Better yet, the notes-viewing software is right there on that flash drive. That means you can view your notes on anybody’s computer instantly without having to install anything first. With the Scribe pen, you must install special software from a CD before you can use it.
If you want to do more than view the notes — that is, if you want to export them as converted text — you do have to install the MyNotes software on a PC, no matter which pen you buy. But the ZPen’s version wins here as well. First, the installer is right there on the flash drive, so you don’t have to carry around a CD. Second, you get the full version of MyNotes, capable of recognizing multiple languages and mixed text and graphics on a page. The Digital Scribe pen, on the other hand, comes with the more limited Lite version.
Nor is the self-contained software the ZPen’s only travel-friendly feature. Turns out there’s a U.S.B. jack hidden under its rounded end cap; you can plug the whole receiver directly into your computer so you don’t have to pack and track a separate U.S.B. cable, as you do with the Scribe.
But wait, there’s more: all that flash memory means that the ZPen can store about 1,000 pages of handwriting. The Scribe holds a paltry 50.
Finally, you can get into real trouble with the Scribe when you need to turn a page. If you forget to press the Page button on the receiver, you wind up invisibly overwriting the previous page, turning the whole thing into a superimposed, unreadable mess. The ZPen more or less takes care of that problem, because simply squeezing to open the clip as you remove or turn the page automatically tells the receiver that you’re starting a fresh sheet.
The Scribe isn’t a total loser, however. It performs one nifty trick that the ZPen does not: its U.S.B. cable permits you to use the pen while it’s tethered to the computer. As you write or doodle, your writings appear on the screen.
Then, with one tap of the pen directly in front of the receiver, you turn the pen into a mouse. Now you can move the computer’s cursor by moving the pen just above the paper surface (or insert the inkless tip), click by tapping the pen down, and so on. The Tablet PC features of Windows Vista are all at your disposal at this point, too, converting your 50-cent legal pad into a $100 graphics tablet that uses Microsoft’s much superior handwriting recognition software. Neat trick.
It’s too bad these pens come with such terrible handwriting-conversion software, and too bad they both work only with Windows. But the price is fair, the pens themselves are beautifully designed, and the basic writing-capture feature works flawlessly.
The ZPen, doubling as a flash drive, is far easier to travel with; the Digital Scribe, doubling as a mouse, enables you to draw freehand on a PC. They may not be perfect, but they deserve a little buzz all their own.
David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: firstname.lastname@example.org.