Sometime about maybe 2 years ago I decided to ditch paper. I am a prodigious note-taker and always have a pile of notebooks ready, especially at work. I also lean heavily on Notion.so, but sometimes I don’t want the overhead of using a keyboard to corral my thoughts and ideas. I didn’t like how much paper I was going through, or how inefficient paper notebooks are when it comes to finding information. My solution was to buy an e-ink table, specifically the thought-leader in the space, the reMarkable 2, and I wrote a few words about the general search for an e-ink tablet as well as an unboxing and first impressions post of the reMarkable.
Late last year I lost my tablet, either because I accidentally threw it into the trash along with piles of old notebooks (I had been cleaning out my desk at the office, since I’m only there one day a week now) or had left it at the office and had it taken from my desk. I was devastated. The reMarkable was something I had used every day and considered the e-ink tablet to be one of the best pieces of technology I have ever owned. Since then, I have tried to use the iPad with the Apple Pencil, and I had spent time researching several Apps on the device to find one that could serve as a replacement. A few were good, most were not, but none held the same sway over me the way an e-ink tablet did.
On a whim I decided to check in on the Amazon Scribe the other day. Amazon is actually pretty good at joining a caravan already in progress and as it was one of the first companies to reach mass-market appeal with the Kindle e-readers, I figured that the Scribe would be more than an also-ran in the e-ink note-taking space. The Universe must have smiled on me that day, because there was an ongoing “bundle sale” for the Scribe 10.2″ e-ink tablet, the “Premium Pen”, and flip-back cover going for less than what I paid for the reMarkable alone (sans pro pen and folio cover). I hoped that the Scribe would provide at least a fraction of the reMarkable’s appeal (pun intended) and after a few days of use, I am happy to say that it does.
It’s an odd thing to say, but I enjoy living in an era where packaging design is important to companies. The Scribe’s box included a cardboard insert which, when removed, featured the device in the smokey velum wrapper that tech companies love so much these days. Removing it revealed the typical “your device has a personality” presentation on the quick-start manual, and the pen, charging cable, and set of replacement nibs were squirreled away in rectangular tube at the bottom. The image on the tablet is, of course, actual e-ink, as the technology’s claim to fame has always been how it can display static content without drawing power.
Rather than extend this post beyond reason, here’s some high-level bullet points. Kids love bullet points.
- Super thin size.
- Surface is smooth to the touch, but has texture when using the pen.
- Back casing has that powdered metal feel, with four rubber feet to avoid contact with surfaces.
- Premium pen can be magnetically attached to the side of the device and is pretty strong.
- Massive grip on the left side makes the device larger than it really should be.
- Power and USB-C charging/transfer port on the middle left side.
- No external volume controls.
- No external expandability.
- Premium pen is unpowered and requires no charging.
- Opposite end acts as an eraser when in inking mode.
- Eraser is spring loaded and requires downward pressure to use.
- Action button can be programmed to switch modes with a press-and-tap.
- Flip cover has a tray that allows the Scribe to magnetically adhere to.
- If the magnetic attachment scares you, the cover features a loop to secure the pen.
- Cover can be reversed to serve as a low-profile stand to elevate the tablet at a vertical angle.
Powering up the device for the first time (58% battery out of the box) presented a brief set-up for choosing a language, and a slog through sales pitches for Kindle Unlimited and Audible. One of the benefits of buying a Kindle from the source is that it comes pre-registered, so I didn’t need to input my massive-ass password to get the thing connected to my account.
Being a Kindle first and foremost — something I actually didn’t consider, believe it or not — the first thing I saw on the device proper was…wait for it…the Kindle store. The first tab is called “Home”, although I disagree with the implication that “the Kindle store” is the most desirable screen to start on. The second is for Kindle and on-tablet content (notebooks and imported) that I already own. Notebooks, the reason I wanted the device, is third, and other utilities can be found under the More tab. Note that the first thing I did was update the OS, so forthcoming screenshots may look different than they do in the one above.
I am not unpleased with the Scribe pulling double-duty as both a notebook and an e-reader, especially since I’ve been using my iPad to read Kindle books recently and have been irritated by way Apple’s device chews through battery as well as the overall weight of the device.
Here’s why we’re here. Notes can be organized in folders and sub-folders or left loose on the main Notebook page. This view can be filtered by “status” (of which I only have one: downloaded), sorted by criteria like name, creation date, or most recent, and can present in either a grid (above) or list view.
When creating a new folder, all it asks for is a name. When creating a new notebook, the notebook can be named, and a template chosen for the background. The selection for templates is respectable. The first row includes lined paper in common configurations, while the remaining options cover the basics of blank pages, grids, columns, simple planners and calendars, storyboarding, and sheet-music. In this regard I feel that Amazon did its homework and have given the user a comfortable selection of templates to work with.
