A review of the ReMarkable tablet

A review of the ReMarkable Tablet

This tablet has had a long and some might say drawn out gestation, the website has built up a lot of expectations that it will be hard to fulfil.  But they are now being shipped.  My overall impression of it is that it is quite good and very useful but maybe not quite as remarkable as the hype on the website would have you believe.

The design

The tablet is 18 cm by 25.7 cm by 0.7 cm but the screen area is 15.6 cm by 21 cm which is just as tall and slightly wider than A5 size.

There are three buttons at the bottom of the screen which are (from left to right) ‘previous page’, ‘home’ and ‘next page’.

One of the claims on the website is that it is almost like writing on paper and the screen is described as being matt.  Well my perception is that the screen is not matt, the screen has a silky sheen which can give slightly troublesome reflections (diffuse reflections) to lighting which is shining down onto the screen from behind the device.

The screen is not black on white but rather dark grey on light grey.  However the contrast is better than many of the e-ink screens I have seen and worked with.  It is comparable with the best e-ink screens but I can’t help but get the impression that the contrast of the screen on the videos on the ReMarkable website might have been artificially enhanced a little.

Writing on the screen is definitely not like writing on paper.  Nevertheless it is much nicer than the slick frictionless writing experience of one of the many smooth glass like tablets.  It is the nicest tablet I have ever written on (but it does nothing to improve your handwriting 🙂 ).  Various drawing tools are available including move, scale, rotate and erase.  Imagine having digital editing tools available for handwritten notes.

It is better to use the tablet in well lit conditions, there is no backlight, e-ink can be viewed from any angle but suffers a lot in dim conditions.

When writing on the tablet there is no perceptible lag, the pen is extremely responsive, the line appears as the pen nib touches the screen, this remains true even when the nib is travelling quite fast.

The tablet can be configured in either right hand (the default) or left hand mode and the writing screen can either be set to landscape or portrait (the default) mode and you can rest your hand on the display whilst writing without any problems however when you are writing near to the bottom of the page it is possible you will accidentally press one of the buttons with your wrist, so far this has happened three times to me and two times the button didn’t respond.  It seems that the software disables the buttons if you have your hand resting on the display but this is not as reliable as it could be.

The Pen

The pen is quite disappointing.  It has the look and feel of a cheap ballpoint pen.  Very light and feels flimsy.

Another problem is that the pen has a round cross section and there is no pen clip so if you put it down on a sloped surface it will roll away.  This could have been avoided with either a pen clip or designing the pen with a triangular cross section (at least for part of its length).

Battery

On the videos on the ReMarkable website they say you can “use it for days without recharging”.  I think that is an optimistic assessment.  If you turn on the WiFi then the battery goes down fairly quickly.  Turning the WiFi off is quite easy once you have found the ‘Device Settings’ screen (tap the rM logo in the top left hand corner of the home screen).  But even so after a full charge and using the tablet without WiFi for an evening’s jottings (several hours intermittent use) the battery was on 75%.  I think the “use it for days without recharging” claim is fairly optimistic.  Perhaps if I were using it as an e-book reader then it would live up to that claim.

The software and hardware

The tablet is running Linux on a relatively old ARM processor but you never see or get to interact with the operating system.

There is 8Gb of storage which the people at ReMarkable reckon will hold about 100 thousand pages, although they don’t say whether that is 100 thousand pages of handwritten notes or 100 thousand pages of PDF documents.  The storage is not expandable.

What this tablet doesn’t have and what would be very useful is some removable storage in the form of a micro SD card slot.  I know there are problems with Linux and removable storage (Linux needs storage to be ‘unmounted’ before it is removed) but there are ways around that.

Another thing which would have been useful and which would have cost nothing to design into the tablet is a hole for a lanyard loop in one corner of the tablet. But it doesn’t have this.

Mostly the software on the tablet runs perfectly but there are one or two rough edges.  The home screen sorts the notebooks so that the most recently used notebook is at the top.  You can sort by other orderings but as soon as you move away from the home screen or switch the device off this setting is forgotten.

Similarly (but even more annoying) when writing on a page you can select which type of pen you want to use and this setting is remembered until you use a different tool or a different page.  When you select the pen tool again it defaults to the pen they call ‘ballpoint’.  It would be better to remember the pen which was last used and default to that.

Apart from these two minor problems the software on the tablet is pretty good.

The software lets you make notebooks or folders, a notebook has a name and consists of one or more pages.  A folder has a name and can hold notebooks, PDF files, ePUB files or other folders.

This is a system of notebooks modelled on physical paper notebooks.  There is no tagging or categorisation so it needs something more to organise the pages, if they could be automatically exported to a PC and made available as compatible bitmaps in a known location in the PC then they could be linked to from other programs and therefore the latest version of the page would be available in the third party program but this is not possible at the current time.

The pages are bitmaps but they are in a strange format, there are one or more ‘layers’ overlaid and a ‘template layer can be displayed as a background.  This makes some advanced drawing techniques possible but makes the raw files incompatible with anything on the PC until they are exported and then they loose their ‘layers’ and the template.

A more compatible format would be much appreciated.

