Last updated: September 2023
In this post, I’m going to be mixing it up and providing a bit of background information about the four major players in the e-ink digital note-taking market, which will hopefully give an overview of how each of these manufacturers operates and what you can expect from them. I’m hoping that this will help prospective e-ink tablet buyers to make an informed choice about which manufacturer’s values and ethos resonates with them most.
I own tablets from all the manufacturers in this list and have had many interactions with them – I feel this puts me in a good position to have a holistic overview without some of the confirmation bias and post-purchase rationalisation that can come from the owners of a single device.
Onyx Boox is a Chinese company that is on the cutting edge of e-ink technology.
Their tablets have the highest hardware specs and are the most powerful (although Bigme are a newer manufacturer that seems to be competing in this sub-niche). All Boox devices include a frontlight (with warm/cold settings), speakers, a microphone, and a g-sensor, as standard. Newer devices (the Tab range) include a dedicated GPU and Boox’s proprietary SuperRefresh technology, which makes it possible to carry out tasks (such as web browsing) that were previously impractical on an e-ink screen.
Boox e-ink tablets are also the most versatile because they run the Android operating system, which gives the flexibility to install additional apps from the Google Play Store.
Boox releases several new tablets each and every year, and so has the widest product range of all the manufacturers in this list. They have devices with 7.8″, 10.3″, and 13.3″ screens. They also manufacture colour e-ink tablets, and the new Tab Ultra range comes with a keyboard folio and camera, which makes it as close to a regular tablet as you can get.
However, trying to be everything to everyone does have its drawbacks.
Whilst a frontlight is great for night-time reading, it does add an extra layer to the screen, which results in a small but noticeable gap between where the stylus touches the screen and where the mark appears. Furthermore, the screen on a lot of Boox tablets is quite smooth and glossy, making the tactile writing experience feel quite ‘slippy’.
The native note-taking app is very comprehensive and can do more than the competitors, but you sort of get the feeling that features have just been thrown in there without a great deal of thought. For example, although the handwriting search is technically capable, it is quite slow. In contrast, Supernote’s handwriting search seems to have had a bit more thought put into it as it scans and caches handwriting in the background to make searching much quicker.
If you buy Boox, you should also be prepared to expect a newer, better model of your device to be released within a year (maybe less). Whilst this doesn’t make your tablet obsolete, it can have a psychological effect on some people when they realise that their time as the owner of a top-of-the-range device was only fleeting.
✓ High hardware specs
✓ Versatility (Android and Google Play Store)
✓ Great native reading and note-taking apps
✓ Wide product range
⨯ Slightly poorer writing experience
⨯ Software sometimes feels unpolished
⨯ High-velocity new product releases
Boox e-ink tablets
- Tab Ultra C (10.3″ colour tablet with GPU)
- Tab Ultra (10.3″ monochrome tablet with GPU)
- Tab X (13.3″ monochrome tablet with GPU)
- Note Air2 Plus (10.3″ monochrome tablet)
- Nova Air2 (7.8″ monochrome tablet)
- Nova Air C (7.8″ colour tablet)
Ratta Supernote is a multinational company with offices in the United States, Japan, and China.
Whilst Supernote devices are not on the cusp of technological advances (like Boox), they take a more thoughtful approach to their product design, with a focus on sustainability. Their current range of tablets was launched around 3 years ago, but they have remained competitive by providing solid incremental software updates and sticking to their vision.
Innovations, such as using ceramic nibs in their range of pens provide a uniquely pleasant and accurate writing experience, with the added bonus of never needing to be replaced. And the side-swipe bar that opens the navigation menu is not prone to accidental presses as are the buttons used on other devices.
They are unapologetic about their tablets not having additional hardware features, such as frontlight or audio because the Supernote brand is designed to be a paper notebook replacement. As mentioned earlier, the extra layer of a frontlight can have a small but noticeable effect on the quality of the writing experience.
In addition, Ratta Supernote seems to be a thoroughly decent organisation; they listen to and value user feedback very highly, they have a published roadmap of software updates they are working on, and they offer discounts for students, teachers, first-responders, and military personnel.
Whilst Supernote tablets do provide additional functionality beyond note-taking, including a reading app, email client, calendar, screen-sharing utility, and the Kindle app, the operating is locked down and so functionality cannot be extended with the installation of additional software or apps.
And, as stated above, Supernote tablets do not have the superior hardware of Boox tablets.
Whilst Ratta Supernote’s customer service is one of the best, their team is quite small so occasionally it can take a bit longer to respond to an issue.
✓ Thoughtful design & innovation
✓ Focus on sustainability
✓ Value their customers highly
✓ Highly transparent
⨯ Lower hardware specs
⨯ Locked-down operating system
⨯ Small team
Supernote e-ink tablets
reMarkable is a Norwegian company and I feel they can be credited with bringing the concept of e-ink writing tablets to the mass market.
