E-Ink and the Future that Never Was: The Onyx Boox Note Pro

Roman Mars did a great episode on his design podcast 99% Invisible last year about Dirigibles and the Future that Never Was. His intro went like this:

For over a century, lighter-than-air vehicles have captured the public imagination, playing a recurring role in our visions of alternate realities and futures that might have been. In these visions, cargo and passengers traverse the globe in a civilised fashion, and then dock elegantly at the mooring towers on top of Art Deco skyscrapers.

The euphonious voice of Roman Mars is not the only one remarking that zeppelins are a quick and easy way to indicate that you are in a world that is not quite ours. Here’s a non-comprehensive but interesting list from TV Tropes of zeppelins as markers of alternate reality in speculative and dystopian fiction. One of my personal favourite examples is this scene near the beginning of the 2007 movie version of Phillip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, with a deliciously evil Nicole Kidman. Never mind that everyone’s souls are walking around outside their bodies in the shape of animals; it’s the zeppelin floating unhurriedly over the countryside that really grabs the attention.

In the world of personal electronic devices, e-ink is a bit like zeppelins. The technology to make it has been around since the late 90s, although it wasn’t till Amazon got ahold of the idea ten years later that it really became a thing. Did you know Kindles launched the same year as iPhones? In a way, they represented two very different ways of imagining a technological future. iPhones are a high energy, do-everything device. They are bright and shiny and colourful, and intentionally designed to send you thousands of push notifications every day. They encourage multi-tasking. It is easy to have a dozen apps open at a time, and even easier to pick up your phone intending to do one thing, and then get sidetracked into doing a whole pile of other things, and eventually end up 45 minutes of scrolling later, still not sure what time it is. It’s enough to make me think I need to start wearing a watch for the first time in a couple of decades–not a smart one, a dumb one that doesn’t know how to do anything except tell time. But I digress. The point is that while “phones” (we persist in calling them this, although they long outgrew that particular primary function) do everything, they don’t help you prioritise and do that one thing you really need to do.

Kindles, on the other hand, are built for focus and sustained attention. They do one thing, and do it beautifully. The smooth, uninterrupted experience of reading sharp, clear text on the softly illuminated screen of a well-designed e-reader has got to be one of the great pleasures of modern life. I hate to admit this, but these days most of the time I prefer reading on my Kindle to reading a book. Books are always trying to close themselves. They’re heavy and un-portable, especially if you’re reading several at a time and want to bring them all. They aren’t self-illuminated. If you don’t know a word, you have to go look it up in the dictionary. They’re difficult to waterproof if you tend to drop things in the bath. Even trying to turn their pages with slightly damp fingers is a problem. The bookmark falls out and loses your page. Not to mention the layers of difficulty that accrue to the process of even finding the books you want when you live abroad.

This is not to knock books or the printed page. I have a house full of them, and continue to compulsively collect. I love libraries, bookshops, and café book stashes, and think there is nothing cosier than a wall of books. If I visit your house I will absolutely judge you by your bookshelf.

However, I know enough about myself and my reading and organisational preferences that when I pictured reading tens of thousands of pages of journal articles in grad school, my ideal method was not printing them out and then having them scattered in piles all through the house. I also have a constitutional aversion to writing in books; when I need to take notes I often end up plastering post-it notes all through the pages, which look a mess and then eventually fall off and disappear.

I’ve also been experiencing some eyestrain lately, so reading that much on a backlit LCD laptop screen appealed even less. Not everyone is bothered by eyestrain from screens, but for those of us who are, the difference between a frontlit e-ink device and a regular backlit screen on a phone, laptop or tablet is–rather literally–night and day. That made an e-reader an obvious choice. However, the normal format for academic articles tends to be PDF, which because of its size and the fact that it’s kind of a picture rather than real text, is really hard to read properly on a typical 6″ e-reader like my beloved Kindle Paperwhite.

So I went in search of a big e-reader, hoping such a thing existed. I remembered that Amazon did make the 9.7″ Kindle DX back in the day, but eventually discontinued it; I guess the market for a giant e-reader just wasn’t there. However, it turns out that over the past few years such a market has indeed developed among academics, attorneys, and other people with a need to pore over large numbers of long-form non-fiction documents in PDF form. Even Sony now makes a dedicated PDF reader, the droidishly-named Sony DPT-CP1, which looks beautiful, but is a little TOO specialised for my taste, since I’d also like to be able to read epub and other book formats. Not everything is a PDF.

A related emerging market is comprised of artists, drafters, writers, and other people who like to write and draw on something that feels like paper, but appreciate being able to easily save and convert their work to digital formats. Remember the Palm Pilot? Fantastically expensive little digital notebook that was cool in the 90s? I didn’t have one, but I definitely knew cooler people than I who did. E-paper is sort of that idea, but so much better. In recent years several beautiful digital notepads in various sizes have made their appearance. Apple, of course, also introduced its special pencil a few years ago, but not everyone is thrilled with a tactile experience that resembles writing on a window, staring into the illuminated depths of an LCD screen, or the multitude of distractions inherent on an iPad.

In fact, we seem to be experiencing a collective realisation that the whole design of our digital devices and the platforms they support might be doing bad things to our brains, bodies and relationships. I think about this a lot lately. Barely a week goes by when I don’t hear at least a few people announce that they are temporarily or permanently leaving this or that social media platform, or digital devices in general. I had coffee with someone the other day, and she recounted to me what it was like to take a three-week break from it all. As a key part of her strategy, she had taken what seemed to me the extreme step of buying a burner phone in case people really needed to get ahold of her.

