I’d been asking for something like the reMarkable for a long time before it showed up out of the blue a few years ago. The device was a real treat, but had a few problems and an eye-popping price tag. The reMarkable 2 builds on the first, with a more beautiful, streamlined device and several key new features, but keeps many of the limitations — some deliberate, some not so much — that make it a refreshingly specialty device. Costs a lot less this time around, too.
The reMarkable is intended to be a tablet for consuming and creating black and white (and grey) content: PDFs, sketches, jotted notes, that sort of thing — without all the distractions and complications of a full-on tablet or laptop. I certainly found that when I had a lot of content to get through and annotate, the device helped me focus, and it was useful for light note-taking and and other purposes, like DMing a D&D game or sketching out a woodworking project.
The rM2, as I’ll call it, really is an improvement in pretty much every possible way. I’m honestly a bit baffled as to how they could make it thinner, faster, more battery efficient, better at pretty much everything, and yet drop the price from $600 to $400. Usually there’s some kind of trade-off. Not this time!
Specifically, the rM2 has the following major improvements:
- Thinner (an already svelte 6.7mm reduced to 4.7mm; for comparison, an iPad is about 6mm)
- Faster, dual-core ARM CPU (mainly for power savings)
- Double the RAM (a gig, up from 512 MB)
- Display response time halved to 21ms (comparable to LCDs)
- Battery life more than tripled (a couple weeks, or months on standby, instead of a couple days)
- Eraser on other end of stylus. Thank you!
What hasn’t been changed is the screen itself (that is, the resolution and contrast), the OS and the general purpose of the thing.
Let’s start with the new design. To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t taken with it at first. The original’s softer white plastic case felt more organic, while the new one’s asymmetric chrome is more gadgety.
But it’s grown on me as also being more purposeful and focused, though of course it also now is rather more suitable for a right-handed person than a left. The original’s three enormous buttons always seemed far too prominent for the amount of utility they offered. I did sometimes wish for a home button on the rM2, but a new gesture (swipe from the top) takes care of that.
The power button at the top of the chrome strip is tiny, perhaps too tiny, but at least you won’t hit it by accident. The USB-C charge port is opposite the power button, on the bottom, and well out of the way of anywhere you’ll hold it, making charging while using easy (though you probably won’t need to).
Powerful magnets on the right side hold the stylus with a tight grip but no visible markings. Said stylus, I should add, is a very nice one indeed, with a weighty feel and rubberized finish. The new eraser function works great — definitely spring for it if you’re thinking about getting one of these.
On the back are four tiny rubberized feet that serve to prevent it scooting across the table while naked, and which help align the tablet perfectly in its folio case. Projections like these on such a thin, smooth device bother me on some level — I tried to peel them off first thing — but I understand they’re practical.
Overall the rM2 is extremely streamlined, and while it’s significantly heavier than the first (about 400 grams, or .89 lb, versus 350g, both lighter than the lightest iPad), it isn’t heavy by any stretch of the imagination. The bezel is big enough you can grip or reposition the device easily but not so large it takes over. I could have done with maybe a little less, but I’m picky that way.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m just a real stickler for industrial design. The flaws I’ve mentioned here are nothing compared with, say, the straight-up-ugly iPhone 11. The rM2 is a striking device, more so than the first, and it does a great job of both disappearing and showing strong design choices.
The display is the same as the first, and as such is not quite at today’s e-reader levels when it comes to pixel density and contrast. E-readers from Kobo and Amazon hit 300 pixels per inch, and reMarkable’s is down at 226. Sometimes this matters, and sometimes it doesn’t. I’ve found that certain fonts and pen marks show lots of aliasing, but mostly it isn’t noticeable because as a larger device one tends to hold it farther from their face.
There’s no frontlight, which I understand is a deliberate choice — you’re supposed to work with this thing under the same lighting you’d use for a paper document. Still, I felt its absence occasionally when reading.
I can vouch for the new battery lasting much, much longer. I’ve only had the device for a week or so, meaning I can’t speak to the months of standby, but I was always disappointed by the original’s need for frequent charging, and this one has been far better.
It is also much faster to turn on and off. The original went to sleep and shut down after rather too short a delay and took a while to start up. The rM2 turns on instantly from sleep and takes about 20 seconds to boot from a full off state. Fortunately it doesn’t need to be turned off, or turn itself off, anywhere near as often as its predecessor. Removing these on/off and battery worries really goes a long way toward making this a practical device for a lot of people.
An excellent endless legal pad and PDF tool
Where the rM2 succeeds best is as a reader for full-page documents like scientific papers, legal documents and reports, and as a rough sketchpad and notebook with the chief benefit of having effectively unlimited pages.
For reading, the experience is not very different from the original device. It works with fairly few formats and PDF the best. You can skim through pages, annotate with the pen and highlight text — though annoyingly you’re still just painting the text with a translucent layer, not digitally selecting/highlighting the text itself.
You can search for text easily and navigation is straightforward, though I’d like the option to tap and go to the next page rather than swipe. Changes are synced to the document in the reMarkable app, where you can easily export a modified version, though, again, you can’t directly select text.
Writing and drawing on the screen feels great — better than before, and it was already the best among e-paper devices. The iPad Pro beats it for full-color illustration, naturally, but the idea isn’t to meet the capabilities of other tablets, it’s to provide the intended features well.
