The Good: The convenience of a camera, matched with an always-useful ballpoint pen • The pen is pretty good too • Novel idea • Footage is decent if pen is held still enough.
The Bad: Recording light can be visible during filming • Ability to be used as an actual spy camera is debatable • Sound quality is terrible.
I spy with my little camera eye something beginning with ... P! This is the PenCam from Swann, purveyor of surveillance tools, including, but not limited to, monitoring systems and toy helicopters. This version of the PenCam (of which there are several floating around online) is the latest, sporting 4GB of internal storage on a convenient USB key that unscrews from the main pen component.
While we're not usually ones to review stationery here at CNET, we are able to say that the PenCam looks and feels like a good-quality ballpoint model should. It has a clip that can easily slide onto a shirt to covertly film conversations, as well as refillable ink wells, three of which come with the camera in the box. Along with the pen itself, you also get a USB extension cable, a software CD and an instruction manual to decipher the intricacies held within.
At the top of the pen is a single button, which, when held down for three seconds, turns the unit on, as indicated by a single glowing orange LED. Recording commences when the button is pressed once and the light glows blue. Now, we're not sure about you, but there's something just a tad suspicious about a glowing blue light emitted from someone's top pocket when ensconced in deep conversation. Take note, dear readers — never disclose any personal or incriminating material to someone when you see a blue LED.
Given the tiny lens on the pen, it's to be expected that it can only film at VGA resolution (640x480) in AVI format. The internal 4GB storage can hold approximately one hour of footage, with the internal battery outlasting the total capacity at 90 minutes on a single charge. It can also take still JPEG images.
When using the camera, there is a slight delay of two seconds between activating the video camera and recording commencing. As for the actual quality, the frame rate is rather jerky, and any sudden movements, like walking or tilting the pen, are exacerbated tenfold on video. The recording works best when the camera is held reasonably still, which results in decent-looking footage, for VGA resolution.
It's also worth noting that if you have the pen clasped to your shirt with the camera facing outwards, the microphone is covered, as it's located around the other side. When sound is recorded, it is very poor — you can only just make out voices from the underwater-like soundscape. Making out conversations or any discussion of important detail is difficult, particularly for anyone who is facing the camera, as you can see in our test video below. The person wearing the pen camera, or holding the pen towards themselves, will boom into the microphone.
Anyone using this pen for surveillance or covert operations will want to tape up the LED light on the pen to avoid giving the game away, and not rely on audio recording from the camera — use a pocket recorder or Dictaphone instead.
While we're dubious of the actual merit that the PenCam serves as a spying device, it is a lot of fun to be able to pull this out as a party trick. Even if you don't use it as a camera all that much, at least it serves two purposes and you get a very nice (but very expensive) pen thrown in as well.