Desktop application and getting files into and out of the device

The tablet can function as an e-reader for PDF files and ePUB files and it works very well in that role.  You can crop the pages of PDF files to eliminate the blank area around the text and this setting is remembered for that file.  This makes reading the files easier.

Bizarrely it cannot display plain text files, this seems a very bad omission to me, there are still an awful lot of files out there in plain ASCII text and it is the simplest format to handle and display… oh well ‽

To get files into and out of the tablet you need to use a cloud storage facility run by the people at ReMarkable and to use it you must create a ReMarkable account which your tablet automatically connects to when it is in range of your WiFi and you don’t have WiFi switched off to save battery life.  All your notes (and PDFs) are uploaded to this cloud storage.

Meanwhile on your desktop PC or on your Android or Apple mobile phone there are apps with which you can log in to your ReMarkable account and all your notes (and PDFs) become available on each device.

The desktop PC app seems a bit rough, it doesn’t handle high DPI screens or multiple monitors well, although it doesn’t fail like many other programs it just has a few window sizing issues.  The desktop app can transfer files to the tablet but it does this through the cloud storage and WiFi.

There is a USB connection on the tablet and when the tablet is connected to a PC by USB then it is possible to open the tablet in a web browser by opening http://10.11.99.1/ and you can see all the files and folders on the device.  You can also drag and drop files onto the web browser screen and they will be copied to the tablet but they will only be copied to the root directory of the tablet no matter which directory is being displayed.  Also the traffic is only one way, pages updated on the tablet cannot be transferred to the PC using the USB connection.

The software for the PC and the web browser connection seem a bit clunky and rough as though they were a hastily set up afterthought.

One of the things I wanted to do with this system is to have the pages of notes available on the PC as bitmaps to be able to paste them (as a link to the original file) in to other note taking programs.  Preferably the bitmap files would be updated whenever the tablet was connected to WiFi but this is not the system they have implemented.

Instead the notes are available only on their application, if you need the notes for an external program then you have to export the pages you want and re-export them each time a page is changed.

Being able to view your notes on a mobile phone is useful.  However the app they provide for Android is not terribly good, you cannot zoom in on your notes so the notes you wrote in a space just bigger than A5 is now scaled to the phone screen size, this could be a problem unless you have good eyesight or you wrote your note with the phone screen size in mind.

One other facility which is overhyped on the ReMarkable website is the ‘Live View’ in which whatever you write on the tablet screen instantly appears on the PC screen.  I can see this would be useful for someone in a business meeting or for a teacher giving a lecture, if the desktop app was running on the PC and the PC had it screen connected to a projector then the students in the lecture theatre could see what the teacher was writing or drawing on the screen of the tablet.  I can think of no other circumstances under which this facility would be useful.

Conclusion

This is a good tablet and has been quite useful so far and I have no doubt it will continue to be useful in the future.

As an e-reader the ReMarkable is good, it would be even better if it supported plain text files.

As a note taking system it is limited by the fact that it tries to imitate paper notebooks so something more is needed to organise the pages.

Worth the money?

Yes .. I think it’s worth it!

P.S.  After having used the ReMarkable Tablet for about ten days the grey sleeve supplied with the tablet has started to delaminate.  The sleeve is soft black plastic on the inside and grey felt on the outside.  I suspect the layer between the inside and outside is cardboard, that is what it feels like now that it has started to come apart.

This means that the outside has become very loose and crumpled, the layers have separated and the sound when you insert the tablet or handle the sleeve suggests that the intermediate layer is cardboard.

I think the sleve is of a very cheap and flimsy construction, if you are thinking of buying a ReMarkable Tablet then save your money and don’t buy the outrageously overpriced sleeve, there are many tablet cases and sleeves available at a much lower price and I think most of them would be better constructed than the ReMarkable sleeve.

 

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A different approach to Note Taking

I take a lot of notes. I use them for reference. I use them for speculation about topics of interest. I use them to note down ideas so that I don’t loose them.

Before the digital age I had many paper notebooks and boxes full of index cards.

In those days I used to carry a HP 200-LX computer in my pocket and I thought it was an ideal note taking solution, oh if only I could buy one again, oh the nostalgia …

Whilst I was doing my degree I used to take notes at lectures on paper despite having several digital solutions available. I found that writing on paper helped me recall the material that I was writing much better than if I typed it onto a computer.

The physical act of writing is more visceral, it connects with the consciousness at a more basic level than typing. When typing one can go into autopilot and concentrate on the sequence of letters rather than the meaning of the words, the material gets typed accurately but it leaves little lasting impression in the memory.

But computer solutions are better organised and more compact. If one relies on paper then one accumulates many scraps of paper and old notebooks which are difficult to keep organised or refer to.

What I am looking for it the best of both worlds.  A paper notebook with unlimited pages which can transfer it’s content onto a computer, without many scraps of paper to keep track of, and hopefully without the paper.

Trees generate oxygen for our planet, we should not chop them down to be made into newspapers or chipboard furniture or paper notebooks.

For a long time I have relied on an application called ConnectedText which has served me well for a long time. It is a wiki with many powerful features, but recently I have found it to be less satisfactory than it used to be.

