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Sony and reMarkable's dueling e-paper tablets are strange but impressive beasts

Sony and reMarkable's dueling e-paper tablets are strange but impressive beasts
From TechCrunch - October 5, 2017

Poor paper. Its in that ironic category where those who love it the most are the ones trying their hardest to replace it.

Case in point: Sony and reMarkable, a pair of companies as unalike as youre likely to find, yet with the shared mission of making a device that adequately serves the same purpose a few sheets of paper do. They have experienced mixed success, each working and failing in different ways; but these devices left me optimistic about future possibilitieswhile at the same time clinging tenaciously to my notebook and pen.

Both tablets rely on e-paper displays, most commonly seen in Amazons Kindle devices but which have found niche uses outside the e-reader world as they have improved in contrast and response time.

Both support a stylus and fingertip for input; both have an unlit monochrome screen; both are refreshingly thin and light (350 grams, 6-7mm thick); both have their own dedicated app; and both aspire to replace printed documents and scrolling through PDFs on your laptop. (Both are also rather expensive.)

Yet there are clear differences between the two: Sonys Digital Paper Tablet DPT-RP1 (Ill call it the DPT) is the size of an A4 sheet of paper, which combined with its lightness makes it somehow alarming. Its hard to believe its an actual device. The reMarkable, on the other hand, is smaller (about 10x7) and a triplet of buttons on its lower bezel invite interaction. Its equally light, but doesnt give off that howd they make this thing vibe. At least, not yet.

The short version of each devices story:

Sony DPT-RP1

This handsome devil is the sequel to one I remember handling at CES years ago, and it has been given a significant, if not radical, upgrade. The latest version got a much-improved screen, plenty of internal storage (16GB doesnt fill up too fast when youre mostly looking at documents) and better handwriting and note-taking capability.

Its specifically aimed at people who have to handle lots of wordy documents and are tired of doing so on a laptop screen, LCD-based tablet or small e-reader. Think scientists reviewing studies, lawyers going over case files and so on.

reMarkable

The reMarkable (and yes, they do the camel caps thing) is the sort of crowdsourcing success I like to see. An original and ambitious idea accomplished with hard work and ingenuity, and at the end of it all, a viable product.

The team was simply enamored of the idea that an e-reader-type device should be more interactive, allowing you to sketch, annotate documents and share them live. To that end they worked for years, eventually even consulting with E-Ink, which makes the displays in question, to produce a screen that not only looks like a printed piece of paper, but feels like it when you write on it.

And now to judge the two devices on the three Rs: reading, writing and interaction. What? Only one of the other three Rs starts with an R.

Reading

As far as providing a superior platform on which to read through documents that are mostly monochromestudies, lawsuits, booksboth devices succeed admirably. Neither has as good a screen as a Kindle Oasis or Kobo Aura One, but theyre more than good enoughand anyway, it would be excruciating reading an academic paper on a Kindle.

If I had to give the edge to one of the devices strictly in display quality, it would have to be the DPT. Slightly whiter whites and better contrast give it the edge, even though technically the reMarkable has a higher DPI (226 versus 206). A grid on the screen is just visible when you look close, but rarely bothered me when reading from a normal distance. Text is rendered slightly better on the Sony to my eye, though its hardly a blowout.

But one also has to consider that the Sonys screen is gigantic. The reMarkable and its bezel fit comfortably within the screen area of the DPT. Not everyone actually wants to read on such an enormous device, and documents not intended for that size can blow up to comical proportions. E-books, as well, end up looking like either childrens stories if you bump the text size up, or impenetrable walls of text with frequent carriage returns if you dont.

This objection applies to the reMarkable, as well, but less so. (Sony does address this problem with the ability to show two portrait mode pages at once while the device itself is in landscape mode.)

If I had to choose between one size and the other, I would go with the reMarkable in a second. It fits in more bags, doesnt feel so awkward and its not so much smaller that a full-page PDF looks crammed onto it; you hardly notice after a while.

As for build quality, both devices are extremely well-made, and in particular reMarkable touts the near indestructibility of their device. The Sony doesnt feel flimsy at all, but as I mentioned before, its great size does make it feel like a liability, like a passing biker will clip the corner while youre reading it in the park. I do, however, approve of its extra-minimal design, while the reMarkables silver back and multiple buttons make it rather the more gadgety of the two.

One other place where the DPT schools the reMarkable is in on/off quickness. One of the great things about e-paper devices is you can switch them on and a second or two later you are back in your book or article. The DPT is no exception to that, and it will maintain a charge for weeks and still turn on in a snap.

The reMarkable will do that when its in sleep mode, but it goes from sleep mode to fully off after some relatively short amount of time that you cant modify. From being off, it takes 15-20 seconds or more to turn onan eternity these days! No doubt this is to improve the battery life, but its annoying as hell. This is something that can and likely will be adjusted (or hopefully made adjustable) in a software update, but for now its a pain.

Writing

Here at least we have a solid winner. Writing on the reMarkable is a pleasure, and while its still not quite like pen on paper, its a hell of a lot better than active stylus on glass.

The near-instant response time of the reMarkables e-paper screen (its around 50 milliseconds) makes writing feel natural, not like a device catching up to something you did half a second ago. This is absolutely critical, as the feedback of what you see affects how you writewhen you stop crossing that T or dragging out the descender of that y. The team was obsessive in getting the latency down, and succeeded to a greater extent than, honestly, I expected was possible on this kind of display. E-Ink itself, they told me, was incredibly impressed.

Interaction

Long live specialty devices

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