[Tech Gadget Review] reMarkable paper tablet for Academia?

Today I’m going to share a review of my experiences with the reMarkable 2 paper tablet. This review was highly requested and I also thought it would be a nice idea to start a category with tech gadget or travel product reviews – because I’m a bit of a gadget nerd and thus, might have information which could be useful to you. So let’s get straight to it!

reMarkable tablet

Possible use cases for the reMarkable 2 paper tablet and the scope of this review

There are only really three usecases for me and those are:

  1. Reading academic papers and highlighting them
  2. Reading blogposts and websites (distraction-free)
  3. Drawing on the tablet (mostly for fun)

Other use cases other people seem to have but that don’t particularly interest me are for example:

  1. Taking notes and converting them to text (this is apparently a somewhat flawed feature).
  2. Syncing your documents with systems such as GoogleDrive or Dropbox (not available except for reHackable).
  3. Shifting around documents between PC and reMarkable a lot on Linux (there is no software for Linux except for the web interface).
  4. Using the many available templates to create, for example To Do lists, daily or weekly planners (I don’t use it for that but it seems a cool feature if you’d like that).

Please let me know if you can think of any other use cases (that you might have or heard about) so I can add them. The purpose of these lists is, on the one hand, to give you a good idea of what you can (or can’t) do with the tablet and also, on the other hand, to illustrate the scope of my review: I will only really talk about the things which interested me most and only mention the others in passing. Which is think is a good thing too because apparently, the majority of reviews I have seen so far are from people with a different use case. Some of which, I’d say, weren’t really 100% the intended audience for the paper tablet in the first place:

If you have no compelling reason what this paper could give you that no other can, then you’ll likely be disappointed by it’s lack of versatility compared to other similarly priced devices.

If the idea of investing a lot of money into a technical gadget which (deliberately) doesn’t have an internet browser, then you can actually stop reading here. You’re not the intended happy reMarkable customer. If you’re like me, who even owns a distraction free (e-ink) phone which deliberatly doesn’t feature a browser, you’ll probably think it’s brilliant.

If, like me, you’re looking for a digital device that is as little digital as possible and is supposed to get you away from the screens and distractions while still providing some of the benefits of having digital documents, then most likely, the tablet is for you.

My three use cases

Making drawings with the Pencil tool

Long story short: I enjoy using the tablet for drawing.

I sometimes use layers. But often, I just take drawing breaks after reading and highlighting academic papers. In my day-to-day life, I often make too much of a fuss with my physical drawing utensils that I end up not drawing very regularly and when I do, I do really long sessions. Here, I can just take a quick break without having to “change gears” or tidy up my workplace before.

I was surprised how quickly I got used to the pencil. It’s a really nice and fun experience to draw on the reMarkable and – unlike some people who’re now like “well, it’s not really paper”, I found that it comes really close. The different medium makes me change up my drawing style a bit. But then again, I guess that’s actually a good thing. I’m less afraid of making mistakes or making strokes which turn out to be too bold because you have an “undo” option. So I’m “more daring” on the tablet and less afraid of making mistakes. I think that’s good.

Also, it’s a cool way of making SVG graphics or logos for people who aren’t really pros at this. Also, the calligraphy pen is great for some hand-lettering. I have made a new epigrammetry logo using the reMarkable which we’ll probably share with you later.

The only thing missing for digital art would be a bezier curve tool. That would be great.

drawing
Drawings using the Pencil tool

I’ll walk you though how I made a little budgie graphic (in under 5 minutes) to illustrate why I love drawing on the tablet (and so you can recreate the steps if you want). The images to go with it are below.

In order to use a budgie image from the internet as a background so I can use it for tracing the outline, I converted the image to PDF (Linux: imagemagick/convert or otherwise: print as file) and then uploaded it to the tablet like I would a normal PDF. When making the PDF, make sure the image is placed in a way that you can easily draw all the outlines because you can’t zoom on the reMarkable. Anyway, that way, I was able to create the little bird image in just under 5 minutes without having to do any real drawing myself, using the Paintbrush pen.

I created two layers (Layer 1 is created automatically by reMarkable to distinguish your additions from the background PDF). Then, once I was done with the outlining on Layer 1, I hid the background using the “eye” button to check what it looks like or whether I forgot any lines. Then, I created a new Layer. This will automatically be placed at the top and even if you put it down using the Arrow button you will still “draw over” your outlines because the e-Ink doesn’t refresh unless you change layers. Changes layers or de-activate and re-activate the current layer to see what the result really looks like. If you want to be able to distinguish shading and outlines, you need to make sure that you consistently use the black pencil in Layer 1 and the grey one in Layer 2 (which I often end up forgetting). Of course, if you don’t properly separate parts of your drawing using layers, you can’t remove them very easily anymore without destroying the rest of the image (eraser tool tends to do that, so better try to stick to undo and layers for that).

Oh and also, the end of the pen can be used as a quick eraser, in case you care about that. Also, you can copy elements using the selection tools. That way, you could, for example, draw an ornament once and copy &paste it mutliple times. That’s a cool feature too!

Reading blogposts distraction-free

As you might remember, I have tried to go more digitally minimalist last year. Corona has kind of ruined a lot of these efforts for me, I have to admit. That’s why I still love the idea of a paper tablet (which does feel very different from normal screens, no blue light, etc. – even though some people say “it’s not really like paper”. And yeah, maybe not if you’re using it for different things. But in my use cases, I have to say that I found it to be surprisingly close to paper. Like a very wise person once told me about diet foods “When I’m eating a cake, I know that I am eating a cake and not a carrot.” I guess the same thing applies here. Of course it’s not actual paper. But also, you don’t have these sheets of paper flying around…. ).

