Color E Ink and Android are an exciting, unbearable combination

Color E Ink and Android are an exciting, unbearable combination

Some people use chamomile tea, others use breathing exercises, but for me the most reliable tactic to fall asleep quickly is to avoid screens before bed. But to actually do that requires a little creativity if I want to keep up with news online. My current system involves saving items read later app Instapaper, who sends a daily summary to my Kindle every night. But it is a choppy approach where articles are often not properly formatted and sometimes not displayed at all.

I could switch to a Kobo, which offers built-in integration with rival app Pocket for later readingbut Onyx Boox Nova Air C offers a much more attractive option. Unlike either a Kindle or Kobo, its E Ink screen can display colors, and it runs a modified version of Android that lets you download and run a variety of apps that go far beyond reading ebooks. It opens the door to many later readable apps, as well as complete word processors and third-party note-taking software. It even includes a pen for handwritten notes.

On 420 USD, it’s expensive compared to Amazon’s Kindles, which often cost well below the $ 200 mark. But that price gives you something closer to a complete Android tablet than an e-reader. It’s just a shame that the overall package does not keep its promise in full.

The Onyx Boox Nova Air C is an unassuming device, with large frames around its 7.8-inch screen and a general plastic feel. Its power button is at the top left, while a USB-C port is located on the bottom along with a pair of downward-facing speakers. They’re about as bad as I expected them to be, but they’re better than nothing. (Amazon’s Kindles have not included them for years.) Internally, the Nova Air C is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 662 processor with 3 GB of RAM and 32 GB of storage.

The main attraction here is the color screen E Ink. Nova Air C is equipped with the E Inks Kaleido Plus screen, which uses a color filter layer on top of a more typical E Ink panel to offer 4,096 colors. The approach comes with some obvious disadvantages. To begin with, the screen cannot display color content with the same resolution as black and white, so even if the screen reaches 1404 x 1872 in black and white (300ppi), it is limited to a paltry 468 x 624 (100ppi) when it displays color. And even then, the colors are much more muted than you would get from even a cheap LCD panel, whose color range can be counted in millions – not thousands. My former colleague Sam Byford described the colors of the similar Kaleido-equipped PocketBook color as “a magazine that has faded for a few days,” which felt like a very apt description of Nova Air C.

Book covers (shown here in the Kindle app) especially benefit from the extra color.

The screen can struggle with complex color images.

And yet even base color is better than no color at all. Nova Air C’s colors may look washed out and low resolution, but the core of the image remains – unlike on a Kindle, where color images only look broken. I would almost liken using the Kaleido screen when watching a foreign movie with subtitles; you miss a lot of the subtlety, but you can still basically understand what you are looking at.

I briefly tried watching video on Nova Air C’s screen via YouTube, but I would not recommend it. The content looks incredibly messy thanks to the screen’s low refresh rate, the colors look washed out and there is a huge amount of ghost images. You can see what’s going on in a snap, but I’d rather watch video on literally any other screen.

Despite the color, the tablet retains the benefits of an E Ink screen. I had no problem reading Nova Air C in bright sunlight, and with a slight increase in its screen lighting function, I could also read it in low light before going to bed without straining my eyes. Battery life is also as impressive as any other e-reader. I have been using the tablet on and off for more than two months, and its battery level is still at 55 percent.

That said, part of the reason for this impressive life is probably Nova Air C’s aggressive power management settings, which by default see the tablet turn off completely if you do not use it in just 15 minutes. This may mean that you wait about 27 seconds for the tablet to boot each time you want to use it. I would suggest that you adjust the “Shutdown Timeout” in the settings to one or even two days, allowing the laptop to wake up in a few seconds when you want to use it. But be prepared to sacrifice some battery life for this increased sensitivity.

Making notes is easy in the built-in app.

Starting up from a complete shutdown can take a while.

The highlight of the Onyx Boox Nova Air C is its built-in note-taking app. Handwriting notes feel good with the included pen, with pen strokes appearing on the screen almost instantly and 4,096 levels of pressure sensitivity offering a lot of versatility. There are a variety of brush styles and colors, and the software can try to transcribe your handwriting into typed text and even emoji.

This character recognition worked well in limited cases but struggled with long passages. Once written, it is easy to export notes to a PDF or PNG file by simply scanning a QR code with your smartphone or sharing them to another app on the tablet. Everything makes Nova Air C a great device for taking notes by hand.

