.

Hum... This looks good. But as always, it does not support my language(the software).
Also, i don't like the idea of pressing the pen while writing .

I'm going back to Uni in september, while working fulltime as a webdeveloper, so I am not looking forward to the time needed to type out my notes. I do type fast enough to keep up, but I am not sure I would have to reply on my laptop's batteries (which run out in less than 2 hours), if a laptop in the room is allowed, etc.

I remembered the IO digital pen I saw some months ago, but I never bought it because it required special paper, which is an incredible hassle and waste of money. So I've been googling for the past 30 minutes, and came upon favorable reviews of the Zpen. Since last time, Logitech have also released a similar device, but I read that the clip that comes with the Logitech pen only allows a few sheets of paper to be attached - a horrible design mistake. There's also the solidTech L2, but that is an entire pad, and it's a lot more expensive. So as far as I can see, the Zpen seems the best and cheapest choice.

I did find this review a bit negative, though, and I am still not sure what to buy, if anything - but I do realise this: the flaws discussed in this review, do not concern the hardware. The main objection is about the software, the text recognition. The good thing is that this can be fixed by software upgrades and fixes. The most important thing is the hardware. If I can grab any notepad, start writing, and be assured that my writing is saved - I would be very happy. Of course I may have to invest in other text recognition software but I can see about that if I get the pen.

My only question is: does the pen offer enough value for money? Basically what I would be buying, is a miniscanner, which scans 'on the fly'. That's nice and does save time, but I do have a regular scanner -scanning al my notes of one day may only take me to 10 minutes - the most time-consuming will still be the character recognition.

Theoretically it shouldn't be a problem. The pen itself just captures the movements of the paper and stores it as an image. It's the software that does the conversion.

This would shut my lecturers up, saying that it is faster to write stuff than type it. Problem is, my handwriting looks scary.

(Delgarth said @ #39)
So, can I write on just anything with this? Doesn't matter what it is, right?

Provided it has the receiver clipped on.

Looks like a really interesting device. As many said OneNote would be the true key to it's success. Maybe even a bundle package or something. This technology truely is amazing. Certainly seems like the old-fashioned pen-and-paper machanism has it's days numbered!

Regardz

Interesting concept, wish there was a way of trying one out without having to buy it, so I could see how well it worked with my handwriting.

Now *that* looks like a great idea! No doubt I won't win this, but I can definitely see a use for this in the office... great! Thanks for the review, Neowin! (and Paul, of course!)

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All the earlier attempts at this that I've seen so far haven't impressed, but this looks like a success.
Will probably get one once I have a little more cash to spend.

Seen this on the gadget show the other day, it was amazing, recognised all the handwriting and it scanned in perfectly, and when it converted from the scanned image to text it was perfect every time.

Nice Review, more information than i can get at the manufacturer site.

but can i put the reciever in my shirt bag or must it be on the top of the notepad where i'm working.
that can be a little disturbing and be a disadvantage against a tablet PC.

so you can make for small money your Standard PC or notebok to a tablet pc hope they
make a plugin fpr one note too

I totally didn't understand the deadline requirements of the Dragon contest for Neowin, so I should win this one. :P

But seriously, would be a nice prize if I get it. Here is to hoping.

That's pretty sweet. I've always wanted a pen like this. As for copy and pasting, it'd be pretty cool to be able to draw a circle around the desired text and write copy, or something. I dunno. This would be sweet for University next year.

Looks cool! I must say the recognition seems pretty good. Now the next feature is to copy-paste on paper something you wrote already!

I wonder if it does printing and cursive equally as well?
Now if they could only come up with a microphone that would take spoken words and transcribe them....

This looks to be the exact same product as the IOgear GPEN200N Mobile Digital Scribe, which is currently available at www.pcconnection.com for $77. I've been considering getting one for a while....

I type faster than I hand write so I would be one of the university students with a laptop in front of me. LOL

But, it is a good idea for those that don't type fast or don't have access to a computer right away.

Looks good... Wonder how good it is on REALLY bad handwriting!

OneNote integration is a key thing that is missing though...

Interesting review. I haven't looked closely at these types of devices in a while. My first impressions were that they were bulky and required special paper.. This device looks more promising.

What a cool little device.

I use pen and paper in lectures as I can't type fast enough :(
This would be ideal.
But I couldn't warrant £75 on one though

Translation seemed to work okay for the swirly handwriting. I don't think it would have a problem with my everyday handwriting.