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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Audio & Video Spy Pen with 2GB of storage

This slightly thicker than normal pen has a built in spy camera that is capable of recording video and audio to the internal storage device at a resolution of 352 x 288 pixels. And what’s more, the spy pen actually works as a normal pen too!

The pen measures about 155mm long and about 15mm in diameter. You can use the pen element by twisting the lower half of the pen until the tip is visible. The recording part of the pen is a bit like a USB stick. The spy pen has a built-in USB plug, which you gain access to by gentle unscrewing the middle.

There is a small button on the top end of the pen, which serves as the on/off switch and rec/stop button. There are two small holes on the back of the pen, one allows you to see what state the pen is in via a tiny LED, the other is the reset switch.

On the front of the pen, just above the shirt clip, there’s a tiny 2mm pinhole lens. It basically looks like a high quality executive pen, where the indication light and camera lens have been very cleverly hidden in the pen. In practice, you would put the pen into a front shirt or suit pocket. The camera lens then gets a full view of whatever is in front of you.

The pen is very easy to use, but it just took me a little while to get going. I think I was being a little dense.

To switch the pen on, press the top button once. A yellow/green LED will light up on the back of the pen.
To start recording, press the top button once. About 5 seconds later, a blue LED will light up on the back of the pen in the same place instead of the yellow/green LED.
To stop recording, press the top button once. About 5 seconds later, the yellow/green LED lights up instead of the blue LED again.
To turn the unit off, hold the top button down for about 5 seconds, whilst in the yellow/green state, and release. The LED will go out.
Turning the unit off whilst in recording mode will mean you lose the recording. I also managed to “crash” the pen, where the unit would not record or turn off. I basically needed to press the reset pen using an unfolded paperclip, which is the hole below the LED light.

The kit comes with a short USB extension lead, which is useful if your USB sockets are on the back of your PC. To charge the spy pen, you basically plug it into your PC. A single full charge of the spy pen gives you around 3 hours of recording time.

Once you have a recording, you need to plug the pen into your PC. If you’re using Microsoft Windows, you will be prompted with a dialog box asking if you want to open a folder to view the files on the spy pen storage device. This is the same dialog box you would see if you used a normal USB stick. You can then access the video files on the spy pen in the MOVIE -> RECORD folder.

The spy pen kit also comes with a miniCD containing an application called Kplayer. This media player is needed to view back the recorded videos. I tried using a range of other players to view the video, but they didn’t work. The video is encoded using the Intel H.263 codec, which is a little exotic.

If you want to convert the video to another format, such as 3GP (which works in Apple’s Quicktime), then I suggest this free 3GP video converter. Just make sure the framerate is 14.985 (i.e. 15 frames per second) and the size is 352 x 288 pixels. Incidentally, 3GP is compatible with most video mobile phones these days, so you could convert any video to store on your phone.

I personally got an irritating mismatch with the colours in the video, almost as if the image was highly saturated with certain colours. After some playing around, I managed to fix that. You need to change the overlay mode (how the image is shown on the screen). Right click on the video in Kplayer, choose Video (Advanced) -> Video Renderer and then something different from Overlay Mixer (Default) until you get the right colours. I found that DirectDraw RGB Surface worked for me. Do experiment with the other options in that menu to see what works for you.

So aside from the small playback glitch, the video quality is excellent. Recording takes up around about 100kb per second, so about 6MB per minute by my calculations. The audio does sound a little “tinny” when you playback, much like that of a mobile phone video recording. However, given the size of the spy pen, and the fact that it’s so covertly concealed, the audio quality is far from being an issue.

For £120, you’re getting a pretty reasonable spy camera that has been very professionally concealed with in an executive pen. With a little tweaking, the playback software is all up and running too. But the amazing 2GB of storage space means that you can have over 5 hours of recorded footage. The spy pen is really easy to operate and is perfect for ad-hoc covert surveillance operations.

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