The Boox Nova 3 Color Proves Color E Ink Screens Aren't Ready for Tablets Yet

Illustration for article titled The Boox Nova 3 Color Proves Color E Ink Screens Aren't Ready for Tablets Yet
Photo: Andrew Liszewski/Gizmodo

If the PocketBook InkPad Color was an attempt to bring the benefits of a tablet’s larger screen to e-readers so ebooks like comics and magazines are easier to read, the Boox Nova 3 Color is an attempt to bring the benefits of an E Ink screen to tablets. The results are a more capable and powerful e-reader, but with a price tag that makes the Nova 3 Color feel like a tablet with limited capabilities.

Advertisement

The Boox Nova 3 Color tablet is the second device to use E Ink’s new 7.8-inch, second-generation Kaleido color screen technology. PocketBook was the first, and its implementation of the new display was an attempt to improve the company’s first color e-reader, the PocketBook Color. That device’s 6-inch screen that made it hard to read image-rich documents like comic books that can’t be easily re-formatted for a smaller display. Boox’s use of the new Kaleido color screen instead aspires to deliver a feature-rich tablet without the drawbacks of power-hungry display technologies like LCD or OLED. Unfortunately, the limitations of E Ink stymie those aspirations.

Unlike PocketBook’s Linux-based OS that runs on a dual-core 1 GHz processor, the Book Nova 3 Color runs Android 10 (with a custom front-end) and is powered by a Snapdragon 636 octa-core processor, and the differences in CPU power are obvious. The PocketBook InkPad Color still feels as snappy as any e-reader, but the Boox Nova 3 Color easily outperforms it with documents that load in a snap (even massive PDFs), faster page turns, and a UI that never feels like it’s struggling to keep up with your screen taps.

undefined
Both devices use the same second-generation E Ink Kaleido color screens, but the colors look slightly better on the PocketBook InkPad 3 (right) because the Boox Nova 3 Color (left) has an extra screen layer to facilitate stylus support.
Photo: Andrew Liszewski/Gizmodo

Although both the PocketBook InkPad 3 and the Boox Nova 3 Color are using the exact same screen from E Ink, which displays black and white text at 300 PPI while color imagery is reduced to 100 PPI, the colors on the InkPad 3 look ever so slightly more accurate and saturated because the Nova 3 Color features an extra screen layer to facilitate the use of a stylus.

Advertisement

Being able to use the Nova 3 Color as an e-reader and an electronic notepad gives it a big advantage over the InkPad Color, and a good justification of the device’s faster CPU and use of Android. The included stylus is nothing to write home about (see what I did there?), but unlike the Apple Pencil or the stylus Sony included with its e-note devices, it never needs to be charged. It’s also got eraser functionality built in, which is a plus, but there’s no integrated way to store the stylus, like a slot or a magnet on the edge. It just tags along (unless you buy Boox’s matching case or optional stylus tether) which is a good justification to swap out with many of the third-party active styluses already available for e-note devices.

Advertisement

Is the Boox Nova 3 Color as good as the reMarkable 2 for note-taking? No, but it comes remarkably close (see what I did there too?). Writing on the Nova 3 Color feels as responsive as it does on the reMarkable 2. The on-screen strokes rarely lag behind the stylus, and the frontlight and ability to write and doodle in color are genuinely useful upgrades. The Nova 3 Color’s file management, document syncing, and interface can’t quite compete with the reMarkable 2's level of polish, but I was still extremely impressed with what Boox has delivered in terms of e-note capabilities.

Advertisement
You can install apps like YouTube and Netflix on the Boox Nova 3 Color, but the limited refresh rate and ghosting issues of E Ink makes trying to watch videos a strain on the eyes.
Gif: Andrew Liszewski/Gizmodo

The Nova 3 Color runs Android 10 and you can easily get the Google Play Store working, which gives the device access to any app that can run on an Android tablet. For an e-reader that’s incredibly useful, because it means you can install the Amazon Kindle app, the Rakuten Kobo app, or other e-reader apps to get access to several well-stocked ebook stores. But trying other tablet apps is where the limits of E Ink technology can be frustrating. Simpler games like Solitaire work just fine on an E Ink screen, but trying to watch a video on YouTube, like the trailer for Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon, is a real challenge for your eyes.

