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.

Review: The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter – @RodDuncan

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THE short: A damned good book. Most definitely five stars, and a must-read for fans of steampunk and alternate history.

THE long: I was in the bookshop looking for gifts. I happened along the SF/F aisle, where I saw Unseemly Science by Rod Duncan. It caught my eye because it was face-out on the shelf rather than edge-out and so I saw the cover, and was intrigued.

They say not to judge a book by its cover. What a crock that is. You can’t HELP but be fascinated by a good cover. I’ve lost count of the number of books I’ve bought for no other reason than they had bloody good cover art. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, for example, and John Varley’s Titan, Wizard, and Demon (aka The Gaian Trilogy).

But I digress. I saw this book. I was interested—but I didn’t buy it, because I was looking for gifts for other people, not for me.

Then my wife said I should have picked out something nice for myself, too. So I went back and grabbed it and gave it to her. And then, Christmas evening, I unwrapped this package, and there was Unseemly Science.

I opened it eagerly . . . and found that it was the second book in a series. Shit. I really wanted to read it. But I didn’t want to read it until I’d read the first book.

Long story shortened: Next day, went back the bookshop. Bought The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter (the first book in the series). Went home. Started reading. Today (that is, the day after starting it), finished it.

And DAMN it’s a good read. The only reason I didn’t read it in a single day was that I was busy the first evening and had to put it down.

So, the gist. Elizabeth Barnabus lives a double life—her alternate persona being that of her fictional brother, a private investigator. Why the double identity? I think I can say without it being a spoiler, because it’s revealed in the first couple of pages anyway. You see, Elizabeth lives in an alternate Britain in which women aren’t permitted to own property or manage businesses, so to be able to work as an investigator she needs to be able to disguise herself as a man. (That’s a simplification; Duncan has built an intricate world in which Britain is cut in two, the north and the south being very different places. But I can’t say much more on that without introducing spoilers, so I’ll leave it there.)

As to the story itself . . . Elizabeth is commissioned to find the missing brother of a duchess. Along his trail she finds murder and betrayal, is chased by the dreaded Patent Office, and even joins a circus. No-one is who they seem. The story twists and turns like a maze of alleys on a foggy London night. And the atmosphere of the story is to match—the settings are dark, dank, almost Victorian. (Is it Victorian? There are a good number of clues that say not—but I don’t want to give anything away.) It would make an excellent movie, I might add. I couldn’t put it down; I’ve been stretched out on the sofa most of the day, reading. A very satisfying read, indeed.

Is it steampunk? I’d say so. There are purists out there who might disagree—but at the end of the day, purist definitions are meaningless. If the readers say it’s steampunk, then it’s steampunk. (I mention this because I’ve read comments from some people saying that Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker and its sequels aren’t steampunk because they’re set in America and not England. I say they’re wrong. Purists can go way too far sometimes.)

So now I’ve finished The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter, I’ll be starting into Unseemly Science just as soon as I can (i.e. later this evening). Note that the third book in the series, The Custodian of Marvels, will be on bookshelves on February 2. I for one am going to be having a hard time waiting for it.

Until next time . . .