For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been trying out the Onyx Boox Max 2 e-ink Android tablet. A quite capable little device, this $800 tablet offers a 13.3″ e-ink screen about four times the size of my 6″ Kindles, with both capacitive touchscreen and WACOM pen layers, coupled with 32 GB of onboard storage, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth. Some of the tablet’s recommended uses are document reading and notetaking, sheet music display, and taking notes or drawing with the attached Wacom pen.
In addition to its built-in document reader, the Boox Max 2 runs Android 6.0, so it can install all manner of ereaders from the Google Play Store—including Kindle, Google Play Books, and so on—as well as any ordinary Android application that will work in grayscale. It has Bluetooth 4.1 for use of accessories such as a keyboard or speakers, meaning that it can be used for typing documents as well as reading. (In fact, I typed part of this review on the Boox Max 2 with my Anker keyboard.) It even includes a micro-HDMI-in port so it can be used as an external monitor for a desktop or notebook computer as well.
(I didn’t get to test this part, as I don’t currently have a working computer with a full-sized HDMI-out port. But I understand it doesn’t need any extra drivers; just plug it in and launch the “Monitor” app and it just works.)
Despite a few quirks and rough edges, it actually works remarkably well. If you have portable productivity needs that involve reading or writing a lot of documents and you have trouble with LCD eyestrain, or if you want an e-ink monitor for your computer that has the added benefit of being able to run tablet apps too, this might just be exactly what you’re looking for.
But is it worth $800, when you could get a similarly-sized iPad Pro 12.9″ tablet for about the same price? That’s something you’ll need to decide for yourself. For people who need to view big docs and find LCD just doesn’t cut it, this could be just what you need—especially if you can get your employer to buy it for you.
The Boox Max 2 tablet is a relatively simple piece of hardware. On the front bezel are four buttons, each with a raised bump in a different position to make it easier to tell by touch which is which. At the left is a menu button, in the middle are left and right arrows that can serve either as volume control or page-turn buttons depending on the application (and you can also flip the functions with an icon in the status bar at the top of the screen), and on the right is a “back” button.
On the bottom of the bezel are the power button, earphone jack, micro-USB port, micro-HDMI port, and microphone holes. Some users report that the power button’s placement on the bottom can cause some problems when placing it in a stand, but I haven’t had any difficulties with it. There’s a postage-stamp-sized audio speaker on the back, similar to the one on a Fire tablet.
One thing the Boox Max 2 does not have is a physical “home” button, nor does it have the usual Android back/home/recent apps icons at the bottom of the screen. Instead, there’s a top-of-screen status bar that has a home icon, back icon, notifications, recent apps icon, and a few other functions. While this works all right for the most part, some applications prevent this top bar from showing up, and you simply have to hit the “back” button until you can get back to the launcher. (Or else hit the “home” button on your Bluetooth keyboard, if you have one paired.) An Onyx representative commented in a Mobileread thread that a future firmware update will add a “home” function to long-pressing the “back” button, but it’s not there yet.
The 2200 x 1650 pixel 207 ppi Carta e-ink screen is quite clear and easy to read. It doesn’t have a front or sidelight built in. Given its size, a sidelight wouldn’t work as well as on a smaller Kindle. The only way to view it is to use ambient light. I tried ordering a booklight from Amazon for it, but since the booklight was meant to be clipped onto the back cover of a paper book, the clip was simply too big to work with the Boox Max 2’s screen.
Sometimes you get some “ghosting” of previous text or images on the screen, simply due to the way e-ink works. When that happens, you can press and hold down the menu button to force a refresh. There’s also an icon at the top of the screen that can switch the tablet into two-gray-level “A2” mode that allows pages to turn faster with less ghosting.
The Boox Max 2’s quad-core 1.6 GHz processor means that the tablet has decent response time and speed—indeed, the processor’s response is probably quicker than the screen’s refresh rate. The lack of an SD card reader is a bit of a black mark, but the 32 GB internal storage is probably sufficient given that you’re not going to be storing video media on it—and the various cloud storage options available to Android tablets are helpful here, too.
The tablet does not seem to have an internal orientation sensor, so if you’re going to want to use any applications in landscape mode you’ll have to install a manual orientation-switching app.
I did notice I only got about a day or so of battery life out of it, which seems at odds with other reviews I’ve read suggesting it had really long battery life. It might be due in part to leaving WiFi turned on all the time, which could drain the power. In any case, a day of battery life really isn’t too bad, overall. It can always charge overnight.
The Wacom pen isn’t your standard capacitive touchscreen stylus. This is an actual drawing pen with a plastic nib, that can trace a line clearly enough to make recognizable words, take notes, and so on. It’s not only good for notetaking, but also for drawing things. It clips into a loop on the right of the tablet. (I do wish it could be switched over to the left, for lefties like me, though.) It also has a sort of button thing on the back, which some apps give a different function when you touch to the screen.
