Boox Nova Air review: A multitasker among unitaskers
Many years ago, the Internet handed around an old Radio Shack newspaper ad and pointed out that the smartphone could now replace nearly every product in the ad. So many gadgets dedicated to individual tasks that have now been rolled up into a device that’s the ultimate multitasker.
My favorite tech unitasker has long been the e-reader. With their black-and-white E Ink screen, long battery life, and laser-focused software, Kindles and Kobos have been my choice even though I have a perfectly good iPhone and iPad on which I can also read books.
While I read novels on a Kobo, I still do a lot of reading—newsletters, RSS, newspapers, links from Twitter, you name it—on my iPad. That stuff’s just not available, or readily available, on devices with E Ink screens.
But what if it was? What if someone built a tablet that could run a wider selection of apps but still had the crisp, clear look of an E Ink screen?
In fact, a few companies have been trying to marry E Ink with Android for a while now. Recently I got a chance to spend a lot of time with the Boox Nova Air, a $389 Android tablet with an E Ink display, just as I was also spending time with Apple’s $499 iPad mini. These devices, combined with my ongoing use of the $170 Kobo Libra H2O, made me think a lot more about what I really want out of a digital reading device.
Between the darkness and the light
The Boox Nova Air is an Android 10 tablet that’s roughly the size of an iPad mini – 7.6 x 5.4 inches (194 × 136.5 mm) and .25 inches (6.3 mm) thick. But while the iPad mini has a standard, LED-backlit 2266-by-1488 pixel 8.3-inch diagonal display, the Boox Nova Air has a 1872-by-1404 pixel 7.8-inch diagonal E Ink Carta Plus display. It’s essentially an iPad-mini-sized tablet with a 300dpi E Ink display like you’d find on a Kindle, Kobo, or other e-reader.
So far, so good. What becomes quickly apparent when using the Nova Air is that E Ink screens really can’t handle more than a few frames of animation per second and that the more graphics they try to draw on screen, the more smearing and ghosting appears. The apps on the Nova Air behave as they do on Android phones, displaying animations and expecting precision input—but the E Ink screen is an entirely different beast. (This is going to be a recurring theme.)
Onyx, the maker of the Boox Nova Air, has attempted to compensate for this with some clever software additions. There are tools to increase contrast in given apps to make them more E Ink friendly. There are tools to set custom refresh points for each app so the display doesn’t get muddy. There’s even an extension called Navigation Ball that provides quick access to adjusting app preferences, emulating the back button, and even scrolling content up and down so you don’t have to drag your finger to scroll. (Scrolling anything on the E Ink screen is a deeply weird experience because of the slow refresh rate.)
After I figured out how to use it—and it must be said that a lot of Onyx’s software is quite opaque, a fact not aided by poor documentation and questionable translation into English—I ended up getting in a groove with the Nova Air. Once I managed to get Google Play apps to load, I installed various reading apps and put them to use. The biggest moment of understanding was when I realized I could tap on two floating buttons generated by Navigation Ball to page up and down, rather than attempting to scroll up using my finger as I would on an iPad or iPhone. (Strangely, for a premium e-reader, the Boox Nova Air doesn’t have physical page-turn buttons—instead, the company offers a case that includes those buttons. And because they emulate the volume up/down buttons, they didn’t work with most apps… unlike the floating buttons from Navigation Ball.)
Once I was able to get everything set up, was I able to use the Boox Nova Air as a reader for my newspapers, RSS, newsletters, and other content apps, as well as for ebooks via the Kindle and Kobo apps? Yes, I was. But with the exception of the book-reading apps—which were built for a page-at-a-time reading experience that’s perfect for E Ink—what I found was that using apps intended for standard screens was always awkward. Reading a story from The Athletic while tapping the floating page down button from Navigation Ball was okay (though the button only scrolled each page about two-thirds of the way down, so I had to reorient my reading every time), but when I was done, navigating back to the story list and picking another story to read was just a reminder that I was using software not really intended for the device I was using.
There’s a real chicken-and-egg thing happening here. With the right software, the Boox Nova Air could be a pretty good reading device. But without a huge market of E Ink-based devices, nobody’s going to introduce E Ink modes into their newspaper or magazine apps or even their RSS readers.
Multitasker or unitasker?
After spending time with the Boox Nova Air, I began to appreciate how the software that runs on the Kindle and Kobo is tuned for one particular purpose: reading on an E Ink screen. The whole experience is tuned to avoid the weaknesses of that screen and emphasize its strengths.
And when a screen refreshes as slowly as E Ink, the goal is to reduce interactions as much as possible. E-readers are at their best when you’re just moving forward or backward and reading words on the page. Once you start interacting with them by making touchscreen gestures, everything gets a bit more frustrating. It’s all still usable—you can look up words, highlight passages, take notes, and navigate within lists of content—but it’s not nearly as smooth an experience.
On the other end is a device like the iPad mini, which excels at touchscreen interactions, and all its apps are tuned for it. Sounds like the perfect reading device, doesn’t it? So why would anyone use an E Ink device, whether it’s an established unitasker like a Kindle or an oddball multitasker like the Boox Nova Air?
Accepting that most people won’t want an E Ink device in their lives when they can just use a smartphone or iPad, I’ve realized that two separate factors lead me to keep buying devices with these strange little ones black-and-white reflective displays.
First is the display itself. E Ink is by far the best reading experience in bright light. No glare coating on an iPad or iPhone can make those devices match up to an E Ink device in bright sunlight. And even indoors, there is something about that monochromatic, ink-on-paper reflective display that just feels intangibly different from staring at glowing pixels. Even when lit up (not from the back, but from the sides), the E Ink display just feels different.
But the other factor is the fundamental nature of an e-reader as a unitasker. They’re for reading books1. It’s not just that they’re good at it, but that they’re terrible at everything else. So you don’t use them for RSS, or newspapers, or newsletters, or anything else. There are no push notifications. There’s no temptation to swipe over to Twitter or Slack. (Yes, I could turn off notifications and remove all tempting apps from the iPad mini and make it a quieter experience—but then it would lose its advantages as a multitasker.)
I guess what I’m saying is, e-readers are a luxury item for people who want a device that’s devoted just to reading books. They’re not essential or necessary, but they are awfully nice. And part of what makes them nice is their distance from all the other apps and platforms that live on more complicated devices.
Stuck in the middle
The Boox Nova Air is an impressive piece of hardware that’s let down by its software. Despite Onyx’s attempts to add software to make the experience better, it’s still pretty far short of a good reading experience. The freedom to do anything I could think of on an E Ink screen only revealed to me why other devices with E Ink displays are completely locked down, with specific functionality tuned to specific hardware.
A company with more resources could give a product like this a go, assuming they invested in building more custom apps to cover as many use cases as possible. But the dream of just plucking an app off of the Play Store and running it on an E Ink display—it’s just not realistic. Those apps don’t translate.
So, at least for now, you’re better off buying a Kindle or Kobo or an iPad mini. The first will give you an E Ink experience tuned specifically to the task of reading books; the second will give you a small, lightweight multitasking tabled capable of anything you can throw at it. As for the Boox Nova Air, it’s a multitasking device with a screen built for unitasking. It’s an impressive bit of hardware, and I had fun using it, but I can’t really recommend it.
Yes, they can be loaded with other kinds of content, but they are the exceptions that prove the rule. ↩