I wrote this article to explain to newcomers exactly what they should expect from an e-ink tablet so that they can decide if e-ink is the right choice for their unique needs.
Whilst browsing e-ink tablet groups and forums, I occasionally see posts by disgruntled customers that feel they have been mis-sold a device.
When you get to the nub of the issue, it is usually apparent that their expectations of what an e-ink tablet can do were often grossly inflated, sometimes to the point that they believed they were simply purchasing a regular tablet that had a screen that was better for their eyes.
And, although they perhaps should have done a little more research themselves, I can understand how they came to these conclusions.
Why all the misunderstandings about e-ink tablets?
First off, e-ink tablets are a niche market and so information about them can be quite difficult to find (one of the reasons I built this website was to help people understand e-ink devices a little better).
Secondly (and I’m guilty of this myself), people that use or manufacture e-ink tablets can sometimes be a little blinkered, and assume that others already know the limitations of e-ink and that it requires no initial explanation. For example, I often say that Boox devices are the most versatile with regards to software but fail to add that they are still not as versatile as regular tablets. Similarly, manufacturers that are promoting or selling e-ink tablets are going to focus more on the advantages of e-ink than the disadvantages.
Thirdly, the word “tablet” is often not synonymous with what somebody new to the e-ink marketplace would expect. The Oxford dictionary defines a tablet as “a small portable computer that accepts input directly on to its screen rather than via a keyboard or mouse.” whereas many people associate it with a Samsung or iPad and expect an e-ink tablet to have similar capabilities.
I remember when I was first introduced to e-ink several years ago after seeing an advertisement for the reMarkable 2, which was dubbed as “the World’s thinnest tablet“. My initial reaction was that this was a great-looking and super-thin tablet that could replace my Samsung as well as providing additional features such as handwriting input. It wasn’t until I looked more deeply that I realised that the functionality was far more limited.
Fourthly, e-ink tablets are comparable in price to regular tablets and can sometimes be even more expensive, so one might be justified thinking they should be just as versatile, if not more so.
And finally, recent technological innovations by Boox have blurred the lines between e-ink and regular tablets/laptops even more. The Boox Tab Ultra C, for the most part, looks like a small laptop (with a keyboard), has a colour screen, and supports a wide range of additional apps, making it a multi-functional productivity device.
So, it is easy to see why some new users might be a little disappointed with their purchase if they did not truly understand what they were buying.
The screen technology used on e-ink tablets is somewhat different to more conventional computer displays, so I think it would be prudent to take a look at its benefits and drawbacks.
Advantages of e-ink screens
The main advantage of an e-ink screen is that it is reflective.
This means that you see what is on the screen from the ambient light around you bouncing off the screen and hitting your retina. This is exactly the same process that is used when you are reading or writing on real paper.
In contrast, LCD and OLED screens that are used on regular laptops, tablets, phones and TVs utilise a backlight, which illuminates the screen by emitting light. This makes the screen brighter and exposes our eyes to blue light which can possibly cause eye strain. Although there is currently not enough empirical evidence to back this up completely, many people find using an e-ink screen over longer periods to be much more comfortable.
Some e-ink tablets include a frontlight, which should not be confused with the backlight that is present on LCD/OLED screens. A frontlight consists of a series of tiny LEDs that point towards the screen to illuminate it rather than directing light straight into your eyes, again taking advantage of the reflective (rather than emissive) nature of light.
Another advantage of the reflectivity of e-ink screens is that they are perfectly viewable outside, even in bright sunlight. In contrast, if you take an LCD/OLED device outside on a bright sunny day, it can be difficult to read what is on the screen due to dimness or reflections. One solution might be to crank up the brightness of the screen, but this leads to reduced battery life.
Which leads nicely onto the next advantage of e-ink screens; they typically have a much longer battery life which can last days or even weeks before needing a recharge.
One reason for e-ink’s low power consumption is because it does not have to constantly be lit-up like an LCD/OLED screen.
In addition, LCD/OLED screens are constantly refreshing the images and text displayed on the screen (upwards of 60 times per second). Although these high refresh rates may not be perceivable, giving the impression of a stable image, the screen is actually in a constant state of very fast flickering. In contrast, once an e-ink screen has displayed something on the screen it uses very little power (or even no power) to maintain it there, only refreshing when a change happens (such as turning to the next page of a book). This makes text and other elements that are displayed on an e-ink screen more stable and akin to real paper.
Disadvantages of e-ink screens
E-ink has a lot to offer as a screen experience, but there has to be some compromises and that’s what I will be discussing next.
Firstly, in contradiction to what I just said, e-ink screens do not always refresh fully every time they change. This can leave a faint but noticeable imprint of a previous screen and is known as ‘ghosting‘. Although technological advances means that ghosting is not as much of an issue as it was a few years ago, it does happen from time to time and most e-ink tablets provide an option for manually refreshing the screen when it occurs.
