What e-ink tablets are used for (and aren't used for)

I've owned an e-ink tablet (the reMarkable 2, to be specific) for a few years. There are a few similar products on the market: black-and-white devices, Kindle-like e-ink screens, and some kind of stylus that lets you take notes and mark up existing PDFs and e-books. They're somewhere between an iPad and paper.

Most of the time when I use reMarkable in public, people don't realize, or don't care, that it 's more than just a piece of paper. I like that—part of the appeal of this device is that it blocks more distance between me and those around me than an iPad or laptop can. However, those familiar with the e-ink tablet category often notice and wonder: do you like it? What do you use it for? Could it completely replace something like the iPad? That’s what I’m going to talk about today.

My answer to questions like this is usually that e-ink tablets are very good at replacing paper-based workflows, but very bad at replacing computer-based workflows. At some point, you have to think of it less as a computing device and more as an infinite page of paper. Of course, it's not that simple; most e-ink tablets will sync your notes with other devices and convert your handwriting into plain text. Some can even run applications. But in my experience, e-ink tablets work best when you think of them as virtual paper.

Limited functionality doesn't mean they cost less than tablets. The reMarkable 2 starts at $400, which isn't cheap. Chinese company Only BOOX is well-known in this field, with e-ink tablets starting at around $400 (for the Note Air 3). The Kindle Scribe is slightly cheaper at $240. The iPad, meanwhile, starts at $350 and is arguably more powerful. All of which is to say that if you're buying an e-ink tablet, you need to have a specific reason for it.

reMarkable Starter Kit includes 10.3-inch reMarkable tablet, Marker Plus pen with built-in eraser, and 1-year free connected trial

What are the advantages of e-ink tablets?

Anyone who loves paper knows that lined paper, blank paper, and grid paper all have different uses. The same goes for dedicated notebooks and planners. My favorite part of Remarkable is that this single device offers all these paper types in one place, and I can add even more flexibility by finding purpose-built PDFs. With that in mind, here are the things I use my e-ink tablet for most.


Nearly all of my writing workflow happens on my computer, with one major exception: brainstorming. Whether I'm trying to come up with new article ideas or ways to think about article flow, I've found that sitting at a desk with a pen and paper works better than sitting in front of a laptop.

There are several reasons for this. First, I get easily distracted in front of my computer. Another problem, though, is that brainstorming isn't as linear as writing, and linear thinking is easier for me to do with a pen. I can write things anywhere I want on the page, draw little arrows connecting them, but usually just make a mess. This combination of focused and open-ended writing works well for me, and e-ink is perfect for it.

Read and mark up documents

Every once in a while, what I'm doing requires me to parse an academic text or a dense article. There's nothing stopping me from doing this kind of reading on my computer, but I find that I get a better grasp of the content if I read on my laptop. At one point in my life I would print out documents for this reason, but now I just use my e-ink tablet. I send the PDF to the device and switch between highlighters and pens to mark it up. When I get to my computer, all my notes are synced.

Take notes during the meeting

Once upon a time, I was that person sitting in the corner of a meeting typing away. I type loudly, so it distracts everyone, and it also means there's a screen between me and everyone else in the room. E-ink tablets don't look obtrusive. I can occasionally jot things down while also feeling completely immersed in the scene. When I get back to my computer, my notes are waiting for me and I can even quickly convert them to text.

plan my day

Don't get me wrong: I love digital to-do list and calendar apps and can't live without them. However, they never really worked together when it came to blocking the day's and week's projects. That’s why I love the planner templates in Remarkable—they allow me to quickly map out what I’m going to do and when. Writing these things down on my calendar works well for me. The process got even better when I discovered this PDF day planner that uses the linking feature in the PDF to easily jump between days, weeks, and months, or even between notes related to a specific date Jump.

Play Dungeons and Dragons

I love playing DND and hate all smartphone, tablet, and laptop based character management systems. Despite their best efforts, none are as flexible as paper character sheets. But the papers have some significant disadvantages, mainly because I wear them out easily and need to replace them every few times. I don't have this problem with Remarkable, and it's easy to quickly add more pages when I want to write something else. I even created a separate document that contained all of my character's racial, class, and spell information, saving me the trouble of constantly flipping through the Player's Handbook as I played.

Onyx BOOX Note Air 3

What are the disadvantages of e-ink tablets?

If you want to do anything else (all the things you typically use a tablet for), e-ink tablets range from adequate to incompetent. There are some obvious downsides: No color (unless you pay for a color e-ink tablet through your nose, but the technology is definitely not there yet and the resulting colors look muddy and dull). You generally can't watch videos or play games on them (although newer tablets with higher refresh rates make this technically possible, it's never pleasant). But they can't completely replace note-taking apps, either.

Anything you want to search or index

I journal every day, but I don't use reMarkable to create my entries. Part of it is habit: I've been using Obsidian for my journals for years, and I don't want to switch. But I also really like being able to search and index my journals, but I haven't found a good way to use e-ink journaling yet - as far as I know, none index handwriting by default. Of course, you can get around this by converting your handwriting to text every day, but at this point you're better off typing it up first.

Integrate with other applications

Many e-ink tablets can't open apps or even browse the web. There are a few exceptions where apps can run (the Boox Note Air 3 running Android is one of them), but even in these cases, the inherent limitations of e-ink can slow down the experience. Simply put, scrolling and browsing on these devices isn't entirely smooth, and you'll encounter issues like grainy images, lag, and ghosting. They work best when used like a piece of paper.

Now, limited app support isn't all bad—for me, a big part of E-Ink's appeal is that the distractions of the Internet aren't so readily available. But if you're trying to decide between an e-ink tablet and an iPad, and access to frequently used apps is a priority, you should choose the iPad.

Share your files quickly

If you type something in a document, you can quickly send it to someone via email or text message, or even publish it to Google Docs. You can do this with an e-ink tablet, but you'll have to use one of two workarounds. There's optical character recognition built in (you'll need to clean up everything it outputs first - spelling mistakes are common), or you can just send an image of handwritten text. Neither situation is ideal, and in both cases you'll likely need to do this from your computer. It might be easier to start on a computer.

These shortcomings don't mean that e-ink tablets aren't useful, or that the shortcomings I noticed are universal. What's more, they are only useful in specific contexts, and those are the contexts I keep in mind. Your experience may vary. But hopefully reading my thoughts will give you the context you need before spending a fortune on equipment that may not fulfill your dreams.