By Ian S. Gertler


Let’s face it — we’re living in an electronic — and increasingly mobile — world.

While desktops still exist, it’s the “on the go” devices that are gaining market share each day. However, even users that sport the latest laptops (like the new MacBook Air), tablet PCs or smartphones need to use a traditional pen at some point. When this happens, the choices aren’t attractive options: place the physical paper in a pile on your desk (or in your file cabinet) or manually re-enter your notes into the computer. But what about the images, charts and “brainstorming notes” you jot down? If you’re lucky enough to have a smart board in your office, home or school, you transfer them — otherwise it’s back to the proverbial drawing board. Not anymore …

Welcome to the new era in note-taking … the expanding industry of digital pens. For years, people have utilized different gadgets to write in the computer age — whether it was light pens to write on screens years ago or the stylus for PDAs and (more currently) Tablet PCs. The disconnect was still in merging the physical aspects with the electronic. Sure, you could scan them — but that still adds a usually more frustrating step into the process. Recently, the market has exploded with “digital pen” devices that take these efforts from “write down to right now.” In the past, many of these options required special paper or ink — but that’s changed as well.

Enter the EPOS Digital Pen & USB Flash Drive.
EPOS made a big splash at the 2008 CES show in Vegas … where they announced the distribution details for this new product. Many people may doubt the need for a device like this as I did. However, after using it and realizing how often it would be useful in bridging the gap between traditional and electronic writing — and end results, it became more ingenious. Once again — it doesn’t take any special paper or transcription device. EPOS provides everything you need to have a true “plug and play” digital pen. You simply place the accompanied USB device at the top of your paper and write as you would with any traditional instrument. Finished? Just plug the USB cord into your computer and upload the information through the included software.

So, why use EPOS over the countless other digital pen choices on the market today? Well, aside from being relatively simple for even the most unsophisticated user, the technology is based on ultrasonic waves between the pen and capture device. What’s the significance? By basing the technology on these sound wavelengths (yes, the receiver actually has two small microphones on it), information is captured in a three-dimensional capacity. As a result, this serves as a reliable handwriting-recognition device … and reads objects too.

Testing EPOS out — successful, for the most part.
As the old saying goes, the proof is in the pudding.
The promotional (review) package came with everything that would be included in the retail package available to consumers today — the digital pen, a USB flash drive, an optional USB cable to plug the receiver into tight spaces (like a USB hub), and required software that needs to be installed for using the “Pen & Ink Editor” capabilities (on the CD, while the receiver embeds the “Pen & Ink Viewer” application that can be utilized without a full software installation for simplified viewing aspects) … as well as the usual “User Guide” to get the party started. The user guide isn’t the best product description guide I’ve ever seen, but using this device isn’t brain surgery either — so it’s simple enough to get from Point A to Point B of use.

After all of the software was installed, I started to test it out. The overall product is attractive — a simple black, white and gray color palette. The Flash Drive reminds me of a clipboard, since it connects the same way — but the benefit is that it’s small enough to sit at the top or side of the paper. In addition, you’re not limited to a piece or pad of paper. You can attach it to anything at hand. Once attached, you turn the system on (which isn’t the most intuitive process — but that could be b/c I tried to just use it without reading the guide). After it was on and functional, I started to write and doodle. Since it uses a standard ink cartridge (that can be replaced easily with a visit to your local Wal-Mart or office supply store, there was no learning curve.

The pen itself was comfortable — slightly larger than the average writing device, but much smaller than some of the behemoths tested in the past that have large components attached into it. Since the transfer mechanism is separate from the pen itself, both of them are a good size. The pen has two small watch batteries in the top (which I find slightly annoying since I’d prefer some kind of rechargeable solution that could be powered by plugging it into the computer like the receiver is) and some flashing indicators. The only additional note is that the ink can be removed and replaced with a stylus. Many people found this to be an attractive feature, but it’s seriously been many years since I used one of those back with my PalmPilot Professional (although I suppose you can use this with a WACOM tablet – but I don’t know why anyone would really do so). Nonetheless, it should meet the needs of various users. I wrote down some information and couldn’t figure out how to start a new page — again, another good reason to read the User Guide. Open and close the clip — new page. Simple enough. I did wonder about editing or marking up things on previous pages as well — no solution. You can’t go back, but then again it’s possible to edit your notes on the computer once transferred so it shouldn’t present a major challenge.

So – as for simplicity in function, EPOS has performed well. The results were better-than-expected. Like anything that’s different than what you’re used to, the first trial with the software was a hassle. When the drive is connected, it’s automatically detected as a storage device which can be utilized for any files. The software simple … now that it’s been updated. I actually received two promotional review kits — the first one had an OCR (optical character recognition – the software that reads the handwriting and drawings, similar to a scanner) converter that worked at times, but had a variety of errors in converting my documents into editable files for Word (with the installed editing application) although the viewer worked fine (with PDF files). After touching base with their QA department and their PR firm, I received a new version of the Digital Pen and USB Flash Drive that would be available on retail shelves. The initial test version didn’t have the Vision Objects OCR converter (which has worked well in all aspects upon receiving the second kit). The new software applications worked well — but there’s still room for improvement there to make it a bit more seamless and intuitive. And one other drawback — the editing software wasn’t available for Mac users — but they could still use the pen and view the files. In a discussion with the CEO of EPOS, he confirmed that a version of the software for Apple computers was on the agenda. Overall, it’s still a worthwhile purchase for anyone interested in these capabilities.

The EPOS site also has a simple demo that presents the product well to complement this review — you can check it out here.

The end result — to buy or not to buy?
The EPOS Digital Pen & USB Flash Drive has quite a bit of competition to contend with, but its simplicity and effectiveness make it a worthwhile investment. While everyone has their own set of qualifiers and needs, this product steps up to the plate and offers a good solution for merging the physical writing and electronic environments. As both a business and personal PC user, this addresses almost every need I’d encounter … and I can see this as a viable tool for students, especially college ones. The company promotes the product with the line: “Write it, store it, send it” — and that’s exactly what it does, barring some of the stated minor issues that can be overlooked.

Price and Distribution
At the 2008 CES Expo in Las Vegas, EPOS discussed the retail price of their Digital Pen and USB Flash Drive at $149.99 as set by their channel partner dane-Elec. The product is being marketed under the “Zpen” name/brand and can be found in a variety of retail outlets — predominantly online. I recently saw the device on for under $100 — and the offer included free shipping.

Product Specifications

Pen: 144 x 13 mm
Receiver: 110 x 40 x 28 mm

Pen: 16g
Receiver: 56g

Paper format
Up to vertical ISO A4 (portrait)

Ink refill

Image resolution
From 300 to 900 dpi

PC Interface
USB 1.1 (2.0 compatible)

Internal memory
Flash type memory (1Gb)
Will store hundreds of written pages.

Power supply
Pen: 2 V393 batteries
Receiver: 1.2V DC NiMH
(Rechargeable battery included)

System requirements
Windows 2000/XP/Vista
Pentium III 1GHz or up
200 Mb free disk space
256 Mb RAM (512 recommended)
1 USB port available (2.0 or 1.1)