On reflection, I realise that is the only thing that would work. Like the author of this New Yorker article on What it takes to Put Your Phone Away, I regularly delete social media apps from my phone, and then almost immediately start using the clunky web browser version; after a week or so I always cave and reinstall the app. Apple’s new “screen time” app just depresses me with its smug play-by-play record of just how vulnerable I am to the attractions of their device. I pick up my phone way too many times a day, and I don’t love the way I use my laptop either. In between all the work I do need to do on it, I find myself doing all sorts of other, less productive and also totally unfulfilling things. Why? Apparently I am well and truly addicted. And I have read enough about addiction to know that any solution relying on willpower alone will almost certainly bust. I have always been a huge believer in making thoughtful changes to my environment as a way to help myself modify my behaviour. But for some reason I have a hard time actually doing it in the case of my digital life. I constantly recognise the automatic behavioural patterns I’ve developed, but can’t find effective ways to modify my usage of these seductively useful devices to fit the way I would really like to live my life.

At which point it becomes almost ridiculous for me to introduce the idea of yet another digital device I think might give me some tools to solve this. But hear me out. Because I think one of my biggest problems is that my phone is designed to induce me to do the stuff I don’t want to do, while neglecting the stuff I do want to do. So here comes the pièce de résistance. As well as dedicated note-taking or drawing devices, a few companies have begun combining the functionality of e-paper with e-readers to create devices where you can not only take notes, but also read PDFs and ebooks and mark them up; all on a screen you can start at for hours without straining your eyes. It’s like they had grad students specifically in mind. In fact, I realised that a Norwegian startup, reMarkable, had been trying to get my attention via social media ads (ironically) for some time now. Their advertising is exactly what makes me think that e-ink might save us from the comfortable digital slavery to which I know I am constantly succumbing. It’s a sort of love affair between nostalgia for the physicality of paper and design meant to encourage reflection and attention rather than multitasking.

My marketing self is distantly aware that I must be the exact demograph they are targeting, while the rest of my conscious mind is having a blissful out-of-body experience at the café in the video. I do think something like this would fit nicely into Roman Mars’s imagined steampunk dirigible world. Traveling slowly and elegantly, rather than in a rush; reading and taking notes on something that is designed as much as possible to NOT drag us back into an endless cycle of notifications and likes and mindless infinite scrolling. What a revelation.

Compulsive researcher that I am, I read and watched probably every review of reMarkable that exists on the internet, as well as branching out to the few other competitor devices I found. Eventually I settled on the Onyx Boox Note Pro.

Yes, it has four names, like royalty, and it does look like a big Kindle. In fact, as you can see, its screen is over twice the size of my little 6″ Kindle Paperwhite’s.

Like the Kindle Paperwhite (and unlike reMarkable) it also has a frontlite, and it can be set up to sync using programmes other than its own proprietary software. It’s not too huge; definitely still book-sized, even if reading one-handed for extended periods of time might be off the table. Here it is in the case made by the company, with a convenient little loop for the pen, which otherwise I would surely lose.

Yes, it has a pen! Because one of the incredibly beautiful things about this device is that you can mark up books and papers, or take notes in the margins. You can see I’ve done some underlining in the PDF in the first photo. This thing is made for reading PDFs, and there are all sorts of features to crop, enhance text/contrast, or even free-flow the text as if it were an e-book. So even though I opted for the 10.3″ screen size (rather than the truly massive 13.3″ one), it feels big enough to comfortably read pretty much anything. But my favourite nifty feature that I love is that you can switch it to landscape mode and either read two pages side by side like a book, or make one side your PDF and keep the other side for taking notes. So perfect!

It is also possible to dispense with the text entirely, and use the whole screen as a note-taking device. The pen has 4096 levels of pressure sensitivity, whatever that means. One thing it means, at least, is that if you push harder the line gets fatter, just like a real pen. The screen is matte glass, kind of like a Kindle, so it doesn’t glare even in bright sunlight. The pen makes a pleasing little scratchy sound if you listen closely, which is kind of a paperish thing, I guess. It doesn’t really feel like writing on paper, but it feels nice; kind of like how reading a Kindle doesn’t really feel like reading a book, but it feels nice. I tend to doodle while taking notes, and kind of like the option of deleting all the doodles and leaving the notes intact. If a person had artistic talent they could also use it to draw.

At which point it is probably time to wrap this up, since I obviously don’t and can’t.

At any rate, I adore (and hate a little) my iPhone and MacBook Air, but I am absolutely thrilled with my decision to forego an iPad and opt instead for this nifty e-ink device. At least at my house, the e-ink future that never was has become the future that is! Now all I need is a dirigible.

4 thoughts on “E-Ink and the Future that Never Was: The Onyx Boox Note Pro

  • October 3, 2019 at 11:53 am
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    It is this kind of assessment that helps me make decisions. Now it’s easier for me to buy Note Pro. TY

    Reply
  • September 6, 2019 at 6:10 am
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    I have a schizophrenic relationship with e-ink devices and have tried many for exactly the same reasons you have highlighted. It’s lovely to read on, but then the unresponsiveness drives me mad and after a while and I realise I could get this job done so much faster on my phone even with a small screen.

    As I get older, I find I’m getting less tolerant of screens glaring at me especially in the evening after a full day sat in front of a VDU (old term :)). I’ve had a large Onyx M96C and it was truly awful, now I have a Likebook Mars 7.8″ device and it’s actually really good (accepting the limitations of e-ink, of course). I also like using a pen, so I’m going to try the Note Pro. It’s just a shame they are so damned expensive for what you get ! I really liked your post, it helped to validate my decision.

    Reply
  • June 19, 2019 at 10:17 am
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    Loved your punch line.

    Reply

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