The tablet comes with a heavy felt portfolio-style case, which seems to offer a decent amount of protection. I’d still be careful how you carry it around, though.
ContentBrowser and Neo Reader v2.0
Boox Max 2 comes with a fairly simple launcher built in, called ContentBrowser. In keeping with the Boox Max 2’s stated role as a document reader, ContentBrowser’s home screen is an interface to the built-in document reader, Neo Reader v2.0. It shows the document you most recently read, and others you recently added. At the bottom of the screen are icons to bring you to your document library, file storage, application list, device settings, notepad app, and web browser app.
The application interface shows the apps that the Boox Max comes with: browser, calculator, calendar, clock, dictionary, and so on. These apps are simple black and white line art, in keeping with the design of the device. One of those apps is the Google Play Store, however, so you can easily log in and download whatever apps you want from there.
Neo Reader suppports 28 formats of documents, images, and audio, including PDF, mobi, EPUB, and so on. It can open up to four documents simultaneously, and keeps them in tabs at the top of the screen. It works well enough for reading, and has a number of font settings and format settings for ebooks that support easily changing the font and reflowing text. But the big deal about Neo Reader is the notetaking function. For any given book format, you can opt to split the screen into a reading panel and a notetaking panel. With the notetaking panel, you can use the Wacom pen to scribble notes on half of the page, which can be then saved or exported later.
Notetaking mode does have the drawback that, at present, it only supports placing the writing page on the right side of the screen—an awkward placement for lefties like me. The Onyx representative in the Mobileread thread promised that a future firmware update will include the option to swap it to the left side.
PDF, djvu, cbr, and cbz format ebooks also support “scribble mode,” which allows you to draw and highlight right on the page of the document with the WACOM pen. Needless to say, this could be handy for editing and marking up documents.
The reader’s settings include the ability to control how often the e-ink screen refreshes. A complete screen reflesh makes the whole screen flash black, and can potentially be distracting. The menu allows you to set it to always refresh on page turn, never refresh, or refresh every 3, 5, 7, 9, 30, or 50 pages. There’s also a text-to-speech function that seems about on par with the one on past Kindles that have had it.
I did a lot of looking at PDFs with Neo Reader 2, since one of the stated purposes of the tablet is to be able to read PDF documents in full size. This could make it a particularly handy tool for use in professions that involve lots of PDFs—lawyers, for example.
How did it work? Remarkably well. I’ve seldom seen PDFs look this good, and I’ve never been able to read them on a tablet without zooming in. But this is the first time I’ve ever been able to read them in full size. (Well, nearly full size; the screen would need to be 13.9″ diagonal to view an 8.5″ x 11″ page at 100%. But 13.3″ is certainly close enough!)
In particular, I looked at volume 1 of Designers & Dragons, the history of the pen-and-paper roleplaying game industry I helped to Kickstart a couple of years ago. I also loaded up Judge Cote’s decision in the Apple antitrust case to see how it read. And, of course, I paged through the manual for the tablet itself, which was also included on the device. They were all easy to read at that size, one full page at a time.
Web Browser and Android Apps
The Boox Max 2 uses a recent version of Android, which is a pretty big selling point given that so many other similar devices are stuck with much older versions of the OS. While some apps may not look their best on the screen, there shouldn’t be any compatibility issues due to an older operating system.
The built-in web browser is the standard Android browser, a version of Chrome (and you can also install Chrome itself from the Google Play app store). It does have a few odd little display quirks, like the way pages with white text on a black background tend to show up as pure black. Apart from that, it seems to work just about as well as the browser on any other Android device.
The process of logging into the Google Play Store went about the same as on any other Android device; as soon as I entered my password, the library was there and I could download whatever I wanted. Downloaded apps would show up in the application drawer of the Boox Max 2’s ContentBrowser launcher—for the most part. For whatever reason, even after it did successfully install, the Google app wouldn’t show up there.
But you’re not limited to using the ContentBrowser launcher. I downloaded and installed my preferred launcher, the Google Now Launcher, and it worked just fine. (I did end up having to install a flat white wallpaper image because the photos it came with made the icons impossible to read, though.) The status bar at the top of the screen remains the same no matter what launcher you use; presumably it’s the equivalent of the bottom icon bar on most Android devices with the home, back, and recent buttons.
