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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Long Term Usage review of ConnectedText

You might be aware if you have been following my posts on note taking software that I have been searching for the ideal (ideal for me) solution for capturing and developing ideas and organising notes.

During this time I have spent a lot of time using various programs and a lot of money on acquiring the programs I thought were satisfactory.

Now I have decided to standardise on just one program. ConnectedText.

Overview

I have now been using ConnectedText on and off since 2012. I have been using it more extensively since the advent of version 6 which introduced some significant improvements. During this time I have looked at many alternative note taking programs, the best of which were MyInfo and Ultra Recall.

My overall impression is much more favourable than in my previous review, now that I have been using it for a while and have learned to live with it’s little quirks it has grown on me. Of course I recognised the enormous power when I first used ConnectedText but it seemed difficult to use and I wondered whether it was worth the effort. It took me a while to ‘get it’ but now I see that it was well worth the effort.

ConnectedText is different from almost all the other note taking programs which I tried out. It is a wiki and essentially what you are doing is building a website, except it’s not on the Web it’s in your computer.

This is not a novel approach, the World Wide Web itself, if you ignore the advertising, can be seen as a rich and imperfect set of notes belonging to everyone and to both a greater and a lesser extent Wikipedia is the same.

With the World Wide Web there is nobody in overall control, this means that the great majority of the data contained therein is irrelevant and of the stuff that is relevant some of it is wrong. Wikipedia is more useful because of the efforts of a great many volunteers who try to ensure that articles posted are of interest to others and are accurate.

With ConnectedText you have your own intranet, where you can store notes. This is very useful, the markup language allows a great deal of flexibility in the way notes are classified and linked together. If you want a taste of the language then download the Welcome Project from the ConnectedText website.

Limitations

The program is not perfect by any means. But many of the limitations of the program are understandable for a program of this type. If there was a WYSIWYG editor it would be overburdened with toolbars full of buttons and numerous menus, it would be even worse than Microsoft word. There is a program called Info Qube which has gone down this route and the user interface is hideously complex.

It is a simpler approach to have the functionality of the pages defined in a markup language but this does have consequences for the editor.

The Editor

When I write I don’t like things disrupting the flow, the markup language does disrupt the flow but not as much as one might expect. The ‘edit mode’ of ConnectedText is just like a plain text editor with only a few distractions. Pressing F11 expands the text editor pane to fill the entire window, this is close to a distraction free environment. So I just write and don’t think about the markup until later.

For more complex pages which are not just plain text I still find it irksome that to edit a page you have to enter a different mode, where you write the ‘source code’ for your page. You will not see the results until the page is rendered i.e. you go back to viewing mode. This decreases the interactivity of the program.

But there is a way to ameliorate this, somewhat. Starting with version 6 you can open a floating window containing a read only copy of a page. You can have as many of these floating windows open as you can fit on your screen. This is so that you could refer to one page whilst reading or editing another. But the page in the floating window can be the one that you are editing, so you can see the ‘source code’ and the results at the same time in different windows. The floating window is not updated automatically but you can update it manually to see what effect your edits have had. This makes things easier for editing and is not as awkward as constantly switching between modes but it is still somewhat cumbersome to save the page you are editing and then have to use the mouse to right click in the floating window and tell it to update itself. I wish that there were a way to automate this so that it could be just one keypress.

I still think edit mode is ugly but it doesn’t seem as ugly as when I first started using ConnectedText, but I have changed many of the settings from their defaults, I found an excellent article on setting up ConnectedText here.

Import

The export facilities of ConnectedText are excellent but the import leaves a lot to be desired. If you take the simple approach and just cut and paste into ConnectedText then the results are often not what you would expect, any formatting is either lost or messed up and tables don’t come through very well.

Import of text files is possible and works well with plain text.

It is also possible to import .RTF files although it often gets the formatting wrong and does tend to mess up tables.

The most compatible import format in my experience is HTML, this format tends to get the formatting right and to get the tables correct. This is unsurprising since HTML is also a markup language. The best way I have found of importing a Microsoft Word document into ConnectedText is to save the document in the ‘filtered HTML’ format from Word then import it.

ConnectedText needs better import facilities.

Tables

Table are usually not very pretty in ConnectedText. It is possible to get them to look good with time and effort but a standard table is ugly. Once you have produced a table you cannot just drag the borders of the cells around like you can in a good WYSIWYG editor, tables have to be planned in advance or they look cramped with only just enough room allocated to the contents of each cell.

When creating a table in ConnectedText you don’t get any impression about how it is going to look until it is actually rendered.

In my opinion this is one of the worst features in ConnectedText.

