reMarkable Review

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4 years 5 months
Submitted by SuperSayu on Fri, 12/01/2017 - 17:13

This is a brief review of the reMarkable Tablet, which I ordered as a Kickstarter project. It is, for those not aware, a touchscreen e-ink tablet (10.25" screen) with a stylus, so you can write on it like paper.

It is more or less exactly what they claimed and exactly what I asked for. The hardware is good--lightweight, simple, and the writing is exactly what they promised, as responsive as writing with an actual pencil. It is, naturally, greyscale/two-color, so if you are looking for a full-color drawing experience, it will never be that. They do also have an interesting thing where pressure or angle or something affects the thickness of the line (I am not clear on which), for some pen modes but not all. That's neat, especially given that the pen is not a powered thing, just a stylus with a special tip.

The documents you scribble in are called "Notebooks" and can have several pages, which you move between with physical buttons on the bottom, or there is an overview that gives you thumbnails of each page and you can directly choose the page you want.

For each page you can set a "templates" or background image, with obvious examples like calendars and college- or legal-rule paper built-in. Less happily there is no obvious way to add templates; if you could add a character-sheet template this would be a no-brainer for tabletop gamers. There are also layers, which matters a fair bit to artists I guess, and you can add more or hide existing layers.

All that said, there is no handwriting recognition nor can you insert text from a keyboard, even though the software does have a keyboard for system UI (which is functional but not fantastic). The product is fresh out of Kickstarter so there is no telling whether they will change that, but... well, I'll get to that later.

One of the major things I was hoping for was a good large table for reading ebooks, and it does that, but it does not hook into either Barnes & Noble's, nor Amazon's ecosystems--no apps or support for DRM-protected books. They support epub books as long as they are DRM free, and they support PDF. Since I have some of each of those, I can say that I do like the experience of a nice large page of text on e-ink, and I am happy with that part of it. You can also use the pen to scribble on both PDFs and epubs, and the changes stay. One thing I feel is definitely missing is a way to add your own categories or tags to books, so that you can have a list of (For example) science fiction books, a list of roleplaying pdfs and notebooks, etc.

The interface is present whenever a ebook, pdf, or notebook is open, though with one tap you can reduce it to a tiny un-hide button in the top left. Interface buttons respond to stylus or finger touches; drawing only happens with the stylus. You can also sort of mini-fy it to just have pencil, eraser, and undo, plus new-page and quit buttons (which are not present in the full-hidden version).

That said the interface is not spectacular. For all the artsy stuff, there is no, for example, select/move selected region/erase selected region. There is a zoom, but it does not stay when you change pages--I know because I was using it to fit a PDF with large margins, and I had to zoom in again each page. Each UI element is a picture without words, so if you can't tell the difference between four very similar pen icons, you should look it up on their website. (One is a pencil, one a highlighter, and the other two have fill and pressure options that I don't quite understand) Again, many of these settings reset to default when you switch away and back. I also have not found a jump-to-page for ebooks and PDFs, except for the thumbnail index, which is no way to jump to a specific page in a text book.

Moving files over is not terrible, but I am not particularly fond of the idea that it only happens using their web service. You download a client and that controls a library on their service, which syncs with the device. The tablet has some kind of prototype interface that is supposed to let you connect to the tablet over USB, but it is, first of all, not quite finished, and second of all, a little geeky; you need to open a particular IP in your browser, on the computer you connected to. I tried moving files using that and did not succeed, but it did tell me what was on the device. Again, unfinished.

Battery life... not spectacular, but nothing to complain about. I think that the tablet is a very good weight, and adding more battery might have been a bad decision. If this was a phone or something that chewed up battery life faster, they would need more battery, but it's a relatively simple device. Still, don't expect a solid 12-hour day out of it.

I am getting to the end of this review, but I have to address one particular elephant in the room: Without talking to them, I worry that they might not be in this for the long haul.

The interface is all custom, and it kind of has to be; there is nothing like Android in the world that is good for e-ink displays, much less one that supports their custom display, so they must have basically built a UI backend from scratch. After a decade of Android, it can seem weird that they don't provide apps or an appstore, but you basically can't: apps from every other source expect constant screen updates, so you would have to write a new app from scratch, and unless they prove to be a (ah) reMarkable success, that won't be viable for most companies, if any.

To sum up, an ecosystem like Android or iOS requires a certain feedback cycle: developers believe the product will stay and add new features, so users show up, so developers invest more, so users show up. reMarkable is a good product, but jumpstarting an ecosystem like that is hard as balls and they aren't likely to succeed without some deep pockets behind them to soak the first five years of, essentially, developing a new operating system, and five years might not even be enough.

Again--honestly, one or two tweaks would make this essential to tabletop gamers and maybe a few other edge cases, but people won't buy if the company is going out of business, and the company will go out of business unless their business model remains profitable enough to support at least a few developers to do maintenance work, plus manufacturing. And honestly, if it doesn't provide enough money for them to produce a version 2 in a few years, you can basically kiss the company goodbye, no matter how many people want the product, because the people who run the company run it in order to do development work, not because they enjoy business.

So it's a good product and I am glad I have it, but I am pretty sure that it will become yet another product without a future in the next few years. Which is sad, but not as sad as the fact that there might not be another product that fills the same niche. I think Amazon was looking into a similar display/input tech, but if they don't go out of their way to make essentially this but better, we likely won't have another for a long time. And that will be sad, because again, it's good. Just, probably, not good enough to kick off a revolution or sustain a brand new ecosystem.

I don't want to be my last word on the product, though, because a few tweaks would make it a lot better. Like jump-to-page for books, and the ability to add templates, the ability to add fields to a notebook or PDF, some kind of tie-in with e-book services, some basic apps development support, maybe some specific niche apps like roleplaying character sheet stuff and dice stuff, more some common apps like a calendar and a calculator. It can be a great product, even if it can't change the world. And they're not done with it, so it might become great product.

I hope so, I like it.