reMarkable E Ink tablet review: Digital pen-and-paper, with handwriting recognition

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  • Editors' rating
    7.5 Very good

Pros

  • Great writing experience
  • Nicely designed user interface
  • Lightweight

Cons

  • Poor file format support
  • Few options for getting editable text off the device
  • Battery life should be better
  • No backlight
  • Expensive

When you think of E Ink you probably think of e-readers such as the latest Kobo or Kindle. But that's not all E Ink is good for. The reMarkable digital notepad has a stylus-friendly E Ink display that allows it to function as a digital notepad. As a single-purpose device taking on a role already covered by other digital devices like tablets, touchscreen laptops and phones, the £449 (inc. VAT; €499/$499) reMarkable might seem expensive. We put it through its paces to see if it's worth the outlay.

If you're still looking for a way to have a more paperless style of working, then the reMarkable digital notepad might have some appeal. You can write to it, and it will turn handwriting into editable text. You can draw on it, and it will capture your creations.

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The reMarkable tablet's 10.3-inch E Ink screen provides a platform for note-taking, reading and reviewing documents. It weighs 350g (0.77lbs), has 8GB of internal storage, runs on a 3,000mAh battery and connects over wi-fi.

Images: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

The device itself is light and easy to carry. It measures 177mm by 256mm by 6.7mm and weighs 350g. Sitting inside the outer frame is a 10.3-inch E Ink display with a resolution of 1,872 by 1,404 pixels (226dpi). That's not a particularly high pixel density, but I found it fine to work with. There's a large metal plate on the back with two rubbery strips all the way along both short edges, which efficiently stop the tablet from moving around on a table when you're using it. 

There are three large buttons beneath the display. The central one takes you to the main screen, which shows thumbnails of all the documents you've made or imported, as well as providing a file menu, access to system settings, a search tool and device status. The left and right buttons take you back and forth through multi-page documents or notebooks, and the right button also appends a new blank page.

You will want to protect this device in some way. There is only one style of case available through reMarkable -- a sleeve with a pocket for the stylus. This is available in several materials, at prices ranging between £79 and £119. Obviously this will add a little size and weight, but it's marginal when set against the protection it provides. You can also purchase a more stylish stylus than the supplied one, for £99.

There is 512MB of RAM and 8GB of internal storage, of which about 6.5GB is free after the operating system has taken its share. That should be enough for around 100,000 pages. The 3,000mAh battery is rechargeable via Micro-USB. E Ink is low on power draw and battery life should be very good, but in practice I was disappointed. Typically I would see a ten percent fall across three or four hours of use. It's possible that over-vigorous use of wi-fi is the reason, and if so this could be fixed through a software update.

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Digital note-taking requires a feel that's as close to pen and paper as possible, and for me the makers of the reMarkable digital notepad have pretty much nailed that. The 2,048-pressure-level stylus, which carries a spare nib, is light to hold but feels just like a pen, and it writes smoothly on the E Ink surface. The grey and black of E Ink is very easy on the eye too, which helps when reading content back for editing. 

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The user interface is clean and straightforward, with a good variety of page templates on offer.

Images: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

Notes can be taken on the fly as discrete sheets, or collected into notebooks. There are lots of templates for 'paper', including various line and grid styles, checklists, planners, storyboards and even music staves, and these come in both portrait and landscape formats. A notebook can use one paper type, or you can add different types of sheets as you go. To be super-organised, notebooks can go into folders.  

Writing and drawing tools sit mostly down the left side of the screen, with further menu options and tools along the top. These can be pushed into landscape or portrait mode very easily. If you just want to read, a tool in the top left corner removes these controls; tap it again and the controls reappear. It's a simple, intuitive and straightforward system.

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There are pencil, pen and marker modes, with various tip thicknesses. Some of the settings respond to the angle of the nib. You can also set three grey scales -- black, white and grey -- that allow for some differentiation, although I would have preferred more.

There's an eraser that can remove a whole page or a selection, and can be used with the stylus for precision work. The copy tool is useful for both drawing and writing, and drawings can be made in layers.

There's a (light grey) highlighter to draw attention to particular areas of text, and if you're editing a typed document you can draw onto it. 

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Handwriting recognition works well so long as you write clearly, but the system doesn't identify and preserve diagrams.

Images: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

Converting handwriting to editable text requires a neat hand (and a wi-fi connection), and it can't cope with mathematical symbols. Nor, of course, could it expand my own personal shorthand into its full wordage. When I drew diagrams in the flow of text it just wanted to convert them to text -- there really does need to be a way of telling the device that you want to retain a diagram.

The only way to get text off the reMarkable digital notepad directly is to email it. Text appears in the main body of an email, from where it can be copied. You can also export content from the desktop app as PDF or PNG files, but not as editable text. The lack of options in this respect is probably the most serious issue with this device.

The E Ink screen does not do a full refresh very regularly, which means there is a little 'ghosting' where remnants of an old screen or deleted scribblings are left behind. It would be nice to have the ability to force a full refresh as required, or even to set the screen refresh rate.

Support for ePUB could prove useful. I imported a copy of Charles Dickens' Hard Times as an ePUB sourced from Project Gutenberg to test the reading experience more thoroughly. It's nowhere near as good as on a dedicated e-book reader: the large screen is unwieldy by comparison, as is the device itself, and among many niggles is the lack of font size controls and a dictionary. All that noted, comics and graphic novels could well benefit from the relatively large 10.3-inch screen. 

There's no backlight, so you can neither create nor consume content in low light conditions. The makers say that introducing a backlight would make the surface layer thicker, and thus reduce the quality of the writing experience. Given such a definitive statement, it doesn't sound like a backlight upgrade is on the cards any time soon.

Conclusions

The physical act of writing on the reMarkable digital notepad is very comfortable. The writing tools are all accessible and the user interface design is a good example of functional simplicity. That said, I'd like more choice over ink thickness and grey scales. The e-reading side of things, although a sideline here, could do with a boost -- for example to allow for two-column viewing in landscape mode, and varying font sizes.

Handwriting to editable text conversion is good if you're a neat scribe. But there needs to be a way of defining drawings within text, leaving the latter 'as is' while converting the former. 

The biggest drawback is getting text off the device. Text should go into the desktop app as RTF at the very least. This is an attractive piece of kit with a well thought-out user interface, but its functionality doesn't quite justify the price.

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