It’s official: pen and paper is passé, but you can make both of them work for the future, and Moleskine is leading the charge, revitalising the world of the smartpen for its classical journals.

Some of the greatest writers have gotten by spending time scribbling in a notebook, with the likes of Oscar Wilde and Ernest Hemingway known to use things like a Moleskine, and while these will never really go out of fashion, the times they are a changing.

These days, tablets, phones, and computers are becoming the norm for the way many of us transcribe the daily happenings and the information we need to remember, but so many people prefer the sound a pen makes when it etches its metal tip into page, or glides ink all over a crisp sheet of paper.

That’s fine, too, and we don’t think we’ll see the end of either tool in our lifetime, if ever, but that’s not going to stop companies from making the attempt to merge the tool with the digital world.

We’ve seen Livescribe do it in the past with its smartpen — one of the first, actually — and now Moleskine is doing the same, hoping to increase the recognition for the smartpen accessory by packaging the concept in something you might actually see a writer or an artist use, while also finding a neat middle ground for the paper.

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Announced earlier in the year, Moleskine’s middle-ground solutions called “Pen+” and “Paper Tablet” are now available in the Smart Writing set, and we’re going hands-on with the concepts to see if they hold water, or even hold words.

First let’s tackle that pen, because it’s easily the most critical part of a digital pen system.

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For starters, Moleskine’s Pen+ is a little different from the smartpen fare we’ve seen from Livescribe in the past.

Relying on technology from Neo Smartpen — Livescribe’s biggest competitor — the Moleskine Pen+ looks more like a standard pen, with a relatively thick cylindrical barrel that strangely has more in common with a triangular prism than it does a cylinder.

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This slightly unusual shape means the Moleskine Pen+ is at once familiar and easy to grip, but also stable on the desk, with the mostly flat edges of the smartpen unable to roll with such a unique design.

There’s also a pen cap here complete with pocket clip, and the whole thing looks and feels more like a real pen than any other smartpen we’ve tried, and we’ve tried every model we could get our hands on.

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Granted, it’s still a ballpoint pen — sorry fountain pen fans, but there’s no love here (and we’re sad, too) — and it relies on much the same technology as we’ve seen with the Livescribe, meaning there’s a camera at the base of the pen that watches where the pen scribbles on paper sprinkled with tiny dots the human eye has trouble seeing.

Depending on where you write or draw, the technology in the pen puts two and two together, sending location information for your marks and scribbles to the app over Bluetooth.

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It’s a cool technology, but not a remarkably new one, and we’re really just seeing Moleskine shine it up, making the whole concept something someone might want to use, with a pen an artist and a writer could connect with. Basically, it’s fancy under the hood, but not fancy to the eyes, which we can see people meshing well with.

Making it work, however, is the paper, and while the dot paper technology isn’t new, Moleskine has again found a way to spruce the idea up.

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The most obvious way to get people to engage with a block of paper is to make it look fancy, and Moleskine’s easy-to-spot black not-quite-leather cover (at least these days) is always going to do that. In fact, this is the first block of dot paper that looks like it’d be a normal inclusion, with a small 5×8 inch pad you can carry around.

Livescribe had some nice pads for sure, but the Moleskine dot paper just looks and feels better, and part of this comes from the shape.

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You see, rather than supply a standard Moleskine notebook, you can identify that this is indeed a different notebook thanks to the shape of the page edges, which have been chiseled and moulded to be curved, making this Moleskine instantly recognisable and totally distinct from any other Moleskine notebooks you might already have laying about the home.

When you put the two together, Moleskine’s digital experience begins, with the Pen+ charged using a standard microUSB charger, powered on using the little silver button at the back, and pairing to your phone over Bluetooth.

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Owners of the Apple iPhone and iPad will have a Moleskine specific app, but Android users get the Neo Notes app from the designers of the pen, and either way, it’s a pretty decent experience, synchronising the pages pretty much as you scribble, or later on if you do it away from the phone.

It’s the little things that delighted us during our time with the Moleskine smartpen system, such as the little LED at the back of the ben that changes colour when you decide to change colour inside the app.

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Let’s say you want to write with red: to remind you that you’re scribbling in that colour, the LED on the pen changes colour.

Black is actually more of a white, mind you, so if it shows up as white on your pen, you know you’re working with the default of black or possibly even grey, but those colours are fun because they don’t just mean your writing can benefit from colours, but you can do some neat scribbling and art, too.

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Black on the page, multiple colours on screen.

Black on the page, multiple colours on screen.

Take this basic drawing of a box that we did. While the real physical paper printed page shows it in one colour — the black of the Moleskine Pen+ pen — the digital notebook depicts the colours we were using at the time, as well as the change in pen tips.

This might seem a bit complicated, and we suspect it will be a feature few will use, but it does mean that the impromptu artist that lives in a notebook can actually pair their phone and scribble art with colours, not just the one colour their pen works with.

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We even love the email icon on every page allowing you to email the page you’ve just scrawled quickly and easily simply by tapping it with the pen.

With this generation of smartpen, it feels as if Moleskine has removed all of the unnecessary complexities that has sat with smartpen concepts for years and just made this about notes and drawing, because this is basically pen and paper that talks to a phone and tablet.

That’s about as easy as you could want it.

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The price is, however, a little steep, with Australia’s Moleskine importer Notemaker selling the Moleskine Pen+ and Paper Tablet for $339, making it a little on the exy side, but still interesting all the same.

Confusingly, no individual Paper Tablets can be found for sale yet, suggesting importing them at a cost of $30 USD each may actually be a distinct requirement, at least for now.

Certainly if we wanted a digital note taking system and were still heavily reliant on pen and paper, Moleskine’s Smart Writing set would be worth looking into, but be prepared to spend up, because like most things Moleskine, it’s not a cheap way to take notes.

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