Like Supernote, the current reMarkable tablet has been around for a few years but has been steadily improved with software updates and still remains ‘current’.
From a design perspective, the reMarkable 2 is a beautiful and elegant device that is only 4.7mm thick and is aesthetically pleasing to behold and hold.
The companion app that links the reMarkable to other devices, such as your phone or computer is one of the best in the market. And the writing experience has also been implemented very well, taking full advantage of the pressure and tilt sensitivity provided by Wacom EMR.
It is marketed as a focused and distraction-free note-taking tablet, and in this regard, it does a very fine job.
reMarkable’s strength and selling point of being a focused and distraction-free note-taking tablet may also be regarded as a weakness because it doesn’t really do much else. True, it has basic e-reading software that can view PDFs and EPUBs and they’ve recently introduced a keyboard folio so that it can be used for typed input but if your looking for a multifunctional device, the reMarkable isn’t it. Like the Supernote, it runs on a locked-down operating system.
Although the initial cost of the reMarkable tablet is very reasonable, accessories and ‘upsells’, including the stylus, folio and keyboard are, in my opinion, rather overpriced. They are also the only e-ink manufacturer that blocks some features and functionality behind a paywall in the form of their Connect Subscription at $2.99 per month. The original Connect subscription at around $7 a month was sprung on users a couple of years ago to much chagrin but reMarkable has since decreased both the price and the number of features that are blocked to non-subscribers. However, this has had the effect of users viewing reMarkable with suspicion about what dubious revenue-increasing tactics they may use in the future.
Although reMarkable’s customer support is professional, it also comes across as rather disingenuous with lots of superfluous wording and marketing spiel, that doesn’t actually address the issue.
✓ Very beautifully designed
✓ ‘Focused’ note-taking
✓ Great writing experience
⨯ Very limited software
⨯ Expensive upsells
⨯ A lot of ‘fluff’ in communications
reMarkable e-ink tablets
- reMarkable 2 (10.3″ monochrome tablet)
Kindle is the e-reading arm of the multinational corporation, Amazon.
Amazon is a giant international corporation and because of that, you get the surety of a big name that is never going to just disappear. They have a 30-day free return period.
Furthermore, Amazon has shown their commitment to improving the software of its only e-ink writing tablet (the Scribe) by releasing several new versions since it was launched at the end of 2022.
Kindles tend to have decent screen hardware, the Scribe being one of the very few e-ink tablets with a 300 dpi screen. And the Kindle reading software is one of the best you can get – it opens several different file formats and has lots of configuration options and features.
The writing experience is very pleasant, the canvas has a rough paper-like texture to it, and there is decent support for tilt and pressure sensitivity (almost as good as the reMarkable).
When the Scribe was first released, the native note-taking software was very rudimentary. This has improved very rapidly over the first year since its launch but I feel it is still one or two generations behind its competitors and needs some more work.
In addition, like the Supernote and reMarkable, Kindle uses a proprietary operating system that doesn’t allow for custom apps to be installed.
Amazon’s colossal size means that they are also quite lumbering and impersonal. They are unlikely to listen to the feedback of a single person or a small group of people as the other manufacturers on this list might.
The Kindle ecosystem requires that some files are ‘processed‘ before they can be accessed. This process is automatic when you use email or the sendtokindle service but does not apply to files sideloaded via USB cable. For example, EPUBs need to be processed to convert them into Amazon’s proprietary format before they can be viewed, so Kindles do not have true native support for the file format. However, for most people, this won’t be an issue – as long as they can open their files, the format won’t matter too much.
✓ Backed by a giant corporation
✓ Have shown commitment to improving software
✓ Great reading software
⨯ Limited software
⨯ Some files require conversion
⨯ Less personalised service
Kindle e-ink tablets
- Kindle Scribe (10.2″ monochrome tablet)
I feel a good way to summarise each of these companies is with an analogy.
Boox are the technical pioneers, continuously developing new and cutting-edge solutions and bringing them to market. However, because of the high velocity with which new products are released, they can sometimes feel a bit rough around the edges and unpolished.
Supernote are the thoughtful innovators. They have a slower and more attentive approach to development, taking a longer-term view that aligns with their values, and with a focus on the sustainability of their hardware.
reMarkable are the marketers extraordinaire. They’ve created a great-looking product that performs one task really well and they know how to promote and sell it to get the maximum revenue from their user base.
Kindle are the corporate giants that have lots of resources available to develop their products but are perhaps not as agile as their smaller competitors. They are also likely to be slower in terms of innovation.
If you want to find out more about these manufacturers and their devices, check out my article on the best e-ink tablets on the market today.
About the author
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.