P.S. Added 12th March 2015

I have learned a lot more about CSS files in the last three weeks and have found that it is possible to get the default formatting of ConnectedText tables to be a lot better than the formatting which you get with any of the CSS files supplied with ConnectedText.  In fact the rendering of the entire wiki can be improver beyond recognition with a good CSS file.

Memory Usage for large databases

Whilst reviewing each of the note taking programs I did a stress test which consisted of loading more and more documents into them until they failed. I have a collection of approximately 20,000 texts downloaded from the Project Guttenberg website. These range in size from a few kilobytes to three megabytes but the average is about 60 kilobytes.

Most programs failed with the full set of documents. Two which did not fail were Ultra Recall and MyInfo, for these programs searches remained lightning fast and navigation did not slow down. I expect that these programs maintain an index of words contained it each document (called a Trie).

ConnectedText did slow down quite considerably with 20,000 documents and sometimes crashed because it ran out of memory, particularly with indexing and searching. Search and Replace operations were particularly hard hit and slowed to a crawl but also the memory usage went up dramatically during these operations.

With ConnectedText open on one monitor and the Windows Task Manager open on the other I sat and watched the memory usage slowly climb towards two gigabytes, it never reached that far, it would run out of memory when it got close. My laptop has four gigabytes installed but ConnectedText is probably a 32 bit program and so can only address two gigabytes.

However this is an extreme test. I expect that if the average size of document was a lot less then the performance would have been a lot better, even with the large documents of the stress test ConnectedText performed well with two thousand documents except for the searches and search & replace operations which did show significant slowing.

For databases of less than two thousand long documents or a lot more than two thousand smaller documents you should experience no problems. Few people have the need for more than this.

P.S.  Added 22nd February 2015.

The Latest update to ConnectedText (6.0.12.35) addresses these issues.  The bug which caused the consumption of memory during a Global Search and Replace has been found and eliminated, also the memory usage for 64 bit computers has been raised to 4 Gb.  This eliminates most of the complaints raised in this section.

Advantages of ConnectedText

ConnectedText is very powerful. Most of the power of ConnectedText comes from its markup language. But it is also very flexible in the ways you can structure your Wiki and in the ways you can link things together.

Classification

Some types of data have a very clear and obvious structure to them, others do not. If you are merely wanting to record details of some data which you already know the structure of then it is perfectly reasonable to define the structure in advance.

An example would be contact details. You already know about names and addresses so you can plan a structure to your data which is most convenient to you.

But there are other problems for which the structure of the data is not known and for these problems it would be a mistake to define a structure for the data in advance. Defining the structure of the data too early might impose an inappropriate structure which might limit the ways in which you think about the data.

Such a problem might be writing up some research or the writing of a thesis which by its nature it is an exploration of new ideas and new research. Most discoveries are not made whilst performing the experiments, they are made during the organising and writing up of the notes, this is where ideas come together in ways which produce flashes of insight which were not apparent from the raw data. Imposing a structure too early might mean that you miss something significant later.

In my opinion this is where ConnectedText is at its best. You can just dump all the raw data in there and classify it organise it and re-organise it, because you can have the same data represented in many different ways simultaneously and just switch between the different views.

Connected Text has very powerful facilities for classifying things. Pages can have category, attribute and property commands embedded in the markup language. A page which contains a category command assigns the page to that particular category. Properties and attributes are similar to each other and both assign a value to a variable which is associated with that page. The only difference is that attributes are displayed as part of the page whilst properties are invisible in the text in viewing mode.

Assigning categories, properties and attributes is only half the story. Once you have a set of pages classified like this you can write queries to select the pages you want to see. Each category has an automatically generated virtual page which contains links to all the pages in that category. The categories are hierarchical so a category can be a subcategory of another category.

A page can contain a query which selects pages with certain categories properties or attributes, when this query is run it will generate a list of links to pages which fulfil the selection criteria. If selecting on a property or attribute any page which assigns anything to that property or attribute is considered to ‘have’ that property or attribute. However queries can also select pages which have a property or attribute equal to (or less than, greater than or not equal to) a specific value. Also the result can be sorted according to the values in a property or attribute.

For instance you might have a set of pages with the category ‘Task’ with an attribute ‘Priority’ and a date associated with each page. You could then have a page containing a query to display tasks which would display a list of all pages in the category ‘Task’, this list could be sorted by priority or by date. The page would be automatically updated each time the page is rendered.

Pages can include other pages (either the whole page or just a part of the page) so a page can be a patchwork of parts of other pages, if any of the source pages change then any pages which include that page also change. When used with ‘named blocks’ using a query to select which blocks are included in the page has made ConnectedText very useful for CAQDAS.

