Electric Ink Analysis

A lot of innovation has been happening in the e-paper space, to the point where the technology can be used for far more than reading. Would you want to?

Today in Tedium: For years, there’s been a deep interest in using the paper-white surfaces of electronic paper in a more general computing context. Blue light drives some folks nuts; and using a laptop outside just isn’t as easy to do as reading a sheet of paper. So when I was offered the chance to check out the latest generation of e-readers, I was thrilled. But in many ways, I wanted to think about these devices as more than consumption tools. I wanted to create with them. With that in mind, today’s Tedium dives into the Onyx Boox NoteAir and the Onyx Boox Nova3 Color. Can you use an e-reader as an e-creation device? — Ernie @ Tedium

Editor’s note: This piece was written on an Onyx Boox NoteAir, in an attempt to get the a feel for the writing experience on e-paper. The GIF is a clip from Santana’s “Smooth,” played on YouTube on the NoteAir.

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Onyx Boox Note Air Press Photo

Spoiler: I like the reader more than the case. (Handout photo)

Explaining what we’re looking at today

So I have two units in front of me, and both have some great points of value. The first, the 10.3-inch Boox NoteAir, sold for $479.99, is a larger black-and-white unit, designed for a degree of content creation and well suited for taking notes. The second, the 7.8-inch Boox Nova3 Color, sold for $419.99, is one of the first devices on the market that supports color e-paper, a long-in-gestation upgrade to electronic paper technology that has been in the works for literal decades.

When Onyx reached out to me about reviewing these units, I saw it as an opportunity to do a bit of a pulse check on the state of electronic paper.

(By the way, a quick reminder: This was sent to me by them, but the views are my own and the first time they’re seeing this is after I hit the publish button.)

It was a type of tool I had always been intrigued by, but never to the point of wanting to buy. Instead, I was always more of an iPad guy, having bought one on its first day of sale. I loved the apps but eventually found ecosystem limitations.

For most people, they may think about the e-reader in terms of Amazon, possibly Barnes & Noble. But the space has been getting interesting lately, and there’s an increasing number of competitors in the space, most notably in the Chinese market.

Tedium Boox Color

The Tedium website on the Onyx Boox Nova3 Color.

Also helping its uptake is the improvement of the base e-paper technology from companies like E Ink, which has improved the underlying technology in e-paper significantly in recent years. The problem is that much of this innovation has been slow to reach consumers because of weaknesses in making it fast and reliable enough for normal use.

I can say, having spent a couple weeks with both of these devices, the potential is pretty close and it feels less like an experiment and more like a real thing that people might actually want to use.

Now just to be clear here, these devices are not going to beat out your latest iPad anytime soon, but what it can do is create a minimalist context for creation or a low-key consumption setting.

2004

The year the first E Ink-based reader, a Sony Librie, first hit the market. (The Kindle came a few years later.) The technology has long evolved and gestated, and unlike early models, can now refresh quickly. (For those curious, e-readers existed for years before E Ink did. I wrote about it a couple of years ago.)

Onyx Boox Note Air Apps

Don’t be fooled by the e-paper. This is really a tablet.

NoteAir: An Android tablet hiding inside an e-reader

By sheer chance, when I got the NoteAir, I had just made the decision to work an iPad back into my workflow after a long hiatus, with its primary use case as a secondary monitor for my desktop setup (and as a secondary use case, a way to run native iOS apps when there is a professional need to do so, as I’m primarily an Android user these days).

Despite that device being slick and snazzy, I found myself grabbing the NoteAir more, in part because of its more experimental, less in-your-face nature. It has potential, and potential is often more attractive to me than the full package, because I at least know then there is room to tweak.

Radio Electronics

I used this retro magazine cover as my base image for comparison of the devices. Here’s what the cover looks like on the NoteAir.

Under the hood of this device is a full Android tablet with three gigs of RAM and 32 gigs of internal storage (along with a Snapdragon 636 processor, still usable if not cutting-edge), and it is good enough for taking notes, drawing sketches and even some light web browsing.

The hardware, with a 227ppi display, works great when set up properly, and is well-suited to light work tasks like writing, note-taking, and even a little grayscale drawing.

