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Android E-Ink Devices: Advantages & Disadvantages

E-readers and e-ink tablets can be broadly split into two categories; those that run the Android operating system, and those that do not.

Whether to choose an Android or Non-Android device is often a primary buying factor, so in this article, I wanted to quickly go over the differences, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of both options.

What is an operating system?

An operating system is simply the software that is initially loaded when you turn on an electronic device, and which manages the hardware and (other) software. Examples of operating systems that you may be familiar with include Windows, Linux, macOS, and (of course) Android.

Android e-ink devices

Android is an open, multi-platform operating system that was primarily designed for touchscreen devices, such as smartphones and tablets. At its core is the Linux kernel.

Android is open-source software, and the source for Android can be found at the Android Open Source Project. However, this core version does not include several familiar services that are licenced separately by the manufacturers that own them. For this reason, the most commonly used version of Android is Google’s version (known simply as Android), which includes Google Mobile Services (GSM), comprising of apps such as the Google Play Store, Chrome Browser, Google Maps etc.)

For third-party manufacturers to include GSM (and, consequently, the Google Play Store etc.) on their Android devices, the device must first be certified, and then the manufacturer must obtain a licence from Google (and the process can be lengthy and costly).

E-ink device brands that use the Android operating system (with GSM) include Boox, Bigme, Meebook, and MobiScribe.

Advantages of Android e-ink devices

This is a summary of the benefits of using an e-ink device that runs Android:

  • Supports installation of third-party apps from the Google Play Store (e.g. Kindle reader, Kobo reader, web browsers, productivity apps)
  • Access to other Google Services (Maps, GMail, Google Search, Chrome, YouTube etc.)
  • Familiarity (it may be the same operating system that runs on your smartphone, tablets, etc.)
  • Android is well-maintained (with lots of developers – including Google developers – working on new features, bug fixes, and performance/security/privacy updates
  • Lots of options for file management (e.g. long-pressing on a file shows a Share button, which can be used to share the file with any installed application, such as cloud drives and email)
  • Android devices tend to have higher hardware specs (such as a faster CPU and more RAM) to make them more compatible with third-party apps
  • Android devices also tend to have more hardware features (such as speakers, microphone, camera etc.), again for third-party software compatibility

Disadvantages of Android e-ink devices

And these are the disadvantages of Android e-ink devices:

  • Often more expensive (due to the associated costs of Google licencing, and more powerful hardware)
  • Just because third-party apps can be installed, it does not mean that they will work well (or at all) with an e-ink screen and its slower refresh rates (although recent technological advances, such as Boox Super Refresh have improved performance of some apps)
  • Can be distracting (e.g. being able to access social media on an e-reader makes it more difficult for some people to ‘unplug’ from the Internet)
  • Most manufacturers do not run the latest version of Android (usually 1-3 versions behind, so they still receive security updates, but older versions that have reached their end-of-life may also be used by some brands)

Non-Android e-ink devices

The second category of e-ink devices are those that do not run Android, or (more specifically) those that either do not run Android or run Android without GSM (and so do not have access to the Google Play Store, or other Google Services).

For example, Ratta Supernote tablets run Android without GSM. In addition, the operating system is locked down, so third-party apps cannot be installed (although it is possible to sideload third-party apps that are available outside of the Google Play Store, but the process is not quite as simple as tapping a button).

Non-Android e-ink devices tend to be dedicated to particular tasks, and do not provide the software versatility of those that run Android. The operating system is usually ‘locked down’ so that only the software that the manufacturer provides can be installed and launched.

However, what is lost in versatility is often balanced with a more disconnected, focused, minimalistic, analogue and natural user experience.

Examples of non-Android e-ink device brands include reMarkable, Supernote, Kindle, and Kobo.

Advantages of non-Android e-ink devices

  • A more focused experience with less distractions
  • Feels (subjectively to me anyway) more like an analogue (paper-based) experience rather than using a computer
  • Easier to use – less complexity often means a simpler user interface and a gentler learning curve
  • Manufacturers are more likely to concentrate on software features that are aligned with the core functions of the device (rather than trying to be everything to everyone)
  • Often more affordable

Disadvantages of non-Android e-ink devices

  • Limited to using only the apps and features provided by the manufacturer
  • Hardware specs are usually lower (although there are usually little-to-no perceived performance issues because manufacturer is in control of what software is used and can optimise the software to the hardware)

Summary

Both Android and non-Android e-ink devices have their advantages and disadvantages and it will be up to the buyer to decide exactly what they need and purchase an e-ink device that best fits their requirements.

If you are looking for a more minimalistic experience that allows you to unplug from the Internet and be completely focused on reading, writing, or sketching, then a non-Android device is perhaps a better choice.

For note-taking, I really like the Supernote (but I wish they would hurry up and launch their much-anticipated next-generation 10.3″ tablet). For primarily reading, I really like Kindle, but Kobo is also good. For those that do a lot of typing, and want to easily access their typed text from their other devices (e.g. computer, smartphone etc.), the reMarkable 2 is a good shout.

If, however, you are looking for an e-ink device that has much more power and versatility, then you will probably want one that runs Android (with access to the Google Play Store).

Not only do they usually have better hardware performance, but you also have a lot more choice about what you use the device for. For example, you can browse the web, access your social media, check your email, or even type up Word Documents (however, performance may not be as smooth as it would be on a regular tablet or computer).

I feel that Boox currently make the best Android e-ink devices, however, Bigme are making leaps and bounds in catching up with them and have some unique hardware and software.

I hope this has been useful. I’m sure that the advantages and disadvantages I’ve listed are not comprehensive, so invite comments below to add to this list (several brains are better than one!)

About the author

Me and my e-ink tablets
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Dan Dutton is passionate about E-ink writing tablets, which bring together the pleasure of writing on paper with the power of digital technology. When he bought his first tablet, he realised that there wasn't a lot of unbiased information available for people that were considering buying an E-ink tablet, and so he built eWritable.

3 thoughts on “Android E-Ink Devices: Advantages & Disadvantages”

  1. Two things that are really important to me are the internal file/organization and the ability to sync across other devices.

    I’ll be using this for work and being able to quickly access saved notes on either my laptop or phone is an important feature. Which tablet offers the best features with those two ideas in mind?

    Reply
    • Imo the best choices for this are remarkable and Boox tablets.

      Boox can be co figured to automatically export a pdf copy your notebooks to your cloud drive when you exit them. This is read-only though – you can’t edit/update the notebooks from other devices.

      As far as I’m aware, the only brand that allows you to edit your notebooks from your computer/smartphone is remarkable (using their app). However, edits from other devices are text-only (not handwriting) and you need to pay a subscription to access all the features.

      Both allow notebooks to be organised in hierarchical subfolders.

      Reply
  2. Another important factor is the way you buy your e-books. In my country a vast majority of e-books can be purchased without DRM, only watermarks are applied. Which gives readers more freedom and simplifies the process of choosing a new device. Except Amazon’s Kindle, the second commonly chosen e-reader manufacturer in my country is Pocketbook (of which I’m not a huge fan). Even if their OS is Linux-based and relatively closed, they still provide their customers with an option to use some popular e-book platforms (mostly subscription-oriented) available in the region.
    And worth noting is the fact that you can sideload your ebooks basically to all popular e-readers, no matter the OS. Unless you rely on some third-party services because then, as mentioned in the article, it gets tricky and you may want to consider an Android device.

    Reply

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