How well do Android and E Ink get along?

E Ink is one of those initially promising technologies that ultimately has lived a bit of a disappointing life. After the introduction of the original E-reader devices such as the Amazon Kindle, we were promised a future of all signage being replaced with readable, but electronically controllable E Ink displays. Even color E Ink displays teased us with very limited product rollouts.

However, E Ink has not been a magical cure-all. Lower demand and more difficult production methods mean that the cost of these displays remains much higher than other commodity technologies like LCD. Additionally, even though E Ink has substantially improved from the first E Ink displays, refreshing the display remains a slow process and a deal breaker for applications such as notebooks and tablets.

Or does it? For someone who spends a lot of time looking at LCDs all day, the idea of E-Ink still very much appeals to me. This led me to ask myself some questions earlier this year. Would I be willing to accept the trade-offs of E Ink for a solution to eyestrain? Are E Ink displays any better than when I lasted used one? Are there even any modern E Ink devices besides the Kindle?

That research brought me to what we are taking a look at today, the Onyx Boox Max 2, a 13.3" E-Ink tablet running Android 6.0. 

In some ways, using the Onyx Boox Max 2 feels like you're in an alternate future where E Ink adoption was much much higher. Underneath the nose of the average consumer, E Ink technology has actually come far from the 3-year-old $99 Kindle that people might have laying around their house, unused.

In particular, the display in the Boox Max 2 is a E Ink Mobius Carta, coming in at a resolution of 2200 x 1650 (207 DPI) and capable of producing 16 different grayscale levels. While missing any sort of front lighting, the Boox Max 2 display is extremely clear, and paperlike. 

Onyx Boox Max 2 
System on a Chip Rockchip RK3288 Cortex-A17 quad core (1.6GHz)
Memory 2GB LPDDR3
Display 13.3-in E Ink Mobius Carta HD
Storage 32GB
Connections Micro USB
Micro HDMI
Battery 4100 mAh
Dimensions 325 x 237 x 7.5mm (12.34" x 9.25" x .295")
570g (1.25 lbs)
OS Android 6.0
Price $799 - Amazon.com

The Onyx Boox Max 2 is powered by a quad-core, Coretex A17-based Rockchip RK3288 SoC. Although you likely aren't familiar with Rockchip or its products, this chip is used in a variety devices such as Chromebooks and the ASUS Tinker Board. For a device with the main purpose of displaying text, this entry-level SoC is plenty powerful enough for the tasks at hand.

General Tablet Usage

As far as the operating system is concerned, the Onyx Boox 2 runs a skinned, but a seemingly full-featured version of Android 6.0.Using the Boox Max 2 as a tablet is made simple through full support of Google's Play framework, including the Google Play store. This means that you can install virtually any Android application.

We ran into no limitations when attempting to install apps on this device. We were able to install alternate launchers (although you cannot change the default launcher from the tablet itself, this may be possible through developer tools like ADB), and different keyboard options including Google's own GBoard. 

There are a few oddities to the Android experience, such as screen rotation. While the device has an accelerometer for device rotation, and you can use it in some apps, it doesn't seem to report back to the OS properly. However, with one of the many third-party screen rotation apps on the Play store, you can force the device into landscape orientation whenever you want.

The limitations of E Ink become way more evident as you go beyond the included apps and start to branch out into applications that weren't designed for grayscale displays.

For instance, running applications with video or animation are obviously a no-go. While the actual measured rendering performance in 3DMark wasn't bad on this tablet, the real-time playback of rendered scenes was hilariously slow and distorted.

One of my ideas with the Boox Max 2 was to attach a Bluetooth keyboard and use it as a distraction-free writing device.

Using the Microsoft Word application from the Play store, and a $30 generic Bluetooth Keyboard meant for the 13" iPad Pro proved surprisingly usable. The low refresh rate of the E Ink display led to latency with the text appearing on screen that was noticeable, but I started to get used to it.

My main gripe was the relationship between my keyboard dock, and the tablet itself. The fitment wasn't perfect, so it was a clunky solution. Onyx themselves teased a "Boox Writer" device last year, which was essentially a netbook with an E Ink display. Disappointingly, this project has since been canceled. At the very least, I would like to see a well-designed keyboard dock option for the Boox tablet line.