One criticism for me would be that most fonts, even in the smallest possible setting are too big for me and all the very big settings I’m never going to use ever. The only font where the smallest setting really pleases me is Garamond and that one is a new edition, ergo it seems to be still buggy with blog posts containing code or lots of special characters like some of the LaTeX Ninja posts. Then I experience repeated freezing which the tablet never does with other fonts and also never seems to happen with “normal” non-code blogposts. But yeah, that’s fair enough I guess.

Edit from one week in: It might be due to other reasons, but I feel that since I’m back (i.e. when I got the tablet), I read a lot more. Not only on the tablet but also on paper. Maybe that’s a coincidence – but I think this opportunity of doing some of my otherwise digital work (reading publications that I can’t possibly all print out) off-screen has triggered somewhat of a keystone habit of reading. Also, my living room now only has screens for reading or for fun. Laptop stays in the office. I like it.

Reading academic papers and highlighting stuff

I use the Highlighter pen to highlight stuff and take notes on academic papers I’m reading. The highlighted text turns light grey on the tablet and will come out as light yellow on the PDF on your computer. I really like this.

You can also take notes with some of the other pencils. I like this feature, it’s exactly what I wanted and there really isn’t all that much to say about it.

When I load PDFs / articles onto my tablet, I do it in bulk. It is not my intended usecase to add a new paper every day. I need to read that shit at some time 😀 Also, if it’s an HTML based e-journal, I can actually download it directly, hassle- and USB-connection-free via the Chrome browser plugin I’m using (for spontaneous downloads). But really, I think you shouldn’t use this tablet as a dump site for compulsive PDF downloading binges. It’s supposed to create more mindfulness in your life, after all 😉

The reason why I want to send the PDF back to my computer after I’m done reading them on the reMarkable is that changing pages takes a (relatively) long time. When I move on to the writing phase, I want a quick overview – that’s something that reMarkable isn’t great for. But since the light yellow of the Highlighter tool stands out nicely on the PDF afterwards, this is a good solution for me and not too uncomfortable.

Other people’s common criticisms didn’t really bother me

Lack of app on Linux –> use web interface instead

Lots of people dislike about the tablet that it doesn’t have Linux support. I also thought I’d dislike that but now after using the tablet, I have found that the web interface is definitely good enough for me. I don’t need a software to go with it. The phone app works on my iPhone and is convenient for quickly shipping documents around without having to connect a USB cable to my laptop, activate the web interface in the “Storage” tab, go to the site, etc.

Lack of sync

Since I don’t shift around documents on a daily basis and I don’t want to sync anything, this really doesn’t bother me. I have read people would want this to be synced up with their GoogleDrive or DropBox but, as far as I remember, reHackable has you covered there if you really want/need it. For me personally, I load up the crazy amounts of papers I’ve scanned or downloaded to the reMarkable and it will probably takes ages until I’ve read them all, so yeah, no sync necessary for me ;D

Otherwise, there are some hacks available on reHackable.

Handwriting to text conversion is apparently implemented in a suboptimal way

I don’t use the “take notes and convert to text” feature and I also don’t use the planner templates because I’m crazy about planner template and have made my own 😀 But for other people (and if you’re hoping to use this as a planner), this might be a cool feature. I have sometimes used it to take notes but not for notes that I will actually need on my computer. The tablet has a “send to email” functionality but it’s a bit of a hassle and would be annoying if you had to use that a lot. But I don’t use it often so I think it’s totally reasonable.

And since the company branding is focused so much on being a minimalist, “non-digital” distraction-free device, that’s probably part of the idea behind it: The tablet is supposed to make your life less digital – not to support your highly digitized life and make it even more busy!

Other opinions from DH colleagues

Also, see the unrolled thread here containing the review of a fellow Digital Humanist who apparently has different needs than me. For me, it turns out that the tablet works really well. But I’ve also never had another tablet before (except for a Lenovo Yoga years ago which didn’t have a pen and I only use it to watch films now 😉 ) and I specifically wanted the paper tablet experience. Like I already said somewhere above – if you just want a tablet that’s fancier than other tablets, you will be disappointed because performance-wise, an e-ink display and non-standard operating system without lots of software likely won’t make you happy. If you actually want what the reMarkable is for, then you will probably like it. So be honest with yourselves about your needs!

The unroll of the thread is here –> more convenient for reading. To unroll using this bot, say something like “unroll please @threadreaderapp” and the bot will serve you a page like this – very practical!

Alternatives, for example: The E-Pad

In my research phase, I have seen that there are also e-ink tablets which can do apps (full Android) and a web browser (like the E-Pad which I also found quite attractive, see this video review) but really, I don’t think that’s something I want on my distraction-free device 😉 I can easily have blogposts and websites sent to my reMarkable as text (or print PDFs) to read distraction-free. Using the Chrome web extension I have, this doesn’t require connecting the reMarkable to your computer via USB.

The cost, storage and other minor drawbacks

I think I paid about 400€ which is an investment, of course, and I was really doubtful that I might not use the product enough. However, from how much I like it and the fact that it really works for me, I don’t currently have that fear anymore 😉

The tablet has 6 GB of storage – which is more than enough for my needs so far (I’m using 1GB and have added tons of stuff which will probably take ages for me to even read it all). However, I think this might be a thing for some people – especially as some of the competition has way more storage than that.

And of course, the e-ink display is relatively slow but you know that before buying if you’ve done your research. It’s ok for me. I think we can all use some Entschleunigung in our lives ;D

That’s it for today!

Did you get a reMarkable yourself or are you thinking about getting one? What are your thoughts so far?

Best,
S


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