But Amazon is a little late to the party. In the years since it last developed a big-screen Kindle, companies like reMarkable and Onyx have dabbled in digital notebooks — and some of them have gotten so good that Amazon’s work can sometimes feel a little lacking by comparison.
I’ve spent the last few weeks testing the Kindle Scribe and trying it out against some of its most interesting competition. Here’s what you should know.
(Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post, but at the Help Desk, we review all products and services with the same critical eye.)
At $339 (or more, if you opt for a nicer pen and add a case), the Scribe is Amazon’s biggest, most expensive Kindle in years. In testing it alongside rival devices like the $299 reMarkable 2 and the $599 Onyx Boox Tab Ultra, it didn’t take long to discover that the Scribe isn’t equally good for reading and writing.
The Scribe has perhaps the most polished software of the three, and thanks to barely there weight and great screen lighting, it’s the one that I’d most like to power through a novel on. But if you’re interested in doing some serious writing on a device like this, you may want to consider something like the reMarkable instead.
I’m not saying taking notes or crossing items off a to-do list was at all unpleasant. Writing on the Scribe with the included stylus screen felt smooth and satisfying, and it comes with a handful of notebook templates for people who need to jump between wide-ruled, grid and even sheet music “paper.”
What really gets me is that the Scribe’s writing features feel a little basic compared with some of its rivals.
There’s no way to, for example, select a bunch of text you’ve written and move it around. If you realized you’ve put some notes in the wrong spot, oh, well — you’ll just have to erase and rewrite it. (iPads, the reMarkable and Onyx’s digital notebooks can handle this just fine.) Also missing is any kind of handwriting recognition, which means there’s no way to search for specific things you’ve written or convert your writing into text to make it more legible .
Occasional writers might not notice these features are absent. Ditto for folks who mainly want a Scribe for books — this is definitely still a reading-first device. In an email, an Amazon spokesperson said the Scribe was “inspired” by the people who have been highlighting and leaving notes in their Kindle books for years. Fine, but when you consider the last time Amazon debuted a new big-screen Kindle reader was more than a decade ago, I’m a little surprised it didn’t flesh out its writing tools a little more.
Want to borrow that e-book from the library? Sorry, Amazon won’t let you.
People who want to see more. The Scribe has a 10.2-inch display, the largest Amazon has ever squeezed into a Kindle. That means you can now view more of a book at a glance, or — if your eyes aren’t what they used to be — really crank up the font size.
People who hate charging gadgets. Gadgets with e-paper displays have a reputation for long battery life, and so far, the Scribe is no exception. Unless you’re reading 24/7, expect it to last a few weeks on a single charge.
People who write notes in book margins. As a digital notebook, the Scribe is basic at best. But scribbling observations in books you’re reading — plus exporting and reviewing them later — works well enough.
People who work with complex documents. You can import and write on top of Word documents and PDFs, but Amazon says you can’t mark up files that include large tables. And if you work with lots of long PDF papers, you may see the Scribe hesitate when you try to swipe into a new page. (It doesn’t always happen, but it can really slow you down if you’re looking for something specific.)
People who keep files in the cloud. The Scribe can’t connect to services like Dropbox or Google Drive, which means getting to work on the documents you have stored there takes some work. And if you want to get things you’ve written off the Scribe, you have two options: email them to yourself, or view (but not save) them in the Kindle app on your phone or tablet.
Those who like to read in the tub. Many of Amazon’s other recent Kindles can survive the occasional spill or splash. Not so for the company’s most expensive Kindle — you may want to think twice before packing it for a beach day.
What the marketing doesn’t mention
Other devices can make reading a little easier. iPads and Android tablets can run Amazon’s Kindle app, which includes one helpful feature that the Scribe lacks: a two-column view when you hold your gadget horizontally. It feels ever-so-slightly more like reading an actual book, and its absence here will be a real bummer for some.
You can just drag and drop files onto the Scribe. Using Amazon’s Send to Kindle website to send files to the Scribe is easy enough, and it hasn’t taken more than a couple of minutes to arrive. But if you’re somewhere you can’t get online — or if you don’t want Amazon as a middle man — you can transfer files with the included USB cable.
You can fill it with books you didn’t buy from Amazon. Okay, fine, the Scribe’s product page does technically mention this. But it’s worth repeating that you can move digital books in the EPUB format you didn’t buy from Amazon onto the Scribe. So far, the books I’ve tested this with look the way they’re supposed to, but your mileage may vary.
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What are the alternatives?
If the Scribe is an e-book reader first, digital notebook second, the reMarkable 2 is the exact opposite. You can’t buy books on one, though loading it up with files to read is trivial. And the lack of any built-in lighting means reading in bed may require turning on a lamp.
What really shines, though, is how it approaches writing and organizing. The features I mentioned the Scribe lacking — like moving around snippets of writing and handwriting-to-text conversion — work wonderfully here. The reMarkable also includes more options to customize your pen strokes, plus support for cloud services like Google Drive and Dropbox for easier access to your files.
The catch: The reMarkable doesn’t come with a free stylus — that’ll cost you at least an extra $79. The full package costs more than the Scribe, but people eager to be productive may get more out of reMarkable’s features.
Meanwhile, the $599 Onyx Boox Tab Ultra is the most ambitious digital notebook I’ve ever seen. It has a processor fast enough to play HD video, a camera for scanning documents, and runs on a custom version of Android. That means you can install Amazon’s Kindle app — or the Kobo Store, or Libby — and read books from almost anywhere.
The catch: The software is, quite frankly, a mess. You don’t need to poke around for long before running into confusing menu options, and app crashes aren’t uncommon.