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Saturday, 9 January 2021

Onyx Boox Note 3 review: A functional device that delivers as an e-reader and digital notepad

I don’t think there is a 10.3-inches note-taking e-reader better than the Note 3. The device has its negatives, but none are serious flaws considering its use-cases. For example, reMarkable excels as a digital note-taking notepad, but its under-whelming e-reading software makes it unusable as an e-reader. The Onyx Boox Note 3 doesn’t have the well-thought-out product design of the reMarkable, but in terms of functionally, it cannot be surpassed.

Front-light, screen and performance

The screen has not changed - it is the same Mobius Carta display that Onyx Boox has included in its Note range before. Thus, we have the same 227 PPI - a negative, considering the Note 3 is priced as a premium device. Nevertheless, the resolution is sharp enough and acceptable.

Compared to other larger note-taking e-readers, the Note 3 does come with a front light (some note-taking e-readers still don’t have front lights - e.g., the reMarkable and Supernote A5X). The front light - impressive considering the size of the Note 3 - is the best I’ve seen on any e-reader. It is uniform and with little shadowing. There is also the option to change and mix colours for warmer lighting.

The Note 3’s Snapdragon 636 processor is found in affordable smartphones, e.g. Moto G7. Considering the uses of an e-reader, the 636 takes performance to another level, comfortably handling large PDF documents. The smartphone and tablet level processor is unnecessary for an e-reader, but the performance boost is a bonus.

Battery life

I’ve tried different Android e-readers, and they all had sub-par battery life (battery life lasted days rather than ten days, or more you get with other e-readers). The Note 3 has a large 4,300 mAh battery capacity; it seems Onyx Boox tweaked the system settings to conserve and maximise battery life. The large capacity and tweaks mean battery life is comparable to the Kindle Paperwhite. Further, in standby-mode, there is minimal drainage.

Battery life is particularly impressive when note-taking. When I turned off the front light and WiFi, the battery drained only 2-3% during an hour of extensive writing. 

The Onyx Boox Note Air, with its significantly smaller battery capacity,  gets a few days of regular usage. In comparison to the Note Air, the superior battery life of the Note 3 makes it the better option in the long run.

Note-taking 

The note-taking experience is a weakness. The screen itself is smooth, and the pen input feel is closer to writing on a tablet. In comparison, reMarkable better replicates the feel of pen on paper.

Whether writing or sketching it takes a second to render the input - this is not a significant problem when note-taking but those that wish to use the Note 3 as a sketchpad might find the cumulative effect of the delay frustrating. The included pen is a generic stylus that Boyue also uses - it is thin and slippery, making it uncomfortable to hold during extended writing sessions.

While the note-taking dimension of the Onyx Note 3, mainly due to the hardware, is a weakness, it is not a significant flaw. The software is capable and supports different pens, line width, layers, templates, typed text input, and various colours (as the screen is monochrome the colours will only appear when exported and viewed on, for example, a laptop). The Note 3 also supports the syncing of notepads via the Boox cloud.

E-Reading software

Another negative is the e-reading software. Neo-Reader renders ebooks well - both ePub and Mobi - and supports advanced features like incremental adjustment of line, margins and paragraph spacing. Other features include image/text contrast adjustment, sideloading of fonts and even the possibility to input writing with the included stylus. Overall, there is a lot to like about Neo-Reader’s ebook support, but the software needs polishing. Below is a list of case points that demonstrate the problem:

  • Instead of just including the typeface name, a list of font styles is listed. Further, instead of a curated selection of preloaded fonts - as you get with Kobo and Kindle e-readers - the user gets a dump of Android system fonts in one long, confusing list. I believe the problem is that Neo-Reader is an Android app that is built into Boox’s custom interface. It is not designed from ground-up like other non-Android e-readers.   
  • Font size options, similar to Kobo, are controlled with a slider. Like Kobo, control is restricted due to the disproportionate increase in size at each slider point. Neo-Reader allows the user to pinch-to-zoom to change the font size, but it is finicky to use, and the differences in size are still too large. 
  • Neo-Reader often misses swipe gestures to turn pages. There is no issue with the touch to turn page feature. 
  • Neo-Reader supports stylus input in e-books. However, the feature is not implemented well due to the dynamic nature of e-books. For example, a written note loses its place or overlays text when there are any formatting changes. 

To improve the e-reading experience, it could be a better idea to minimise and polish the e-book reader software. For example, the careful curation of fonts means they can be adapted and optimised for E-Ink. It also means, as fonts are pre-selected, differences in font scaling and spacing can be made more uniform.

