Monday, February 26, 2018

reMarkable e-ink tablet first impressions

I normally stay away from first-generation devices (let's be honest, I normally hold off several years longer than most people when it comes to adopting a new type of device).  However, ever since the reMarkable e-ink tablet kickstarter a while back, I've been intrigued.  I prefer paper for most types of writing, mostly due to the seamless free-formness of it.  I don't need to switch between programs and learn new toolsets to add a sketch to the margin if it helps illustrate what I'm writing about, whereas doing the same on a computer takes a lot of work.  That said, if I then have to access those notes elsewhere, I'd better have the right notebook handy.  Or, if I need to share a page with someone, I need to either type it up or scan it, both of which are annoying.  Having everything automatically digitized was enticing enough that when the reMarkable went on a bit of a sale last week, I bit the bullet and purchased one.  As they're still somewhat sparse in the wild, I figured I'd write up my first impressions to help other people decide if they want one.


I've uploaded pictures of unboxing and setup, as well as examples of writing/drawing, to Imgur at

Physical build

In terms of physical build, I'm a bit torn.  I like the overall shape and setup, but the different plastic vs. metal components feel a bit weird.  I'm not used to the front of a device being only plastic, but then again, I'm not used to using a tablet at all, so it may just be that I'm not used to the overall form factor.  The one specific complaint is that I wish the back were a bit less smooth.  It would feel slightly better to hold with one hand with a bit more texture, but I can't see myself using it in that manner frequently anyway so it's a bit of a moot point.  I expect the main ways I'll hold it are sitting flat on a table or other surface, held with two hands, or, if I need to write and don't have a flat surface, held with my hand at the top and the bottom against my torso.

Related to its holdability/use, I can't see myself taking this thing anywhere without a case like I frequently do with my laptop.  The exposed screen and plastic construction make that seem too risky, although it does sound from what I've read like it's a fairly sturdy device.  In addition, it seems far better suited to a folio-style case than a slide-in-and-out sleeve.  There aren't any reasonably-priced ones being made specifically for the reMarkable yet, but there are some generic ones that work just fine.  I'm currently using a fake-leatherbound-book-style case that was $12.99 on Amazon, and it works pretty well.  A couple minor complaints (I wish the cover could fold all the way around back more easily, and the storage pockets are fairly useless if you don't want to risk scratching the screen) but overall it does what it needs to.  The spine is a bit thicker than I'd like, but I expect that's part of how it protects the tablet screen while stored flat.  If I need to toss the tablet in my backpack and space is at a premium, I also got a basic padded canvas sleeve that fits it perfectly.  Not the heaviest-duty case available, but it was $10.99 and purple, so why not.  It'll get use, but not as much as the book-style one.


When viewing a document on my laptop while writing on it on the tablet, a single line took ~10 seconds to appear on the computer screen after being drawn.  However, that requires the WiFi to be on, which has a pretty big hit on the battery life.

I loaded a handful of PDFs onto the device using the Mac OSX client.  First one (2 pages) opened without a problem and I was able to read it, annotate it, etc.  I had what's been my only crash so far opening the second, a 23-page paper with a couple graphs and images.  When I went to open it, the screen loaded a fuzzy version of the first page, hung for 5-10 seconds, and then the device spontaneously restarted.  When I reopened the paper, it opened fine.

I've used the tablet for the last three days for reading papers and journalling, and it's working great.  In terms of reading, it's the closest thing to actual paper that I've used.  I have a Kindle Paperwhite lying around somewhere, but I haven't used it in ages because I prefer physical books for book-length stuff (probably 90-95% of my reading) and because the small screen and inability to write get in the way of reading PDFs of academic articles (the other 5-10%).  Because the reMarkable screen is nearly the size of a piece of paper, it feels fine to read PDFs that I'd otherwise have to print out and then keep track of.

I want to write more about using it, as this section feels short, but in a way that's a good sign.  I usually journal in an A5 unlined paper journal.  However, since getting started with the reMarkable on Friday, I haven't touched it (literally, in fact).  I'm sure it'll still get use when I want something smaller/less fragile or I'm feeling old-school, but the fact that I didn't use it at all over the weekend is a pretty strong indicator to me that the reMarkable is (for my use cases) a fairly solid paper replacement.


