Frederick Douglass taught that literacy is the path from slavery to freedom.
There are many kinds of slavery and many kinds of freedom.
But reading is still the path.
While I love my iPad mini, I got tired of two things: The bright light of the screen, and the need to zoom in/out when reading anything larger than a paperback. Especially with scientific articles it was a pain in the ass, given they are usually in DIN A4 and divided in two columns.
So I decided to try out an e-ink tablet. It should be easier on the eyes and there are tablets available in DIN A4 (roughly anything around 13.3 inch). Given the Onyx BOOX Tab X got a few (rather suspiciously) good reviews on YouTube, I decided to check it out.
And yeah, it’s quite something, with a few caveats.
Let’s look at the good aspects first.
The size does make a difference, a huge difference. Just look at a size comparison between the printed article and the page on the tablet:
There is hardly any difference in size. Works very well for reading articles without zooming or scrolling. Depending on the used PDF reader, you lose some space on top or bottom for command bars, but in many articles, there isn’t any text there anyway.
Resolution and Refresh
The resolution of the e-ink is also rather good. The BOOX Tab X has different display modes (HD, Balanced, Fast, Ultrafast), with Balanced working very well for reading articles. The difference is — as far as I can see — in the refresh rate of the whole screen. Balanced does not flash the screen obnoxiously, yet allows reading with minimal ghosting (seeing something akin to an afterimage of the previously displayed text).
I also find reading much, much less tiresome on the eyes. The BOOX Tab X has backlighting (or rather: Front Light), which can be set be choosing desired amount of warm and/or cold light. Even with the warm light on 50% and the cold on 25%, it’s much more comfortable than using the iPad.
The device is also surprisingly light. Makes it feel a bit «cheap», but theoretically, you could hold it with one hand. However, you usually need two hands to hold it due to its size (so it’s not a device to use if you prefer books that are read with one hand).
Besides reading articles, the device works very well for reading mangas when put in landscape orientation. Especially if those mangas use spreads:
But even normal pages work better when you see both at the same time.
And yeah, just compare the size again to DIN A4 (left) and the device (right, in landscape orientation):
BTW, if you want to read mangas, the NeoReader (had V3.0 installed) works very well. Tab in the middle of the screen, go to format, and select the rightmost option under Page Display (where the 1 is on the right side). It will show the first page last and allow you to move left through the book (like a normal manga, reading from left to right, from «back» to «front»). The PDF will still be formatted as books usually are, it’s just the display that is changed.
In case the pages do not appear on screen as they should (e.g., the spreads are off by one page), you can go to Progress and select a page number one higher than the one that is displayed. Don’t ask me how, but this will introduce an offset that corrects the display of pages.
The device also has a notes app, which is surprisingly nice. A bit confusing though, you find the page template under Layers. Selecting the lowest layer will allow you to select a template from the noteTemplate folder on the device. It works with images and PDFs. The Pen is rather cheap plastic, but you can use other e-ink pens (e.g., a LAMY AL-star EMR Stylus). And the writing feels … just better than on an iPad. Instead of writing on slick glas, it feels like there is a bit more resistance to it. On the negative side, the tip might need to be replaced frequently.
Highlighting and Notes in Articles
When it comes to reading articles, highlighting and taking notes is crucial for me. The highlighted text can be exported as text and combined with the notes, I can focus on the article without having any other writing material with me. As far as I can see, the NeoReader is very good for handwritten notes (very low latency), but does not seem to support highlighting text in order to export it.
UPDATE: Oh, yes it does. You have to disable the handwriting recognition, then you can simply select text and even add sticky notes directly to the text. Very very handy. Made NeoReader the best app for reading scientific papers, given that there are not bars that obstruct part of the page. Yuppa.
