Review: The reMarkable2 Tablet

Last updated 2020-11-28 11:31:42 SGT

I wrote a little while ago about the reMarkable tablet, which I bought early on during the crowdfunding phase. A new version of it came out earlier this year, and I was quick to preorder it thanks to my highly positive experience with the first iteration. I've now had the chance to play with the new version for a bit.

Hardware-wise, the build quality is exceptional. I used to joke to friends that my reMarkable was essentially an expensive etch-a-sketch that happened to sync with Google Drive. The reMarkable 2 is a completely different beast. Part of the reason for this is that it now comes with a fancy folio-style cover (with corresponding magnetic attachment points on the device for the pen and cover), has a much narrower set of bezels, and now has a body colour matching that of the display's whitest shade, resulting in a much more professional appearance.1 The pen's new texturing also feels much more pleasant than the old pen.

On the whole I am fairly mixed about this. On one hand, the reMarkable 2 feels much more like a premium device than the previous version. On the other, this makes me feel decidedly less adventurous with it. My old device has taken a few tumbles in its time, and I felt confident enough in its construction to let my (young) cousins play with/doodle on it. While I think the new device is likely rugged enough to survive a similar adventure, I would rather not subject it to such an ordeal, in much the same way as how I would rather subject nice boots than nice dress shoes to a trek through a swamp.

Software-wise, however, not much has changed. As far as I am aware both devices use the same software for the user-facing side of things (xochitl), so I was kind of already expecting this. However, one unpleasant surprise was that many hacks made possible by open features of the old device (e.g. directly writing out the framebuffer to /dev/fb0) no longer work with the reMarkable2. I was rather enjoying using my old reMarkable as a livestreaming whiteboard during the pandemic; until a new version of reStream comes out, I am presently making do with remouse and GIMP. 2

On the whole, I recommend the reMarkable 2 for the same use cases as the original reMarkable: a writing tool that syncs to the cloud. I continue to use it for writing down maths-heavy notes and annotating PDFs; it still feels magical that I can just push equations around on a written page. While reMarkable AS continues to deliver on a good hardware-based writing experience, the (non-hacker) software still leaves much to be desired. My primary gripes continue to be the lack of basic PDF operations that do not operate on graphical primitives (e.g. text-based rather than visual highlighting). For the reMarkable 2 in particular, there also appears to be an issue with software-induced jagged lines (which I can reproduce sporadically; for me it seems to emerge only with some combinations of pen tilt and rotation). While I'm overall still pleased with the device, this is now two devices in a row where I've had significant issues upon product launch that required third-party fixes. That third-party fixes are possible at all is still a great selling point, but I do wish that the OEM software didn't need them as much. If anyone from reMarkable AS is reading this: please hire ddvk and rien on GitHub, or someone who can do equivalent work.

On the other hand, epub support is still buggy as all heck; e.g. when anything at all is changed from the default settings, all text alignments specified by the epub file are overridden, which destroys e.g. image placements, or other text flourishes (right-aligned paragraphs in poetry…). Also, paginating on-device in advance (in anticipation of graphical annotations) means huge delays when opening large epub files, since the text cannot reflow. I wish that there was a text-only mode for reading epubs. The book-reading experience still can't compare to my 10-year-old Kindle DX. You can pry that out of my cold dead hands!

One last complaint: gestures/swipes for actions are serviceable, but I do miss hardware buttons.

  1. The team seems to have (re)-learned Amazon's lesson from the original Kindles (that pairing e-ink with a white plastic chassis only makes the contrast appear worse) the hard way, by making the same mistake. 

  2. while writing this post, I managed to get a new version of reStream working. Along the way I had a minor heart attack when I accidentally overwrote the copy of busybox.nosuid in /bin without setting executable permissions first, which seemed a priori unfixable since /bin/chmod was provided by busybox. If anyone is in a similar situation: ssh will continue to function since it's provided by dropbear rather than busybox, so you can run chmod from an sftp session. 

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