The low refresh rates of e-ink also means that any activities that require movement on the screen do not perform well. This can include watching videos, playing games, and even simply scrolling down a webpage. Notable exceptions are the newer Boox tablets (Tab range) which utilise an onboard graphics processor along with their proprietary Super Refresh technology to make movements smoother (however, this increased processing load does drain the battery faster).
Most e-ink tablets are monochrome/greyscale – there are some that have colour screens but don’t assume that they all do, as you might when buying a tablet or laptop.
Even colour e-ink tablets are not as vibrant as their LCD/OLED counterparts. The colours look quite pasty and washed-out and the background appears slightly darker than even a monochrome e-ink screen. If you look closely, you can also make out the faint outline of a honeycomb grid in the background.
Similarly, most e-ink tablets do not have the same hardware features that you would expect on a regular tablet, such as speakers or a camera. Some do not even have a frontlight, which means that you need a separate light source to see what’s on the screen. Keyboard support is also something that is also variable across devices.
But perhaps the biggest difference between an e-ink tablet and a regular tablet is the software.
Whilst there are pre-installed native apps for reading (and annotating) e-books and taking handwritten notes, anything else should be considered an added extra.
Even those that run on an Android operating system and allow apps from the Google Play Store to be installed on them may not always work as expected. Apps are usually optimised for the refresh rates of LCD/OLED screens and sometimes have performance issues when running on a device with an e-ink screen. For example, e-ink does not work very well for apps that have large sections of the background that are dark/black.
Who will get the most from an e-ink tablet?
In this article, I’ve made a lot of comparisons between e-ink tablets and regular tablets but really this is the wrong type of comparison.
E-ink tablets should really be compared to a regular notebook and pen because the kind of people that buy (and get the most from) these niche devices are writers, journalers and note-takers.
These are people that have several notebooks, writing pads and scraps of paper scattered around their home/office and want to consolidate them into a single location to tidy up and become more organised. They are usually the type of person that prefers to print off documents to read and annotate with a pen, rather than viewing them on a screen.
Additional functionality that is not available with traditional pen-and-paper, such as linking between notes (and notebooks), handwriting search, handwriting-to-text conversion and being able to access and share their notes with other devices via the cloud all appeal to this set of users.
They are also people that appreciate the tactile and therapeutic feel of writing things down, doodling and freehand sketching, which is (in my opinion) a lot more natural than using a keyboard.
E-ink tablets are also for people that do a lot of reading, for work, studies, and pleasure, with the added benefit of being able to add handwritten annotations. Whether this be filling in forms by hand, making notes as they study a textbook, or jotting down revisions for a corporate policy.
So, an e-ink tablet should not really be considered a replacement for a regular tablet or laptop but as a replacement for traditional pen-and-paper notes with enhancements for the digital age.
Even the most advanced e-ink tablet on the market (the Boox Tab Ultra C) is no substitute for my laptop (although it does come pretty close). It should not be a choice between one or the other – I still use my laptop for my productivity tasks and my e-ink tablet for my notes and they complement one another perfectly.
In conclusion, e-ink tablets are designed primarily for people that do a lot of reading and like to take handwritten notes.
If you do not intend to use these core functionalities, an e-ink tablet is probably not for you and you should perhaps look at something like an iPad instead. Particularly if you are looking for a device to stream movies, play games and participate in video calls.
Some e-ink tablets do have additional productivity apps installed, such as email, calendar, and a word processor and some even allow the installation of any app from the Google Play Store. However, performance can be variable and may require some tinkering before it can be used (or simply not be usable at all).
The screen of an e-ink tablet is easier on the eyes than other display types and can be used in brightly-lit environments (such as outside). They also typically have a battery life that lasts for several days or even a couple of weeks.
In general, e-ink tablets are not really a replacement for your computer – they are a replacement for your current pen-and-paper notes.
Having said that, it could be possible for the monochrome Boox Tab Ultra or colour Boox Tab Ultra C to be used as a replacement for a computer if you can live with the lack of colour/vibrancy of the e-ink screen and your everyday tasks are basic, such as a bit of web browsing and email. However, you should be aware that if you need additional functionality in the future, it may not be possible on an e-ink screen.
I hope I have managed to explain the pros and cons of e-ink tablets well enough so that you can now make an informed decision whether this sort of device will fit in with your own needs and workflows, but if you have any questions, please feel free to ask in the comments below.
If you think that an e-ink tablet might be right for you, I recommend reading my Buyer’s Guide, followed by using the search-and-filter functionality on my dynamic comparison table to find a tablet that fits best with your unique needs.
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.