The Rocketbook: Does its premise hold up?

The Rocketbook Wave is a “smart” notebook that features integration with a number of different note-taking apps and cloud services, including Evernote, OneNote, iCloud, and Google Drive. It was made possible by the crowdfunding platform Indiegogo, where it raised almost 1.3 million dollars in 45 days, more than 3500% its initial 20,000 $ funding goal, and another almost 600,000 $ through Kickstarter. Such a staggering success couldn’t escape my sight for long, and so here I am talking about it. Or rather, how using it would be, since I currently do not have one at my disposal. Despite the Rocketbook App being free on both iOS and Android, using it requires to scan the QR code printed on any page of the notebook itself. Those available in the free PDF files you can download from their website won’t work at all.

How it works

On the bottom every page of the notebook are 7 different symbols and a QR code, as one can see in the PDF pages linked above. The 7 symbols correspond to as many destinations, which by default are set to the email address you used to register to their service. You can change them at any time, so that you can have, say, the rocket symbol linked to your Evernote account, while your apple symbol linked to iCloud, and so on and so forth. The user is supposed to take her notes, drawings, charts, and sketches on the part of the page within the thick black border. It may not be easy to spot in promotional images, but this rectangle contains many faint dots that the app uses as reference points. This also means that you can’t use the Rocketbook as a lined or arythmetic notebook. And if you, like me, cannot write straight without a reference, you’re gonna have a really bad time. Gotta love those waves!

So, the reader that knows that Evernote already does something similar, and so does Office Lens may well say “What’s the point of yet another app that does the exact same thing?” And indeed, adding yet another app to your already cluttered phone is certainly not a great idea. The interesting feature is that the Rocketbook is microwaveable, which makes it a perfect meal if your current diet is a tad low on fib… No, wait.

A Pilot Frixion pen.
A Pilot Frixion pen.

Every purchase of the Rocketbook comes with a Pilot Frixion pen, an erasable pen commonly (at least around here) used by schoolchildren. As I said, I don’t have a Rocketbook so I had to purchase one at a local stationer’s. I’m shy to admit it, but I actually spend 2.30 € on a ball pen. I can hear my fountain’s ink boiling with rage right now. I’m scared. Please help… Anyway, what sets the Frixion apart is that it uses a thermosensitive ink that turns transparent at 60 °C and becomes visible at -10 °C. The act of erasing the writing is achieved by increasing the temperature of the sheet of paper. For that purpose, each Frixion pen is equipped with a hard rubber cap at one end. It’s not exactly like the rubber you use to erase pencil strokes (or PaperMate EraserMate pens, for that matter); its hardness prevents it from wearing out too quickly (unlike the EraserMate’s, which lasted me about 1 day when I was in elementary school). Instead, rubbing it against the sheet generates heat, which makes the ink vanish, thus allowing the writer to correct a spelling mistake or, as Pilot’s marketing department suggests, exchanging hidden messages. But Rocketbook’s website doesn’t tell you that, asking you to put the notebook in the microwave instead.

For some reason, the Rocketbook website’s FAQs claim that the Frixion ink returns visible at 4 °C. I have yet to try to put a piece of paper it in the refrigerator. Putting it in a freezer (~ -18 °C) did the trick. I contacted Pilot’s social media team and I’m waiting for their answer.

Time to test drive… So to speak

Now that we’ve covered what the basic premise of the Rocketbook is, it’s time to do some testing. We’ve already established that trying (and reviewing) the app is completely out of the question, but our journey cannot end here. It should not end here. It shall not end here! Since the Rocketbook app is no more than a shortcut to up to 7 cloud accounts, we can try out how taking notes on paper and then uploading them to one note-taking app feels. For this test I’m going to use Evernote because it’s the most popular note-taking app, also integrating an OCR solution that makes handwritten notes searchable (but not selectable, unlike OneNote).

The first thing I did was printing two copies of the A4 page that was made available on the Rocketbook’s website. I used one to write a few notes and the step outline for this very story, and another for running a few tests. I have to admit that by now I’m not accustomed at outlining my plans for a piece using pen and paper: My pen usage is limited to putting signatures on papers, or to write a personal note for an important person. That’s it. I don’t even write for leisure with pen and paper anymore.

But to be completely fair, taking notes on paper was actually a nice diversion for once. Unfortunately, the fun aspect of discovery soon vanished, leaving only disappointment after using the Frixion.

