Wacom Bamboo Spark: Digitising handwritten notes

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Wacom Bamboo Spark

A smart folio that sends written notes to the cloud with a single click
Don’t listen to anyone who says handwritten notes are obsolete in the digital age. If you’ve been to the high street stationery shop recently then you already know that notebooks and notepads remain a huge draw – and not just for the Cath Kidston gingerbread crowd or folks who can’t tell an iPad mini from a nether-region napkin brand.

For avid note-takers like me who also work with digital input devices, the humble pen and pad remain indispensable tools. Why else would my favourite tablet case pack a ballpoint and some fresh blank sheets? Quite simply, no stylus-tablet combo has faithfully reproduced the tactility of handwriting onto a page, and probably never will.

Writers often get a feel for specific types of stock, certain pens develop their own character, even the smell of ink on paper can aid concentration and provide a more embodied connection with the expression of ideas on the page.

Plenty of visual artists will tell you the same thing, despite the wide adoption of high quality drawing tablets by the likes of Wacom. So it’s little wonder that the Japanese company best known for input devices has unveiled its second attempt to marry two types of media traditionally considered to be at odds with each other: analogue and digital.

Beyond an inkling

Remember the Inkling, Wacom’s admirable but largely ill-received pen/receiver clip set for taking digital notes on regular paper? Forget that. Meet the Bamboo Spark, Wacom’s new ‘smart folio’ for doing the same thing – no clip needed.

Wacom Bamboo Spark

How does it work? Wacom cites a newly patented ‘electromagnetic resonance sensor’ the size of an A5 sheet that lives inside the folio case, just underneath the notepad (which is easily replenished with any A5 equivalent – you can write on paisley patterned bramley sprig stock for all Wacom cares, just as long as the pad holds no more than 50 sheets).

Wacom Bamboo Spark in box


Wacom Bamboo Spark Pen

When you apply pressure on the paper with Wacom’s smart ballpoint pen – non-powered, proprietary cartridge; two refills come spare – the sensor captures each stroke in its onboard memory, which can store up to 100 pages.

Wacom Bamboo Spark

Digital notes locked inside a woven cloth case? What fresh hell is this? I hear you ask. But wait. Wacom provides a free app, too.

Fire it up on your iOS/Android phone or tablet, press the button on the spine of the Spark and the case pairs with your device over Bluetooth, before swiftly syncing your digitised notes to a free 5GB Wacom cloud account, where you can share, edit and export notes as images or vectorised PDFs, and even something called WILL (Wacom’s ink layer framework – no relation to will.i.am).


NotesBamboo Spark syncNote synced in Bamboo Spark app

Surprisingly, it really is that simple. I was turning inky materialised thoughts into cloud-based ones and zeros with pig-ignorant aplomb in next to no time, and the digitised results were perfectly adequate for my needs. That said, I’m no artist, which brings me to one of two Spark case caveats.

The pen itself is fine – fairly weighted, comfy to hold and neat at laying ink. But if you like to draw anything more than simple sketches – if you’re heavy on fine detail and shading, for instance – even 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity tend to come up short.

Sketch Spark note

Light pressure often just fails to register: as you can see in this particular masterpiece, the fainter contours of our whimpering luddite’s profile have been lost in the digital conversion process.

A sort of digital ‘smudging’ effect can also foul up converted drawings if the notepad paper furls against your wrist or rides up the pad while you’re working. This is because your pen strokes are being captured live rather than as a snapshot of your finished sketch, but it can be avoided with care.

On the upside, live capture records the entire creative act from start to finish and can be replayed later in the Bamboo Spark app using the Split feature.

Split Featuresplit

This option lets you split your sketch at any point in the timeline to produce two separate renderings, which acts like an infinite undo and makes it easy to return to an earlier version. Its usefulness to note-takers is less clear, since rewrites would need to be started on a new sheet and make overlapping captures almost inevitable.

Does the Wacom Bamboo Spark live up to its heavenly ideal of analogue-digital union? For note-takers, designers and art directors, undoubtedly the answer is yes. The ability to see your jotted musings on your smartphone or tablet less than 10 seconds after you penned them is pretty impressive – imagine emailing your colleagues digitised minutes before they can even escape the meeting room.

Wacom Bamboo Spark Gadget

Using a Spark also cuts out the camera faff usually involved when capturing handwritten notes in apps and services like Whitelines and Evernote (although Evernote offers OCR for translating your scrawl into searchable text; Wacom’s app doesn’t).

On the other hand, illustrators and artists should probably think twice about the Spark. Its sensor board and smart pen can’t match the precision of a dedicated tablet and stylus, and sketchers who go beyond doodling will be put off by its lack of sensitivity.

bamboo spark pen

Otherwise, the smart folio case is light to carry, its eight-hour battery is plenty enough for a full day of note-taking, and it only takes 2.5 hours to charge using the supplied USB cable.

The Wacom Bamboo Spark folio comes in three models: the Gadget Pocket* with an inner stash for smartphones (£120/$160), a Tablet Sleeve for 9.7-inch devices (£100/$160) and a Snap Fit for iPad Air 2 (£120/$160). They’re only available in dour grey, but I’m still a fan.

*My review of this model appeared in ImagineFX magazine issue 131.