Monday, 10 June 2019

Onyx Boox Nova review: An e-reader with stable and feature rich software

The Nova series is Onyx’s 7.8 inches line of e-readers. There are two models in the Nova series: Nova and Nova Pro. The former does not support stylus input and the latter does support stylus input for note-taking. In terms of hardware, other than stylus input, both devices are near identical. The main hardware difference, other than stylus input, is the Nova Pro’s flush display.

The main competitor in the 7.8 inches Android e-reader category is the Likebook Mars. Like the Nova, Likebook Mars does not support stylus input (the Likebook Mimas is Boyue’s stylus supported model). Accordingly, as both devices target the same user base, I will frequently compare the Likebook Mars to the Boox Nova in this review.

Hardware 

Like the Likebook Mars, the Boox Nova is a powerful e-reader. The Nova’s Cortex-A17 1.6GHz quad-core processor is slightly better than the Likebook Mars’s, but the performance difference is hardly noticed considering the device’s primary purpose, i.e. reading. The relatively powerful processor means the Onyx Boox Nova handles larger PDF documents with ease; in comparison, Kindle and Kobo e-readers can struggle with these documents.

The 32GB storage is enough but Onyx should’ve added an SD Card to further expand the storage. The support of SD Cards, other than expanding storage, also means documents can be stored externally and this makes the transfer of a library and a factory re-set much easier. The Likebook Mars, in comparison, has only 16GB storage but does support an external SD Card. The Nova also has 2GB memory and this makes multitasking smooth.

The Nova’s display quality is slightly better than Likebook Mars – text on the Nova appears crisper and clearer (I am not considering contrast settings that increase black levels and text thickness but don’t affect clarity). However, I still think the text could be clearer on the Nova (in my view, the Kobo Aura One and Kobo Forma's displays are the benchmarks to rank e-readers against). I like the front light on the Nova - it is even and with little shadowing at the bottom of the screen. It is also possible to sync the cold and warmer lights to get a more balanced colour. The Likebook Mars’s front light is worse and by default, it is only possible to turn on either the white or the warmer orange colour front light. Overall, the Nova's front light is excellent and is one of the best I’ve seen on a larger e-reader. Below is a front light comparison picture:

Click on image to enlarge: the Onyx Boox Nova (right) has a better front light in comparison to the Likebook Mars (left).

Software 

The Nova’s software has its problems, but it is still more intuitive and stable in comparison to the Likebook Mars. Below are some problems:
  • In the native e-reader (Neo-Reader) a font family’s styles, e.g., bold, italic, semi-bold, are all listed. Consequently, there is a long list of font styles that the user needs to navigate to find a suitable font. Also, strangely, Onyx decided to load the e-reader with too many pre-installed fonts (I couldn’t find a way to delete these fonts). It is a better idea if Neo-Reader just listed the font family’s name and pre-loaded the e-reader with a select number of fonts that can also be easily deleted. 
  • Highlighting text is smooth in e-books. In PDF documents, overall, highlighting – of course, the specific PDF document also plays a part – can be hit and miss. Further, in PDF documents pinch-to-zoom can be buggy. For example, a page is re-aligned to the far right for no reason after re-entering a PDF document from reader settings.
  • I noticed the Nova doesn’t handle some third-party applications well. The screen flickers in key third-party applications – e.g., KOReader and Liberera Pro –  when selecting menu items or highlighting text. 
  • Setting personal wallpapers for the lock screen is confusing. There is no option to set screensavers in the settings menu. To change a screensaver the user must go to the screensaver directory via file manager. In the file manager, the user needs to long-press an image and then select the image as one of three possible standby screensavers. Often, I found, the function does not operate correctly. For example, I tried to reset the screensaver back to the default image, but this wasn’t always successful. 
  • Exported annotations and highlights, like Mars, are chronologically outputted by date and time. Amazon, to compare, exports annotations according to e-book location number (sometimes, depending on the e-book’s formatting, annotations and highlights appear under header name). 
Overall, Onyx’s software, in comparison to Boyue, is more stable and with more features. It also handles page refreshes in its native e-reading software – a problem that has blighted Android e-readers – better. Onyx, in my view, produced a user-friendly Android e-reader. Below are some positives:
  • Pinch to zoom works well. Many e-readers – due to the limitations of E-Ink - don’t handle the feature very well. The fluidity of the pinch to zoom feature helps a lot when getting the right zoom level in a PDF document. Further, there is a feature that locks the zoom level, and this makes the scrolling of a document easier. 
  • PDF support is very good. The capable processor and optimised software mean even the largest PDF documents can be read and navigated smoothly. Cropping features are also very good and it is possible to crop a two columns document and the direction of reading for better navigation. 
  • Highlighting text is fluid and accurate in e-books. There are also many highlighting features, e.g., the option to underline a highlighted text or to invert the background. There is even the option to choose the underline style too. 
  • Similar to the Kindle e-readers it is possible to open a window to navigate the e-book in multi-page view.
  • Like Boyue’s e-readers, there is the option to alter the contrast and bold levels. There is also the option to separately alter image contrast. The distinction between text and image contrast, in contrast to the Likebook Mars, does work well. In the Likebook Mars changing image contrast also affects the text. In PDF documents, understandably, the distinction between text and image contrast alterations depends on the viewed document’s pre-set formatting. 
  • Onyx's native software is very good at handling e-book formatting - there are none of the problems with spacing that you get on the Likebook Mars. 
  • Translation of menus and settings are mostly done well. The Likebook Mars, in comparison, has serious issues with translation. There is also a detailed user manual that can be accessed on the device. 
Third-party applications 

I experienced flickering problems with some third-party applications. Specifically, I’ve tried two E-Ink friendly applications – KOReader and Librera Pro – and both had the same flickering problem when selecting menu interface items. To remedy the problem, I had to activate A2 mode, but this meant a lot of ghosting and a stained reading surface (click here to see two video clips that demonstrate this problem. The first clip demonstrates the flickering problem in normal refresh mode. The second clip demonstrates the absence of flickering after activating A2 refresh mode). I didn’t experience the same issue when using Likebook Mars.

Other than the issue of flickering there are the expected problems of using Android applications on E-Ink e-readers. As I stated in the Likebook Mars review, most Android applications are not usable on an Android e-reader and while A2 mode does make scrolling quicker, the ghosting and staining lead to poor user experience.

Summary and verdict 

The Onyx Boox Nova is one of the better Android e-readers. The screen is slightly better than the Likebook Mars and the native software is more stable and user-friendly. The Onyx Boox Nova excels with its front light - the Nova’s front light, in comparison to the Likebook Mars, is superior and allows the user to easily mix white and warmer lights. However, the Likebook Mars is cheaper and handles some third-party applications better. Both devices have capable hardware and the question is if the better screen, front light and software are worth the extra cost.

Another major issue to consider is that Onyx, despite recently releasing the Onyx Boox Nova, no longer sells the device and it is also harder to find third-party sellers that sell it too. The Likebook Mars is easier to find and is fulfilled by Prime on Amazon for quick delivery. I think if the user does not need a stylus and is comfortable using Boyue’s software then, considering the ease of availability, the Likebook Mars is the better option (Boyue software, even if buggy, is capable and usable).

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