As far as note taking goes, the Scribe does what it claims to do. When pen is put to “paper”, the lag time is pretty non-existent. The strokes are strong and vivid. Each note features a collapsible toolbar which can occupy either the left or right side (the device can be reconfigured to flip it for left or right-handed users). This toolbar offers four drawing options — pen, fountain pen, marker, and pencil — with each sporting 5 different stroke thicknesses. In these screenshots, the Pen tool is set on the second thinnest stroke. Beneath the drawing tools is the highlighter which offers the same five different stroke weights. Next comes the eraser tool. This offers not only five thicknesses, but the option to “erase selection” or “erase page”. The former allows for lassoing content, while the latter just clears the page without deleting the page. There is a “pointer” option, which will allow for the use of the pen to do things like move between pages without marking up the document, something that a finger is usually used for. Finally, there are options for undo, redo, and the three-dot-menu which allows for the left or ride side placement.
Navigation between pages is done with a traditional left or right swipe or a light touch on either margin. Additional options such as getting back to the notebook and folder listing, getting to the notebook properties, sharing the notebook by email, renaming the notebook, changing the template background, deleting the current page, or reaching the device settings is accessed by touching anywhere in the blank space at the top of the page which is…very non-intuitive. I had to actually dig through the Internet to find out how to get out of the notebook itself because there’s no indicator that the top margin is designed to expose those options. Touching the top of the screen again will open an additional menu which offers airplane mode and Bluetooth, request to sync, and another way to access settings.
By far the best feature of this device is that it has a backlight! No more wishing I could take notes at night without carrying a light source with me. Like many modern portable display devices, the intensity of the background light can be set to adjust automatically, or it can be turned off by sliding the control all the way to the left. It also has a “Warmth” setting which will take the backlight from a cool white to a warm yellowish. Like similar settings on other portable devices, the warmth slider is aimed at reducing eyestrain when the backlight light is strong, but the ambient light is not, and the Scribe allows for a custom schedule to be set that will adjust the warmth as the user sees fit. Whether you start using it at dusk or during the Witching Hour, the Scribe won’t adjust its light settings until the time you set.
One of the best uses for e-ink tablets has got to be for TTRPGs. A single device can carry around dozens of PDFs, and really excels when using a PDF or DOC version of a character sheet, as it allows for infinite inking and editing during gameplay. Because of the backing of the Kindle store, it can also be used for textbooks or reference manuals.
There are two ways to get non-Kindle store items onto the Scribe. The first is direct through the USB-C connection. On Windows, plugging the tablet into a USB port will open the file system which allows for the transfer of content onto and off of the device (the screenshots for this post were taken on the device and copied off through USB). The second method is to use Amazon’s “WhisperSync” system which requires the user to upload content through Amazon for wireless delivery to the device. While privacy wonks might prefer the anonymity of the USB transfer method, word on the streets is that doing so will not allow you to use the pen to mark up the document. I checked on the device itself, and PDF downloaded via WhisperSync have some processing applied as part of the upload, meaning that the device needs some meta-data that Amazon provides as part of the transfer process in order to allow for mark-up. Another thing to note is that protected PDFs can be uploaded (like my Starfinder Core Rulebook), but because of the protection, inking is not available.
Like the reMarkable, though, the larger the PDF the slower it processes. Turning pages on the Starfinder Core Rulebook PDF was painful, as each page took a few seconds to flip. The smaller Battletech Inner Sphere Technical Manual, however, was fast enough to be able to use during a game.
Of course, getting around a PDF is pretty important. There is a table of contents button on the top-margin shade which allows for quick chapter navigation, and after using it to jump to another page, there’s an option in the footer to remain on the new page or to return to the previous page, which is really nice. There is also a search feature, but when I tested it right before this sentence was laid down, I realized that searches search all downloaded content as well as content on the Kindle and Audible stores. I did a search for “trebuchet”, a known Mech in the Battletech pantheon, and the Scribe found it easily. I did a search for “sphere”, which I know appears in the Battletech book as well as in Brandon Sanderson’s “The Way of Kings” which I have downloaded, and it found the word in both, as well as on the stores. The device also keeps a search history for future reference.
If using the Scribe with PDFs for reference, and if the document is enabled for markup, then any marks or sticky notes added can be easily referenced via the “annotations” option in the top margin shade. This seems to provide a thumbnail image of the page that was marked, along with the markup itself, which can be used to jump to that location in the document by touch.
I haven’t actually used PDFs with the device as this is a “nice to have” for things like TTRPG character sheets — not so much for large rulebooks, though — so this is a very broad overview of some quick tests I’ve run on those files.
Compared to the reMarkable
There are a lot of options for note taking on devices these days, and a lot of people will prefer iPads or Android tablets as they can not only take notes, but can watch video, browse the web, surf social media, play games, view recipes, and do most everything that a PC or laptop can do.