I also installed the Swype keyboard I prefer using. Since it’s no longer available on the Google Play store, I had to install it from APK Mirror, but that wasn’t a problem. As with any Android device, I just had to enable installing from “untrusted” sources and it downloaded and went right on. It worked pretty well, too. There was a little e-ink flickering, but the capacitive surface tracked my finger accurately at all times. I did end up having to make use of the mode that shrunk the keyboard down to one corner of the screen, because it was just way too far to move my finger trying to swipe on it at full size.
I installed a number of reading-based apps—Kindle, Google Play Books, Instapaper, GrazeRSS, and Flipboard. I also added some social media apps like Facebook and Twitter, chat apps like Google Hangouts and Facebook Messenger, storage apps like Google Drive and Dropbox, and writing apps like Google Docs and WordPress. And then I tried them all out.
The reading apps worked best. Most of these apps are designed to imitate ink on paper already—black text, white background—and so they looked just as good in e-ink as text would on the screen of a Kindle. Even at a larger font size, I could still fit at least twice as much text on the screen as I could on the Kindle. And if my eyes were weak enough that I needed to make it even larger, I could make it a lot larger than on the Kindle and still be able to see about the same amount of text.
A number of the color apps worked reasonably well, too. The screen flickers and flashes a little when you scroll Facebook, but most of the posts are legible and all you have to do is hold the menu button to refresh the page if there’s any ghosting. It is a little hard to make out the number of notifications, or to see which notifications aren’t read yet, though.
The writing apps worked pretty well with the Bluetooth keyboard, too. I did notice a lot of flickering around the individual letters as I typed them in if I left the screen in normal mode, but if I switched over to A2 it wasn’t noticeable. I imagine it would look about the same if you used it as a computer monitor for writing in a word processor.
All in all, I could certainly see reading whole books this way. The only problem is that the 1.21 lb Boox Max 2 is a little heavy for holding up for any length of time, even though it’s a lot lighter than an equivalent-sized tablet would be. It would be just fine for lengthy reading in your lap or on a stand, though.
A Few Rough Edges
The Boox Max 2 is good, but it’s not perfect. There are a few rough edges that detract from the overall experience. While these things might be forgiven in a sub-$100 cheap Chinese OEM tablet, they’re a bit more of an issue when you’re paying $800 for the device.
First, there’s the home icon issue. As noted, in some apps that row of icons at the top of the screen just disappears, and you have to hit the back arrow to get out. They’re going to add home functionality to one of the hardware buttons, but it still isn’t there yet.
And on a related note, if you’ve not used the tablet in a while and gotten a lot of Android notifications, you can’t seem to scroll down them. You have to slide them off the screen one at a time until you’ve cleared enough of them that you can get to the “clear all notifications” button at the bottom of the list.
Another awkward touch is the way Neo Reader seems to be integrated into the Content Browser launcher. You can’t launch Neo Reader by itself; you have to launch Content Browser to get to it.
Some users have noticed that the interface of Neo Reader is a little awkward, especially when taking notes. You can’t use Scribble Mode and highlight text at the same time, and getting in and back out takes a lot of taps and button presses. And there’s that issue with the note-taking page only being on the right at the moment (though presumably that will be fixed soon).
ContentBrowser itself is pretty clunky as launchers go. It’s good if you’re wanting to read a lot of documents through Neo Reader, but if you’re in the habit of using lots of other apps, it would be more handy to have them on the home screen rather than having to dive into the Applications drawer every time—and that’s leaving aside the way it doesn’t seem to want to show some apps, such as Google, at all. On the bright side, Onyx doesn’t try to prevent you from installing other launchers, so there is that.
One issue that might be a dealbreaker for some is that there’s no screen-lock function on this tablet the way there usually is on Android tablets or phones. The screen can’t be locked at all—which could be a problem given that it’s recommended for use by people like lawyers, who might have confidential legal documents on it. I would hope they’ll fix that, but given that password lock is a function that comes in plain-vanilla Android, they’d have had to remove it intentionally in the first place.
Despite having a slightly clunky interface and a few rough edges, the Onyx Boox Max 2 is great at displaying PDFs and other ebooks in full size on a 13.3″ screen. I’m grateful for the chance to try one out and play with it, and I wouldn’t mind at all keeping and using it if someone were to give me one gratis. I’ll be at least a little sorry when I have to send this one on to the next reviewer who gets to demo it.
If I were a lawyer, or editor, or had some other kind of job where it would be professionally useful to be able to review plenty of PDFs at full size and possibly annotate them with a Wacom pen, I’d be all over this.
But the thing is, I really don’t have the right kind of job or sufficient money to justify spending $800 on an e-ink tablet, no matter how readable the screen is. And I don’t have any problems with LCD eyestrain, either. So if I were going to spend $800 on a tablet that big, it would probably be something like the iPad Pro 12.9 which would also let me watch movies and browse documents in color—no matter how much I might also like e-ink’s legibility.