Onyx Boox Note Air 2

If you’re a bit nerdy and like your tech, plus you need to read a lot and take notes AND you can afford the price (around £450), I can very much recommend this device.

What is it?

  • A 10.3-inch e-ink/e-paper tablet that runs Android 11 with a 227ppi display and colour-tunable front light – think large, customisable Kindle rather than iPad
  • Navy aluminium casing
  • 64 GB storage
  • USB-C for charging – decent battery life, certainly lasts for days of reasonable use
  • Bluetooth 5.0/Wifi
  • Weight: 420g (definitely a two-handed device for the most part)
  • Useful sites for help and setup: My Deep Guide (YouTube) – the Big Boox Guide videos may also be useful | Onyx_Boox on Reddit

Initial impressions

Photograph of the tablet showing the bottom bezel.  The imperfection in the overlay is highlighted with a yellow circleThe device feels very solid and well-made, and it’s nice to see it in something other than grey or black. The only physical imperfection I could see in mine was a small bubble at the edge of the bezel where the pre-applied screen protector is very slightly lifted. This doesn’t affect the function or the screen view, but it may get worse over time.

I have the official cover for it, and you really do need something; the biggest drawback I found with it so far is how slippery it is with no cover. It tends to slide everywhere and is hard to grip because of this. The cover is lightweight and seems fine so far – it certainly massively improves the handling. However, some people have reported that the hard clamshell back of the case is prone to cracks if you take it out of the case too much. I haven’t had a problem, but I haven’t removed it from the case at all yet. Unfortunately, there really aren’t any third party cases available as an alternative. This might change over time.

This tablet offers an excellent reading and note-taking experience. It can be linked to google drive to enable direct editing of stored files (i.e., the Google Drive copy updates with the annotations you make, rather than spawning extra copies). I have my Paperpile library folder synced to the tablet, and it works pretty flawlessly. If I want to immediately use a file on another device, it might need a manual sync.

On-screen markup with the stylus tends to be too slow for practical use in note apps that aren’t the native app (NeoReader), but this is less of an issue because it’s a good app. Highlighting etc is okay in 3rd party apps, it’s more if you want to scribble on things that you are likely to have problems.

Screen experience is excellent. You can customise navigation upward swipes on the lower edge, so you have quick access to certain features – I set mine to:

  • Left – back
  • Centre – home screen
  • Right – refresh display

User Interface (UI)

Overall, the UI is clean and well-designed, though some of the icons are confusing and don’t have text labels. It’s definitely a lot of cognitive load for a new user, and there’s a learning curve.

There’s a floating navigation ball that you can move around as needed – gives access to things like screen refresh, display on screen nav controls, screenshot, view open apps, power, and app customisation.

The optimisation options for each app are pretty extensive, but somewhat confusing and unintuitive – you only really get a feel from them by playing with them. The tools allow you to adjust how the app displays. Native apps don’t use the optimiser, but most of what you get from the Google Play Store will need this. Finding help on using it is a little hard, as in the latest firmware, the settings have moved and been renamed so some of what you will see on tour videos etc is no longer relevant. The most important settings are Bleach, which allows you to enhance the dark colours, and the ability to add strokes to text or bold text. These can take quite awful initial impressions of an app and make them completely legible with a few tweaks.

You can even change the refresh rate used for each app, so in theory you can use something like YouTube, despite it really not being intended for this. This was very useful for the Kindle app, since by default it has a page turn animation that you can’t turn off. Instead, I reduced the refresh rate to the minimum, so it happens too fast for the device to render, and you don’t see it any more.

You can change the screen orientation either automatically, or by using the on-screen orientation selection buttons. The left grip area is very useful, and if you are left-handed you can use this by inverting the screen orientation. You can also swap the function tab side to the right in the system display settings.

Demonstration of the writing fidelity and options on Onyx Boox Note Air 2

Typing

I hooked up a small and very cheap Bluetooth keyboard to the tablet, which was easy to get going with. I then tested the typing experience out with Obsidian to see how this works. It was overall very competent and I could see it being a good distraction-free writing environment, especially for low-light work or where eye strain is an issue. The screen on this device is just large enough for a practical writing space, perhaps with a normal tablet for reference material.

When dismissing the onscreen keyboard, you get some ghosting – but this is remedied by a refresh of the screen. After this, the standard refresh settings are plenty to keep up with typing. The keyboard I was using was very much not ideal as it’s small and cramped, but you could easily use it with a full size Bluetooth keyboard.

Document management

Initially I found this extremely confusing since when you go into the Storage tab, it shows you Documents, Image, Music etc to tap into. I couldn’t work out how to add a new folder and organise things. To access this, you have to go into the large ‘Storage’ button at the top, which shows how much space is free. Tapping this takes you to a navigable folder structure and lets you manage files. Perhaps this is normal for Android operating systems, but I’ve never used another Android device and it seemed unintuitive to me.

The apps I’m currently testing with the device are:

  • NeoReader (native)
  • Kindle
  • Paperpile
  • Instapaper – Excellent out of the box, no optimisation necessary.
  • Libby
  • BorrowBox
  • GoogleDrive
  • DriveSync
  • NeoBrowser (native – this is a skinned version of Chrome, I believe)
  • Chrome – at the moment, you can’t log in to chrome to access bookmarks and passwords etc—hoping this is temporary
  • GBoard keyboard

Summary

  • The Onyx Boox Note Air 2 is an excellent e-ink tablet. It’s best suited for those who are prepared to put in some setup work and go through a learning curve, in return for a good amount of payback.
  • If you need to consume a lot of text and annotate, and you want the freedom to integrate with a workflow for managing documents, references, and writing, I’d say this kind of device will be indispensable.
  • Note that some people have struggled with unofficial versions and problematic returns when buying in the wild, particularly Russian versions that don’t receive updates. If you want some security on this, buy from Amazon rather than elsewhere.
  • If the UI was a bit more polished, with friendlier setup and more usable inking in third-party apps, it would get five stars from me.
ProsCons
Excellent lighting with adjustable warm-cool light colourIt Is Not A Tablet (it’s an e-reader with tablet functions) – this is only a con if you want a normal tablet!
Stylus/writing experience is smooth and naturalWould be good if stylus had an eraser function/buttons
Good customisation options to optimise app appearanceNeeds a fair bit of tweaking/setup – need a good guide (see the links at the top), or lots of NerdPoints
Stylus does not need to be chargedNot a certified device for google play store (at least in part because the e-ink screen means it can’t meet Google’s screen refresh and other requirements for certification), but this is easy enough to work around for confident user
Decent range of native apps for reading, notes etc, and third party apps can be tweaked to work just as well for display purposesThird party apps are very slow for note taking with the stylus

Leave a Comment