We do a lot of reading and writing on LCD tablets these days, but what about sketching and notetaking? While there are certainly apps available for that, another kind of “LCD tablet” has emerged in recent years—a simple writing and drawing device that isn’t actually digital at all. These tablets have been around for a few years (the “Boogie Board” came out around 2011) but they’ve recently started getting a lot less expensive.

I’ve been curious about these tablets for some time, so when a representative of Chinese manufacturer Oiosen offered to compensate me for ordering a unit to review, it wasn’t a hard decision. After I’m done reviewing it, I plan to pass it on to one of my nieces or nephews as a Christmas present. This particular tablet can be found on Amazon for $16, but is one of many, many such tablets available in its category.

Not an “LCD Tablet” As We Know Them

Unboxing the tablet reveals the tablet itself, the protective envelope it was packed in, and the instruction pamphlet.
Unboxing the tablet reveals the tablet itself, the protective envelope it was packed in, and the instruction pamphlet.

First of all, calling this device an “LCD electronic writing tablet” is a little misleading. When we hear “LCD tablet,” we think of digital devices like the Amazon Fire that have processors, backlighting, memory, syncing ability, and so on. But this device uses a different kind of LCD and is a different kind of tablet. And while it does make use of electricity, it doesn’t use it for any computing.

The LCD panel is not a display panel, but a simple liquid crystal surface that responds to pressure by making a light green line. Pressing harder results in a thicker line. Whatever you write will stay there until you press the “erase” button at the top, which runs electrical current from a button battery through the panel to blank it. Writing doesn’t require any electricity, but erasing it does. The tablet’s only other control is a lock switch, which disengages the power button so you can’t erase the display by accident. (The back of the box says “the lock button will help restore all previous drafts for you,” but that is probably due to the overall poor quality of the translation. The lock switch won’t “restore” anything; once you press the erase button, whatever you wrote or sketched is gone for good.)

This isn’t the sort of tablet that can be hooked to the computer. There’s no digital storage, either; if you should want to save something you wrote or drew, you’ll need to take a picture of it before you erase it. (The instruction booklet explicitly makes that clear: “Writing tablet can’t connect to computer and can’t save images.”)

The back of the box
The back of the box

In fact, the only reason to call this a “tablet” at all is that it effectively is a “tablet” in the literal form factor sense: a flat, thin thing you can hold that can have writing or drawing on it. (Like the ones Moses brought down from the mountain.) But in actual use, it’s more like a chalkboard—or, more aptly, one of those lift-to-erase “Magic Slates” we used to play with as kids. Maybe “slate” would be a less confusing term for it—but then again, I’m sure I’ve seen digital tablets called “slates” as well. Amazon calls the category “Digital Handwriting Pads,” which is also misleading as the only “digits” involved with them are the fingers you use to hold the stylus!

In any case, this is far from the only “LCD writing tablet” available on Amazon. So if you’re in the market for a cheap digital tablet, be sure to pay close attention to the item description so you can make sure you’re buying the right kind of tablet.

How Does it Work?

The low-friction surface makes writing a little tricky, but it's still possible.
The low-friction surface makes writing a little tricky, but it’s still possible.

The Oiosen tablet includes a steel-cored plastic stylus, with a holder at the bottom where it can snap into place. The stylus has two ends–one simple point end, and the other more of an angled flat surface for drawing thicker lines. However, there’s nothing special about the stylus other than it being hard and narrow; any firm tip could draw on it. (The instruction book uses a toothbrush or a comb as examples.) You probably shouldn’t use any metal tools, though; those could damage the screen.

You don’t have to press very hard to make a noticeable line. Ordinary writing pressure works well. If you press harder, you get a bolder line, though there’s a limit to just how hard you can press without damaging it, so there’s a limit to just how bold you can make things. I didn’t have too much luck making thicker lines with the angled nib, but that might just be a matter of practice.

The thing that gave me trouble is that there’s not really any friction with the surface the way there is with a pen or pencil and paper. Because we’re used to that friction from a lifetime of writing on paper, our muscle memory takes it into account and makes it a lot harder to write legibly or draw very well on surfaces without that friction. It’s the same reason I sometimes have trouble signing my name on smartphone or tablet credit card acceptance apps.

This is an e-reader connected to a computer, next to the bookshelf full of books an e-reader can replace. Fear my artistic talent!
This is an e-reader connected to a computer, next to the bookshelf full of books an e-reader can replace. Fear my artistic talent!

I have strong doubts that the detailed sketch of a BattleTech-style giant robot featured on the front of the package (or the sketch of Optimus Prime seen on the Amazon listing) was actually drawn on such a tablet. The level of detail and finesse in shading doesn’t seem possible on the device itself. (Though if I were a better artist, perhaps I would have a different opinion. I know some people have created great works of art using Etch-a-Sketches, so who can really say?)

Another minor drawback is that there isn’t any way to erase only part of the screen, or the last thing you wrote. Every stroke you draw is permanent until you press the button that erases everything at once. Also, writing or drawing on the tablet can be fairly dim unless you have a pretty good light source. (The photos in this review are a bit misleading because due to some oddity of LCD, the tablet actually photographs brighter than it looks in person.)

So What Good Is It?

That’s not to say that tablets like this are useless. For one thing, I have little doubt that a suitably talented artist could overcome its limitations and produce some good works of art with it. It would also be great for aspiring child artists—especially the ones who are prone to see walls or furniture as suitable blank canvases if they have access to pens and lack of adult supervision.

You could also use it wherever you would otherwise use a chalkboard or whiteboard of similar size. It’s light and sturdy—as simple as it is, there’s not much on it to break. Stick a magnet or velcro on the back, attach it to a fridge, and you’ve got a grocery list or note-leaving medium that can be reused at the touch of a button—no erasers to keep track of.

As I mentioned, there are literally dozens of different models of digital ink pad available on Amazon, many of them $10 or less—certainly a far cry from the $40 Boogie Board that came out in 2011. The Oiosen seems like a nicely-designed implementation of such a tablet, but I’m not sure that I would necessarily have paid $16 for it when so many less expensive ones are available.

Still, I will bet whichever of my nieces or nephews gets this tablet for Christmas will be able to put it to good use. And it might make a good Christmas present for any kids in your life, too.

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