You can highlight text, but it’s like painting over the text. However, there are other PDF readers you can install that allow you to highlight the text itself. For example, Foxit PDF Editor or PDFelement. Given that Foxit always nags me to buy the full version, I prefer PDFelement. As writing on the PDF itself has a rather high latency in PDFelement, using StickyNotes and the second keyboard option (with a very short latency writing surface) works very well. Handwriting-to-Text works surprisingly well, even offline. Unfortunately, PDFelement is not that well suited to read books. Apparently it cannot show two pages at the same time (seems to be made for a smartphone). However, it works very well for DIN A4 articles.
Android Apps can be installed
Given that the device uses Android 11, a lot of apps could be installed on the device. The Google Play Store is already installed. However, besides a good PDF Reader, installing additional apps would be pointless for the device. At least if it is used for distraction free reading.
While there are different ways to transfer data (e.g., articles, books) to and from the device, incl. Online Sync options, I prefer to use an USB cable or an USB stick (with USB-C). I just see not point in sending lots of data (GBs) via the Internet. As it is an Android device, you need the Android File Transfer app on the Mac. While the App does have problems with transferring lots of files (might stop after a couple of them), it allows access to the folders on the device.
Why no large iPad Pro?
While there are iPads that are (almost) DIN A4 size, there were a few reasons that made them unattractive. Besides the uncomfortable light, it was the weight and the price that discouraged me from purchasing a 12.9-inch iPad. It is just too heavy and way too expensive (if I would go all out with storage space). I simply do not have that kind of money.
With the positive aspects being said, what are the caveats?
While cheaper than an iPad in the same size, it is rather expensive.
It is an e-ink device that has shades of grey, but no color. So if you read any books or articles that rely on color, you are out of luck. I do not consider it that much of a problem. Most of the material I read is in black and white anyway. And if I really need color, I just open the figure on another device.
Slow compared to an iPad
The e-ink display is also slow. Then again, I hate waiting on electronic devices, so this might be a pet peeve. But if you are used to, e.g., a smartphone display then the e-ink will appear excruciatingly slow. A bit like riding a bike after just spending on hour on a motorcycle. Still, it’s primarily for reading, so I can live with it.
Android … or BOOX interface … is … strange
Given that I am used to iOS, Android is strange. Or the BOOX interface version. For example, when going through the files, the device shows all documents — which are rather a lot. You can use the normal folder structure, but it is not the first option. Makes sense if you only have a handful of files, but who uses a device this way? I also get the impression that the BOOX interface is a bit buggy. For example, I would expect the files app to remember where I was if I used it again a few hours later.
Cannot be folded in the middle
Yeah, sounds strange, but holding it in landscape format to read a book (esp. a manga), I was tempted to fold it in the middle. And that would be cool. It would make it easily transportable and it would protect the screen. But alas, no such luck. It’s a bit larger than DIN A4, which makes it rather cumbersome and not an always with you device.
Battery-life is okay, but the prediction is off
While the battery life is quite good — you can read for a long time, the prediction is … a bit off. 20 days? Yeah, no. A day perhaps.
Perhaps the greatest caveat — the device is made by a Chinese company. Given China’s ambitions and handling of its citizens, I would not be surprised if there were backdoors in the software. After all, it would be easy to get a good part of the world’s secrets if you control the technology that people read and write with. With OCR it’s even better, people who are spied upon correct the recognition mistakes and provide you with the digitized text. And yeah, there would be a lot of trash to sift through, but that’s what AI is for. Just imagine a scientist reading articles and taking notes, then sketching out ideas on such a device. Hey, and perhaps using the cloud storage, because it makes the data transfer so simple. So yeah, if I were to work on anything confidential, I would not use it. But then again, let’s assume the three letter agencies can access data on Western devices, so it’s only a question whom you give your data. Well, even in that case, I prefer the West. In any case, have fun with mangas, articles on psychology & technology, and books that in one way or the other are related to freedom, or the voluntary absence of it.
So, all in all, it’s an interesting device. Love reading articles and mangas, or heck, reading in general on the device. Note-taking is also fun. It is easy on the eyes, lightweight. The downsides are the price, it’s a Chinese product, and the e-ink is rather slow.