Remarkable Tablet: The full review
We’re far from the paperless ideal envisioned at the dawn of the desktop computing age, but paper and handwritten notes no longer play a central role in our lives.
For some, this is a sadness. Taking pen to paper has its own charms, the smell of fresh paper, the tactile feel of the ink ball dragging across paper fiber, and pitfalls, ink-smudged fingers and palms, lost sheets and illegible writing.
With such a balance of good and bad, one wonders why we need something like the $599 Remarkable E-Ink tablet, a 10.1 x 6.9 x 0.26-inch-thick, 350-gram device that recreates the joys of writing and drawing on 8×11-inch electronic paper without most of the attendant frustrations.
E Ink adroitly plays the role of fake paper on millions of e-reader devices. Like paper, in daylight or with an external light source such as a reading lamp, its pigment-based technology doesn’t need a backlight for viewability. Most e reader companies, like Amazon and Kobo, integrate LED lighting arrays so you can still read without an external light source. Electronic ink is also incredibly power-efficient: E Ink devices can run for weeks on a single charge.
The popularity of these readers has waned in recent years as more versatile LCD-based tablets have become more ubiquitous, powerful and improved their battery life. Most recently, Apple and Microsoft coupled the iPad and Surface Pro, respectively, with smart styluses, adding pressure and tilt-sensitive writing and drawing to their tablet repertoire.
These are fantastic devices, but, as Remarkable is quick to note, they’re still not paper.
The Remarkable tablet (the company spells the name, “reMarkable,” get it?) isn’t paper, either, but it is the next best thing
The Remarkable tablet, which I first saw a few months ago, and have been testing for the last few weeks, improves electronic ink technology in a few ways, but most crucially in response.
Early E Ink displays had to perform full screen refresh for every change, a technical limitation that made them virtually incompatible with stylus-based screen writing.
Remarkable’s 100 millisecond response time, while slower than the 20 ms Apple achieves with the Apple Pencil and iPad, produces, to the naked eye, real-time writing on the screen with no discernable lag, no matter how fast I scribble.
With its mostly white chassis (it has a silver magnesium back) the Remarkable tablet largely succeeds in its effort to evoke the look and feel of paper. The light gray, 10.1-inch diagonal screen is surrounded by a white boarder. At the bottom are three unmarked, square buttons. The right and left ones provide page navigation, while the center is your home button. Remarkable didn’t label these buttons so as not to break the paper illusion, but I think that without labels, they make the device look a little unfinished.
The only other button on the device is a silver one for sleep and power along the top edge. I held it for a few seconds to power up the Remarkable tablet. This is your first clue that this is not a traditional tablet. Startup takes almost 10 seconds. Fortunately, wake from sleep is almost instantaneous.
The home screen is divided up into three main sections: My Files, file and page management and the thumbnail display. Along the left edge is access to Notebooks, Documents, Ebooks and Bookmarks. Along the top edge, is an option to add new folders, notebooks and Quick sheets. Below that is access to folders, which sits above thumbnails for existing Notebooks and Quick sheets. You can name documents for further management and toggle the display between a list view and the large thumbnails.
While I got used to this interface, it isn’t what I’d call intuitive or elegant.
What I do like is that, even though Remarkable ships with its own marker (stylus), it is still a responsive touchscreen. You can use your finger or the marker to access any menu item. However, and I think this is smart, you can only draw with the marker, which adds palm rejection as well as pressure and tilt recognition. The marker doesn’t need charging or batteries. Instead, it pairs automatically and draws the tiny bit of power it needs directly through the screen via inductive charge.
Selecting an existing Notebook or Quick sheet (no, I don’t really understand the duplication, either), opens the writing interface. 9.5-inches of it is devoted to E-Ink writing/drawing space. The control menus hug the left and top edges. Along the left edge are options for pens, pencils, markers and highlighters. There’s also options for moving the image, which only works when you zoom in, undo and redo buttons, layers, and the ability to shrink the menu to just one drawing implement, the eraser and undo. At the top of the screen is the file name, add a page, a grid template toggle and a close button to leave the page. You can also hide all menu items and turn the screen into a 10.1-inch drawing space.
There are numerous options buried under most menu items. Selecting the pen, for example, opens a pen tip size option, tip style and a fill bucket. On screen, the results can be impressively subtle and realistic. The pencil tool line looks as if a real pencil is drawing it, there’s even a shader option, which produces an output that looks as if you’re holding a number 2 pencil and sliding the long edge of the graphite tip back and forth across paper.
For every stroke, I was impressed at the responsiveness. Remarkable claims 2,048 degrees of pressure sensitivity and 512-degrees of tilt-sensitivity. In my experience, the pressure sensitivity was strong, but doesn’t quite match what I get on, say, an iPad or Surface. Tilt sensitivity was more impressive.
Imagery on the 1,872×1,404 (226 dpi) display is excellent (though it does break down quite a bit when you zoom in).
In general, it really does feel like you’re writing and drawing on paper.
The eraser works sort of like a real eraser, but only when you first use it. When I started erasing a line, it erased abut 50%, but if I picked up the marker and touched the same line, the whole area I just tried to erase disappeared completely. I’m more impressed with the eraser marquee selection tool. It lets you completely erase custom areas by drawing a marquee around them.
Remarkable even added a layering feature, which means you can draw elements on different layers and turn the layers on and off or delete them. However, you can’t manage opacity and, since everything is in black and white, it’s hard to tell when one layer is on top or behind another. Turning layers on and off also reminds you this is slow-moving electronic ink; when I turned off a layer, the screen flashed and then did, in the drawing area, a full redraw. Basically, layers feel like an overreach here.
My one other criticism of Remarkable as a drawing or writing platform is that I occasionally leaned on the right “page forward” button, which loaded a new blank page – not a pleasant experience when you’re in the middle of a drawing. There really is little I like about these buttons.
The Remarkable tablet works with a collection of free desktop and mobile software that automatically syncs with the tablet, giving you almost instant access to every document you have on the device (there’s 8 GB of storage, which should hold hundreds of thousands of pages). I installed in on a Windows 10 PC and on an iPhone 7.
The interfaces are spare, but useful. I was surprised to find, though, that I can’t print out documents and zoom only works on the desktop, but not on the mobile app.
The desktop app has the added benefit, though, of letting me import documents (PDFs PNGs) and epub books. That’s right, you can read books on the Remarkable tablet. However, unlike pages I created on the Remarkable tablet, documents imported on the desktop app never showed up on the tablet.
Remarkable promises five days of battery life on a single charge and two weeks in standby mode. In my experience, and because I didn’t have final system software, I got more like three days of battery life, which is still impressive. I left Wi-Fi on the whole time, which probably hurt my battery life.
There are a number of still-under-development features that may excite potential buyers, like handwriting recognition (yes, please), live sharing of notes via a web link, and support for third-party note-taking tools. Many of them are expected sometime next year.
With its nearly pencil-on-paper writing experience and excellent battery life, the Remarkable tablet could be a godsend for those who truly miss writing and doodling on paper. I worry, though, that the price, not insubstantial weight (almost as much as a standard iPad), thickness, lack of apps and overall versatility, and various electronic ink quirks will remind most why they chose an iPad in the first place.