I bought a reMarkable (review)

I’ve had my reMarkable for about eight months now and I’ve been meaning to write a review for a while. The time has come. Just recently there was a major firmware update that included extensive changes to the user interface, so now is a good a time as any.

Nope, that’s not the official case. More on that later.

So what is this reMarkable, anyway?, I hear you ask. I could say it’s an electronic notepad, but that wouldn’t do it justice. A better description might be: Does for paper notebooks what e-readers do for books. You write on it, just as you would a paper notebook. You keep your pages organised in notebooks – as many as you like (think of each notebook as a file) – and those in turn are organised into folders. Folders can have sub-folders just like on a computer.

I used to have ten or more notebooks scattered around my desk. Each notebook was intended for a specific purpose – one for household finances, another for to-do lists, three or more for notes about day-job projects, another for story ideas, and so on and et cetera.

Paper notebooks fill up, so I had to start new ones and keep track of the old ones because there would be things in those that I needed. I’d get phone calls and need to scribble down a phone number or an address or an account number or something, and invariably I’d grab the closest notebook regardless of what it was supposed to be used for. Keeping track of them all was a nightmare, and trying to find any specific note I’d made became all but impossible.

My reMarkable fixes those problems. All my notes are on one device, in as many notebooks as I need (at the moment I actually have about a hundred individual notebook files spread across maybe thirty or forty folders and subfolders, and that takes up about 750Mb of the built-in 8Gb storage). If I need to make a fast note of something (a phone number, a name, a story idea) I can pop open a new Quick Sheet and do that. I can move that single page into the right notebook afterward. I can reorder pages within a notebook, duplicate pages and move the duplicate copies into other notebooks, as needed. Pages or whole notebooks or even folders can be deleted when I don’t need them any more. Individual pages or complete notebooks can be sent by email (the device needs a WiFi connection for cloud backup, email, etc. Obvs.)

As to the actual writing, it has a provided stylus (no batteries required – it’s powered by induction, or something, when the tip is in contact with the tablet surface). The designers have taken pains to make the thing feel much more like writing on paper with a pencil than on a sheet of glass with a ballpoint pen. It even sounds like writing on real paper. I’ve never seen any lag – it keeps up with me no matter how fast I move the stylus. It’s a joy to work with. The writing surface is a little over ten inches (diagonal measurement, of course). Although that’s smaller than a regular letter- or A4-sized pad, I find it to be a comfortable size. I strongly recommend taking a look at the videos on remarkable.com, which can give you a far better idea than me trying to describe it. (Note: those videos probably show the older user interface, but the important things function in much the same way.) You can navigate between pages by swiping the screen left/right or using the buttons in the lower corners.

About the “tools”: It can emulate regular and mechanical pencils, a ballpoint pen, a fine-liner, a paintbrush, the eraser tool, and a couple of other things. Most tools have three width settings and three shades – black, grey, and white. Some tools produce thicker lines based on pressure and/or tilt so you can use reMarkable as a sketchpad, within limits – it has layers that can be reordered, for example, but there’s no flood-fill tool, and of course it’s all black-and-white. PhotoShop it is not. But you can select a chunk of a page then move it, duplicate it, rotate it, and scale it. Which is pretty damned cool, I can tell you.

You can also convert your handwritten notes to text (it actually does a surprisingly good job of recognising even my horrible spider-scrawl) which can be emailed out.

There are companion apps for Windows, Android, and (I think, but check the web site) Apple devices. They allow you to see your notebooks and folders and rearrange things, as well as letting you import PDF and eBook files which you can then read directly on the reMarkable. Oh, and you can scribble on those PDFs and eBooks, too, to mark things or add your own notes.

It is not a tablet – you can’t install apps, and there’s no web browser, so there’s no Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or anything else. It’s touted as distraction-free because it won’t keep dinging you to tell you have mail or messages or tweets. The only notifications you’re likely to see are to tell you there’s a firmware update to be installed, and that doesn’t happen too often.

I love my reMarkable, and no mistake. But is it all good?

