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Memos on the Go

How to capture ideas and reminders when you're in transit--using tools you may already have.


You're in the car. Jogging in your neighborhood. Or snorkeling in . Boom--you get a great idea. How do you capture it while it's still fresh?

If you're snorkeling in Hawaii, poor thing, you'll just have to scribble something in the sand. In those other scenarios, however, recording a brief voice memo often does the trick. There are several ways to accomplish that--often using the cell phone you may already have with you.

Get Your Voice Mail Transcribed
Many people call their own phones to leave themselves voice memos and reminders. But here's a new twist: Have those memos automatically transcribed into text.

For example, I use Vonage's VOIP phone service (plans begin at $15/monthly). Vonage offers a Visual Voicemail feature that automatically transcribes each voice-mail message into text, which is inserted into the body of an e-mail. The transcriptions cost 25 cents per message. In my experience, the service usually does a good job of accurately transcribing messages. You can compare an example of a voice memo with its transcription on my blog Traveler 2.0.

I've used Vonage to dictate memos and reminders. Using my Palm Treo, I speed-dial my office number, hit the # key to bypass my greeting, and start talking. Within a few minutes after I hang up, an e-mail arrives with the memo transcribed. The recording of my memo is attached as a .wav file, which I can delete, archive, or forward to someone else via e-mail. (A .wav file offers slightly better audio quality than MP3 voice recordings, but .wav files tend to be bigger, too.) For more on Vonage's offering, read my review.

Vonage is only one way to get voice mail transcribed into text. Jott is a free online service that lets you send messages to yourself and others over the phone. Messages are transcribed into text and sent to you via e-mail and text message. You must go to the Jott Web site to play the audio recordings, however. Read Steve Bass's review.

Other options include GotVoice Premium or Business services, SimulScribe, and Phonewire. (Worth noting: Vonage uses SimulScribe's speech recognition .) Each of these services works with cell phones and landlines. You'll pay a monthly fee, about $5 and up, and may be charged for messages or phone minutes used beyond your plan's allotment. For example, Phonewire's $9 monthly plan includes only 30 minutes; additional minutes are 69 cents each. You have to set up call forwarding for Phonewire to retrieve your messages, however.

Aside from additional costs with some services, the memo-as-transcribed-voice-mail strategy has other downsides. Airline travelers can't leave themselves voice mail while in flight. Lengthy voice-mail messages may not be entirely transcribed; Vonage has sometimes thrown in the towel with messages longer than half a minute or so. Also, when you're calling from a noisy environment--such as an airport departure gate--transcription accuracy suffers a bit.

Use Your Smart Phone As a Voice Recorder
Some smart phones, such as the Palm Centro and most Windows Mobile devices, come with basic software for recording voice memos. Third-party software for recording voice memos offers additional features. Among them:

VR+ ($25) is a voice recording utility for and other phones. The software lets you capture and e-mail recordings, and the developer (Shape Services) lets you upload and store messages to a Web server at no charge.

CallRec 5.2 ($20) gives Palm OS users more features than the Voice Memo program included on many Palms, such as the ability to record phone conversations (always ask the other party's approval first, of course).

Resco Audio Recorder ($25) for Windows Mobile devices records voice memos and music. The software maker claims the program will also automatically record phone calls.

Apple's currently doesn't come with voice memo capabilities. But the iPhone Voice Memo from MyVox, a Safari widget, promises to fill that void.

Carry Around a Digital Voice Recorder
If you need to make lots of lengthy voice memos, it's probably time for a digital voice recorder. If you go this route, get a recorder that works with Dragon NaturallySpeaking speech recognition software on a PC, to transcribe your recordings into text.

Note: Consumer software such as NaturallySpeaking can transcribe only one person's voice at a time. You can't hit the Record button in a meeting and expect to get an accurate transcription of what every attendee said.

Last fall I reviewed Sony's ICD-SX57; in most cases I was satisfied with the memo-to-transcription results. The ICD-SX57 is about $124 to $144 online. Sony has announced a newer model, the ICD-SX68DR9; the main difference is that the newer model has twice the internal memory of the older. As of this writing, the ICD-SX68DR9 was available from and for $200 but not many other online retailers.

Mobile News, Reviews & Tips
BlackBerry Pearl 8120 Sets a New Standard: RIM's latest Pearl, the 8120, is the first BlackBerry device to offer Wi-Fi and memory expansion with a MicroSD slot. The handheld offers superb software for multimedia management and an improved camera that captures video and stills. Alas, the Pearl 8120 is available only to AT&T Wireless corporate customers ($200 with a two-year contract; $350 unlocked).

What Will $1K Buy in a Laptop? Get a look at some of the latest sub-$1000 laptops in our photo gallery. Among the notebooks featured are HP's Pavilion dv2660se, which offers so-so performance but great battery life and easy expansion.

The 's a Hot Laptop--Literally: Apple recently issued a software patch designed to address complaints about the MacBook Air's tendency to freeze up due to overheating (and if you understand how overheating can cause a freeze, you've been using computers too long). Some MacBook Air users complain the patch isn't helping, though.

Contributing Editor James A. Martin offers tools, tips, and product recommendations to help you make the most of computing on the go. Martin is also author of the Traveler 2.0 blog. Sign up to have the Mobile Computing Newsletter e-mailed to you each week.

Suggestion Box
Is there a particularly cool mobile computing product or service I've missed? Got a spare story idea in your back pocket? Tell me about it. However, I regret that I'm unable to respond to tech-support questions, due to the volume of e-mail I receive.

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