Boox Leaf 2, and Why E-Ink Doesn’t Make a Great All-Purpose Tablet

The limitations are clear

  • A lack of purpose-built apps hampers multi-purpose e-ink tablets. 
  • An e-ink tablet dedicated to RSS, e-books, news, and more would be amazing. 
  • E-ink tech isn't suitable for displaying a standard, fast-updating user interface.
Someone laying in a shady spot in the grass by a river, reading an e-book.

Fotokia / Getty Images

E-ink is great for reading, but it isn't ready for general tablet use yet.

If you read on a Kindle, Kobo, or another e-reader device, you probably love it. The combination of a restful-to-the-eyes screen, weeks-long battery life, and light weight make it a much better option than a tablet or a phone for reading. In fact, e-ink readers are so great that you probably wish yours could do more, like showing you your RSS news feeds, for example. Unfortunately, the Boox Leaf 2 shows exactly why e-readers don't make for good all-purpose computing devices. 

"General-purpose computing requires a high level of interactivity, which is not possible with e-ink technology. E-ink displays have a slow refresh rate, making them unsuitable for tasks such as video playback, gaming, or even scrolling through web pages," e-reader fan and tech entrepreneur Jon Morgan told Lifewire via email. 

How E-Ink Works

The best thing about an e-reader is its screen. Unlike a computer, tablet, or phone screen, which refreshes itself many tens of times per second, and works by shining bright pixels into your eyes, e-ink is an altogether more relaxed affair. 

An eReader with the new E Ink Gallery 3 display, shown in color.

E Ink

It works, as the name may suggest, just like a cross between regular ink and something like an etch-a-sketch. An e-ink screen requires no backlight. It is just black 'ink' on a pale gray page, just like a cheap paperback book. And like that paper book, it can be read in full sunlight.

These days, most e-readers have a built-in light, but this is actually an array of LEDs set into the frame around the screen. These LEDs shine onto the screen so you can read it in the dark. It's a neater equivalent of shining a flashlight at a paper book to read it. 

When you turn a page, power is used to flip the black pixels on or off to create the letters or images. That's it. If you removed the battery or just severed the screen from the rest of the unit, the image would stay there. Power is only used to change the display (and to run the computer inside, of course). 

The advantages are clear to anyone who reads on an e-reader. The screen is much less fatiguing on the eyes, as it is essentially the same as ink on paper. But the downside is that it takes ages to refresh the screen. It's fast enough for flipping pages in a book. The next page is ready before your eyes return to the top of the screen. But even the simple animations required to show menus and a user interface are at the device's very limits. 

E-ink displays have a slow refresh rate, making them unsuitable for tasks such as video playback, gaming, or even scrolling through web pages.

This is why we don't have many general computing devices with e-ink screens. They just don't work that well. E-ink is perfect for static images and text, like books, manga, supermarket shelf price tags, etc. But not for apps. 

How Android Could Make E-Ink Better

The other part of this is that many e-ink tablets run Android or a variant thereof, and Android is not optimized for e-ink screens. 

"Some Android apps are bad on the Leaf 2 because (for obvious reasons!) they were designed to be used with fast-refresh screens on Android phones, not slow-refresh e-Ink on a tablet. Other Android apps are just bad, or at least worse than the dedicated software you’d find on a fine-tuned, purpose-built e-reader by Amazon or Kobo," writes veteran technology journalist and e-reader aficionado Jason Snell on his Six Colors blog. 

But it doesn't have to be this way. While trying to run existing Android phone and tablet apps on a device that's not designed for the task will never end well, we already know that apps can be designed to run great with e-ink because we already use and enjoy book-reading apps. And if you use a Kobo, you might already be using the Pocket app to keep up with articles saved to your Pocket read-later queue. 

Someone curled up on the couch, reading an e-book.

10'000 Hours / Getty Images

Reading apps are clearly the most obvious candidates. You could have a text-first Mastodon client, for example, or some kind of newsletter reader. Another great use, and probably my favorite idea, is an RSS reader for e-ink devices. RSS readers gather articles and blog posts from many sources all together in one place and present them in a simplified, easy-to-read format. Sounds perfect. 

The barrier here is that somebody needs to write these apps, and Android-based e-ink tablet apps are a niche within a niche. That leaves it up to the device vendors. And so far, they're not doing a great job. Which is a shame, as an e-ink tablet dedicated to all kinds of reading apps could be a killer device.

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