This is because I bought a new laptop and monitor with very high resolution screens.

The advent of high DPI screens and Windows 10 screen scaling has meant that the icons on ConnectedText are now microscopic and the titles of topics are only partially displayed.

The development of ConnectedText has now ceased and so it will probably never be updated and will continue to fall further behind as operating systems change until finally one day some update will break it.

This is particularly annoying for me because some while ago I paid quite a lot of money for perpetual licenses, the developer sold me licenses which would be for life, if there were any new versions of the software I would get an update to my license so I would get the new version for free.

He probably already knew that version 6 would be the last one and I already had a license to version 6.

If the developer has abandoned development it would be better if he were to release the source code as an open source project but I suspect he is keeping it going just to get a little more money from the current version.

I cannot now recommend ConnectedText for anyone wanting a new notetaking solution.

Perhaps it is time for some lateral thinking.

It would be nice if one could have digital paper, a screen on which one could write and draw but which could send these images to a computer and/or recognise the handwriting. Like a paper notebook with unlimited pages, no more stray scraps of paper to keep track of.

There are several possibilities.

One could use an Android tablet.

In my experience handwriting on an Android (a Sony Xperia mobile phone) is awful, the line drops out at random and the screen is slick, there is no friction and this tends to make my handwriting more messy. Also the note taking apps I have tried are cumbersome and awkward to use.

An Android device can also act as an e-reader for PDF and text files.

Despite this Android is not a good solution.

Dr Andus recommends a Boogie board.

I have tried a Boogie board and writing on the screen is much better and it is more responsive than an Android phone. However the Boogie board is not a very good solution for other reasons.

It is a write only solution, this is not what I want.

Once you have written a page or drawn a diagram, once you move onto a new page you can never go back to the previous page. The device stores them but it cannot display them. You can upload the stored pages onto a computer and this is the only way to see one of your previous pages.

The Boogie board is cheap but it is not a solution to the problem.

There is another device by Sharp, the WG-N20 which seems more capable than the Boogie board. It is an electronic notepad. You can look at and edit any stored page, sounds good, but there are problems.

The first big shock you get when buying one is the hidden costs. This is a Japanese import and so the price you see on the Amazon website is not the price you end up paying.

On the Amazon website it boasts free shipping to the UK but the UK Customs and Excise will open your package and impose an import duty on it. The shipping company will then demand this import duty plus an ‘administration charge’ before it will release your parcel for delivery.

The price you end up paying is about one and a half times the advertised price.

The manuals are in Japanese. So is all the text displayed by the machine, on the on screen buttons and in the dialog boxes.

The screen is slick and has little friction but despite that it has a better writing experience than an Android phone or tablet. The screen contrast is not very good, you are writing on a grey screen with slightly darker grey. This tablet needs good lighting to be able to use it adequately and there is no backlight.

The screen is a conventional LCD screen not e-paper. It is not an e-reader, it cannot import or display text files or PDFs.

It is not a good solution.

I have even been into the local Apple store to try out an Apple iPad.

I didn’t get along with it very well, the iPad suffers from a frictionless slick screen and the note taking application seemed to have some fundamental flaws. The iPads are expensive for what you get.

The staff in the Apple store are so full of artificial enthusiasm, everything about their products is wonderful and the fact that the annotations can be in any colour you like more than compensates for the fact that if you insert text the annotations don’t move with the text and are now in the wrong place.

I didn’t agree with the sales person!

I would rather have something in black and white that works properly than something multi coloured that doesn’t.

A random search (a clutching at straws exercise) pointed me at a potentially good solution for note taking which is the reMarkable tablet, but it is not available yet and it is expensive. If the advertising on the website is to be believed then they are trying to produce something which seems to fit almost exactly with what I want.

It is an e-reader, it can display PDF files (and e-pub files but I have no e-pub files), it cannot display plain text files which I think is a bad decision on the part of the designers.

There are an awful lot of legacy text files out there. But to be fair the text files could be printed to PDF files but this will increase their size.

Which brings us to the question of storage. The reMarkable tablet has 8 GB for storing documents and notes and drawings. This may seem like a lot but it’s only 100,000 pages. I can envisage filling that, maybe not very quickly but it is possible that I might be able to fill it up. There is no expansion, no SD card slot and the USB socket seems to be only for charging.

Once the storage is full you will have to either delete something or transfer something to a computer to make room for new items.

It is also big, just a little less than A4 size, 18 cm by 26 cm (7 inches by 10 inches). This is good for reading but definitely not pocket sized. What is needed is a small version which I could put in my pocket, 5 inches by 7 inches would be ideal, I wouldn’t use this as an e-reader just as a notepad.

Although it is not ideal it is far better than any other solution I have yet discovered so I ordered one. At the moment (in June 2017) there is a 33% discount on pre orders but I will have to wait five months, current delivery schedule is October but that keeps going up because demand is greater than their production rate.

If they had a pocket sized version then I would probably be ordering both the big and small versions, especially if they could transfer notes and documents between them.

I will write a review of it when I get it.