reMarkable Review

I got a reMarkable tablet last month after some mental hand-wringing over the price. E-ink PDF readers have been something I've been hounding for years, this is definitely a step in the right direction.

1 Why?

I've been pining after a good eink tablet for at least 4 years now, mostly to wrangle my massive paper collection in Mendeley. The feature set I was after included:

  1. Good size, preferably A4 size
  2. Decent annotation capability, either through a pen or a physical keyboard
  3. Lets me get the annotations back out
  4. Eink screen

Ever since Amazon discontinued the jumbo kindle the "eink tablet" field is basically two devices: the reMarkable and the Sony DPT. I briefly used the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil combo for a few months last year, but ran into pretty significant issues with the iPad's weight, battery life, and the writing. I was thinking about getting the DPT, but ended up going with the reMarkable because the tablet comes with root access out of the box. The biggest benefit of the reMarkable is that when you connect the reMarkable through a mini-USB cable it identifies itself as a Ethernet device, and then you can ssh into it. Bizarrely this also opens up a web client that you can POST a file to upload to, which is nicely documented in the reMarkable wiki: http://remarkablewiki.com/tech/webinterface.

2 Display

The display is surprisingly good, which isn't something I expected for a indie device. It's a nice big 10.3 inches, which is just barely enough to make PDFs look good. Pages feel natural when reading on this, and for the most part I don't find myself squinting to read small characters. Anti-aliasing on this screen is good as well, with no visible artifacts, even for PDFs that contain a ton of symbols or non-ascii characters.

The glaring issue with the reMarkable is that rendering large PDFs is slow. PDFs under 50 pages render quickly, but reading long textbooks is a pretty painful experience. The "go to specific page" button is hidden on different page that first attempts to load thumbnails of 20 pages first, which only makes the interaction worse. If you want to jump to say, the table of contents at the front of the PDF, you have to either scroll up, wait for the thumbnails to render, scroll up more, repeat until you get to the table of contents, and do some kind of weird binary search where you jump to different pages hoping you find the right one. This is a fustrating experience overall, and I really hope they include a more accessible way of jumping to a specific page.

The display redraw is partial just like the newer Kindles, so instead of a slow complete screen redraw the reMarkable will only redraw the entire screen every couple pages. This does lead to some odd cases of temporary display artifacting, especially when you go to erase highlights. Zooming is by far the worst part of the rendering. You're stuck with a 200% zoom (which is useless given the slow screen refresh rate when panning around a document), or just 100% fitting the document to screen.

The build quality of the tablet overall is solid, there's two rubber tabs on the back of the reMarkable to stop it from sliding on the desk. The pencil is round however, and will end up rolling on your desk.

3 Writing

Writing is the best part of the reMarkable, hands down. The input lag is minimal enough where I don't notice it, and there's good management writing layers, which allow you to manage layers in the classic Photoshop manner. It's clear that the devs spent the bulk of their work on making writing work well, and it's a extremely pleasing experience. The matte screen provides more friction than glass (like the iPad had), which gives writing a natural heft.

The reMarkable has the concept of "notebooks", which are just blank files you can write in. You can change the background of the notebooks as well, from stuff like wide ruled to college ruled, blank pages, grids, daily planners, and even weird geometric backgrounds.

You get 4 different writing options: a "pen", "pencil", "brush", and "highlighter". I found the pencil and brush to be somewhat useless (and it's the default one), since it just seems like a pen but is pressure aware, so you can write lines of different shades. The highlighter is just as you'd expect, and I end up using the pen to write my daily notes.

There's also a keyboard for text entry as well, but it's fairly slow and limited to English or Norwegian for entry. Don't be expecting to use this much, if at all.

4 Battery

Battery life is one place the reMarkable ended up disappointing me in. The reMarkable runs an entire Linux distro in the background, which explains why the battery life is on the scale of hours, not days. I had expected Kindle style battery life of weeks, but this is definitely one area where it's been underwhelming. The reMarkable is more like an eink iPad than a big Kindle in that sense. I can get about 6 hours of "heavy" usage, reading and annotating on the reMarkable before the battery goes to around 20%.

5 Software

The reMarkable runs a proprietary OS, which is pretty usable for the most part. You get folders to organize your documents and notebooks, and the remarkable distinguishes between epub (calling them ebooks), PDFs (documents), and regular notebooks. There's no tagging functionality and search is limited to just titles, so you need to all the relevant metadata within file titles. This is mostly well and good anyways, since typing on the reMarkable is a pretty mediocre experience overall.

5.1 File Sync

There's two main ways to transfer files over to the reMarkable, which is to either use their cloud sync service, or manually transfer via the HTTP API.

5.1.1 Cloud Sync

Cloud sync by and large works, but there's a couple annoyances I need to point out. First, the site uses auth0 for the login scheme, so you need to enable third party cookies just for the reMarkable site. Second, there's no Linux app, which makes this pretty annoying. I did find a link from HN to another link containing a Debian client, but I haven't tried it out. The OS X app is relatively usable though, allowing you to drag and drop PDFs as expected. You can't drag and drop to upload into folders though, you have to drag the file first (which uploads it to a S3 server), then move the file into the corresponding folder you want. It's also important to note that you can't read plain-text files on the reMarkable either, which seems to be a weird oversight.

5.1.2 HTTP Sync

I'm not going to lie, the HTTP sync sucks. It's poorly built out, so you have to manually post to a /upload endpoint (which also isn't documented on the reMarkable), and then it dumps the file as expected. This works fine if you've got a couple PDFs that you just need to move over, but if you're like me and have hundreds of PDFs in Mendeley, this endpoint is a huge pain. I like the fact that the reMarkable provides this endpoint, but it does seem a little strange that I can't just use it as a USB mass storage device.

6 Bugs

There's a few annoying bugs that I've encountered with the reMarkable:

  • Loading multiple (> 6ish) large PDFs (over 500 pages) in quick succession might cause the reMarkable to crash and restart. I haven't actually lost any notes or work when this happens, and the reMarkable is pretty good about starting up quickly, but it's something to be aware of.
  • Whenever the system restarts (crash, battery died, software update), the ordering of the files go back to "Last Opened". I prefer to keep all my files listed by "Name", so I have to toggle this every time.

7 Conclusion

The reMarkable has surpassed my expectations as a largely usable eink PDF reader that has decent performance. The price point is pretty egregious though, at $699 there's a definite premium being paid for a "open" device. Fortunately, there's multiple resources (https://dragly.org/2017/12/01/developing-for-the-remarkable/index.html, https://github.com/lschwetlick/maxio/tree/master/tools, https://github.com/reHackable, http://remarkablewiki.com/, https://gitlab.com/wrobell/remt, https://github.com/darvin/plato) to take advantage of the openness of the reMarkable, and by and large most of the issues are software related, which I expect to get better with time. If you're in the market for an eink tablet, and don't mind early adopter annoyances and the price point, the reMarkable is a capable tablet in its class.

Posted: 2018-07-04
Filed Under: Tech