Reviewing the reMarkable 2

December 20, 2020 #review

Back in April I pre-ordered the new reMarkable 2 e-paper tablet. Shipping took several months, but I finally received my tablet back in November. In the days leading up to receiving my unit, I heard mixed, but overall positive reviews for the new device. After working with the device for the last month, I wanted to add my thoughts to the mix. The basics are there: palm rejection is phenomenal since the pen uses different technology than the touchscreen, writing is fluid with no noticeable delay, the pen-on-screen feel is great with some paper-like scratching resistance, and there are quite a few template backgrounds to choose from. Yes, there is the well-documented “jittery line” issue, but as someone primarily interested in notetaking and technical drawings, this doesn’t impact me significantly. Given all this, although the operating system leaves something to be desired, the tablet has exceeded my original expectations by providing a no-distractions writing experience and adhering to open source licenses by providing access to the underlying Linux distribution.

Room For Improvement

Starting with the negatives, the stock user interface is not perfect. My primary gripes are with the home screen organization and gestures when writing. Scrolling on the home screen is a bit lethargic, but this is entirely a result of the e-paper display. The responsiveness of the hardware is evident when using the onscreen keyboard: you can type as fast as you want and no character is missed, although the e-paper screen takes a couple seconds to catch up. The biggest inconvenience is when adding new documents via the cloud, the new documents are added to the bottom of the home document grid instead of the top. Giving the slow scrolling of the e-paper display, swiping down to get to these new documents is a bit of a hassle. On a related note, the desktop apps are not good. On my Macbook Pro, I get a perpetual alert about whether I want the app to check for updates, and I can’t dismiss it. The LiveView feature (admittedly in beta) has never worked for me. I’m not sure exactly what I expected out of a desktop app, but the current one doesn’t quite live up to what I hoped. Maybe there aren’t enough features to justify a desktop app, and reMarkable should’ve stuck with a web app or just the browser extension.

My biggest problem with the writing experience is exiting a PDF or notebook. As far as I can tell, you can either open the options bar and then tap the close icon, or you can swipe down from the top of the screen. The two-tap option seems too lengthy given the slow screen refresh; a permanently visible close button would be better. The swipe gesture is intuitive, but inconsistent. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. I can’t tell where the gesture should start from, how long it should go, and how fast I should swipe. On the subject of the writing experience, it would be nice to duplicate or add more pages to a PDF, and the screen doesn’t have quite the stark white-on-black constrast that would make it even easier on the eyes (the “white” is really a light gray).

No Distractions

The tablet still has a lot to bring to the table. And by a lot, I mean in the “less is more” sense. I purchased a reMarkable specifically because it didn’t have an internet browser, app store, or overly complex features. A couple tech reviews saw this as a downside for an admittedly expensive tablet, but let’s be clear why you still pay $400 for this device: you are paying to enable a small company to develop quality hardware (and it assuredly is, in all respects) with niche screen technology and write a stable operating system from scratch to provide a distraction-free alternative to flashy products from the biggest players in tech. And it lives up to that hype. The tablet simply feels premium with its cool aluminum shell and is absurdly thin, noticeably thinner than the fairly slim marker pen from reMarkable. The result is a pleasant, distraction-free writing experience that gives you the odd feeling that you are not using a digital device, with only subtle reminders that you are not also using paper. I can’t perceive any lag when writing and drawing basic sketches. The Swedish company definitely makes good on its promise of a near-paper writing experience.

Open Source Comes Through

I’m a big fan of open source, primarily because it puts ridiculous technologies within reach of individuals like me. As a small company, reMarkable also benefits enormously from open-source software — professional licensing would likely put the cost of the tablet beyond reason, so reMarkable leans heavily on open-source versions of tools like Linux and Qt. The tradeoff is that reMarkable has to provide end-user access to update the open-source software that lives on the device. In practical terms, reMarkable achieves this by providing SSH access into the BusyBox distribution that runs on the tablet. As a software guy, SSH access is a goldmine, letting me do whatever I want on the Linux distro. For example, I have written a custom systemd timer and service to pull PDFs of newspaper frontpages from Newseum every morning at 7 AM. The large e-paper display of the reMarkable is perfect for skimming these headlines each day without being trapped by the endless scroll of a news app.

Should You Consider the reMarkable 2?

The reMarkable is not perfect, but it has a lot going for it. The writing experience, arguably the make-or-break feature of the device, lives up to expectations, and the open-source software makes it a fun device to hack around with as well. The price might be viewed as steep considering the differences from big tech tablets, but clearly understand the value proposition of the device: distraction-free, paper-like writing in a premium shell from a small company supporting open-source software. The portability and experience make the reMarkable 2 a reasonable choice for me and might even help me save a few trees in the process 😄.

Written by Matthew Russell who follows Jesus, studies machine learning at the University of Kentucky, and interns at NASA. Get to know him or check out his projects on GitHub.