I Unabashedly Love This Android E Ink Tablet

Illustration for article titled I Unabashedly Love This Android E Ink Tablet
Photo: Alex Cranz/Gizmodo

It is 2020, and I am obsessed with E Ink. I cannot stop texting friends and coworkers with links to E Ink products that rarely if ever make their way to the U.S. and asking if I should buy them. I follow the minor travails of the Remarkable 2 tablet with unhealthy interest. And for my birthday in May, I spent $340 on the Onyx Boox Nova 2, an Android E Ink tablet of questionable origin. I love this gadget more than just about any I’ve owned.

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There’s something about E Ink that tickles the little gadget nerve I have and thought was numb after nearly a decade covering gadgets for a living. E Ink inspires in me the same kind of excitement a Best Buy or Sharper Image used to when I was a kid. It feels like a fresh frontier, or maybe just something long overlooked and far better than you remember.

And what I’ve become especially focused on hasn’t been simple Kindle competitors like the Kobo Libra H20, or nifty note-taking devices like the upcoming Remarkable 2 or Sony’s Digital Paper. I’m frankly enamored with the idea of an iPad-like device with an E Ink display instead of a battery-hogging LED or OLED one. But no company in the U.S. makes such a device. Products like the Remarkable 2 are intended for note-taking, not content consumption. There’s no way to load it up with ereader apps so it can pull double duty.

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But the Onyx Boox Nova 2 can do exactly that. It’s essentially a not-very-powerful E Ink tablet that comes with a pen for note-taking, a heavily modified Android OS, and build quality that’s every bit as pleasing as what Amazon and Kobo are doing. Inside it sports an 8-core 2Ghz processor with 3GB of RAM, 32GB of storage, and a 3150mAh battery. It’s got wifi and Bluetooth built-in, and a not-so-robust microphone. There are no speakers, which means you’ll need to pair headphones or your own speakers to play content on it.

The 7.8-inch E Ink display has a solid 1872 x 1404 resolution and 300dpi. That’s on par with Amazon’s latest generation of Kindle ereaders. The third-generation $250 Kindle Oasis has a 7-inch display with 300dpi, too. And like the Oasis, the Nova 2 uses a blend of warm and cool LEDs for backlight so you can adjust the warmth and brightness to your personal preference. However, it lacks a sensor for detecting ambient light, which means you’ll always have to manually adjust the LED backlights. Also, there doesn’t appear to be as fine a graduation of that control. There were plenty of times where I struggled with the backlight being either too bright or non-existent, with nothing in between.

There’s a handy little ball that you can customize with shortcuts. Tap and it disappears.
There’s a handy little ball that you can customize with shortcuts. Tap and it disappears.
Photo: Alex Cranz/Gizmodo
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For the most part, I kept the brightness at the step above Off, which was great in a dark room, but still felt a little bright. Despite using the LEDs non-stop, battery life was absolutely stellar. I’ve used this thing daily—often for hours at a time—since May 31 and I’ve had to charge it...three times total. Charging is easy too—unlike Amazon, Onyx has embraced USB-C.

When it comes to build quality, the Nova 2 is every bit as sturdy and feels just as high-quality as the third-generation Kindle Oasis. It’s a little heavier, and the back is prone to fingerprints, but it feels like an expensive ereader. The only navigation button is a home/back button at the bottom of the device, though, so you will have to tap or swipe to change pages in books.

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Speaking of books: You can read all of them on this thing, and it’s a big reason why I love it. The Kindle and Kobo ereading apps are both easy to download and work out of the box. Because the Nova 2 runs on Android 9.0, you can use any ereader app you desire—though the built-in one is perfectly fine for your own ebooks and any PDFs or other files you might download. I’ve finished plenty of books across the Kindle, NetGalley, and built-in reader apps, and my only complaint has been that navigation is slightly different with each one. Some require a swipe to turn pages while others require a tap, and you’ll inevitably screw up if you hop between apps.

Illustration for article titled I Unabashedly Love This Android E Ink Tablet
Photo: Alex Cranz/Gizmodo
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But it’s hard to care because you can use all those apps, and plenty of others, though the experience can be hit-or-miss. YouTube looks abysmal, sure, but the screen can almost refresh fast enough to watch videos in black and white. You can stream music on the Sonos and Apple Music apps just fine.

If you’re hoping to use the Nova 2 as a note-taking device, don’t plan on using other Android note-taking apps. Nebo and Google Keep were both so slow as to be worthless. That’s not a problem for me, though. The built-in Notes app is super fast, and while the experience won’t be quite as pleasant as with something like the Remarkable 2, it’s been more than capable when I need to doodle during a meeting or take loads of notes in an interview. According to one of the Onyx websites, the tablet has 4096-level pressure sensitivity. There’s no way to test that, but it was fast and easy to write on and accurately reflected my chicken scratch. There wasn’t even much lag between stroke and it appearing on screen, despite it being an E Ink display.

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You’ll note though that I said “one of the Onyx websites.” Which brings me to the potentially big caveat about this fantastic device: Its origin is questionable. There are currently two different websites purporting to be Onyx, one based in Russia and having the better SEO ranking, and one based in China. The sites have different origin stories for the company, and different site layouts, but identical products for sale. I reached out to both, and only the China-based company got back to me. That, plus some elements of the UI initially being in Chinese (you can change the language to English quickly) led me to believe that’s the real site. But it’s still kind of odd, and there was a definite language barrier, though that wasn’t insurmountable when I reached out, but could be a problem if you need additional customer support.

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Trying to solve the problem of just which company was actually making this device absolutely gave me pause, but I picked mine up on Amazon, where at least I have a little recourse if a brick in a nice box had arrived instead. Nearly three months later, I haven’t had any issues. There’s been no indication my Google account has been hacked or my data stolen. It just a really, really nice ereader that happens to come from a different country.

There are reports that a new iteration of the Nova 2 may be on the way and may include a color E Ink display, but that’s honestly the only thing that should give you pause. This device is so good at content consumption that I’m starting to feel more and more surprised that larger companies like Kobo and Amazon haven’t tried their own hands at Android E Ink tablets. While video is a chore and everything is monochrome, the experience is wonderful and the battery life is incomparable. If you’re looking for an ereader, or just happen to have $340 burning a hole in your pocket, you need to buy this thing. It’s the best purchase I’ve made this year, and I don’t see any gadget that could unseat its place in my heart.

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README

  • I’m sorry, I love this ereader so much.
  • It’s $340 and can be purchased on Amazon.
  • Customer support could be a challenge.
  • It’s an Android E Ink tablet. What’s not to love!
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Senior Consumer Tech Editor. Trained her dog to do fist bumps. Once wrote for Lifetime. Tips encouraged via Secure Drop, Proton Mail, or DM for Signal.

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DISCUSSION

thecaptainstubing
thecaptainstubing

What would be the best device for marking up PDFs? I’ve tried using a Windows tablet and stylus and it is painfully slow and clunky. How do these compare?

* This (Onyx Boox Nova 2)

* ReMarkable 2

* iPad mini + Apple Pencil

* Surface Pro / Surface Mini with Stylus