The Remarkable Tablet was unremarkable

Every now and then, I look at my writing process and ask myself if there’s something I could change about my process and approach to improve things. Recently, I looked at the monstrous heap of notebooks I have, thought of the apps where I’ve stashed notes, and grumbled loudly. I’d lost many good points to a greedy little notebook who was staying silent, keeping the ideas sealed within its unsearchable soul. So after looking at the ads, humming and ahing, I decided to buy a Remarkable tablet.

Now if you aren’t familiar with the Remarkable, it’s big claim to fame is that writing on it supposedly feels like writing on paper. This is in contrast to using a stylus, like the Apple Pencil, on a slick screen (like an iPad Pro). The other thing is that it’s a minimal device, meaning that you don’t have apps, there’s no social media, there’s just you and the electronic paper pad in front of you. It’s very alluring, and could have been brilliant, but spoiler alert – I waited until my refund went through before writing this review.

What I was looking for

I was looking for a replacement for taking a paper notebook with me somewhere and would preserve that special kinesthetic experience of writing. I wanted to be able to organize my ideas, rearrange them, and for it to behave as magic paper (more on this in a second). While I have a MacBook Pro, I’m one of those people who finds his creativity sometimes needs to write and diagram, to mess around and doodle, in order to get the best ideas out.

When I first came across the Remarkable, I think it was a Facebook ad ( #ShamefulAdmission ). I checked it out and watched their video. I was intrigued, but I didn’t act. I spoke to my wife about it (she’s a software architect) and she’d actually been looking at it for a few months, and was on the fence. After I finished up writing The Wizard Killer – Season 3, I decided to take seriously look at it.

I compared the Remarkable with the iPad Pro. I liked the idea of there not being social media apps, or apps of any kind, on the Remarkable. It would be “just” magic paper. The Remarkable was less expensive, by about 20%, but was still a significant investment of funds. That said, I decided to take the plunge.

What is Magic Paper

For me, the idea of magic paper is this:

1. It has to be as responsive as writing on real paper. No lag.

2. I need to be able to have pages stretch, so that I can add “more at the bottom” forever.

3. I can move pages between notebooks, and copy them.

4. It feels like a real sheet of paper, in size and behavior

5. I need to be able to share quickly

The unRemarkable Experience

Clearly the people at Remarkable have learned from Apple’s packaging and made it an experience. This was well done. The first thing that struck me as a “hmm, I’m not sure about this” when I took the tablet out of the box was how thin and light it was. It would turn out to be a real problem whenever I wasn’t sitting at a table. I like to sit and scribble ideas down sometimes. Sometimes I’m in a situation where I’m standing, and that requires the device to have a sufficient weight that it can be used for that.

Writing

The writing experience is the big selling point for the Remarkable, where they tell you that it feels like writing on real paper. And you know what? It does have that friction sense, it’s interesting and honestly, a bit weird. It would have likely felt more natural, if the tablet wasn’t based on E-Ink. Remember the Kindles and Kobo eBook readers that would flash when you changed the page? That’s the technology that this uses. This was highly disruptive when I would write something and need to continue on the next page. I clicked the right button (one of the three at the bottom of the device) to go to the next page, and the Remarkable would flash, and sometimes I’d find I lost my idea.

This was far more disruptive than having social media notifications pop up, because I can turn those off. This is a writing device and it kept kicking my ideas out of my head.

In addition, the more that I used the device, the more I came to find the writing area of the device small and limiting. While I have some small notebooks, those I can still write to the very edge of the paper, and so I feel I get “all of that real estate” to use. But with the Remarkable? I just felt disappointed.

Device Layout problems

With the flashing of the screen whenever it changed pages came two other things to make me feel like I was using some 2006-at-the-latest technology. One of those things, was the button layout. At the bottom of the table are three buttons: a previous page button, a home button, and a next page button. There is no way to flip the layout of the tablet so that these are at the top. Why is this important? Because I would be writing down the page, and then my hand would hit a button (I’m 6’2″ tall, so my hands are not tiny), and then boom, the page I was working on was gone. This happened A LOT. I wrote to their support to suggest making a change, and I think it was 2 months later that I got an email telling me that they would eventually get back to me.

Rookie Software Limitations

Before I became an author, I was a software architect. That meant that I was responsible for leading software development teams, making sure what we were delivering aligned with customer and stakeholder needs, and an area that I was a bit of a specialist in was user interfaces. This means that I have a really good appreciation of well thought out interfaces and user experiences, and I get angry at lazy execution. You didn’t have to go far before running into this.

