Technophile: Portable audio recorders

From a pen that does the listening for you to the recorder that goes above its humble role.

Livescribe 4GB Echo Smartpen

The look About as big as an ornate fountain pen, the fashionable Echo Smartpen is ready to transcribe in any environment, and that includes both this century and the last one.

The specs The 4GB Smartpen can hold 400 hours of audio recordings and operates on a rechargeable battery. It features a microphone, micro-USB connector, OLED display, an audio jack and even some small speakers if you find yourself without headphones. And as "Q", James Bond's right-hand research and development man from the "007" movies might say, "It's also a quite capable pen."

The scoop The smartest part of the Echo Smartpen is its "paper replay", which, with the help of an infrared camera, allows it to play back the corresponding audio it recorded while you were taking notes (albeit on special paper). Its fidelity settings can also be calibrated for different recording environments. All these features combine to make it the perfect recording device for obsessive note-takers and future valedictorians.


Zoom H4 - Handy Recorder

The look The Zoom H4 packs tonnes of recording capacity and features them all in a compact, sturdy, stocky frame, although the dual mini condenser mics make the device look a bit scary, like a taser for Terminators. At first glance, the Zoom H4 seems to be the multi-function, Swiss Army Knife of portable recording. In this case, first impressions are correct.

The specs Professional features include the ability to use XLR quarter-inch inputs to plug in musical instruments or microphones for music or podcast recordings. It comes with four-track studio recording effects and can also record off your computer via a USB connector.

The scoop All the features, buttons and power of the Zoom H4 may trigger stress-induced vertigo for typical consumers who just need one-touch press, record and playback functions. However, professional field recorders may find it's a capable and versatile recorder - and a bargain compared with its pro-level competitors.


Olympus WS-650S

The look The Olympus WS-650S can easily fit in any pocket, and boasts a relatively easy-to-use interface with a clear (though tiny) LCD display.

The specs The WS-650S offers 2GB of memory and can last about 20 hours on one AAA battery. It allows you to organise recordings into folders. It also features voice-activated recording, which can save on battery life by only recording when it hears something loud enough, though I've always found this a frightening feature (low-talkers can easily be ignored altogether). It also can plug directly into your computer thanks to a retractable USB connector, so it won't add to your ever-growing collection of power cords.

The scoop This recorder is perfect for those who need dependable, though not professional quality, recordings on the fly. School lectures - yes. Acoustic guitar solos - no.