Brando’s USB Spy Pocket Audio/Video Recorder Pen is very cunning. As the name suggests, it looks - and in fact is - a pen. But as its name also suggests, this pen is a covert audio and video recorder.
Read on for that James Bond feeling.
The USB Spy Pen comes packaged in a neat fold out box and apart from the pen itself, includes a USB extension cable, USB to US plug pack, 8cm CD containing drivers and manual and a small key chain attachment.
The 8cm CD contains drivers for Windows 98 and curiously Windows XP – our SP3 test system did not require them – and included a copy of VLC for playback of recorded videos. When connected to my MacBook Pro running OSX 10.5, the USB functioned as a regular USB flash drive and the recorded videos played back using current versions of VLC for both Windows and OSX.
As a camera in disguise, the pen itself is very convincing. The only real giveaway, apart from the LED that operate when the camera is turned on - more on this later - is the pen's slightly exaggerated width. With a width of a few millimeters more than a standard USB port, the pen is a little on the thick side. At a glance however, the glossy black finish and silver trim looks the part and even when handled, most people I showed had no idea it was anything more than a pen. In fact, even when I unscrewed the pen in two to reveal the USB port, everybody quizzed thought the pen was merely a flash memory pen.
And in effect, this is a neat ruse in itself as the USB Spy Pen, in actuality, features 2GB of built in flash storage which can be used as a USB flash drive. Coupled with the hard to see camera housed just above the clip, a rechargeable Lithium ION battery allows the recording of audio and video for up to five hours at a resolution of 352 x 288. The resulting video is in the AVI format.
In any case, it is impressive that even whilst being handled, the pen didn’t give away its clandestine function.
Operating the USB Spy Pen was very simple - As long as you gave the Chinglish instructions found in the PDF manual a wide berth. At the top of the pen is a small button, which when depressed turns it on and lights a small LED directly opposite the camera. The led shines orange until after a few seconds it begins recording (automatically) which turns the LED blue. To stop recording and save the current video, the button is depressed once more. A quick press restarts recording while turning the pen off completely is achieved by depressing the button for a few seconds.
Like Brando's larger Mini Video Recorder the resulting video was quite choppy when the camera was moved (wobbly would be a better description, really), but when stationary, resulted in fairly clear video. In a brightly lit room or in the direct sunlight, the camera performed very well (considering its size) but picture quality was greatly reduced in low light conditions. Audio was clean with conversations recorded a few meters away being easily understood when played back.
When using the pen covertly, the LED status indicator may become bothersome due to its brightness (not to mention its inherent conspicuousness) but this could be easily remedied with a small black sticker.
Throughout our tests, the pen was fairly responsive but on one occasion it did crash completely, with its orange light remaining on regardless of button presses. When in this state, the only way I was able to get it back to normal operation was to let the internal battery drain completely, followed by reconnecting the pen to a PC/plug pack to charge anew. While this only happened once during testing, it would prove very annoying if it happened during a recording session. Thankfully, the videos recorded during the previous session did remain in tact and were accessible on our PC after the battery had drained (as described above).
As mentioned above, the pen connected to my XP and OSX machines and the recorded videos played back without problem using recent builds of VLC. A slight quirk I did notice, however, was that when ejecting the USB Spy Pen from my MacBook Pro, it refused to eject cleanly, resulting in an OSX warning message.
Overall, the Brando USB Spy Pen does what it sets out to do - bar that crash I encountered - and very effectively hides its function to the casual observer.