The Boox Max 2 also supports a pressure-sensitive Wacom Stylus for drawing and annotation support. The stylus implementation is well thought out, with a tab on the device to place the stylus when it's not in use, and a note taking app included on the device.

As opposed to writing on a piece of glass like you might do on other modern tablets with stylus support, the Boox Max 2 provides a closer experience to drawing on paper with the matte E Ink display. While you might think that the latency of the E Ink display would get in the way of drawing or notetaking, in my experience the display was fast enough to keep up with my brushstrokes.

Reading Experience

Obviously, the main attraction of the Onyx Boox Max 2 is its E-reader functions. With a display that is very similar in form factor to an A4 piece of paper, the Boox Max 2 is ideal for reading things such as technical documentation, as well as books.

As far as the native reader app is concerned, it does an incredible job correctly rendering PDFs. You simply plug the Boox Max 2 into your computer, the device mounts as a disk drive, and you can drag documents to it. For anyone who has attempted to convert a PDF to the correct file format for a Kindle in the past, you know it can be a world of hurt attempting to retain the original formatting of the document.

As far as E-books are concerned, the Onyx Book Max 2 is capable of rendering file formats like ePub (with or without DRM), PDF, Mobipocket, and some other more obscure e-book file formats.

For users who already have a large Kindle library, the Kindle Android app works perfectly on this device and will allow you to access all of the same content as a proper Kindle. device.

External Display Support

One of the most unique features of the Boox Max 2, as hinted at earlier, is the ability to use it as an external display through the micro HDMI input on the bottom of the device.

Using the included cable, you simply plug into the given source (in this case, a desktop PC), and launch the "Display" app included on the Boox Max 2.

From here, everything works as expected, the tablet shows up as a new display in Windows with a maximum resolution of 2180x1800.

When being used as an external display, the Max 2 still has all of the same downsides as in tablet form, namely the slow refresh rate. However, for users who might want to keep this tablet next to their monitor for things such as reading reference documentation, or even displaying source code, it could be an interesting option to reduce eyestrain in their daily life.

Just keep in mind that you should also have the device plugged into power via Micro USB when using it as a display, as it tends to drain the battery of the device quickly.

The Onyx Boox Max 2 is currently available on Amazon for a price of $799. This is a tough pill to swallow for what is still a niche device, despite the wide array of supported software through the Google Play Store. 

The smaller, 10.3-in Onyx Boox Note is also now available and is a more reasonable $550. Along with the cheaper price, I think the smaller size would be more manageable for most users. You do lose the ability to use the tablet as an external monitor, but if you are interested in an Android-based E Ink tablet, I would give the Note a good look.

The Onyx Boox Max 2 is one of those devices that finds itself in a bit of a catch-22 situation in regards to supply-and-demand. Having shown this device to a lot of people over my time with it, it certainly has raised a lot of interest, until they hear the price. As a more niche, low-run device, the Boox Max 2 is expensive, which in turn alienates the potential consumers which could help increase the volume, and lower the price.

At a price point of around $500, most of the people I talked to (including myself) would be willing to pick up a device like this. However, apparently, we aren't to that point quite yet.

For users who absolutely need to have a lot of documentation on hand, and find traditional tablet displays harsh on the eyes, the Onyx Boox Max 2 is a perfect device. Ultimately the high price tag will put off almost all potential consumers. 

Review Terms and Disclosure
All Information as of the Date of Publication
How product was obtained: The product is on loan from Onyx for the purpose of this review.
What happens to the product after review: The product has been returned to Onyx after the publication of this review.
Company involvement: Onyx had no control over the content of the review and was not consulted prior to publication.
PC Perspective Compensation: Neither PC Perspective nor any of its staff were paid or compensated in any way by Onyx for this review.
Advertising Disclosure: Onyx has not purchased advertising at PC Perspective during the past twelve months.
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Consulting Disclosure: Onyx is not a current client of Shrout Research for products or services related to this review.