ReMarkable emits Type Folio keyboard cover for e-paper tablet
Distraction-free long-life e-ink handheld writing tool becomes a typing tool too... but leaves us conflicted
Norwegian e-ink tablet maker reMarkable has launched the Type Folio, a keyboard cover, causing one Reg hack to feel strangely conflicted.
The new Type Folio is a $199 (£165) keyboard cover for the reMarkable 2 e-ink tablet. It is interesting because it significantly widens the appeal for the reMarkable 2 itself, although the move takes it into a significantly more crowded and competitive market.
ReMarkable is a small Norwegian company with a single product range: an e-ink tablet, aimed at people who prefer handwriting notes on paper. Founder Magnus Wanberg, whose site describes him as "a true paper person," set the company up a decade ago, to make a thin, light device for taking handwriting and drawing notes and synchronizing them wirelessly to the cloud. In 2017 it crowdfunded the launch of the $499 reMarkable 1. This was an A5-sized (10.1 inch diagonal), 7mm thick tablet with a 1872×1404 touch-sensitive e-ink screen, Wi-Fi and microUSB connections, and a batteryless stylus.
The current reMarkable 2 was announced in 2020 and launched in 2022 at $399. It's thinner (just under 5mm), has a slightly larger (10.3 inch) screen, and has a dual-core Arm CPU and twice the RAM at 1GB. It's slightly heavier due to an aluminum chassis, but now sells for $299. Both run a proprietary Linux-based OS called Codex. The company also makes money from an optional $2.99-a-month online subscription called Connect.
The reMarkable devices have won many rave reviews. Some criticized the first version for being occasionally slow, so the version two is much faster. One of this vulture's friends bought a reMarkable 2, so I had a chance for a hands-on play with the device, which led to the first of many conflicting feelings that the gadget inspires.
On the one hand (and it's easily light enough to hold that way), it lives up to its name: it's much lighter than conventional color-screen tablets, and the matte display is pleasant to write on. It feels like some kind of magic slate, with an almost instantly responsive screen for scribbling and sketching. It is a lovely bit of kit.
So why the conflicting feelings? Well, there are a whole bunch.
Firstly, the reMarkable feels like writing with a pencil. That's great – unless, like this vulture, you use fountain pens both to prevent hand-strain, and to stop your script turning into scribbles. Secondly, I much prefer typing when I can. It's much easier to read, and search and edit, later on.
The bigger burst of cognitive dissonance, though, is more complex.
Back in the 1990s, your correspondent owned two Apple Newtons, both an original MessagePad 100, and the final 2100. The last version delivered on much of the device's promise: it had twin PCMCIA slots, for expandable storage and even networking. It had a much faster StrongARM CPU, making it fast and responsive. Although the Newton OS that shipped was a pale shadow of the rich, Lisp-based environment the company originally planned, it was amazing, next-generation stuff. The 2100's NewtonOS 2.1 was able to read both cursive and printed handwriting, turn scribbled sketches into geometrically perfect diagrams, and interpret and act upon instructions in English like a completely standalone handwriting-driven Siri.
But it was too early, and the tech wasn't ready. The early versions were sluggish, and the late ones bulky and heavy. Its abilities were profoundly constrained by having no wireless networking: to place a phone call, you held the device to the handset and it emitted DTMF tones. And they were expensive: I only bought second-hand Newtons, and I didn't use them in real life.
Your correspondent couldn't afford a new Newton. Instead, I just went out and bought a whole series of Psions. The Psions were simpler, dumber, driven by a low-tech but fast and efficient physical keyboard, in the QWERTY layout invented in 1874. They worked, exceptionally well, and occasionally gave me the entertainment value of entering, and sharing, info far quicker than my friends toting the lobotomized scion (geddit?) of the Newton, the Palm Pilot, which:
launched in 1996, was a smash hit, arising from the ashes of the "pen computing" hype of the early 1990s.
I felt vaguely guilty, but much as I loved the potential of the Newton, and although the Psions did much less, they were far more practical.
Back in 2014, I asked Where's my 21st century Psion?. Well, it arrived in the same year, as the Planet Computers Gemini. I bought one, in so doing backing my first ever kickstarter campaign, and it's great and very useful. Yes, it runs an old version of Android, but there are good reasons why it wasn't updated, and there are alternative OSes.
(Which, incidentally, there also is for the reMarkable: Parabola-rM. Its author also opened up this very closed device and added a microSD card slot.)
As the Reg commented a few months after the first iPad went on sale, the Apple tablet is in a way the 21st century Newton. It's slimmer, lighter, highly connected, and it ditches handwriting recognition..
The Newton was amazing, but flawed and handicapped by mid-1990s technology. A decade and a half after the Newton, the iPad delivered on most of the Newton's promise… but with a much less ambitious OS based on 1970s tech – iOS, derived from Mac OS X, that is, Unix – and a simpler text input method: QWERTY.
But an iPad is too heavy to hold in one hand and write on for a long time. The reMarkable is to the iPad what the Palm Pilot was to the Newton: smaller, slimmer, lighter, and more practical. The stylus is bundled, not a $99 extra. And like the Palm Pilot, it's done this by ditching almost all the Newton's smarts. It doesn't attempt to turn your handwriting into text on the fly: that's an optional later step. It doesn't transform sketches into diagrams, or understand natural-language instructions, either written or spoken. It just records pictures of pages and syncs them to the cloud.
For this correspondent, it's a heartbreaking example of 21st century technology: discarding all the ambitious dreams and aspirations of the 1990s, and delivering something simple and relatively stupid, but which just works and is comparatively cheap.
It's an established, successful model. Both the Palm Pilot and its many successors, and the various Psion devices and theirs, notably Symbian, thrived by doing just this. They ditched all the ambitious complex stuff, and sold in the millions. Gradually, they gained features and connectivity, and turned into early smartphones.
Then Apple staged one of the greatest comebacks of all time, put back better implementations of the smart stuff, made it simpler and easier, and quickly obliterated PalmOS and Symbian. Now, reMarkable takes away most of the fancy stuff in modern tablets.
It already faces competition, such as from Polish e-ink kit flogger Onyx Boox. This company has several such devices, and they're also much more versatile, as they run Android.
Watching these technological cycles feels a little like watching flared jeans become unhip, then coming back into fashion, then out again, then returning again.
The reMarkable was originally aimed at people who prefer to write by hand and draw, rather than type. So now, somewhat unexpectedly, the company is launching a keyboard cover, enabling users to turn their tablet on its side and type into it.
Which suddenly makes the device far more appealing to this highly keyboard-oriented hack. The colourful multimedia distractions of the Internet are an ever-present danger, and an e-ink device with a battery life measured in days rather than hours has a strong appeal. Much as I wanted a 21st century Psion, this author has also long wanted a portable distraction-free writing tool which could run apps.
Over the years, several have come and gone. The Alphasmart 3000 was a beautifully simple device, and if you wanted apps on your monochrome writing tool, the same company offered a PalmOS driven version. The smarter Alphasmart was over $500 new, but they're still around and substantially cheaper used: the author picked up a 3000 for less than $50, and a Dana Wireless for well under $100.
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In recent years, the original Freewrite Smart Typewriter was both expensive and bulky, but the later Traveler is smaller and neater, if still costly. Japanese vendor King Jim offers the Pomera "digital typewriter", which is very neat, small, and slightly more capable.
This product marketplace is more competitive than the one reMarkable normally inhabits, and this poses our final conflict. If you remove lots of features from a device in the pursuit of simplicity, lightness, and long battery life, then customers tend to expect to pay much less for it, too. ®