Every page is in a notebook, and while you can create more pages however you like in a notebook, you cannot move a page from one notebook to another. Now, you might not think this is a big deal, but think of it this way. You’ve got an idea for a story, and so you have it in your Random Ideas notebook. You then have another. This other idea actually gets you excited, so you make another page of notes for it. You have a third idea, write some notes, and then go back to the second idea. You’d now like to pull the second idea’s notes out of the notebook to make it its own notebook, so you can keep developing it. Right there? Game over. There is no way to do that except for duplicate the entire notebook and delete all the pages for ideas one and three. And let me tell you, the Remarkable is not lickety-split on doing that…

There were also serious performance issues (lag) when dealing with really busy pages (ie. lots of writing and drawing). After using the device for only a week, I found it unable to handle some of the notebooks and pages, crashing on me several times.

And the ultimate deal breaker? Having sufficient lag such that a page would refresh showing me SOME but not all of what I had already on the page making me think that I had some room on the lower half of the page. I would write on it and later when I came back to the page, my next text was all over my old text which NOW was showing. And to be clear, there’s no way to fix that mess when it happens.

Not Magic Paper

Let’s go through the bullets I wrote earlier, because the Remarkable was a considerable disappoint in this area.

1. It has to be as responsive as writing on real paper. No lag.

– Fail. While the Remarkable was good for dealing with a few pages, the more content it had, the worse the performance.

2. I need to be able to have pages stretch, so that I can add “more at the bottom” forever.

– Fail. When you get to the bottom of a Remarkable page, you have to go to the next page and it’s painful to try and move things between pages.

3. I can move pages between notebooks, and copy them.

– Fail. As mentioned, pages were stuck in whatever notebook they started in, and this drove me crazy.

4. It feels like a real sheet of paper, in size and behavior

– It felt small, but it behaved like a piece of paper in terms of writing UNTIL the lag, and accidentally writing on top of stuff that wasn’t showing happened.

5. I need to be able to share quickly

– I was able to share what I wrote, but the problem was that however they make the PDFs was such that they were a beast. I had situations where people couldn’t open them, and I’ve never had that problem with PDFs before.

Final note

At the end of the day, the Remarkable comes across as created by a small group of marketers who felt they could put a device together leveraging existing technology that was at a low price point because it had been out for a while, but didn’t do sufficient user testing with the actual ideal customers to realize that this was going to be a high priced version of those kiddy scribble tablets you find in bookstores for $150, except the Remarkable is $800+. It became clear pretty quickly this would be “yet another device”, and my notes were quickly getting lost (due to the inability to reorganize) just like multiple notebooks (okay, a little better).

Thankfully, the novelty of it wore off within the full-refund return period, but I was disappointed on several levels. The first was that the creators didn’t seem to understand why people, at least people like me, are interested in using a tablet for hand-writing: magic paper. If you just make a tablet act like paper, but with the inability to have it on your lap for writing (without bracing it with your other hand), then you’ve failed.

As an author, I made the OTHER decision, and now, another book later, and so glad I did.

Now, the iPad Pro?

Even before my refund went through on the Remarkable, I went and followed my gut. I picked up an iPad Pro, the big one with the 12.9″ screen. With a cover-keyboard, it came in about 25% over the price of the Remarkable, but it has been worth every penny. While writing on the glass of the iPad Pro took me a little getting used to (after retraining myself for the Remarkable), putting a gel pen holder on the Apple Pencil made it quickly become natural and fast.

With Noteability as my writing app, which it turned out I’d bought years ago (price of around $5 I believe), I have real magic paper and better. I can pull in PDFs, images, whatever I want to write or draw on. The organization is good and clean, and well thought out.

I have been so productive on it, it constantly surprised. The performance is solid, Noteability is the magic paper app that I needed (and turns out, I bought it for my phone years ago, so it was ‘free’). I can bring up written notes AND Scrivener for writing my stores, at the same time. The battery lasts, the Apple Pencil and writing experience is (dare I say it?) remarkable. Yes, it cost a few hundred books more, but the technology does exactly what it should – It gets out of my way so that I can unleash my creativity.

In the end, I’m not sure there’s a place for a Remarkable tablet in the current era, it’s a device 10 years too late. But my iPad Pro that’s verging on a full-on laptop replacement while also being my magic paper? That’s Amazing.

And that’s my 2 cents,

Adam

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