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Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Likebook Ares review: Boyue's software problems persist

The Likebook Ares is the latest 7.8-inches note-taking e-reader released by Boyue. As an Android e-reader, it comes with a powerful RK3365 8-Core processer, ample storage (32GB) and 2GB RAM for multitasking between documents. As with Boyue e-readers, the capable hardware is let down by buggy software. This review is split into four categories: hardware, note-taking, PDF documents and e-books. 

Hardware

The Ares's screen, except for the Likebook Muses, is the best I've seen on a Boyue e-reader. While the screen is flush, like a tablet, you notice a slight gap between the front layer and the E-Ink display. The front layer's coating is noticeably reflective in artificial lighting. Overall, the screen clarity is good and better than the Onyx e-readers I've used (Onyx Boox Nova and Onyx Boox Note Plus). The front light is comparable to the Kobo Forma - it is even and gets similar brightness (however, it should be noted that front lights can vary between units). It is also possible to mix the white front light with a warmer orange-tinged colour.  

Despite the larger battery capacity (3100 mAh), I didn't notice a battery life boost in comparison to the Likebook Mars (2800 mAh). Android is not made for E-Ink, and there is a trade-off in battery life for the bonus features it offers. The battery estimate of 12 days of one hour reading seems accurate - I would estimate battery life to last two days of full-day usage. 

Overall, with the octa-core processor, 2GB RAM and 32 GB storage, there is strong performance and ample storage. Further, there is the possibility to insert an SD Card slot for more storage. 

Note-taking capabilities

The reflective screen has a slick finish and doesn't offer friction when writing with the stylus. While it is better than writing on a tablet screen, it does not have the feel of pen on paper. The writing experience is smooth, with no noticeable lag. 

The note-taking software feels unfinished. Below are some issues I encountered:
  • The pen type and line thickness interface appears at the bottom of a notebook page and covers the writing/drawing area. 
  • I couldn't find an option to export whole notebooks in PDF format. Instead, each page is exported independently in JPEG format. 
  • Converting written notes to typed text is hit, and miss and formatting are poor. Overall, the feature is unusable.
PDF document handling

Boyue introduced new PDF features with recent updates. The new features I noticed include:
  • Annotations, highlights and stylus notes are saved in the PDF file. Consequently, it is possible to sync a document to then access it on another device (I use FolderSync Pro to sync PDF documents).
  • It is possible to export stylus written notes in PDF documents in single JPEG pages.
  • Pinch-to-zoom and scrolling a zoomed page is smoother. 
While the updated features are helpful, there still exist serious problems that make the PDF software developmental. Below are issues that affect user experience:
  • There is a lot of ghosting when using pinch-to-zoom and scrolling a zoomed page. The software also does not refresh the page when navigating a zoomed-in page. Further, exit the zoom and written notes shift position and do not align to the intended page section.  
  • Stylus input is supported after using the auto or manual crop options. Unfortunately, stylus input is not supported in zoom-to-width mode (it is supported in zoom-to-page mode). 
  • Similar to note-taking, the pen interface appears at the bottom of a PDF document. In some documents, this can cover some of the text.
E-books are stripped of their formatting.

The default e-book reader strips the formatting of e-books. As a result, navigation links, headings, sub-section etc. are often affected. Another problem is font selection - at the moment, it is not possible to use a font's different styles simultaneously. Also, an issue that has persisted for some time is forced indentation that can't be removed.

Boyue, in recent updates, introduced Z-Reader as an alternative e-book reader (at the moment Z-Reader is in the beta stage of development). Z-Reader does remedy many of the formatting problems. However, the font styles problem noted above still remains, and I noticed e-books are unresponsive or inflexible to changing the top and bottom margins settings. 

Further observations

Another problem that persists is the poor translation of the interface menus. It seems Boyue translated many of the menus using an automated translator. As stated at the beginning of the review, the user must take some time to trial and error the e-reader to discover its different features. 

The native software's problems mean it is necessary to utilise third-party applications as a workaround. As an alternative to the e-book reader, I use KOReader and Moon Reader Pro. I couldn't completely replace the PDF software as it is the only feasible option for stylus input. If you don't need to use pinch-to-zoom, the PDF software is usable. 

Conclusion

The Likebook Ares, mainly due to its hardware, is a good e-reader. Similar to other Boyue e-readers, the benefits of Android mean many of the native software problems can be remedied using third-party applications. Nevertheless, Boyue's software continues to be a red flag. The native software should be the default option that meets most users needs. The user shouldn't be forced to rely on external applications to remedy problems that shouldn't exist in the first place. Yet, software limitations also apply to other e-readers. For example, Kobo's PDF software is weak, and for better support, it is necessary to install KOReader. Overall, the Likebook Ares could be a much better e-reader if Boyue revamps the pre-loaded software and carefully translates the Ares's menus. 

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