I've played around a bit with the cloud API, and the code I've written is up at  The only two existing client libraries I've found are PHP (which I hate) and Go (which I don't have the time to learn right now due to focusing on C/C++), so I've started tossing together a very basic one in Python3 (specifically doesn't work with Python2, so get with the times or GTFO).  Doesn't do much useful, but lets you pull down the files stored in the cloud service.  I may or may not keep building on this as time permits.

Random annoyances/feature requests

(Important note: Don't let the length of this list obscure the fact that I really like this tablet and am glad I got it; it just isn't (yet) perfect for my specific uses and tastes.)

  • Battery life is still a bit iffy, but more annoyingly it doesn't provide specific info about how much life is remaining.  It did prior to the latest update, but apparently that was frequently inaccurate.  Give the user better info about the state of the battery and what different features can be disabled to improve it.
  • I wish there were an easy way to turn off WiFi and have it not turn back on unless I explicitly tell it to.
  • A bit more complex but also useful, I wish there were some way to tie WiFi syncing to tablet usage.  For example, if I open the tablet and it's been more than a couple hours since I last used it, turn on the WiFi momentarily to check.  Likewise, if I've made changes to documents (more than just changing what page I'm reading), temporarily enable WiFi and sync when I put the tablet to sleep.
  • Let me explicitly sync a document from the device to the cloud.  Sometimes it seems to take a while with no apparent reason why.
  • Something a bunch of other users have mentioned but that bears repeating, but provide a better interface for taking notes while reading a document.  Either some sort of landscape split-screen, with a document on one side and notepad on the other, or some button that lets you temporarily pop up a notepad to jot something down.
  • Smarter text integration when reading documents.  Being able to select text in a PDF and have that stored as the actual text selected instead of a line on the page would be great.  For example, create a reference page for each PDF that gives you the selected text snippets with links to those parts of the documents.  That'd make it way more useful for reading and reviewing documents.
  • Improve the document move interface.  When I've selected the documents and click move, having a full directory tree displayed (potentially with some tapping to enable expansion or scrolling necessary, if there are a lot of directories) instead of the usual filesystem navigation interface would be both more intuitive (at least for me) and require far fewer taps for most moves.
  • Make the unlock screen keypad bigger or (ideally) configurable size-wise.  It feels a little small, given the screen space available and the fact that the device is meant to be used edge-to-edge.  It's the same size as the unlock pin pad on my phone, even though that's designed for a much different usage type (one-handed with one finger instead of an entire hand that isn't tethered to the tablet).
  • Related to the above, make it possible to connect an external keyboard.  Being able to type and then easily add in sketches would be great for getting project ideas down onto (e-)paper.
  • Having the option to not display thumbnails in the file list menu would let it be about twice as dense, which is preferable for stuff like a directory of academic articles where the thumbnails don't provide any value.
  • Having the option to cut off the margins of PDFs would be awesome.  When I'm reading a paper that's formatted in the normal two-column layout, there's 1/2 inches on each side and at least 3/4 inches at each of the top and bottom that's wasted whitespace  It can be useful for making notes, but most of the time when reading it's just making the text a little smaller with no benefit.  The case of the tablet is already designed to look like the margins.
  • Not sure if this is closer to an issue with reMarkable or an issue with Preview on Mac OSX, but the PDF exports don't show the shading of the writing/drawing that a user adds.  However, the PNG exports do, and if you export as a PDF and then have Preview export that PDF to PNG, the shading returns, so it''s probably an issue with Preview.

Slightly more pie-in-the-sky requests

  • Put a different type of tip on the back end of the stylus that can be recognized separately and treated as an eraser.
  • Providing a command line directly on the device (instead of just letting you shell in from another computer) would be understandably difficult and risky but still undeniably cool.
  • I know the challenges involved in reliable handwriting recognition and so I don't expect handwritten-to-text conversion anytime soon.  However, it'll be cool when it arrives, either provided by reMarkable or some third-party add-on.