The feel of the screen is smoother than the first reMarkable, but the texture change isn’t necessarily bad — one thing I could never quite get away from on the first was, due to its texture, the feeling that I was scratching the screen when I wrote. Nothing like that here, though the tactility is slightly less. As for the lower latency, it’s noticeable and unnoticeable at the same time: Certainly it’s better than all the other e-paper devices I’ve tested, including the first reMarkable. But even 21ms is noticeable and affects the way you write or draw. It isn’t “just like paper,” but it is pretty awesome.
I would never try to replace the small pocket notepad I use during interviews, but at a meeting or brainstorm session I would much rather use this. The space you have for making little groups of names, flowcharts, random things to look up later, doodles of your boss and so on is so vast and so easily accessible that it almost makes me wish I went to more meetings. Almost!
I realize showing this on video would be helpful to some, but the truth is even on video it’s hard to get a sense of how it looks and feels when you’re actually doing it. It feels more responsive than it looks.
A clutch new feature for writing and drawing is the integration of an eraser tip on the other side of the stylus. It works automatically, feels rubbery like a real eraser and saves you a trip to the pen menu. Unfortunately, you still have to open that menu to get to “undo,” which is sometimes preferable to erasing. Given the whole screen is multi-touch capacitive, I don’t see any reason why something like a two-finger leftward swipe can’t be mapped to undo, or double-tapping the eraser in an empty space.
Handwriting recognition is helpful, not that I have taken a whole lot of notes with the rM2, but it’s easy to see how it saves time when transferring mixed-media pages to your computer. It’s not like it would take you that much time to spell out the email address or name someone mentioned, it’s just nicer to be able to hit a button and it’s ready to copy and paste.
I definitely experienced transcription errors, but honestly, even I can’t tell my “u” and “n” or “r” and “v” apart all the time. I have a draggy style of longhand so I needed to focus a bit on picking up the pen from the surface rather than letting it trail at the lowest level of pressure.
A so-so e-reader
One aspect of the original reMarkable that didn’t thrill me was the handling and display of e-books and other pure text content. The rM2 improves on this and adds a very useful new time-shifting feature, but it still falls behind the competition.
The fact is that the reMarkable isn’t really intended for reading books. It’s formatted for content that’s already meant to be displayed as a full page, and it does that well. When it has to do its own text formatting the options are a little thinner.
With six fonts and six sizes per font, and three options each for margins and spacing, room for customization is low. The two most book-like text sizes seem to be “slightly too large” and “slightly too small,” while the others are comically huge, appearing larger than even a large-print book would have them.
Several epub books I loaded onto the tablet failed in various ways. Initial tabs on paragraphs didn’t render; in-text links didn’t work; line spacing is uneven; large white spaces appeared rather than partial paragraphs. The team needs to take a serious look at their e-book renderer and text options, and I’m told that they are in fact doing so, but that writing, drawing and, of course, the new hardware have taken up their resources.
It’s less of an issue with articles gleaned from the web with the new Chrome extension. These are more consistently formatted and make articles read more like magazine pages, which is perfectly fine. I do wish there were options for a two-column view or other ways to customize how the pages are transcoded. I give reMarkable a pass on this because it’s a new feature they’re still building out and it works pretty well.
No chance, unfortunately, for integration with Pocket, Simplenote, Evernote or any of the other common services along these lines. For better or worse, reMarkable has chosen to go it alone. Indeed, reMarkable as a company is wary of making the device too complex and too integrated with other things, since the entire philosophy is one of removing distractions. That makes for a unified experience, but it hurts when a feature is simply not as good as the competition with which the company has voluntarily entered competition.
One serious gripe I have, and one which will surely bother reMarkable’s existing customers, is that you can only have one device active at a time per account. Yes: If you bought the first, you essentially have to disable it in order to set up the second.
This is a huge problem and a missed opportunity as well. For one thing, it’s a bit cruel to essentially throw their oldest customers under the bus. You could probably figure out a workaround, but the simple fact that the old device has to be kicked off the account is bad. Because it could so easily have been very useful to have two of these things. Imagine keeping one at work and one at home, and they stay in sync, or sharing an account with a partner and sending documents or handwriting back and forth.
I asked the company about this and it seems that it is a technical limitation at this time, and that multiple devices are on the roadmap to support. But for anyone planning on buying an rM2 now, it’s a material consideration that your original device will no longer be usable by you, or at least not in the same way — it isn’t bricked or anything, it just won’t sync with your account.
Hope and dreams (and hacks)
As before, what is exciting about the reMarkable 2 is not just what it does, but what it could do. The company has significantly expanded what the ecosystem supports over the last couple years, improved performance and responded to user requests. Most of my complaints are things the team is already aware of, since they have an engaged and outspoken community, and are somewhere on the roadmap to be fixed or added.
There is also a healthy hacking community putting together new ways to take advantage of such promising hardware — though of course with the usual caveat that you could brick it if you’re not careful. If reMarkable doesn’t want to build an RSS reader into the device because of their fundamental philosophy against such a thing, someone will probably make one anyway. I look forward to experimenting with the device not as a carefully tuned platform but as an all-purpose greyscale computer.
The previous reMarkable was a very interesting device but one that was rather difficult to recommend widely at launch. But the company has proven itself over the last couple years and the device has grown and solidified. This upgraded version, better in nearly every way yet a third cheaper, is much, much easier to recommend. If you are interested in exploring a more paperless world, or want to force yourself to focus better, or just think this thing sounds cool, the reMarkable 2 is a great device to do it with.