Hands on with the reMarkable, the closest thing to paper since paper
Paper isn’t dead. There’s a printer in every office and that one-in-a-million idea is sometimes squirreled away in a moleskin notebook or even on a napkin.
“There’s still tremendous demand for reading, writing and sketching,” said Magnus Wanberg an Oslo, Norway-based entrepreneur who helped develop reMarkable, an electronic-ink-based tablet that’s designed to come as close to paper as possible, while offering all the benefits of a digital screen.
Wanberg, who is also reMarkable’s CEO and a self-described paper nerd, has invited me to a midtown hotel room where I’ll be among the first to see, touch and try his solution to that riddle.
reMarkable looks like a quarter-inch stack of 8.5×11-inch paper, which is intentional. They don’t want it, Wanberg told me, to stand out as a digital product. Visually, they come close to succeeding. The 10.3-inch, 226 DPI resolution screen, takes up most of the front. Below it is three, identical, unmarked square buttons for navigation. Along the top edge is a centered power button and on the bottom edge is a single micro-USB charging port. The body is constructed of ABS plastic and magnesium with an aluminum back. It weighs a comfortable-to-hold 350 grams.
There’s also a lightweight, associated stylus that requires no pairing, Bluetooth or batteries. Yet it supports 2,048 levels of pressure sensitivity, 512 levels of tilt awareness and palm rejection so you can rest your hand on the screen when writing.
At this point, I’m thinking reMarkable rises to the level of interesting, but not awesome. Electronic Ink is not a new technology and, with the exception of Amazon Kindle eReaders, it’s mostly of interest to sign makers who see the backlight-free, low-powered, reflective display technology as a potential boon in the commercial business display and signage space. What’s more, large-screen E-Ink-based note-taking devices (even dual-screen ones) have been tried before and generated little enthusiasm. They usually failed because the electronic ink technology, which relies on charged pigments to draw images, couldn’t refresh fast enough to be useful for drawing and standard note-taking.
Standard digital paper, Wanberg explained, has a latency of 100 milliseconds. For the eye to perceive motion, or the illusion of a line being draw on real paper, it needs 50 milliseconds or less. Getting to that speed seemed impossible, even to those who make a business out of cutting-edge digital paper technology.
When reMarkable told digital paper leader E-Ink in 2013 what it wanted to do, the company said it couldn’t be done. Wanberg didn’t necessarily disagree with the experts, but instead looked for a way around the problem, addressing all the components backing the digital ink display that might be increasing latency.
By 2015, they’d pushed latency down to 60 ms. That was enough for E-Ink, which formed a strategic partnership with reMarkable, telling them according to Wanberg, “Just give us the specs, we’ll build anything you want.”
The result is a sharp, monochrome screen (black text, writing and images on a nearly white background) that deposits digital ink as quickly as I could write or draw. The pen is super light even though it includes a spare tip in the base and it really feels like drawing on paper. This is due, in part, to the rubberized pen tip, and, especially, to the custom reMarkable canvas display covering, which is not glass and has a little bit of a rougher surface to provide a paper-like friction feel.
I spent some time in the Notebook app where drawing options sit along the left edge. You can hide the menu options if you just want a clean drawing or writing surface. Pen options include markers, pencil, pen, ink and all are nuanced enough to satisfy the demanding artist or note taker. There are more sophisticated tools like layers, and the ability to marquee portions of your notes or sketch and move, resize, rotate or copy them.
Obviously, none of this is, ahem, remarkable in the world of tablets, but to see it all work easily and smoothly in electronic ink is impressive. It should also be noted that while the reMarkable’s 2276 DPI resolution is lower than that of Amazon’s 300 PPI (essentially the same as DPI) Kindle Oasis, E-Ink-based Kindle reader, it is the highest resolution for a screen of its size. Even up close, the lines look incredibly smooth for an electronic ink product.
The screen is also a touch screen. You tap it twice to access the menu. The only thing I didn’t like is that there are no gestures for, say, undo. You must access the menu and top the undo option.
reMarkable is Wi-Fi-enabled and connects to the company’s cloud-based service so your library of drawing and notes is always in sync. At launch there will be iOS, Android, Windows and MacOS applications so you can view your library from any device. That same interface will also allow you to pull a PDF into the app and have it appear on the reMarkable tablet where you can mark it up. Wanberg showed me how this worked in real-time. Even with the hotel room’s crummy Wi-Fi, the operation went off without a hitch.
I especially liked the ability to livestream whatever you write on the reMarkable tablet to a Wi-Fi connected LCD display. It’s like having an instant, connected whiteboard.
Battery life is, as you would expect with an E-Ink-powered device, substantial. reMarkable should last for up to a week’s worth of writing.
The company will, for the time being, keep the product firmly focused on documents, note-taking, and sketching. There will be no access to content libraries (though the system does support the eBook format). Despite the Wi-Fi connection, it also won’t support social platforms or email.
“People tell us, ‘Don’t add too much functionality to it, you will ruin the experience.’,” said Wanberg.
What started as a crowd-funded project in Europe will ship later this year for $529. Oddly, that price does not include the pen, which costs $79. Not surprisingly, the company has gotten a bit of feedback on that. Wanberg told me the company may eventually offer a bundle for $599.