Writing with the Pilot Frixion

The notes I took before writing this story. (Click to enlarge)
The notes I took before writing this story. (Click to enlarge)

Rocketbook’s website trumpets far and wide that in order to get the most out of your experience, you need to use a Frixion. So I bought one and… I really, really don’t like it. It’s not as smooth as a regular ball pen or even of a fountain pen, for that matter. Using it felt like writing using something in between a pencil, but a lot more scratchy. It’s difficult to explain, but writing with it felt like dragging a dry stylus over the paper. I also dislike how the stroke is completely unlike other Pilot pens. I used the liquid ink ones in high school for highlighting shapes in technical drawing, which felt very similar to India ink. Down here you can see what the Frixion’s stroke looks like. It is, in my humble opinion, sub par even by ball pen’s standards. To make things even worse is that this pen requires you to press very hard on the paper, which is something I’m no longer used to since I handwrite almost exclusively with a fountain pen. It doesn’t show on the pictures, but having to push the pen so hard against the paper leaves a noticeable mark on the paper, which has been a long-time pet peeve of mine. It’s also thicker than most pens, which can make it slightly uncomfortable to hold for people with small hands. And I thought that those 5-colour pens that were so common in the ’90s were too thick! (But they indeed looked rad.)

A comparison between a fountain pen (top), a common ball pen (middle) and a Pilot Frixion (bottom).
A comparison between a fountain pen (top), a common ball pen (middle) and a Pilot Frixion (bottom).

Issues with the ink itself

I mentioned that I printed out one additional sheet to do some testing, also known as “acting like a complete jackass in the name of science”. The first thing I wanted to try out was leaving the sheet in a car exposed to a hot summer day (maximum temperature 30 °C) from 12 AM to 5 PM. This timespan includes the hottest hours of the day and led to the following result:

Leaving the paper on a car exposed to sunlight from 12 AM to 5 PM made the ink dim like this. By comparison, on the bottom is what the ink usually looks like. (Click to enlarge)
Leaving the paper on a car exposed to sunlight from 12 AM to 5 PM made the ink dim like this. By comparison, on the bottom is what the ink usually looks like. (Click to enlarge)

By comparison, the writing on the bottom shows what the ink usually looks like. To their credit, Rocketbook does indeed advise you to upload your notes before leaving your notebook on a hot place, but this isn’t always doable and in all honesty you shouldn’t remember to do it in the first place: It’s technology that’s supposed to adapt to humans, not the other way around.

But it didn’t stop there. I put the very same sheet in a microwave to test if you can erase normal printing paper in it. It turns out that nuking paper is generally not a great idea. At least in Europe, most printing paper is recycled, which according to various sources is not safe for microwaving. Ah, the smell of burnt wood! 🙂

I put the very same piece of paper in a freezer and the ink turned visible again. As mentioned in the blockquote above, Pilot claims the ink turns visible again at -10 °C, whereas Rocketbook claims it does at 4 °C. If we’re to believe what they claim, people who live in very rigid climates will have a rather hard time keeping their notebooks “clutter-free”, so to speak.

Using the app to scan the document

Evernote applies color correction to make the text stand out. (Click to enlarge)
Evernote applies color correction to make the text stand out. (Click to enlarge)

The next step was to scan the document in Evernote. To do this, just open the Evernote app and tap the Photo icon on the bar at the top. You will be asked to point the camera at your document. The app will take a few seconds to focus and detect the writing and will take a picture automatically, applying contrast adjustment as well to make it more readable. It all works well enough, but unfortunately the OCR system used by Evernote does not recognize my handwriting. I guess that’s a bit too much to ask.

If you compare this scan with the one above, you will notice a difference in the contrast. This is due to Evernote’s post-processing that enhances the contrast and saturation in order to get a crisper text and to enhance the OCR’s accuracy. Unfortunately, the Frixion’s stroke isn’t the best and the result is not very usable.

And I should also point out that if I wanted to take notes for a piece, I’d be better off firing up Word on one of my computers or using voice recognition on one of my phones to have the handset doing all the actual writing. Where does this solution fit in my digital life? Nowhere. It just adds an extra step to what I usually do for work or leisure and does not solve any issue. For that matter, it generates more.

Who is it for?

After “simulating” using the Rocketbook for the purpose of this article, I was ready to write it off as a novelty item that attracted interest thanks to a clever marketing campaign. And sure thing, for what I do, it’s pretty much a useless item, maybe good for messing around a few times and then toss it aside and forget you got it in the first place. But then I got to thinking that there other people take notes in a different manner than I do. A friend of mine likes to handwrite his blog posts by hand and then copies

About Andrea Luciano Damico 126 Articles
Andrea Luciano Damico is a freelance translator from Italy. Among his interests are linguistics, technology, video games, and generally being a chill guy. He runs Let's Translate.it and Tech4Freelancers.net.