PDF support is unsurpassed  

Neo-Reader’s PDF support is excellent. No vendor comes close to what Onyx Boox offers. What Onyx Boox does well is stability, e.g. pinch-to-zoom is often implemented poorly on E-Ink devices; in the case of the Note 3, it is smooth and refreshes after setting the zoom level. Similarly, moving border lines for cropping isn’t frustratingly tricky as is the case with Boyue’s software and KOReader. Below are some features that are worthy of highlighting as they demonstrate the versatility of Neo-Reader in how it caters for a variety of PDF documents:

  • Different modes of navigation are supported. In comic and article mode, it is possible to split the page in four ways.  Specifically useful is a further setting that makes it possible to navigate a document with two pages scanned on one side. Considering the 10.3-inches screen, these scanned pages are challenging to read, so splitting navigation into two columns means each page can be cropped separately and navigated in ascending order.
  • There are different options to darken text and images in PDF documents. If the document is scanned, then the text is not recognised, making image contrast adjustment the way to darken text. If the PDF document is text-based, it is also possible to add weight to the text by an emboldening option.
  • It is possible to split the screen to view two documents side-by-side, take notes while reading and auto-translate passages. The problem with this feature - something that can be remedied in an update - is the inability to adjust the size of each task opened in split view mode. It would be useful to utilise, for example, greater screen estate for a PDF document, to allow text to appear larger when note-taking.

While there are a lot of features baked into the PDF software, the designed interface is convoluted. For example, there are two menus to access cropping. First, it is found under ‘display’ - though technically the options should be labelled zoom-to-width and zoom-to-page - and at the bottom via 'navigation' through ‘more settings’ (see below). Further, under ‘display’, zooming a specific area of the page is possible through what is essentially cropping. 

Crop is available under 'display'. Cropping here should be 'zoom-to-page' and 'zoom-to-width'.

The cropping function is also available through 'more settings' via the 'navigation' menu.

Android app functionality

Onyx Boox highlights the ability to install third-party applications and access the Google Play Store. It is not the closed Android experience that you get with Supernote and Barnes & Noble Nook e-readers. As most apps are not designed for E-Ink, the Note 3 has tweaks that make some apps more accessible. Tweaks include, accessed after long-pressing an app, the ability to adjust contrast, bolden text and set refresh frequency. 

Neo-Reader and the note-taking software meets most needs, so third-party applications don’t fill gaps regarding e-reading software (a problem with Boyue e-readers). Nevertheless, it is useful to install Kindle, Moon+ Reader and Pocket. Moon+ Reader is one of the few apps that add value to the e-reading experience, as it makes it possible to sync ebooks between devices via Dropbox or Google Drive.

Miscellaneous

In this section, I want to cover some helpful miscellaneous features that Note 3 supports: 

  • The wireless transfer of books and Push Read: Instead of sideloading books, Note 3 supports the wireless transfer of documents and web content. WiFi transfer is supported through a designated web address or scanning using QR code. Another option is to use Push Read - a feature accessed via push.boox.com or the Boox Assistant app. Push Read allows the transfer of documents and the syncing of notes in one location (the Boox cloud). 
  • Refresh modes: There are four refresh modes available: normal, speed, A2 and X modes. The difference between these different modes is in the ghosting level. An e-book, for example, works best in normal or regal mode. On the other hand, to speed-up browsing a website, speed mode is the better option. While adding refresh modes is useful, the ghosting level in speed, A2 and X modes significantly affect the readability and user experience. Again, the feature is a helpful bonus introduced to partially remedy the E-Ink display’s inherent limitations when using third-party applications.
  • Split screen: The split screen is a feature that has a lot of potentials. It allows the user to multi-task, making it possible to open two apps at once, take notes while reading or set two documents next to each other. A problem with split-screen mode, as noted above, is the lack of the option to set the screen size ratio of each task.

Nevertheless, some features need some work. Onyx Boox’s pre-installed browser (Neo-Browser) is not adequately developed to work on an E-Ink device. Other than the option to bold text, additional choices need to be designed to manipulate the content’s appearance. For example, there is the option to set refresh frequency, but it does not work well as it is intended for e-reading rather than browsing the web. 

Another area that needs more work is developing apps, so the user doesn’t rely on third-party choices designed for tablets and smartphones. A word processing app, designed explicitly for E-Ink, with built-in syncing, is one app that would add value.

Conclusion

The Onyx Boox Note 3 is the most functional 10.3-inches note-taking e-reader currently available. Boyue’s options are let down by buggy software, and reMarkable e-reading software hinders its use for anything other than note-taking and sketching. While there are negatives, the Note 3, with its powerful processor and stable software, means it is the closest note-taking e-reader that delivers as both an e-reader and a digital notepad.  Further improvements, like polishing the e-book software and a suite of purpose-built E-Ink apps would push the Note 3 to another level.

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