February 03, 2023
Technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.
When I was young, I read books.
When I was slightly less young, I read books off of a Kindle Touch.
I replaced my Kindle with an Android e-ink tablet. This article explains why.
Eventually, I learned about Amazon's nasty business practices in the e-reader space:
Of course, I was already a birthday-gift-Kindle deep in Amazon's trap. I jailbroke my Kindle to load new fonts and view unsupported ebook formats like EPUB. And I stopped buying ebooks from Amazon's store, preferring to instead sideload them from my computer with a physical cable connection. (Retro, I know. Who uses cables any more?)
After more than a decade of use, I finally decided to upgrade from my Kindle Touch. Funnily enough, the device still worked... but Amazon finally decided to retire the 3G Whispernet network that provided free internet access anywhere via a data connection. Not to mention that ereader hardware has come a long way since 2011. Modern alternatives provide:
I compared several ereaders before I made my final choice. I have a tendency to heavily over-research topics before I make a purchase, and this was no exception. I considered the following devices:
I wanted a 7-8" screen, a color-adjustable frontlight, USB-C ports, freedom to load any apps or ebook stores I wanted, a month of battery life with wireless off, and passive (no batteries!) drawing via pen.
The screen size requirement eliminated the Remarkable, the Note Air, and the Note 3.
The need for a USB-C port (along with "freedom to load any apps or ebook stores I want") eliminated the Kindle Oasis 3.
The need for pen input eliminated the Pocketbook and the Kobo Libra 2.
The need for passive pen input eliminated the Elipsa.
I ended up settling on the Onyx Boox Nova 3, because it met my list of needs. There are a few features I would really like, but ended up settling on because the perfect device just doesn't exist:
Fortunately I don't currently listen to audiobooks, so I can ignore most of those features. If I ever get into audiobooks, I'll likely be forced to upgrade. The only feature I really wish I had was a fingerprint reader for security... but knowing Android device security, almost no devices are secure enough to fully trust anyway. So maybe it just doesn't matter. I do wish I could get a "pattern" style lock screen though.
Wow! The difference between my 2011 Kindle and a 2021 ereader is massive. It's a lot like the difference between 2000s computer displays and Apple's "Retina" hiDPI displays that started showing up in 2012 on the iPhone 4 and Macbooks.
On my old Kindle, I could see pixels on the edges of text. On my Boox, I ... can't. The text is damn near as sharp as text on a physical book page. Feels like the future!
I love the 7.8" screen, especially compared to my old Kindle's 6" screen. The Boox's screen is roughly the size of a hardcover novel page; the Kindle screen was about the size of a paperback page. I like big pages! In this case, a larger screen means longer line lengths, so I can read even faster than I could on my Kindle. It also means fewer page turns and refreshes per book read, so I don't have to reach up to turn the page as much, and less power usage as well since e-ink displays only consume power when they update the screen. So the bigger screen actually translates to better battery life!
My old Kindle fit in my back pocket, and easily fit in coat pockets. My Boox is about 40% larger, and the case is slightly bulkier, so it's not as easy to fit in a back pocket. It's a tight squeeze for coat pockets.
That being said, I didn't even notice the weight or bulk when I accidentally left my Boox in my backpack when I hiked the tallest mountain in Colorado.
If you love putting a paperback or a tiny e-reader in your back pocket, the Boox Nova 3 isn't for you. They have a smaller model that's better for that. But in my experience it's light enough to easily hold for hours of reading, and small enough to fit in all but the most overstuffed of backpacks and bicycle handlebar bags.
It's rad to get back into the manual writing game. Besides realizing that my cursive is very rusty, I've started journaling and notetaking on the Boox almost every day. It's a great way to keep my clicky keyboard from annoying people in work meetings and interviews.
Very useful for boring meeting doodles. Actually useful for writing annotations in books when you want to read properly. Extremely useful for journaling on a multi-day bike tour around Vermont.
Drawing with the pen is pressure sensitive, so you can adjust the weight of brush strokes for style. To my eyes, the screen doesn't have noticeable latency between "pen touching screen" and "ink showing up on the display," so it's effectively the same as an infinitely erasable piece of paper (that lights up at night!).
You can run Android apps on all Boox devices. I've never found an app that doesn't run, but I've found lots of apps that run poorly on a black-and-white e-ink display that can only refresh once per second or so at the fastest setting (modern smartphone displays typically refresh between 60 and 120 times per second and show millions or billions of colors).
Boox offers a selection of different "optimization" settings to deal with the limitations of a black-and-white low-refresh-rate screen. You can tweak the e-ink refresh rate, or "bleach" light background content to white so text shows up better in black-and-white. It mostly works, but it can be tricky to find the right settings for every app. You won't enjoy playing games or watching videos, most likely. But you can probably get the Libby or Kindle apps to a usable state.
Personally, I spend 99% of my time on my Boox reading books or writing. I only install apps to aid and abet book downloads or book discovery. I'm glad I can run any app I want on here, because it lets me access books from any source imaginable on the internet, from libraries to DRM-free bookstores to the high seas. It's an imperfect experience, but that's OK since it's only peripheral functionality.