Like anything else, it does have some negatives. There are a handful of things I wish could be fixed or improved. So:

First, let’s talk about price. It’s come down some since I bought mine, but you’re still looking at $500, which is a chunk of change. But it is a high-tech piece of equipment – fast CPU, 8Gb memory, plus the big e-ink display – so maybe that’s justified. (I should mention here: There are financing options that’ll let you pay for it over up to twelve months. And there’s a thirty-day return policy, in case you buy and don’t like.)

Some of the features can be a little tricky to find; for example the other day I wanted to change the template of a page from “narrow lined” to “blank” (i.e. no lines or grids – there are a bunch of these templates built-in) and it took me a while to figure out where that setting is. The real solution is RTFM, I guess.

Then there are the stylus tips. They wear down pretty quickly – especially when banging out a couple of dozen pages of story notes. That wouldn’t be so bad but they run $12 for a box of eight (which includes a little tool to grab the things, which I find totally unnecessary and could do without, since I manage very easily with just my fingernails). And they ship all the way from Hong Kong, so you’re looking at up to ten days to get them delivered. Best to order a bunch and in plenty of time before you run out.

Battery life is sort of good – easily a couple of days even with pretty heavy use (I use mine every day, for at least an hour most days). What’s surprising is that the battery seems to run down almost as fast even when the unit’s sleeping. I don’t understand why that is. Maybe it’s just me. It does charge up pretty quickly, though.

Don’t bother with the slip case (they call it a folio, but it isn’t). It’s $80 and it’s not worth it. You can’t use the device while it’s in the case, so you run the risk of leaving the case somewhere and forgetting it. It doesn’t even have a hole for the charger cord – so you have to leave the thing out, unprotected, while charging. I found several folio cases online, designed specifically for reMarkable, at prices from $15 to $25. The one in the photo above cost me $20 and it’s awesome.

In Summary: I love my reMarkable. I use it all the time, for all kinds of things, and I don’t know how I’d manage without it. I’d recommend it to anyone. If you’re like like me-nine-months-ago and have a desk covered in notepads but can never find the one you need when you need it, I think you’d really like the reMarkable.

Lenovo Yoga C630 Chromebook – A Review

I didn’t realise that it’s getting on for three years since I bought my Acer Chromebook. But yeah, there is in black and white: I wrote a post right here in February 2017 about it. I hadn’t realised it was that long ago. Time flies, huh?

The Acer has lasted very, very well but over the last few months it’s become plain that it’s just not up to the work I ask it to do. So a week or so ago I decided it was time to go bigger, better, stronger, faster. After shopping about a little bit I decided on the Lenovo Yoga C630.

There’s very little actually wrong with my old Acer. As I said, it’s getting on for three years old now and in all that time it’s given me zero problems. Unlike other tech (such as my phone) the batteries still hold charge well; I can still stream Netflix, etc. for ten hours straight on one full charge. It doesn’t crash. Ever. Despite a couple of mishaps – as evidenced by a scratch or two – the case (plastic) is still in one piece. Hinges are still solid. In fact the only physical problem with it is that the left Shift key is a little bit sticky. Overall, given that it only cost $180 I’ve been really pleased with it and I’d certainly recommend it to anyone looking for a low-cost entry-level Chromebook. (They’re still available and these days cost $150 or less.)

No, the main reason for the upgrade is that as time’s worn on I’ve been relying more and more heavily on the Chromebook – for example I use it for online bill-paying as well as email, writing documents, and more – and it’s got to where it just not up to it. It has only 2Gb RAM, which for regular stuff is adequate but when I have two or more accounts signed in with browsers open (as I often do) it starts to suffer.

I’ve also noticed that web sites (news sites, mostly, but also others) are adding more and more ads and subscription popups and all kinds of other junk, and now in addition will spot and complain about ad blockers, so if I want to actually read the news I have to disable the ad-blocker which then cripples the downloading and rendering to the point where some sites just become unusable. Add to that the new features of Chrome that are going to add more load (such as the new Virtual Desks) and a low-end unit like the Acer isn’t going to keep up with what I need.