Connectivity

Basically you can connect anything to anything else. All the links are embedded in the text of a page so you don’t connect a note as an entity, you embed a link in the text of the page. The link can be to another note in the wiki or to a note in another wiki or to an external file or to a URL on the internet. The fact that the links are embedded in the text makes them both visible and editable, nothing is hidden. In view mode if you click a link to a file then the program will run that file just the same as if you had double clicked on it in file manager.

Creating a link to a page in the same wiki is easy, you just put the name of the target page within square braces like [[Target Page]] , if the target page exists it is linked to, if it does not then the link appears in red when you go back to viewing mode. But if it does not exist then when you click on that link a new empty page with that name is created and opened in edit mode for you to start writing. This method of creating links on the fly does not interrupt the process of writing when you want to refer to a page which does not yet exist.

The program has a menu item entitled ‘Copy as link’ which copies a universal link onto the clipboard which can be pasted into another Connected Text wiki or into any other program which supports universal links. When activated this link will open Connected Text if it is not already running and direct it to open the page which is the target of the link. So you can link to specific pages within other Connected Text wikis.

Connected text also supports universal links to and from other programs, so I can link to a specific E-mail or contact in my E-mail program from within Connected Text.

There is also a set of ‘Bookmarks’ just like a web browser, you can bookmark favourite pages within your wiki and jump to them.

Adaptability

I was once told on the ConnectedText forum that there is no ‘incorrect’ way of using ConnectedText. Whatever way works for you is correct. Indeed this program is very versatile.

I found an implementation of much of the functionality of ‘Lotus Agenda‘ (an organiser which I once used back in the days of DOS) written in the ‘ConnectedText’ markup language on the Taking Note blog. I am now using this to implement Dave Allen’s GTD method of organising tasks.

The Hierarchical tree is a classic model for the organisation of data. There are many note taking programs which base their whole organisation model on hierarchical trees. The big mistake most note taking programs make is to only allow a page to appear at one location in the tree, but sometimes it might be appropriate for a page to appear in multiple locations. For instance if you have a research project which needs equipment to be bought, does the record of these purchases go under the project or under finances? The answer should be both but often a program will force you to choose which is the most appropriate location. As the tree expands this problem gets worse.

The programs Ultra Recall and MyInfo allow this type of cloning of pages.

ConnectedText also has trees in the form of outlines. Dragging a page to an outline inserts the title of that page and a link to the page into the outline. There are two types of outline available in ConnectedText, there is one generic outline which is saved with the project automatically and another which you explicitly create (but you can only have one of these open at once). The outline allows the same page entry to appear in multiple locations.

You can have as many outlines as you want and each one can give you a unique view of your data. So ConnectedText can function as a classic two pane note taking program based on a hierarchical tree.

Hierarchical trees are very useful but they are not the whole story.

Some note taking programs rely on Tagging (sometimes called Keywords or Categories), Personal Knowbase is an example of this type of program. This is also a good approach to searching for the data you wish to find if the search and filtering is well implemented. Most of the programs I have reviewed (including Personal Knowbase) use a flat model for the categories, it is more useful to have the tags in a hierarchical tree as implemented in the program MyBase, so that a category can have subcategories. This is the approach taken by ConnectedText.

Some note taking programs allow the association of arbitrary metadata with a page, this is useful for searching and filtering of pages, generating sorted lists of pages which meet arbitrary criteria or seeing information about pages.

Ultra Recall allows you to define different arbitrary metadata for each individual page within the database. Scrivener and MyInfo allow arbitrary metadata to be defined but it is common to the whole database. For ConnectedText the metadata is defined within the markup for that page and so it can be unique.

So ConnectedText has implemented all of the most useful aspects of information organisation from other note taking programs, but they are more useful when used together.  There are other aspects to the program like being able to generate directed acyclic graphs on a page as well as normal graphs, being able to embed Python scripts within a page and have it execute each time the page is rendered, you can even put musical staves along with their notes on a page although this is one facility I have never used.

Conclusion

ConnectedText is not as pretty as some of the note taking programs I have reviewed but if you are happy with the aesthetics of the program then I know of no other program which can match its power and flexibility.

 

The West is Always Right: Hypocrisy in the Ukrainian Conflict

Dean Richards

Something very special happened this week: finally, after all those years of people supporting war for the sake of “democracy”, the Western world has changed its mind and decided that war is wrong. It took a while, but to some extent, this change of heart makes me very happy. After all, the wars in Afghanistan, Vietnam, Korea and Iraq all started for the same reasons and ended in similar chaos, so it was about time people begun to realise that war isn’t the answer. There is one problem, however: the argument isn’t exactly that Western countries shouldn’t go to war… it’s just that Russia shouldn’t.

Obama spent 90 minutes on the phone with Putin to try and talk him out of sending an army to Ukraine. The news, as usual, is rather one-sided, only talking about the arguments Obama has and then adding that Putin didn’t obey, not really bothering…

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