By Jason Snell
October 11, 2023 1:55 PM PT
Boox Palma review: A phone-shaped e-reader
As a big fan of e-readers, I’ve been experimenting with Android-based alternatives to the dedicated Kindle and Kobo hardware for a few years now. The advantage of an Android E-Ink reader is that it can run any app—Kindle and Kobo, but also Libby and third-party ebook readers and newspaper apps and RSS readers. An Android-based E-Ink reader offers the promise of a single device for E-Ink reading from disparate sources.
And it’s shaped like a phone?
One handed E-Ink
The $280 Boox Palma is slightly smaller than an iPhone 15 Pro Max, with a 6.13-inch E-Ink screen. It doesn’t have cellular connectivity, but otherwise it feels like a generic Android (version 11) phone, with four different side buttons, a USB-C charging port, and a camera on the back that Boox says is for “document scanning,” though it feels more like it was part of a reference phone design that had to come along for the ride.
I’ll admit that I didn’t expect to like a phone-shaped e-reader. I’ve really come to love the design style shared by the Kindle Oasis and Kobo Libra 2, both of which feature seven-inch displays with physical page turn buttons you can rest your fingers on. And to be fair, I was less comfortable while reading on the Palma, since I needed to grip the device more tightly with my whole hand and stretch my grip to reach the volume buttons (repurposed as page-turn buttons) on the device’s side. But on the other hand, this was a supremely portable reader, like a beat-up paperback you can take just about anywhere.
It’s on the software side that I feel like Boox has taken a big leap forward. Part of that is that Boox’s own software game appears to have elevated. In the past, using Boox products was like wading through mud. On early models, I had to use workarounds to even enable the Play Store, and the Boox add-ons to manage the unique needs of E-Ink devices felt clunky.
All that’s pretty much gone. While I don’t love a lot of the Boox-written software that’s preinstalled on the device, I was able to log into the Play Store with ease and download other apps. And Boox’s system utilities worked wonderfully to let me map the device’s volume buttons to support page turns and its side button to force a refresh of the E-Ink screen when things would occasionally get dingy. Boox offers per-app overrides to modify Android apps to be more E-Ink friendly, and they almost always did the job. (Boox also seems to have made some strides in regulating battery life. Some of its early devices felt like they’d die after a few hours, on or off, but with Wi-Fi off the Palma can last for weeks while asleep and offer dozens of hours of illuminated reading.)
I do think that in the case of the Palma, the strengths of Android itself are also coming to the fore. Previous Boox devices I’ve used have tablet-sized screens, and many Android apps still don’t run well at those sizes. But they’re all optimized for phones! As a result, the third-party app experience felt a lot better on the Palma.
Disappointingly, the biggest app failures on Android are the apps for the big e-reader companies. I found reading in the Kobo apps, as well as the Libby app for library e-books, to pale in comparison to using a more generic e-reading app such as Moon+ Reader. The Kindle app for Android was fine, once I configured it properly.
One of the challenges of E-Ink screens is that they don’t refresh as fast as the LCD or OLED screens that most devices use. This means that scrolling on the Palma is manageable, but imprecise—and leaves the display looking a bit smeared. Ideally, Boox could override every app to support page turns on the press of a button and to reduce contrast so that text will pop on the E-Ink screen. Some apps were better at this than others.
Crossing a threshold
But after testing numerous Boox readers before ultimately putting them back in their boxes and concluding they just didn’t do it for me, I find myself feeling different about the Boox Palma. Maybe some of that is its solid support for Moon+, which is a very good ebook reader. I was able to plug the Palma into my Mac and sync it with Calibre, loading it up with books and short fiction, and then read all of it in Moon+. (I also sideloaded Georgia, my preferred e-reading font, which Moon+ was happy to display.)
No, not all of the Android apps I used were perfect fits for the E-Ink screen, but all of them were at least functional enough to use. I’m most disappointed in Kobo and Libby, since those ecosystems are my top sources of books. Perhaps unsurprisingly, decent Android apps supporting open standards like ePub and RSS adapted better to the Palma.
Though I didn’t write a review of it, I also have spent some time with Boox’s Tab Mini C, which is a 7.8-inch color E-Ink reader. Color E-Ink is extremely strange, but the refresh rate was good in color and spectacular in black and white. Unfortunately, the Tab Mini C is a lot heavier than a Kindle or Kobo reader, and lacks page-turn buttons. But its software is solid, just as it is on the Boox Palma.
In the end, I think Boox is nudging closer to making a good Android replacement for a Kindle or Kobo, one that would let me add RSS and newspapers to my dedicated reader. The Palma’s size may be perfect for some users, but I’d prefer a larger screen. The Tab Mini C is more like it, but it lacks those physical buttons. If Boox were to create a new version of its Leaf reader (which is the right size and has page-turn buttons) with the software that runs the Palma, it might be right in my sweet spot.
But that shouldn’t take anything away from the Boox Palma, which is a simply wild idea for a product… that pretty much delivers on its promise. E-reader fans who can be comfortable with Android and wish they could read on a compact device that doesn’t have a phone screen, it may be time to slip the Boox Palma into your palm.
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