Cameras have gone out of style today, since nearly everyone carries a smartphone with a camera built-in. Suppose, however, you want to take photos or videos without attracting attention; or if you’re like me, you don’t carry a phone. If you want photographic options but don’t want to be obvious about it, the Spy Pen — also known as the Business Portable Recorder 6 — satisfactorily fills that tiny niche. The Spy Pen snaps still photos and records audio as well as video, in addition to being a functional ball point pen for anyone who still actually writes in longhand.
Spy Pens of this type are marketed under several different brand names but do appear to be the same product. Once selling for about $80, prices for this camera pen now average around $30, and you can get special deals that include the expansion micro SD card. Mine cost about $30 including shipping and came with an 8 Gigabyte expansion card, enough for thousands of photos or several hours of video. Considering that low price, I wasn’t expecting really high quality, and upon opening the box my immediate impression was of a cheap pen that isn’t built to last. The product literature gives no clue as to where the pen originated, except that the instructions are in both English and Chinese. Since the English isn’t very good, I’m betting some maverick company in China or Taiwan ground out a couple of hundred thousand of these, sold them for top dollar, and boogied. What’s left of their brief production run is settling from warehouse to warehouse until somebody buys them, hence the current good deals.
Reading other reviews of the Spy Pen I consider myself lucky. I received a good one, brand new and undamaged, and so far as I know, completely functional. The instructions are as inscrutable as the bicycle assembly instructions mentioned in The Zen of Motorcycle Maintenance, but if you do have great peace of mind and no preconceptions you can get this pen going quickly. If you don’t read Chinglish, it’s time for trouble. Once the Spy Pen hooked up to my computer through the USB cable that came with the pen, the internal software worked perfectly. One of the pen’s LED’s flashes red as the pen charges and shines steadily when fully charged. After the initial charging cycle you’re ready to take pictures.
I can’t guarantee that all models work the same, but on mine you simply depress the top button until you get a green light and then release the button. To take a still photo, click the top button again. The green light goes out while the camera focuses and snaps the picture, then turns green again. Click the button again to take another photo.
To take video, press and hold the button while in the green cycle. The green light blinks. Release the button and recording begins. While recording video the green light goes out, but another click of the button brings the green light back and ends the recording. To turn the spy camera off, press the button and hold until a red LED lights, and then release.
A quirk mentioned in the instructions came into play early in my games with this camera pen. I laid the pen on my video camera to charge and noticed that the red light did not flash. When I picked the pen up I realized I’d laid the pen above the Aiptek’s microphone, which has a magnet strong enough to clamp the pen to it, lightly. You’re supposed to keep the Spy Pen away from strong magnetic fields, or it won’t work. Apparently that’s true, but it caused no permanent damage. The instructions also advise not dropping or abusing the Spy Pen since it’s a delicate electronic instrument, but I carried it to work in my shirt pocket for a couple of weeks, working in the heat and the cold and occasionally the rain, pummeling it with heavy boxes and even knocking it loose onto the parking lot pavement once, where it laid in the damp for about an hour before I retraced my steps and located it again. I’m sure it is delicate, but it’s survived me for a couple of weeks and I’m not easy to be around. I do think I’ll not take it to work any more, though, that’s tempting fate.
Considering that this is a pinhole lens camera with very limited photo features, I’m amazed at the quality of the photos it takes. They aren’t great photos by today’s standards, but they’re in focus with satisfactory detail, as long as you have good lighting. There’s no flash so you can’t take photos in poor lighting and expect good pictures, but in ordinary room light or daylight there’s no problem. There’s a noticeable fisheye distortion of what you photograph, but for some reason this does not bother me at all, maybe because the camera was cheap. I hate to pay hundreds for a camera and see distortion flaws. My last 35mm film camera was rarely used because of minor distortion issues and a faint yellow cast from the modern plastic lens. Even though I pointed this out to others, no one saw what I meant. I guess you have to remember good cameras are like before you can complain about the faults of new ones.
Video is on that same level, very basic but legible. I did a walkthrough of the local Walmart yesterday with my Spy Pen in my shirt pocket, recording my shopping trip for onions and potatoes and wine, and even though the video was jerky because of my bouncing as I walked, and I did have trouble keeping the pen facing forward, it worked pretty well for a tiny minimalist video camera. The camera microphone caught my voice without too much volume and the voices of people around me came in clearly. The marketing info claims an audio range of ten feet, but the camera also caught ambient sounds of the store, so the ten foot limit probably applies to conversation. It’s not a shotgun mike for recording conversations on the other side of the lobby.
The Spy Pen comes with plenty of awkwardness that keeps this interesting gadget in the realm of Maxwell Smart, not James Bond. If you take a still photo with this pen, you’re going to be as obvious as Maxwell Smart speaking into his shoe phone, and aiming the video with your shirt pocket is just as practical as discussing secrets in the dreaded Cone of Silence. If you’re not using it for photography, it’s a perfectly good pen and most people wouldn’t think it’s anything else, but for the other applications you have to operate and aim this camera pen, which makes it look very much like a camera. The Spy Pen doubles as a mass storage device if you bring along the USB cable, so you definitely could download computer files to the flash drive and smuggle the information out of the secret SMERSH laboratory. Maxwell Smart would think it’s the greatest thing ever, and with some luck even the average person will have great fun with it.
On a recent Kim Kommado broadcast, Kim recommended this spypen to a caller whose daughter wanted a video camera to use for recording soccer games and other teenage things. I wonder now if Kim actually tried one of these out. If you hold the pencam very still, you get reasonably good video. If you move the pencam at all, the low frame rate results in serious distortion. To film a sporting event, you need something better. The little brain of this camera doesn’t adapt to change very quickly. I think it’s good enough for the next time Walmart or Kroger puts garbage on sale. I’ll be able to quietly photograph what Kroger thinks are ripe avocados, and what Walmart sells as locally grown cantalopes, a week before the first salmonella outbreak. Audio quality was pretty good, conversations came in clearly within that ten foot radius and the spypen even picked up the bump bump bump of the chewing gum on the left front cart wheel, plus the chirping of sparrows in the Lawn and Garden section.
Putting this spycam in the hands of a teenager could cause trouble. Look out for teenage boys wearing the popular new fashion accessory, a pen on their shoe.
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