UNBOXED: Reviewing the NeoLab Neo Smartpen M1
As someone with a penchant for writing in physical notebooks and who happens to cover the world of consumer electronics, I’ve longed for some sort of product that could perfectly meld those two worlds together in a way that wasn’t gimmicky or all around kludgy. If I’m being honest, this is a desire of mine that dates way back to early childhood when I first encountered the Talkboy recording pen, which was an extension of the line of gadgets that Kevin McCallister played with in those Home Alone movies. Ever since then, I’ve been on a several-decades-long journey trying to find the perfect smart pen.
I hate to declare winners with this being the first smart pen that I’ve actually had the opportunity to review for UNBOXED, but the rest of the field is going to have an incredibly hard time upending the Smartpen M1 from NeoLab Convergence—a product recognized as one of our CE Week 2018 Best in Show.
The second smart pen from NeoLab, the M1 is a $129 writing utensil that is packed with a whole host of smart features. But that’s not what makes the M1 smart pen an exceptional find—it’s the fact that NeoLab created a product that doesn’t really change the traditional writing experience. You don’t have to use some sort of funky pressure sensitive tablet, the pen itself is a pretty standard feeling sort of pen, and the M1-enabled notebooks would otherwise blend in with any other standard writing pad. In other words, I really don’t feel like I’m holding a piece of technology while using the M1—and that in and of itself makes this pen a winner.
Smartpen M1 with an Ncode-enabled notepad
An LED light notifies you of the pen's status and charge level
Ncode technology gives each page its own digital fingerprint
A standard D-1 pen tip fits into the M1
Tapping the tip of the pen to the envelope lets you quickly email your notes.
Then you get into the technology behind NeoLab’s Smartpen M1, and you start to realize just how impressive the technology is. The magic of the M1 starts with the actual paper that you use to record your chicken scratch and digital doodles. Built around NCode technology, NeoLab has an extensive range of available notebook types that utilize this special A4 paper. Looked at from a distance, the paper looks pretty ordinary. Under a microscope, though, each individual sheet of paper has a unique combination of lines and symbols printed on them that represents a specific location on that page. The M1 pen utilizes a sensor under the pen tip to record where on the page the user is writing. It basically acts as a fingerprint for every single page.
The M1 itself is an incredibly well-built product that feels like an expensive pen. Anyone who enjoys the feeling of a weighty pen in their hand as they write—like this guy—would be extremely pleased with the feel of the M1 pen. While it’s a heavier 17.4 grams, the pen is really rather nondescript; it would easily blend into a pile of standard pens. The look of the tip resembles an older fountain pen, which I found to be some combination of nostalgic and comfortable. And changing the tip is a cinch; it simply slides out and can be replaced with any standard D-1 Type pen tip.
As for the technical/smart aspects of the M1, the pen charges up via a micro USB cable, gets about 125 days of a charge with standard use or six hours of continuous use, only needs 90 minutes to get a full charge, and it can store more than 1,000 pages worth of data without needing to sync.
But it’s the syncing with the Neo Notes app that really drives the user experience with the Neo Smartpen M1. When synced with Neo Notes, the pen transfers data from each of the A4 pages to the app and stores them by notebook—actually displaying each notebook as it appears in the physical world. Diving into an individual page, the user has the ability to transcribe writing, share their notes, and edit the text or doodles in all sorts of ways—line thickness, color, adding highlights, free writing on the app, and more. You can also actually watch your notes get rewritten as they were recorded by the pen, and add tags for additional organization of the notes. In doing a little research on smart pens, I also learned that the searching of digital notes—which Neo Notes allows for—is an often requested feature that most other smart pens don’t offer.
Neo Notes allows the user to sync their notes with third party services like Evernote, Google Drive, Adobe Creative Cloud, several calendar apps, and more. But one thing they don’t do is allow you to sync your notes across multiple devices with the Neo Notes app—something that I found a little frustrating if, say, I wanted to have my notes saved on my iPhone and iPad. Having all of those different sharing options could help with that, but I like the idea of having them synced in the Neo Notes app.
Additionally, you get access to a calendar of activities that records when and where you’ve used your M1 smart pen, an easy email function by simply touching the tip of the pen to the envelope logo on any A4 page, and an incredibly easy on/off function that activates by removing or replacing the cap. And we haven’t even touched on the PaperTube feature that NeoLab launched at CE Week.
NeoLab packs a lot of features into the Neo Smartpen M1, but they do it in a way that’s seamless and still simple to navigate. It’s a very intuitive user experience that only enhances the writing experience and brings it into the smart-things era. Bottom line, the Neo Smartpen M1 has been everything I’ve ever wanted in a smart pen and then some.