Advertisement

The Nova 3 Color lets you customize how its color E Ink screen behaves on an app by app basis, including how often it fully refreshes the screen, but action games and movies just aren’t an enjoyable experience no matter how the device is configured. The E Ink screen just isn’t fast enough, which makes the Nova 3 Color impractical for anything other than reading books and taking notes.

undefined
The Boox Nova 3 Color’s user interface is extremely customizable, but it lacks the polish of the UIs used by dedicated e-readers like the Kindle or Kobo.
Photo: Andrew Liszewski/Gizmodo
Advertisement

The limits of E Ink screen technology aren’t the only thing holding the Nova 3 Color back. The custom Android front-end it uses comes with its own challenges. It works, and is extensively customizable, including an optional on-screen shortcut button to quickly access oft-used functions, but there’s a lack of overall polish that’s especially apparent if you’ve used e-readers like the Kindle or the Kobo. You eventually learn to find your way around, but it’s rarely an intuitive or enjoyable experience.

Advertisement

A good example of this is the Nova 3 Color’s home button, or what most users will assume is the home button. It instead functions like the Android back button, and doesn’t appear to be customizable. Through the UI there are several other ways to hop back to the tablet’s home screen, but if I see a single button on a tablet or an e-reader, my brain is already programmed to assume what it’s used for, and it’s little things like this that can make the Nova 3 Color occasionally frustrating to use.

Advertisement

After using the Nova 3 Color for a week, it feels like an experiment to see if E Ink’s Kaleido color screen technology is ready to replace incumbent screen tech like LCD and OLED. The answer is no. To E Ink’s credit, the company has already demonstrated the third iteration of Kaleido, just six months after color E Ink first became available to consumers, which is expected to arrive in devices later this year. With every version, E Ink has addressed the problems with its new screen technology, and here’s hoping that Kaleido’s LED frontlighting will eventually allow for color temperature adjustments for reading at night. But it’s become apparent that we’re still quite a few iterations away from color E Ink devices being on par with what black-and-white e-readers currently offer.

undefined
The glaring difference between a screen capable of displaying 4.096 colors (the Boox Nova 3 Color on the left) versus a screen that can display 16 million+ colors (the iPad Pro on the right).
Photo: Andrew Liszewski/Gizmodo
Advertisement

Unfortunately, a color E Ink tablet with a low-power screen that’s easy on the eyes and viewable in direct sunlight doesn’t do enough to justify the Boox Nova 3 Color’s $420 price tag given what E Ink currently can’t do. That price makes the Nova 3 Color about $20 more expensive than the newest iPad Mini, which works with the original Apple Pencil for jotting notes or doodling. Even the excellent reMarkable 2 is $20 cheaper than the Nova 3 Color, and feels like a better choice for digital note-taking and reading ebooks, even without color or a backlight.

There are lots of things I like about the Boox Nova 3 Color. Having Android and the Google Play Store on an e-reader is fantastic, because it gives you endless choices on where to buy your e-books, and the older Nova 2 or black-and-white version of the Nova 3 are excellent e-note devices at their cheaper price points. But the Nova 3 Color’s $420 price tag only serves to make the $329 PocketBook InkPad Color more appealing if you’re desperate for a color E Ink device.

Advertisement

DISCUSSION

Ken-Moromisato
Ken.Moromisato

video was never the goal for e-ink displays, and as long as they can reach CMYK level of colors it would be incredible for basically anything ever published in paper

it would be a dream if LCD panels could eventually reach 1Hz for really low power consumption, but until then e-ink have a good reason to exist