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This “smart” notebook must try harder

This “smart” notebook must try harder

Rocketbook’s Everlast promises to combine modern tech with old-school pen and paper. Will it pass Steven Poole’s chicken test?

Rocketbook’s Everlast promises to combine modern tech with old-school pen and paper. Will it pass Steven Poole’s chicken test?

Steven Poole | October 25th 2018

One of the pleasingly unexpected corollaries of the digital revolution has been the boom in premium stationery. Between 2010 and 2016 Moleskine, an Italian firm known for its pocket-sized hardback notebooks, nearly trebled its revenues, and its German rival Leuchtturm has been growing as well. More and more of us, apparently, want to be seen jotting profound ideas in a Hemingway-style notebook while we sip our flat whites.

This is not a Luddite rejection of technology, though: it’s an increased appreciation of the unmatched flexibility of the technology of paper and pen (or mechanical pencil). Reports proliferate about millennials using notebooks alongside smartphones, and people show off their journal entries on social media using hashtags like #bulletjournal and #weeklyspread. The blank pages of a fine Moleskine are an infinitely customisable canvas compared to the prefabricated structure of apps. Some people prefer lined or squared pages, which I consider prison bars for my exquisite thoughts, but each to their own.

But what if you could combine the best of old-school notebooks with modern tech? That’s the ambition behind Rocketbook’s new Everlast notebook. You use it in the normal offline way, but when you scan the pages with your phone it shoots everything automatically to your preferred cloud service and makes it, in theory, more integrated with all your data. And it is infinitely erasable and reusable. I decided to test it around town and at the local hipster café. Would it replace my trusty Moleskines? 

The Everlast is a spiral-bound A5 notebook with vinyl covers and 36 pages. Each page has a heavy black border and is covered in a light-grey pattern of dotted squares, so that when you scan a page the app can sort out the geometry even if you photograph it from an angle. Running across the bottom of each page is a series of icons: a rocket, a diamond, an apple and a horseshoe. You associate each of these with a service you already use, such as Evernote, Dropbox, Google Photos and so on, and you mark one to tell the app to send the page to that service. All this looks rather elegant, but it is spoiled by a big QR code in the corner of each page. It encodes the model and size of the notebook you’re using, and the page number, but already looks horribly clunky and retro.

Coming home to roost Steven’s chicken, as interpreted by the Everlast

It was time to embark on my standard chicken test for new notebooks, which consists of drawing a cartoon chicken. There is no good reason for this; I just enjoy drawing chickens. The Everlast comes with an erasable Pilot Frixion gel-pen, which is the only kind of pen you are allowed to use. (They provide a black one; other colours are available.) My chicken’s beak was wobbly as I adjusted to the oddly slick feel of this pen against the slightly glossy page. If you’re a writer who likes to feel the friction of nib or lead on paper, this will take some getting used to. It’s more like drawing on a tiny whiteboard. Finishing the chicken outline, I put a cross in the box for Evernote and scanned the page with Rocketbook’s app, which recognised and snapped it agreeably quickly. Within seconds I had a picture of a chicken in my default Evernote notebook.

The killer feature of the Everlast, if this is to be a perfect marriage of new and old tech, is the promised handwriting recognition. If you send a page of the notebook to your email account, the system will transcribe it. Unfortunately my handwriting is apparently so horrible that this didn’t work well at all. Early attempts to transliterate my scrawl resulted in mysterious messages such as “Is i acoftube Will it the co py”, after I had written “Is this acceptable? Will it go to the cloud properly?”. When I finally wrote that I was trying to write as clearly as I could, an email told me that I was trying to write as “early” as I could, which is very much not my usual habit in the mornings. These emails warn that the handwriting transcription is in “beta”, which if anything is generous.

I was left unsure where exactly the Everlast sits in the current ecosystem of note-taking technologies. Because it has to be slightly plasticky to be reusable, it doesn’t provide the sensual pleasure of writing on fine paper, and you can’t choose your favourite writing implement. On the other hand, stylus-equipped devices like the Galaxy Note or iPad Pro are a lot “smarter” than this smart notebook, and even just taking out an ordinary phone to type a quick note or calendar event is a lot easier. 

The lesson is that, while we think we control technologies, they actually control us. A technology forces the user to adapt her way of life to its mode of operation. The Everlast would be great for someone who habitually writes neatly and machine-legibly in their notebooks – but how many of us really do? It is more likely that someone determined to use this technology will change the way they write and think – and live – in order to accommodate it. And only you can know whether it’s worth it.