There are a few apps, like EinkBro, designed specifically for e-ink screens. These generally work well out-of-the box with the e-ink screen, and with some slight "optimizations" applied sometimes feel even better than the first-party Boox software that comes with the device.
On the subject of book reading: I mostly use KOReader to read ebooks on my Boox device, rather than the built in "Neoreader" ereader software. For my preferences, Neoreader just doesn't have enough tweaks and options to deal with the mixed bag of ebook formatting. Your mileage may vary, especially if you aren't as nitpicky as me. But I am VERY glad to have a device where I can just... change the default app that opens ebooks. Amazon doesn't give you that choice, so if you dislike a setting -- like the fact that the Kindle Touch doesn't let you turn off the numeric "book progress percentage" display -- you're stuck doing something crazy, like literally taping over it or blanking out that section of screen pixels with a marker. I prefer choice.
With WiFi and Bluetooth disabled, my Boox Nova 3 easily lasts me about a month of daily 1-2 hour reading. For battery longevity, I keep the charge between 20% and 80% whenever possible. Given how slowly the battery discharges, even with heavy use, this is easy, as long as I don't forget it on the charger and accidentally charge it to 100%.
One annoyance: because users don't have "root access" by default on Boox devices, I can't install an app to actually limit my battery charge to 80%. And Onyx Boox won't add it to the settings, like many Android phone manufacturers have done. So I have to manually make sure I don't charge above 80%. This is annoying on a phone or a laptop that you charge every day; on a device that I charge once a month, I usually just set myself a 30 minute timer and catch it somewhere in the 70-80% range. Easy peasy.
Two years in with my Boox Nova 3, I'm a huge fan. I use it almost every day, and I take it almost everywhere with me. It's almost exactly what I wanted as a successor to my Kindle Touch, and indications are good that it'll last me many more years, especially if I take care of the battery.
...So what's the catch? Why doesn't everyone own Boox devices?
Well, I have a few thoughts:
Awful UI text translations: I write professionally. The device settings and app settings are an absolute comedy of Chinese-to-English translation errors. I often have reverse-engineer the bad translation just to figure out what a setting means. Sometimes there's no way of knowing: you just have to toggle the setting and see what happens. Sometimes warnings sound really scary -- early on, I clicked a "refresh library" button and a huge warning came up to let me know that my reading progress would NOT be lost and the operation was NOT destructive in any way. That's great, but... after reading that warning, I started to wonder about software quality, false assumptions, translation confusion, etc. I'm happy to say that I haven't experienced any data loss in my two years of Boox usage, but I do sometimes worry!
Onyx Boox violated the GPL (Gnu Public License) (by using software bearing the license to produce a closed-source proprietary software product). This doesn't impact me day-to-day, but as someone who cares deeply about the health of the software industry, I don't like supporting a company so needlessly blasé about taking advantage of open source projects. Of course, Amazon and other big tech companies abuse their monopoly positions to hurt open source projects in other ways, so it's not like you can buy an ereader from a company that isn't evil in some way. Except for Kobo, which seems to just be a bunch of harmless Canadians who love reading.
Closed-source Chinese software is a bad idea. The CCP is scary. They literally run death camps and oppress any opinions that don't align with their own. Journalists and doctors whistleblowing the dangers of coronavirus have gone missing, been threatened, been maimed, or had their families kidnapped just for telling the truth. Companies based in China routinely bend to the will of the CCP and harvest data about their customers to send back to the CCP for... intelligence? Analysis? Who knows? I use NetGuard to only allow traffic to whitelisted servers and apps on the rare occasions that I connect my device to WiFi. Look, this isn't really a Chinese thing: you just shouldn't trust closed-source software in the first place. Everything is harvesting as much creepy data about you as you can imagine. Take precautions. Sharing everything with a device that regularly communicates with the internet is kind of like writing in Tom Riddle's diary. To (almost) quote Molly Weasley, "Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t see
where it keeps its brain its source code." Prefer free and open source products whenever possible, because everything else has a profit motive to violate your privacy. There's no perfect solution right now, but I hope that someday I can run LineageOS or even Linux on an ereader -- maybe even my Nova 3 -- to make this less of an issue.
Case compatibility. Boox is a niche company. The Nova 3 is a niche product. As a result, there aren't many third-party vendors out there creating cases. There are a few on Etsy. The first-party Boox-made cases are OK. I actually repurposed a cheap iPad Mini 2/3/4 case into a Nova 3 case, taking advantage of the fact that the devices are almost the exact same dimensions. I just had to cut out a hole at the top for the power button, and stretch the TPU material with a couple of strategic slits since the Nova 3 is slightly wider. If you want a "first class" case experience, don't buy a Boox device. But if you're willing to DIY a bit, I absolutely love my case and it's been going strong for two years now!
Boox good for me. Kindle bad. Kobo good for most.