So let me talk about the Yoga. First, price: $700. That’s a chunk of change but not so bad when you consider that there are ‘books out there for twice that. Physically it’s about the same size as the Acer; same screen size at 15.6″, and it seems to be slightly thinner. Aluminium case instead of plastic. The keyboard itself seems a little more solid; the keys feel distinctly more positive, but maybe that’s just me.

The real differences – the ones that really matter to me, anyway – are inside, though. Where the Acer has a dual-core Celeron running at 1.6GHz, the Yoga has a quad-core hyperthreaded i5 CPU (i.e. eight threads vs two) that can burst at up to 3.4GHz. And you can see the difference – pages load much, much faster (noticeably faster than my Windows 10 laptop). RAM: 8Gb, or four times the Acer; Disk space (yeah, I know, it’s not actually a disk): 128Gb compared to the Acer’s 16Gb. The battery looks like it can go about twelve hours between charges.

There are other things you’re getting for the higher price tag. Touch screen. USB-C connectors, if that floats your boat (to me they’re just connectors, but as they say, “Ok, Boomer”). And it’s “multi-mode”: use it like a laptop, or in stand mode, or tent mode, or fold the keyboard right back and you’ve got a 15.6″ tablet. (To me those things are gravy; I’d rarely use anything but good old laptop mode, although I can think of a couple of situations where the stand mode might be handy to have.)

So, is it worth the money? In my opinion, I’d say that if you’re like me and you actually use a Chromebook pretty heavily (I use mine more than I do my Win10 laptop), and you need something that can keep up, and you’re not good with coughing up a grand for a 12.3″ Pixelbook then, hell, yeah, it’s worth it.

The Day @ChuckWendig Kicked My Arse

Last Tuesday evening I drove on down to Tattered Cover books in Denver to see Chuck Wendig on the last stop of the Wanderers tour. (“What’s Wanderers, precious?” I hear you say. It’s a bloody good book, I answer. Lookie here.) I walked into the store, then I walked into the man (really – he happened to be near the door and was right in front of me as I entered. I shook his hand. I haven’t washed that hand since.)

And I bought a hardback copy of the book (even though I already had the book on Kindle, because if I’m gonna get a book signed, I want the book signed), and I sat and listened as he described how the book came to be (on which I will say more) and then took questions including one from me even though he couldn’t hear me properly because I’m still getting over this damned throat bug and I’ve been speaking in a hoarse whisper for a month or more.

At the end he signed the book and I got a selfie with him (which is pretty awful – I should have asked someone else to take the pic, but it didn’t occur to me at the time). And sometime during the proceedings, yea verily, he kicked my arse.

(checks video)

Ok, he didn’t literally kick my arse.

Let me go back to the bit where he talked about the genesis of Wanderers. He mentioned that the story just started off as a very simple idea: a little girl starts sleepwalking – and doesn’t stop. She walks out of the house and into the world and other sleepwalkers join in. (Not a spoiler – that all happens on the first page or two of the book, and sets the stage for everything that happens after.) That’s it. From that simple seed he built the rest of the story.

I’ve mentioned my own story-developing process several times (I even wrote a little book about it). It involves spreadsheets and timelines and peril/tension scales and so on. And if you take a look back at earlier posts here you’ll see that I was working on timelining a story a few months ago.

That sort of died; as I’ve also mentioned, stuff has been happening since December that’s made finding time and staying focused on writing really hard for me, and thanks to that the timeline work ended up fizzling out. (It’s not 100% dead. It just dried out like a mummified corpse. Add the right kind of juice and it might come back. I haven’t decided yet whether to resurrect it; I’ll figure that out when things get back to something more like normal.)

Back to Tuesday. Wanderers starts off as a one-sentence seed of an idea.

Wednesday, I think about that. I also think about a one-sentence idea that had been niggling away at the mid-brain for a couple of weeks. And I start writing it down. Started with that scene, then what happened next and then what happened after that.

Yesterday (Sunday) evening, I wrote the ending (although I’d had the bones of the ending in mind since Wednesday or maybe Thursday). But the whole thing was down on paper (well, actually I used my reMarkable, which made it go waaaay faster. But still, handwriting.)

