The Onyx Boox Nova Pro, released in April 2019, has recently received a major firmware upgrade from Android 6 to 9, pushing its utility further towards being a full-fledged tablet.

What follows is my experience with the model for the past year (sideloading apps, syncing data, portability, battery charging, etc.) and notes on changes brought by the Android 9 upgrade.

Buying a reader

I bought an Onyx Boox Nova Pro in April of 2020, a full year after its release. For one thing, I was stuck at home. For another thing, my eyes, at the tender age of thirty-one, were starting to go. I’d had a Kobo before, but its untimely death soured me on e-book reader longevity. The news of recent breakthroughs in e-ink convinced me to try again, lured by the promise of a full Android system and the utility of writing notes with no lag (unthinkable even just five years ago). I have largely been a hooked fish since then, though wary of the fast degradation of these tablets’ batteries.

Pardon the awkwardly cut matte Benks Paperlike screen protector.

I chose the Nova Pro because it had a local reseller, was the second-cheapest of the product line, and with its size, was the minimum I needed to write notes. There were two other product lines: Poke is the Onyx Boox line’s smallest offering, made for viewing, and the Note was the largest at the time. It carried a suitably large price tag on par with an iPad. The Nova, price-wise, was no cheap tinkerer’s toy either. But if you really want an e-ink screen, you will likely pay for it, and will likely get more utility out of it given that the e-ink screen niche attracts programmers, writers, academics, and eye-strain sufferers. It’s not a mainstream product, though I personally wish it were, if only for health and pricing reasons.

The specs at the time of purchase, were:

  • 7.8” E-ink Screen, 300dpi, a “glass-based” screen
  • Regal refresh technology — note that “Regal” is a brand name referring to trademarked “Regal Waveform” technology and not a marketing descriptor
  • Capacitive touch & a free Wacom EMR stylus
  • Cold and warm front lights
  • Cortex-A17 1.6GHz Quad-core with 2GB of RAM
  • 2800mAh Li-Polymer battery which translates to 5-8 hours of actual use, given my habit of keeping the battery between 40-79%
  • 32GB of non-expandable storage, which after the OS, is about 22GB
  • Android 6 OS
  • Support for just about every document format and the ability to annotate on it (PDfs, CHMs, PNGs, CBZs etc.)
  • A notes app, default bookshelf app, and the ability to sideload apps
  • Weight of less than 300g (this made quite an impact)

All this for a whopping 350USD, but hey, it came with a pen and free case.

Most regular folk would balk at that price tag, for which one can get a decent Asus laptop for school or work. Add a hundred dollars and the smaller iPads become an option as well. But for people who absolutely want or need that e-ink screen, Boox’s prices are par for the course. Only you can decide if the experience with the screen and notes is worth the money, as I decided for myself.

A comic book cover on default contrast settings.

A year of writing and reading on the Nova Pro

Out of the box, the Onyx Boox proprietary Notes app, Neoreader, and Bookshelf app (which served as a launcher) all worked. That’s about as much as I could say about them. There was minimal to no lag or ghosting depending on the mode, comics in zipped files were displayed correctly, and I could annotate on any document. Features that are standard across e-book readers work as advertised: changing contrast, ink mode (determines battery drain, ghosting, blackness), refresh rate, and display quality. I find that the contrast and sharpness of the Nova Pro is better than my old Kobo Touch.

The management of books, notes, and documents was another thing entirely. What Onyx promised was an e-ink screen running on an Android tablet with lagless note-taking: they definitely delivered. Everything else would then have to be customized by the user. The ability to install Android apps is a godsend for usability. The Onyx interface is as plain as butter and Android provides much-needed variety. If nothing else, wading through menu upon menu becomes less of a pain with Android customization.

Color information is preserved when screenshots are taken within the tablet. The default launcher’s max view is 9 books at a time.

That being said, for people who expect a product to have a UI/UX that “just works” — the Boox line isn’t going to win any fans in that department. It requires patience to set up the tablet. This is a legitimate con for those who want a good experience out of the box. For those who strictly want an e-book reader with a focus on good UX, the Boox has solid competition: Boyue, Amazon, Rakuten, etc. On the flip side, customization means you have a fair chance of making the tablet behave exactly how you want it.

Customization

My use cases fell under three categories:

  1. To use the tablet as a text editor, with at minimum a working keyboard Bluetooth connection;
  2. To better organize, find, and sort my reading materials, books, notes, etc.
  3. To extend the templates in the Notes app

Text editor

In general, any text editor will work. OneNote, Google Docs, etc, all do well enough but eat more RAM and battery than the options I’m showing here. On A2 Mode, there’s a little less lag, but it’s still there. Of the apps presented below, Markor is best for general use-cases.

AppsMarkor, Vim on Termux, DroidVim (all pictured below)
Battery Drain (from 100-0%):about 6 hours
Lag:Present but tolerable

However, if you’re only using a keyboard and you’re serious about text editing, the only option to have the same ease of movement across the doc is to use software that’s built around using a keyboard exclusively, which leads us to Vim — which has a rather steep learning curve. In my case Vim or Vim-style bindings are present in most of my text editing tools, so I stuck to that, with Markor as a more user-friendly fallback.

File syncing for books, notes, and apps

For ease of installation and update, Google Play can be enabled on the tablet. I decided not to bother, given that I’m not using the Wifi that often. To that end, I sideload apps from Dropbox and copy-paste them manually. For books, the superior method is to plug in the tablet and manage/sync through Calibre. For notes, I export them to PDF and Dropsync is set to handle the syncing between the note folder locally and on Dropbox.

AppsDropbox with Dropsync
Battery Drain (from 100-0%):roughly 1% drop every 3-5 minutes of Wifi
Lag:n/a

Extending the Notes app with templates

The Notes app supports templates (calendars, planners, grids, etc.) as a base layer with which to draw on. The Onyx Boox can thus function as a planner or sketchbook. You can make your own or grab some from the internet. For making your own notes:

  1. Note templates can be either PDFs or PNGs. I recommend PNGs as they load faster.
  2. The resolution for the Onyx Boox Nova Pro is: 1872×1404 with 300ppi.
  3. Files must be placed within the noteTemplate folder.
  4. They will appear when changing the base layer in the notes app.

The Android 9 upgrade

The Android 9 update can be found here. It requires a working cable (by far the biggest dealbreaker in successfully flashing a device), the firmware files and the correct drivers. I flashed mine without issue, but others have encountered problems due to the tablet not being detected (again, a working cable is very important!) The Android 9 update on 3.1 for me has been with roughly the same amount of lag as with Android 6, but with improved support for more apps and finally, my Bluetooth keyboard. It also improves the battery life, which has hamstrung an otherwise robust tablet.

Currently its Launcher app is bugged: it resets the “first time set up” after turning on or off the device. Its Notes app is also bugged with pen strokes being filled or thickened, which can be fixed with a page refresh. My advice is to wait for the fixes.

The future — what about software updates?

I’ve received a year’s amount of updates, from firmware 2.3 to 3.1 and Android 6 to Android 9. There’s no guarantee that my device, running a firmware it didn’t ship with, is going to receive further updates beyond the fixes for the above bugs I’ve mentioned.

Do I like the e-ink tablet, even with the slight lag on its apps? I do, to the point where I use it every day and even write whole posts with it. I’d never go back to using a dedicated e-book reader after having one that offers this much utility and the possibility of working on a screen without glare.

As for the company itself, while I find that they built a product that I think I need, I hope they improve marketing, communications, and their battery quality.

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