Smart Notebooks – Reducing our reliance on paper.

I am an uber-nerd. There is nothing I love more than a new tech toy. Especially when it purports to save the planet or at least help. So when I heard about smart notebooks, I had to find out more.

Smart Notebooks look really nifty. You have a notebook that comes with an app so you can upload anything you’ve drawn or written “to the web” so you never lose it. Then either wipe down the page with a damp soft cloth, heat with a hairdryer, or toss in the microwave and… KaZamm! Clean fresh snowy white page ready for your next flash of brilliance! And you can reuse it, like a gazillion times* and have an everlasting notebook! How cool is that?! So even with what seems like high prices for these objects of desire (and these notebooks are not cheap) I wanted to know more about this modern miracle (and of course save some trees.)

There are a bunch of companies touting “smart notebooks”, but the reality breaks down into “smart” meaning an app which you can take pictures of your pages and then upload them to multiple cloud services like Google Docs, Evernote, email, OneNote etc… While the “notebooks” claim to have endlessly reusable pages. BUT.

It’s really all bout the pen.

First, reusable paper is made with either a mix of wood pulp and BPA poly-free plastic or, for “stone paper” calcium carbonate and high-density polyethylene (HDPE). Because of the amount and type of plastics in the “paper”, some are questioning if this isn’t greenwashing**. The plastics make the paper durable and waterproof. Stone paper does not claim to be reusable, but, because it is waterproof, it can be.

Each and every reusable notebook tells you to use erasable pens, most touting FriXion pens by Pilot. There is a HUGE reason for this! FriXion and erasable pens are also WATER-SOLUBLE. So, when you use a water-soluble pen or pencil on a waterproof surface… You can wash the page off. What’s more, FriXion pen’s ink is designed to go CLEAR at 160c. So, by using a hairdryer or microwave on the page this will render the ink invisible. This also works with the other erasable pens we have tested.

There’s a couple of downsides to this:

  1. You can’t just use any old pen or pencil to write or draw in the notebooks.
  2. Spill your drink on your notebook and it’s contents are fecked.
  3. When using a hairdryer to clear a page, it will also erase what’s been written on the other side and several of the pages beneath it.
  4. Microwaving will erase the whole notebook. It’s not in any way selective.
  5. When the notebook or pages cool down, sometimes the ink comes back. This was especially true with FriXion’s coloured ink pens. One company suggests that if you lose a page to put the notebook into the fridge/freezer to get the notes back.

While FriXion pens are the most readily available erasable pens, they aren’t cheap. A pack of 5 black pens will set you back £8.99 on Amazon and a pack of 8 coloured pens £10.99.

All of this is why each version of notebook comes with its own app.

Never lose your notes again by using the camera on your smartphone to send, via the app, either a PDF or JPG to the cloud. This is both good and bad. The apps are proprietary, meaning they ONLY work with their brand of notebook. Each brand uses different page identifiers, discretely in the corners; QR codes, little boxes, and codes to unlock the apps. (We found ways around that, and if you are interested, just ask and we will post the answers in the comments.) Some apps are better than others. Some have more share options, others can only email. Now onto some reviews so you can see what we mean.

Rocketbook Everlast Smart Reusable Notebook – A5 Executive – Black, Pilot FriXion Pen and Wipe Included price: £28.27 – £32.99 (dotted – lined)

Has only 37 pages, so this makes it very light, but as you’re not supposed to be using reams of paper, it’s not something to hold this little notebook back. The feel of the pen on paper, you can tell you are writing on plastic. It’s very smooth and the pens glide, there’s little to no resistance. So, the action is not quite the same.

Each page has a QR code in the corner to help you upload your page. The pages are water/heat cleanable, so only erasable pens if you want to clear a page. It is an easy and intuitive app. In your first steps, you set up the MANY ways you want to store or share your notes by signing into Evernote, DropBox, Google docs, One Note and more… The apps OCR stands up well to my bad handwriting. Using the app on your phone you can continue to edit the images you upload. Hold your phone over the notebook page and the app takes a picture. You can send as PDF or JPG.

Here’s the thing; that sucks. I like the app, but I can’t use it on other notebooks. Unless… I tell you a hack I found, but you have to ask for it in the comments 😉

 

Rocketbook Wave Smart Reusable Notebook – Executive / Small Size – Upload Notes Using iOS/Andriod App and Then Microwave To Clear All Pages and Start price: £25.99

Another Rocketbook, but this ONLY cleans via heat and microwave. When you have filled the notebook or want to clear the WHOLE book, you throw it into a microwave with some water (1/3 cup) inside a mug which you sit in the scrawly circles. Then you heat it in 30-second increments until the rocket symbol goes fully white. Then you turn the book over and do it again. This will make the book INCANDESCENT! Quickly take it out and put it under a VERY heavy large book to cool down. OTHERWISE, all the pages will curl and go wavy. Oh! And don’t try to use water to clean it. I made that mistake. Water will make the pages soggy and take off the plastic coating and won’t do a thing to remove erasable ink.