The problem is that, to get to that point, it requires a little tweaking. Not like any in-depth under-the-hood stuff, but you have to tell it to do things that you might not have to do on your phone—namely, the process of setting up the device for Google Play is a bit inelegant. And like a desktop Linux install, you might find yourself changing little settings here and there to match your personal preferences. But once you do get it set up, things aren’t so bad.

Onyx Boox Note Air menu

The NoteAir allows you to change settings on a per-app basis, which you’ll likely want to do, as e-paper tends to benefit from different refresh speeds in different settings.

Some interesting features include NeoBrowser, a built-in web browser with some uniquely useful features for tablets, along with a persistent navigation ball that works as a combination of the accessibility tool in iOS and a similar model used by Wacom drawing tablets. A bookstore is also included though it largely includes public-domain works; you likely will want to install Kindle, Koreader, Nook, or the library app Libby through the built-in app store (which is separate from the Google Play store).

On the hardware side, this device has two separate backlights, a warm and a cool one, which can be combined to provide a good balance for whatever lighting setting you’re in. (You will have to change them manually, though.) There is just one button, a power button on the side of the device, which makes more sense when reading like a book than when balancing on a stand.

(One idea for next time: Include a fingerprint reader or even a small camera just for QR codes, as it would make it a lot easier to integrate with password tools like 1Password. Just a thought.)

I tried this device in a few offbeat settings for a e-paper, including connected to my Mac using the screen-sharing application Duet Display. It was not a good experience—while possible, dark mode isn’t exactly a strong suit of this device—but the fact that it could be done at all was a major feather in the device’s cap.

Onyx Boox Note Air

Writing on this with iA Writer was good, but the limitations of the bluetooth keyboard made it a little tougher than it should have been.

The writing experience with the bluetooth keyboard can get a bit laggy at times, to the point where, in one instance, I was running a few words ahead of the screen refresh, even on the fastest mode, X-Mode. I found a reboot of the device fixed the problem, but it made me worry about whether this was a potential long-term problem for the tool (or if the somewhat meager amount of RAM was really enough, something I also worried about because of the occasional crashing).

The bad part of this equation might be the accessories, particularly the keyboard. The included keyboard worked with the device, but it was a bit short for the NoteAir’s design, which features a prominent chin (or folio, depending on how you hold it), along the lines of the Remarkable or the Kindle Oasis. Additionally, it was not long enough for the case, so as a result, it would not stick in. The easy solution to this would be to design a keyboard that actually fit the case. But barring that, any Bluetooth keyboard will do.

Twitter Onyx Boox Note Air

What do you mean you’ve never tweeted from an e-reader before?

The case is elegant from the outside, but held on with double-sided tape, rather than the magnet driven approach of many competing tablets. The addition of magnets would make the case far easier to recommend, but there are a few other options on Amazon.

The onscreen keyboard worked fine, though its layout was a little awkward. But if you prefer writing with handwriting recognition, it’s your best option. Since this is Android, you can easily swap out the onscreen keyboard for your preferred choice--which is how I got to use Gboard and its swiping capabilities. It wasn’t perfect; for one thing, the swiping didn’t always take, but it generally worked fine enough. The bigger annoyance was that when the Bluetooth keyboard was attached it didn’t initially hide itself from the screen. It was possible, but the setting was buried.

The pen is a perfectly capable device and conveniently attaches to the side with magnets, but seemed to struggle with pressure sensitivity, which is unfortunate as the device itself seems to support it. The pen for the Nova3 Color, which does have pressure sensitivity but not the magnetic storage capability, offered a more delicate touch as a result.

4096

The number of colors that E Ink’s Kaleido color display can put on the screen at once. The technology, based on thin-film transistors, relies on a color filter array which can show the correct color for each pixel. (The second-generation Kaleido Plus display, used in the Boox Nova3 Color, has brighter colors thanks to the array’s placement closer to the digital ink.) The material, the company notes, works without the need for glass, though the Boox devices have it. Kaleido is the first kind of color e-paper technology that has seen wide release in e-reader-style products, though prior technologies, such as Mirasol, have been tested over the years.

Boox Color i Pad Pro

A compare-contrast of the Boox Nova3 Color and the iPad Pro. No, you’re not going to get inky blacks on a color e-reader, sadly.

Boox Nova3 Color: Better than I was expecting

Speaking of the Nova3 Color, I actually found it the better of the two devices, with a well considered form factor that could prove the perfect introduction to a new technology.

