By Jason Snell
March 22, 2023 1:54 PM PT
Boox Leaf 2: Hitting the limits of e-reader multitasking
I love e-readers. The high-contrast black-and-white E-Ink displays, the long battery life, and the software that’s focused on reading all made me a fan of the Kindle and, in recent years, the Kobo series of ebook readers.
Back in 2021 I reviewed the Boox Nova Air, a $389 Android tablet with an E-Ink screen. The idea: what if you could run all sorts of different apps on a single E-Ink device the size of a Kindle or Kobo? Ultimately, I found the Boox Nova Air to be an impressive piece of hardware that was let down by its software.
Spurred on by a rave review by The Verge’s Alex Cranz, I’ve been using a $200 Boox Leaf 2 e-reader on and off for the past few months. It’s a 7-inch reader that’s sized and priced more like a standard Kindle or Kobo. I’m happy to report that in the intervening months, the Boox software experience has improved—but a device like this is still probably not a good idea unless you are comfortable tinkering with Android apps and utilities.
By adding physical page-turn buttons to the Leaf 2, the device is much more usable as an e-reader than the Nova Air was. Many Android apps that understand the concept of turning pages of content support using the volume up and down buttons (which is what those page-turn buttons really are) to go forward and backward through content. Boox has added some clever software to let you set how the buttons are detected in different apps, and you can assign some very E-Ink-specific functions—like forcing a refresh of the screen!—to specific button gestures.
Page turning is a big deal, because E-Ink screens still don’t refresh fast enough to be usable with smartphone-style scrolling interfaces. Everything gets smeary and unreadable and generally is just… bad. Scrolling a webpage on an iPad is fine, but doing it on an E-Ink browser is really unpleasant.
Fortunately, there has also been some progress on the browser front. There’s a new Android browser called EinkBro that is specifically designed to be used on E-Ink devices, and it makes it easy to page through stories rather than scrolling through them. Though EinkBro would occasionally lose the plot and misrender pages a bit too wide, in general it was a huge boost to the usability of the device, since a lot of what I read is on the web.
As a result, my experience was much better than it was in 2021. Unfortunately, I ran into a lot of apps that still didn’t support page-turn buttons (Substack, I’m disappointed in you), and while Boox has a workaround for that (a utility called Navigation Ball lets you put up floating page up/page down buttons on screen), it’s an inconsistent and fiddly experience.
The other thing I realized is that a lot of Android apps are just bad. Okay, I’m not being entirely fair there—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.
The Kindle app on Android is actually pretty good, and works well with the Leaf 2 once you get it up and running. But if you use the page turn buttons too soon after you launch it, the Boox software won’t have kicked in yet and you’ll get a volume prompt instead of a page turn. And don’t swipe or tap to turn the page, or you’ll get a page-turn animation that can’t be turned off or properly rendered by the E-Ink screen.
The Kobo app is worse. It’s got a lot fewer options than the dedicated Kobo reading experience does, which is a shame since Kobo’s dedicated reading experience beats Kindle’s.
Boox also supplies its own e-reader app, but it didn’t let me turn off forced justification, which is a dealbreaker for me. But at least that app felt like it was specifically built for E-Ink, which is what’s missing from most of the Android apps I tried.
After this latest experiment, I’m left with two overriding thoughts about the future of e-readers. First, I wish Amazon and Kobo and the rest would finally embrace their hidden-away, “experimental” web browsers and just integrate them into the device experience. EinkBro shows that it can be done. More broadly, I wish those e-ink readers would consider adding basic support for other kinds of apps, especially given that Amazon just killed its digital newsstand program.
Amazon’s browser has been experimental for more than a decade now, so I’m not holding my breath. The other option—and this one has a far greater chance of happening—is that E-Ink refresh rates could keep getting faster. Right now some E-Ink displays are capable of 15 frames per second in black-and-white mode, which is pretty good! The more the screen can respond in the way that Android apps expect, the less a user will feel like they’re stuck in the mud when they’re using one of these devices.
The truth is, the e-reader market is so small—and so dominated by Amazon—that small companies like Boox are about the only ones trying to compete here. The products still aren’t good enough, in my opinion, but they’re getting closer all the time. Maybe someday I’ll fulfill my dream of reading everything, not just books, on a single E-Ink device. But we’re not there yet.
If you appreciate articles like this one, support us by becoming a Six Colors subscriber. Subscribers get access to an exclusive podcast, members-only stories, and a special community.