I love writing stuff down. Well, I love the idea of writing stuff down. Often I abandon the actual task because keeping track and archiving written notes is a huge pain in the ass. Wacom has a new toy called Bamboo Spark that digitizes your handwritten notes without you having to think about it...much.

The Bamboo Spark costs $160 and consists of a folio, paper notebook, and special ballpoint pen. After pairing the folio with the Spark iOS app over Bluetooth, you can write notes in ink and see them transferred quickly onto your iPhone or iPad as digital images. The app stores each note as a separate page, determined by the press of a start and stop button on the folio, and you can export each note as an image file, PDF, or .WILL file (an up and coming standard for digital notes). There is also a cloud service called Inkspace for accessing notes from the web.

Making digital note taking as seamless as traditional note taking is hard. Gadgets we’ve seen so far involve annoying chores like firing up an app, or pairing a device before getting to the task of actually writing. The Spark isn’t completely free of these tasks, but the roadblocks are minimal.

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Unlike the popular Livescribe pens, which similarly digitize your pen strokes, you don’t need to pair the Bamboo Spark with your phone before writing. You can use the notebook anywhere at any time, as you would a regular pen and pad. You simply flip the on switch, press a single button to start a page, write away, then press it again to finish the page.

The Spark stores up to 100 pages of notes as you write them, which are synced to the app afterwords when you find the time to pair the device. Pairing is a multistep process of button pushing, like most Bluetooth gadgets, but it worked fine for me each time. The notes were then transferred quickly with a surprising degree of fidelity. Saving your notes to your camera roll produces nice, high resolution copies for sharing.

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Speaking of sharing, one thing the Spark lacks is direct integration with Evernote. It’s a no-brainer that the Spark should sync your notes with the most popular note service out there. Hopefully we see this feature added in future updates. Another oddity is the Inkspace cloud integration. Inkspace displays and downloads your notes in horrible low resolution, as opposed to the great files you get when downloading from the iOS app. Handwriting is beautiful, and seeing it jagged and pixelated ruins the experience.

Here’s an example of the quality when downloading from Inkspace:

Here’s the same Note downloaded via the iOS app. Click the magnify icon to see it bigger:

I love the design of the Spark folio. It’s got great clean lines and subtle textures. I just wish it were smaller. My ideal notebook is about 5 by 7 inches. The Spark’s folio is about 8 x 10 inches. But I guess you need room for hardware such as the battery which charges via microUSB.

Wacom boasts that the Bamboo Spark doesn’t require any special paper. The folio will hold an A2 size notepad that is 50 sheets thick or less. You should be able to find these cheaply at most office supply stores. Livescribe requires a special type of notebook with its dotted paper to work, but actually there are a decent amount of size and design options, and you don’t have to place it in a large folio, so I’d say it’s a wash either way.

My other main gripe is that you must use the Wacom ballpoint pen to write (with replaceable cartridges). Personally, I hate the feel of ballpoint. Half the pleasure of writing is working with a great pen, which is not possible with the Spark.

Only the truest hand-writers will ever think of paying $160 for a notebook. But the Bamboo Spark does provide a virtually no-hassle way of digitally storing notes. For someone who loves the freedom of putting pen to paper, but hates having scraps of paper and half-filled notebooks gathering dust, the Spark could be a breath of fresh air.


Contact the author at mhession@gizmodo.com.