No timeline, no spreadsheet, no scene cards. No tech. No process-with-rules-I-feel-I-should-stick-to. I just started with this opening scene that I hadn’t been able to get out of my head, and five days later I had a story.

I started off thinking it would be a short story, but it grew like kudzu. At this point it’s just a story, not a book, but it is going to make a book. Not immediately, of course – I’ve put it to one side for a couple of days and then I’ll review what I have and look for inconsistencies, and even though I already have my characters (they became people as I was writing the story) I want to write down some back stories to help me keep their little details straight in my head. And then I’ll start banging actual keys and writing actual words that will become an actual first draft.

For the first time in months, I’m excited and ready to write this thing. The dry spell is over – for good, I hope – and it’s all because Chuck Wendig (figuratively) kicked my arse.

Until next time . . .

Longer Time No Sea

That thing I mentioned in a post in March, about me going back to England? Still happening. And although I could probably say a bit more today about what’s been going on, I’m not 100% comfortable with that (mostly because other people are involved and I don’t want to upset anyone by saying something that should wait until later). Which is the main reason I haven’t been able to post here as often as I’d like.

So right now all I can say is that things have been moving along, if slowly, and with a little luck I should have much better idea of where things stand sometime around the end of the month, if not sooner.

What is certain: I’ll be moving back to the UK. What’s not so certain at the moment is when. Hopefully before this year is out, and ideally before the end of September.

Watch this space. I’ll try to update a bit more regularly than I have been.

#AmWriting

Timelining work, to be more accurate, on the Untitled SF Project. I just finished the first cut of the timeline for the first of three connected stories. It’s short – thirty-three scenes when I it really needs to be fifty to fifty-five. I’m not going to try to fix that yet; I’ll timeline the other two stories first then come back to it and see what, if anything, can be done. I’ll post progress here, so watch this space.

Freewrite Reviewed. Again.

I had some negative things to say about Freewrite in my original review from a couple of posts back.

I take it all back.

I had some problems, sure. It turns out that the machine can be a bit picky about which kinds of USB chargers will work, and which won’t. As it happens it didn’t like any of the ones I had, and then there’s the bit where I bought a charger that should have worked but it didn’t, and it was my own damned fault for not reading the instructions. As long as the charger is a generic one, not built specifically for one device, it should work.

Long story short: I couldn’t get the battery to charge; I sent the machine back; Astrohaus couldn’t find anything wrong with it, and they expressed it back to me. I got it back on Monday. It’s now Friday so I’ve had several days to play with it.

And I love it. I can use it on a desk, on my knees lying on the bed, or sitting in a chair in the living room. I don’t think I’d have any problems using it on a train or a plane. The screen may be small but I can see the text just fine, backlight or no. (The text size can be changed; there are only three options – small, medium, and large – but I’d say those are enough.) The keyboard feel is really good. It’s a joy to work with.

In my earlier review I said I wasn’t sure if I would get used to not being able to go back to fix typos (beyond being able to backspace). It turns out that after a little while I was able to forget those typos and just keep banging keys. And that on its own more than doubled my hourly word count.

Another thing I had reservations about was Astrohaus’ support and the fact that they’re not around at weekends. It turns out they’re a small concern and don’t have the manpower for 24/7 support. But when they are on the clock, they get busy. They’ve been more responsive to emails than several much larger businesses I could name. And as I said, they didn’t hang about looking at my machine and then getting it back to me. I’m not worried about support any more.

So forget the negatives in that first review. I no longer have anything bad to say about it, and I’d recommend it to anyone.

One last thing: I mentioned earlier that you can get a 5% discount by using this link:

https://getfreewrite.com/discount/HG8EMZSXZXJ9?rfsn=2434446.cd73b71&utm_source=refersion&utm_medium=affiliate&utm_campaign=2434446.cd73b71

(And I get a kickback for the referral, too.)

Until next time…

Review: @Astrohaus Freewrite – the good, the bad, and the ugly

Note: See the update at the end of this post.

