It's no secret I think E Ink is one of the most underused gadget features. It's one that feels especially useful right now, because after spending the past year glued to screens more than ever, our frazzled eyeballs need a break. One way to get that break (besides reading an actual dead-tree book) is to read on an E Ink display, which can be easier on the eyes, especially at night.
An intriguing example of this tech that I've been using lately is the Onyx Boox Note Air, one of a handful of larger-screen E Ink readers that target both book readers and note takers.
E Ink is great for long-form reading and decent for note-taking. It's really too bad that the only E Ink product most people have ever seen is the Amazon Kindle, which is a thoroughly specialized device that does one thing really well, but has its limitations. The regular Kindle's 6-inch screen is painfully small (at least at my age). The Kindle Oasis is a little bigger, but even at 7 inches it's pretty small. Amazon used to sell a big-screen 9.7-inch Kindle, called the Kindle DX, but it was short-lived and expensive, and cost $490 when it launched in 2009.
The Boox Note Air doesn't do much to improve on price. At $480, it's still much more than a basic iPad or a Kindle Oasis. But it combines a 10.3-inch E Ink display with the Android 10 operating system, including the Google Play store. That gives it an advantage over the ReMarkable 2, a similarly priced 10.3-inch E Ink reader.
Add the key reading apps
Through the Google Play store, you can download the official Kindle app and access your Kindle library on the Boox. You can't do that on the ReMarkable 2 unless you manage to break the encryption on Amazon files and convert the ebooks to PDF. That's why it's pitched more as a note-taking, drawing and PDF-reading device.
Besides the Kindle app, you can run the Kobo and Nook apps on the Boox Note Air as well as most other ebook apps. I also tried a handful of popular Android apps, including TikTok and YouTube, and I suppose you could say they technically functioned, but the limitations of the E Ink screen, particularly its refresh rate, mean most nonreading apps are proof of concept only. Also worth noting, if you experience an error when trying to sign in to the Google Play store for the first time on the Boox, follow the advice here, it worked for me.
The Boox Note Air runs a Qualcomm Snapdragon 636 processor, also found in some Amazon Fire HD tablets. It's speedy enough, if you're using one of a handful of E Ink-optimized apps. The other parts of the Boox's ecosystem -- the menu, the responsiveness of the screen, the refresh rate -- make it feel, overall, not very zippy.
I think that's OK, though. A great book-reading experience should be measured, not rushed.
Reading via the Kindle app on the Boox's 227-dots-per-inch HD screen was a treat, especially compared with reading on a cramped Kindle or Kindle Oasis screen. The front light has two control sliders for brightness and color temperature, because without a light source, you can't see an E Ink screen in the dark. I prefer the forward and back physical page buttons on the Oasis, but swiping through pages with my finger was fine on this larger screen.
There's also a built-in note-taking app that gave me surprisingly lag-free use of an included stylus. I was able to do all the same simple freehand sketching I normally do to test a touchscreen device with a stylus, such as the Apple Pencil or Microsoft's Surface Pen. The matte coating on the display gave writing and sketching that sense of drag on paper that so many glossy screens miss. That was through the included Notes app -- I had less luck with third-party sketching apps.
But ignore almost all the other apps
There are a lot of icons and menus and subcategories in the Boox Note Air's interface. I enjoyed the device, once I got accustomed to tuning all the visual noise out and focusing on what it does really well.
Like me, you probably want to read books (via whatever your favorite ereader app is) and maybe do some sketching or note-taking with the stylus. That's about it. Everything else is noise. There's a "store" tab that basically gives you access to Project-Gutenberg-style free, public-domain ebooks. Thanks, I guess. Yes, you can try to calculate a tip using the calculator app or send an email with the email app. But that'll all be much less frustrating on literally any other device you own.
Unlike a Kindle's, the wake-from-sleep function's performance varies widely. Sometimes, it's nearly instant. Leave it overnight or longer and I had to press and hold the power button to wake it up, which was a poor comparison to my wake-at-any-time Kindle Oasis.
Boox included with my sample device a nice woven case that usually sells for $40 separately. Together the tablet, stylus and case weigh just about 1.5 pounds (680g), and Boox says the battery should last up to four weeks on a single charge. But that will change a lot depending on how you much you use the device and what level you have the built-in light set at.
I've always wanted a big, simple E Ink screen for reading in the Kindle app and other ebook sources, and now I've got one that works really well. It also costs almost as much as a PlayStation 5, or two of Amazon's 7-inch Kindle Oasis readers, so you'll have to decide if the bigger screen and Android extras are worth it.