This notebook has a more paper feel and it was my favourite one to scribble in. The app made this notebook a real joy, but the burn of your fingers by a freshly microwaved notebook with curled edges was a real shame.

 

Moleskine Smart Notebook, Digital Notebook with White Pages Connected to the App Creative Cloud Connected, Hard Cover, Large Size 13 x 21 cm, Black, 600 pages price: £21.06 £16.98

Now, this is a proper Moleskine. But this is also where it went off track. It’s a Moleskine notebook. A really nice, fab to draw on, PAPER notebook. Yep. Doesn’t matter what drawing tool you use, none will wash, microwave, or blowdry out (mainly due to fears it might burst into flames).

BUT! This notebook has little grey boxes in the corners of each page and is gridded by using dots to assist the page in providing a scalable rectangle and its contents when viewed in the app. The app is pretty good for artists as it has all sorts of tools and brushes to edit your image online. The files also save as Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG). This app/notebook connection is perfect for professional artists and anyone who uses the Adobe suite. If what you are trying to do is sketch and then improve your work on a computer, this is the app for you. Me, what I need is a business diary.

 

Reusable Planner Notebook, Personal Organizer A5 Smart Notebook Erasable Cloud Storage(Weekly Monthly Yearly Planner 136 Pages,Black) price: £21.45

Now I LOVE this diary by A Homestec/Newyes! I have date books, and I also print off blog organisation calendars and weekly planners. One for each project and a main calendar for personal goals. Using the note pad with its own brand of fine point erasable pen worked well. The ink from the FriXion was slightly thicker and needed more time to dry. Closing the pages left blobs of ink on the opposite leaves. So if you aren’t careful for notes are smear city.

The Newyes app… is AMAZEBALLS! It has all the ability of the more expensive Rocketbooks, BUT NONE OF THE BLOCKING. That’s right you can use the app to scan anything, any page, any image. The OCR is pretty good, good enough to recognise my before tea/coffee rage-filled animal scratches. It is also the most intuitive app to use. But because the app works from your phone, when sharing a page or an image it auto signs in to your social media apps when you request to upload. This is both convenient and brings up some security issues.

 

Nuco Nu A4 Stone Paper Notebook price: £4.99

The first thing we noted about “stone paper” was the price. It’s a big difference from a fiver for a full A4/160 pages notebook to thirty quid for A5/36 pages (Rocketbook Everlast). Because stone paper is waterproof, you can treat it the same way as other smart notebooks. Because it really is all about the pen. When we tested stone paper it performed the same as smart notebook paper. We didn’t microwave the stone paper notebook because of the metal ring binder and we weren’t quite sure if the paper would melt due to its high plastic content. Otherwise, erasable ink wipes off with a damp cloth. Stone paper notebooks come in all shapes, sizes, and colours with lined or blank pages. The feeling of writing on the pages is the feel of writing plastic, but not as much as the smart notebooks.

Stone paper notebooks don’t come with its own scanning app, but there are loads of free OCR apps in the Apple and Google Play stores. Windows (OfficeLens) have their own OS-specific app but still free to use. Then these also come highly recommended: Adobe Scan, Google Keep, and Text Fairy. CamScanner is one we’ve heard the most from by actual users as a positive experience, but it has in-app purchases and an option to upgrade to a Pro version, so not exactly free.


I like the concept. Saving trees and polluting less is vitally important that we take extreme measures right now. One of those might be no more disposable paper. Templated pages are where I believe it will be most useful. I absolutely love the diary, but then I am such a picky cow***. I would want the templates loose, so I could organise them in the way I want. I also have a solution for that if you want to ask for it in the comments 😉

If you want to dive into reusable paper/smart notebooks, we recommend trying out a stone paper notebook and a small pack of FriXion pens. Also, shop around the OCR scanning apps to find which one works well for you.

OR…

Take part in Indie+Design’s competition to win (most of****) the Smart Notebook products we have reviewed here.


* Each notebook recommends a different number of “refreshes”
** This Paper Is Made From Stone, But It Isn’t Exactly Eco-Friendly
***That was very nearly “bitch”!
**** Sorry we can’t also add the Rocketbook Wave, but it went all wibbly and did not survive the microwave. The editor’s fault, they should really learn to read the instructions first.

Abigail Tyrrell

With degrees in Psychology, Silversmithing, and an accredited Holistic Therapist (FHT), Ms Tyrrell is an enigma wrapped in chocolate. After 18 years as a professional web developer (LAMP and .NET) and designer, she left to focus on making pants for a living. At some point during the last 12 months, she also thought creating this was a good idea...

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