On the other hand, e-ink tables offer a distraction-free experience that doesn’t try to be all things to all people. Because e-ink technology (apparently) requires fewer bulky internals than a standard video tablet, it can be lighter and thinner. The downside is that most e-ink tablets are monochromatic and cannot process anything more complex than text and grayscale image.
There isn’t a heck of a lot of difference in the performance between the reMarkable and the Kindle Scribe, although if I remember the reMarkable correctly, then the Scribe is a bit quicker when it comes to screen refreshes (page turning, scrolling through library content, etc.). Both have a competent number of templates for notes that should easily satisfy the majority of potential uses. The Premium pens for both have the benefit of not needing to be charged, and both can be used to write/draw and erase. I don’t know while the Scribe’s Premium pen has the spring-loaded eraser while the reMarkable’s does not, and while the button on the Scribe’s Premium pen can certainly be useful for power-users, I am not sure I have any use for it at the moment.
One area where the reMarkable lays the smack-down on the Scribe is with custom content. There is a fairly robust third-party market offering reMarkable templates for sale, and custom templates are easy to create in Photoshop or GIMP, and can even be sourced from a PDF. reMarkable uses a Linux-based OS, and there are apps which can facilitate the import of documents and templates through WiFi or USB. I haven’t been able to find any info on “hacking” the Scribe, and although I haven’t spent a lot of time working through the folders made visible via USB, cursory inspection didn’t illuminate any obvious ways to add templates or even custom low-power wallpapers.
reMarkable did allow for the viewing of PDFs, DOC, PPT, JPGs, PNGs, and EPUB formats. The Scribe can accept PDF, DOC, DOCX, TXT, RTF, HTM, HTML, PNG, GIF, JPG, JPEG, BMP, and EPUB when uploaded through the WhisperSync method. In addition, the Scribe has direct access to the Kindle and Audible stores. The Scribe wins when it comes to audiobooks, as it can pair with headphones, earbuds, or external speakers via Bluetooth, while the reMarkable cannot.
The reMarkable had a nice, geometric design which mimicked a standard notebook and was therefore easy to work with. It could be used left or right handedly and could switch between portrait and landscape modes. The Scribe’s massive handhold is…kind of off-putting for me. I can see its utility, but I think it makes the device significantly larger, and while it can be used left or right-handed, it doesn’t seem to allow for a portrait mode, and there doesn’t seem to be a way to lock the orientation. Also, and again, while I don’t have the reMarkable to compare it to any longer, I feel that the reMarkable is lighter than the Scribe, which is still thankfully lighter than the iPad that I own.
One feature I haven’t checked out is portability of custom content. I had purchased a desktop app which allowed me to import/export content to/from the reMarkable, but it was flaky as hell. I used it primarily to move custom templates onto the device, but it also allowed me to move notebooks off of the device for archiving. reMarkable also offers an online cloud service which allows for PC or laptop viewing of notebooks on the device. Since I don’t have the reMarkable any longer, I can’t test beyond that experience, but Scribe notebooks (and PDF annotations, apparently) can be sent via email. I don’t know what form they’ll take when received, but it would be a good way to archive content.
reMarkable actually charges for their cloud access that allows you to wirelessly send content to your device and to view-only the notebooks created, while the Scribe has the benefit of Amazon’s deep pockets so that it’s “send to Kindle” service is free via a web browser, desktop, or mobile app.
While I lament the loss of the reMarkable (considering how I suspect I lost it), I am glad I jumped on the Scribe deal when I saw it because it’s already gone back up in price for the bundle that I bought. Although the massive side-bevel takes up too much space in my opinion, there’s more than enough usable space on the screen to allow the form factor to fade into the background. The pen and input work very well, with little lag, although either the pen input or palm interaction does occasionally cause screen to jump around.
In order to keep up with the current thought-leader I’d love to see Amazon to do more than just undercut reMarkable on price, and to strive for parity — or to overtake — the reMarkable on software features. Just before I lost the reMarkable, they had added “tags” for content which made for nice pseudo-grouping of notebooks and even pages within notebooks. Right now, Scribe seems anemic by lacking organizational and discovery features such as this, as well as core quality-of-life features like locking the rotation orientation. I also wish the Scribe was more open to customization for things like the screensaver or custom templates.
If you’ve been considering jumping into the world of e-ink note-taking tablets and are concerned that the Scribe might be a half-hearted attempt by Megazord Amazon to dominate another market by creating cheaper products with reduced quality, know that the Scribe is a solid competitor in the space on its own merits. In this case, Amazon’s ability to undercut reMarkable on price works in the consumer’s favor since the Scribe is just as fantastic an option as the reMarkable is. I’m hoping that Amazon continues to buff up this version of the Kindle software to provide more features to keep it in step with the reMarkable and other e-ink tablets.