But trying to use the tablet as a traditional e-reader is more complicated, and you have to jump through more frames than on competing devices like the Kindle. Although Nova Air C technically comes with a built-in “store”, in practice it seemed to be mainly filled with works that are public property, and I could not find any of the modern books I was hoping to read.

It leaves you with a couple of other options. You can download e-books from anywhere else on the internet and then transfer them to the tablet, and it supports a wide range of file types, including PDF, ePub, TXT, RTF, and MOBI. But when I actually bought an ePUB from eBooks.com and tried to load it on Nova Air C, I discovered that it does not support Adobe DRM that the store uses. (The only DRM that the e-reader supports is the Chinese-focused JD DRM.)

Thankfully, Onyx uses a heavily modified version of Android 11 as software on Nova Air C, which means you are not limited to using its firmware. You can download and install most apps from the Play Store as if you were using any other Android tablet, including, most importantly, the Amazon Kindle app. Setting up Google Play Services on your device is a bit of a weird process that requires you to do so jump through a couple of strange rings. But once configured, it was relatively easy to take advantage of my existing Kindle library. While I was there, I downloaded a couple of other Android apps: Instapaper to read all the web articles I bookmark to read later in the day; Obsidian for notes; and Comixology to read comics.

It is entirely possible to download and use the Kindle app along with other Android apps.

In monochrome, the text is nice and sharp.

This is what I hoped would be Nova Air C’s superpower: the ability to download and install which Android apps I wanted.

Make notes. Nova Air 2 comes with a decent note-taking app that works very well with the pen. But it works less well for typed notes, which you might want to do if you have a Bluetooth keyboard to pair with your tablet.

So instead, I downloaded the note-taking app Obsidian. It worked well, allowing me to write notes much faster than I could ever write them by hand. And, unlike when I use a laptop or my phone, I could happily do it late at night without having to look at a bright screen. You can use any word processing or note-taking software you want – as long as it has an Android app. It is also possible to download alternative stylus compatible apps, but my experience was a bit hit and miss. OneNote worked well, but INKredible felt laggy with Onyx’s stylus.

I was also able to start Instapaper with minimal hassle. I had full access to all my saved articles ready for me to read without having to go through the clumsy sync process that Instapaper’s Kindle integration requires. Comixology worked okay for reading series, but the screen was just a little too low in resolution and small for it to feel like I got the most out of the experience.

But very quickly I started encountering problems with these apps which apparently had never been designed with E Ink screens in mind. You control apps on Nova Air C with a combination of push and swipe, just like you would on any other Android tablet. But its E Ink screen is so much less responsive than the 60Hz LCD or OLED panels found in most other Android devices that it’s hard to “feel” around each app. You can not swipe in half to control what an entire swipe can do; you have to get fully involved and hope you got it right.

Things feel much better when you start using physical buttons to control the tablet, which is possible via Onyx’s magnetic Nova Air case. This not only adds a protective cover to the tablet but also includes a couple of physical volume buttons, which many read-focused Android apps let you re-map to page-turning controls. If you are going to buy a Nova Air C, I highly recommend that you get this case for it. It’s sold separately from the tablet for $ 59.99, which feels expensive considering how necessary it is.

The optional case and included pen.

The 7.8-inch screen feels like a nice size.

I had very high hopes for the Onyx Boox Nova Air C. I wanted it to handle everything: reading books; read online articles; and serve as a repository for all my notes – all in a form factor that I was happy to use late at night without straining my eyes.

And yes, it can definitely do all these things. But the more I asked for the tablet, the more I felt how its E Ink screen creaked under the pressure. E Ink panels are more than responsive enough to read books with software designed specifically with them in mind. But throw in an app designed for a 60Hz touch screen, and it can be difficult to use. And packing so much functionality means that Nova Air C is struggling to match a simple Kindle in terms of simply being able to open it and start reading immediately. You must select the app, and possibly the book, first.

I wanted a lot of Nova Air C, and for $ 450 I think it’s reasonable to expect that. Amazon’s Kindles cost about half of what Onyx asks for, and you can even get an alternative e-reader with a color screen from PocketBook for $ 234. Or, if your priorities are less about having an E Ink screen and more about having the functionality of a tablet, you can get an iPad Mini with an 8.3-inch screen for $ 499 or a base-level iPad with a 10.2 -inch screen for $ 329. None of these devices will select all the boxes. But neither does Nova Air C.

Photograph by Jon Porter / The Verge

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