Neo N2 Smartpen review: A neat digital tool for analog writers

The Neo N2 does a good job at taking digital notes, but it’s lacking some extraordinary features to make it worth its price tag.

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At a Glance
  • Neo Smartpen N2

In a world where tablets and smartphones are constantly competing for the privilege of making everything in your life digital and mobile, it may seem counterintuitive to develop technology for a smart pen. After all, who uses actual paper anymore? As it turns out, plenty of people still do.

From journalists and students, to artists and architects, a smart pen like the Neo Smartpen N2 can really come in handy. It records every pen stroke you make, including the longest of grocery lists and the weirdest of doodles. It’s also an incredibly handy way to share notes and drawings with others without ripping a piece of paper out of your own personal notepad. Its only drawback is how costly it is; so before you can consider shelling out the cash, here’s what it’s like to use a smart pen.

Smarter than your average pen

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A smart pen for your thoughts.

The Neo Smartpen N2 looks and acts like a regular ballpoint pen, though it’s weird to hold at first because of its irregular triangular shape. It’s not too thick to hold for long periods of time, however, and it fits in most pencil pouches and elastic penholders. The N2 also uses refillable D1 ink cartridges, which can be conveniently found at many stationary stores.

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The Neo N2 Smartpen’s ballpoint tip. 

At the bottom of the pen, there’s a MicroUSB port for charging the device. Near it is a tiny silver button, which you’ll have to press to turn on the pen and to activate its Bluetooth functionality. There’s also a 120 frames-per-second camera residing just above to the tip of the pen that captures what you’re writing on paper. The pen is equipped with a dual-core ARM 9 system-on-a-chip that’s processing all that data, and then wirelessly transferring it via Bluetooth to your smartphone or tablet.

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This little folio is big enough to fit the Neo N2 Smartpen and two small notebooks.

Here’s the kicker: The Neo Smartpen N2 requires that you invest in specific notebooks to get full use out of it, each of which costs upwards of $20—that’s on top of the $170 investment in the pen itself. The notebooks are available in various sizes and setups, including a small memo notebook, which is great for grocery lists, a pocket notebook with graphed paper, a larger college-ruled notebook, and a legal pad. Neo’s notebook offerings pale in comparison to what you can get in the stationary supplies aisle at the grocery store, for example, though it’s passable for those who really like the idea of digitizing their note taking.

It’s the app that makes the pen

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The Neo Notes app is pretty basic.

The Neo Smartpen N2 is straightforward to use: simply turn it on and start writing in one of its companion notebooks, or long-press down on the ballpoint tip to start it up. The Neo Notes app will then transfer your work when you sync up the pen with the app, or you can write using a live feed of sorts, which displays what you’re writing and doodling in real time.

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Once you start writing, you can sync it up with the app in real time.

The Neo Notes app lets you flip through virtual representations of physical notebooks, each denoting a separate one. Normally you can create a new notebook by simply selecting to do so within the app, but I found it easier to start writing in a new, physical notebook instead and then syncing that up later. Fortunately, the Neo Smartpen N2 instinctively knows where you’re at within a notebook and what page you’re on. It’s pretty neat. When you’re done with a notebook, move it to the Notebox within the app to digitally archive and start on your next project.

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You can choose a color—any color—but that’s about it. What’s neat: the LED light on the pen will change to the color of the virtual ink you’re using.

The Neo Notes app can do just a little more than take notes. It can transcribe your handwriting into plain text, for instance, though it’s not particularly good at doing so. You can also individually tag notes and share them externally through email or other social networks, or save directly to an Evernote account. Notes can be shared in PDF, PNG, or SVG formats. The Neo Notes app also offers a voice-recording feature, though it actually records through your mobile device and not through the pen.

Unlike, say, Samsung’s S-Note app, there aren’t too many formatting options. You can change the color of the digital pen ink to correspond with different projects, but that’s about it. There aren’t options for different pen nibs or anything else of the sort. It would have been nice to at least have access to a digital highlighter function. 

One aspect of the app that kept tripping me up, again and again, was the NoteBox. It took some digging through Neo’s FAQ to eventually figure out what this feature actually did: it’s essentially a digital holding “box” for finished notebooks. If you don’t drag a finished notebook to the NoteBox area and you start writing in a blank notebook of the same type as the one that was archived, the Neo Note app will register it as the same notebook as before.

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The NoteBox is apparently where digital notebooks go to die—or something like that.

Another issue is that the data within the app doesn’t sync across devices. I tested the Neo Smartpen N2 with both the Nexus 9 and a Samsung Galaxy S6, and neither of my lists synced regardless of the fact that the pen was paired to more than one device. It would have been a killer feature if this sort of cross-platform compatibility worked, as it could open the door for more sharing and collaboration abilities within the Neo Notes app.

Should you buy it?

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If you’d rather write than type out a note, the Neo N2 Smartpen might be of interest to you.

As mentioned, it’s $170 just for a pen that you can only use with certain (pricey) notebooks, but I could see it being a worthy investment for some cases. If you’re a student who wants to take notes while recording lectures with your smartphone, for instance, then there’s some value here. But its flaws—particularly the unintuitive, hard-to-use app—will keep it from beating out some of its competitors on the market.

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At a Glance
  • The Neo Smartpen N2 is only worth the starting cost if you can find an effective use for it. Otherwise, it's just a novelty,


    • Notebook pages are easy to share, and shared images are scalable.
    • Pen device is roughly the same size and weight as a regular pen.


    • Notebooks are proprietary, hard to come by.
    • App is difficult to use, unintuitive.
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