Now, it’s basically unfair to directly compare the color e-paper of the Nova3 Color to, say, an IPS panel. They represent different lineages and as a result have differing capabilities. Color e-paper updates more slowly, but can be more crisp depending on the screen mode. The color of an IPS panel is richer; color e-paper reminds me a lot of newsprint, a medium I know well.

From my experience, I found the display particularly effective at solid colors and some light gradients, which means that it works well for drawing. It struggled more with photography; the small size of a Twitter avatar, for example, tended to look a bit like a low-res inkjet printout. (Which makes sense; it prints dots at about 100ppi in color mode.) The colors are more toned down than vibrant.

Linux Magazine Library Book

The problem with reading a Linux magazine from a virtual library is they don’t give you the live CD.

But one thing I was not expecting was for the device to update its image relatively quickly. Part of the reason I was able to see Twitter avatars on the machine was because it was fast enough to run Twitter in a usable way.

Ghosting was more of a problem with this device than the NoteAir, but Onyx made me aware of this, and even added a feature to account for this in an update, a “regal” mode that minimized ghosting by more fully refreshing during use. It makes using the device more like an early-gen e-reader, but at least the images look nice.

The most surprising discovery I found involved using the YouTube app. While definitely not 4K60, when it was properly set, it was a fairly fluid, watchable experience, and did not slow down if I was willing to live with a little ghosting. It was sort of like watching a photo in a newspaper move.

There were differences between the two devices, however subtle; despite being the higher-end option, the NoteAir has a worse pen than the Nova3 Color. The NoteAir’s pen integrates better with the device, sticking on the side, while the Nova3 Color attaches to the case more manually via a loop. The pen on the larger device is also more elegant-feeling.

Drawing

Something I drew on the Nova3 Color—not that I’m a great artist or anything, but I found the pressure sensitivity on the device to be pretty good. But this offers a good example of the ghosting you may see from time to time.

But the problem is that, technology-wise, the Nova3’s pen appears to be more capable from a pressure sensitivity standpoint, adding nuance to drawings that turn a good illustration into a great one.

While the NoteAir can refresh more quickly thanks to its X-mode, the Nova3 color seemed slightly snappier to me, strangely enough. I don’t know whether it was the smaller size, the screen’s lower resolution, or that my expectations had been lowered to the point that it actually impressed me, but I was actually kind of surprised I liked using the device as much as I did.

Given the overly bright nature of OLED these days, it’s the perfect wind-down device, putting less blue light in your face just before you go to bed.

So, I guess the question asks itself: Is e-ink ready for more than turning pages? Could it find a home in your life?

And are either of these devices the right vessel for it?

I think my feeling is that I ultimately enjoyed working with both devices, and I think each has its perks. The challenge, I think, is that these devices require a lot of tweaking to get them working the way you might want, down to the point of choosing the refresh rate for individual apps—which, if you’re up for that, it’s fine. But many people may not be.

Onyx Books Nova3 Color Outside

What can I say, I really like this 73-year-old magazine issue about radio technology I downloaded from the Internet Archive. I even brought it to the beach.

But if you’re willing to do the tweaking, it can be a pretty good experience. I think that, from a display standpoint, e-paper is ready for more people, and there is a likely audience of folks who would love having this around for minimalist writing use cases (as long as the Bluetooth keyboard can keep up). If nothing else, the battery life makes a compelling case; I barely had to charge these devices in the time I’ve been testing them.

There is a meme in programming circles about people wanting e-paper desktop monitors for coding; after using this, I get it. I think I’d like to see a version of the Boox NoteAir with more RAM and a faster processor, as that’s really what’s going to make it a winner down the line. The screen is fast enough; it’s the horsepower holding it back.

The Boox Nova3 Color, on the other hand, is a great little device for consumption and even a little light drawing. While you aren’t going to get vibrant colors from the device, you will find it more readable and easier on the eyes. (And if you aren’t into color, the company also sells a slightly cheaper black and white model.)

I was an e-paper skeptic back in the day, but after a decade or more of bright screens in my face day in, day out, I’m kind of rooting for it, even if perfection is still a ways off.

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Find this one an interesting read? Share it with a pal! Much thanks to Onyx Boox for sending along these readers to check out.

Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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