The Freewrite I ordered was at last delivered yesterday. Exciting! I’d been looking forward to getting it all week, so I was itching to get the box open and start playing with it.

The good:

There’s a lot about it that I like. The case is metal, solid, tough. The keyboard has a great feel – positive without being too click-clacky. Unlike a laptop, the thing sits nicely on my lap, even sitting in a comfy chair in the living room, without feeling like it’s going to tip backward, and the underside has enough friction that it doesn’t slide around on the knees. The e-ink screen is good and clear, with or without the backlight, and I had no problems seeing it clearly even sitting upright in said chair with the machine on my knees. The switches controlling the folder and wi-fi have a solid, positive feel. All in all, the mechanics of the machine are great.

The bad:

Anyone reading this who owns and loves a Freewrite will almost certainly disagree with me on this one, but I don’t like that it doesn’t allow any editing beyond the backspace and delete-last-word functions. Yeah, I know: part of the point is that it encourages you to work forward and think about editing once you have the first draft. I get that. My problem is that if I see a spelling error at the top of the screen, it’s like a big ugly zit that I have to do something about. Not being able to go back and fix it quickly is frustrating. Could I get used to it? Maybe. But that for me is a rough one. Even using my old Smith-Corona, there was always the Wite-Out option.

I’m not happy that certain settings can only be changed through the Postbox page on the web site. Want to change the font size? You have to change that in Postbox – so wherever you are, you need a device with internet access, and the Freewrite also needs to be connected via wi-fi so that it can pick up the change. I set the timezone on Postbox last night but the Freewrite didn’t get the memo until this morning . . . would a font size change take that long? I don’t know, but if so that’s pretty horrible. Couldn’t Astrohaus have put a settings screen in the machine?

The ugly:

Those couple of bad things are, at least, something I could get used to over time. But there are other things that are killers, to my thinking.

When I first switched the machine on, it flashed an Astrohaus logo; after a few seconds, that changed to a Freewrite logo. Then it went back to Astrohaus. Then back to Freewrite. And it did that for probably a couple of minutes before it came up with a message. “Booting”. That doesn’t look right. It smacks of something inside having a problem starting up. As a software developer, I’d say it smells wrong. But boot it did, eventually, so maybe it was just running some kind of self-test before starting the real boot process. It didn’t inspire a lot of confidence, though.

Once it was up, I checked the battery level; it looked like it was about 70%. Fine. So then I set up the wi-fi connection and started playing with it. This morning I checked the battery level and it was down around 50%, so I used the supplied USB cable with a regular charger (for some reason, even with a $549 price tag, it doesn’t come with its own charger) and plugged it in. It didn’t start charging (it’s supposed to show couple of little lightning-bolt icons in the status window, but it didn’t). I tried a different charger, and a different cable, and plugging into my laptop; no difference. For such a solidly-built bit of kit, that’s surprising and disappointing. It’s plainly faulty and will have to go back.

I hit the web site to find a contact form, and put in the details of the charging problem. Submitted. A couple of minutes later I got an email saying that they don’t do support at weekends so I wouldn’t hear anything until Monday at the earliest. WHAT. THE. ACTUAL.

So then I checked the Community forums to see if any other users had seen a similar problem, with the hope that maybe someone had a fix. But the Community is really badly named, because there are only two forums: Around The Haus, which is written by Astrohaus staff and read-only for everyone else; and Release Notes, with details about the various firmware updates. That’s it. No actual forum where users can swap tips and tales. No support forum where people can discuss problems and solutions. No actual Community.

Astrohaus: I find your lack of support disturbing.

So: hardware problem right out of the box, no support at weekends, no support forums, no community of users to consult with. That’s too many red flags for me, for such an expensive item. I’m sorry to say that on Monday I’ll be making use of the return label and sending it back. I’ll stick with my $180 Chromebook and Google Docs.

Update 25-Mar-19: I received not one but two responses from Astrohaus; the reason for the lack of support at weekends is that they’re a small company and don’t have the resources. The fact that they got on the ball first thing Monday makes me feel somewhat better. As such I decided to return the Freewrite for repair or replacement and give it another chance. Let’s see how this goes.