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 have gotten so good that Amazon’s work sometimes falls a little short by comparison.
I’ve been testing and testing the Kindle Scribe against some of its most interesting competitors over the past few weeks. Here’s what you need to 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 largest and most expensive Kindle in years. When tested alongside competing 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 at reading and writing.
The Scribe has perhaps the most polished software of the three, and its light weight and great backlight make it the one I’d most like to write a novel about. But if you’re serious about writing on a device like this, consider something like the reMarkable instead.
I’m not saying it was completely unpleasant to take notes or check things off a to-do list. 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 switch between broad ruled, grid, and even sheet music paper.
What really gets me is that the Scribe’s writing features feel a bit basic compared to some of its rivals.
For example, there’s no way to select and move around a bunch of text you’ve written. If you realize you’ve put some notes in the wrong place, oh, well – you’ll just have to erase and rewrite. (iPads, the reMarkable, and Onyx’s digital notebooks handle this just fine.) Also, there’s no handwriting recognition of any kind, meaning there’s no way to search for specific things you’ve written or turn your handwriting into text to make it more readable.
Occasional writers may not notice that these features are missing. Ditto for people who mainly want a Scribe for books – this is definitely still a device for reading first. In an email, an Amazon spokesperson said the Scribe was “inspired” by the people who have been marking and leaving notes in their Kindle books for years. Fine, but when you consider that the last time Amazon debuted was a new large-screen Kindle reader more than a decade ago, I’m a little surprised it hasn’t fleshed out its writing tools a bit more.
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 screen, the largest Amazon has ever squeezed into a Kindle. That means you can now see more of a book at a glance, or – if your eyes aren’t what they used to be – really increase the font size.
People who hate charging gadgets. Gadgets with e-paper screens are known for their long battery life, and so far the Scribe is no exception. Unless you’re reading 24/7, you can expect it to last a few weeks on a single charge.
People taking notes in the margins of books. As a digital notebook, the Scribe is simple at best. But jotting down 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 Word documents and PDFs, but Amazon says you can’t mark up files that contain large tables. And if you work with a lot of long PDF papers, you may find the Scribe hesitates when you try to swipe to 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 it’ll take some work to get started with the documents you’ve stored there. 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 bath. Many of Amazon’s other recent Kindles can survive an occasional spill or splash. Not so for the company’s most expensive Kindle – you might want to think twice before packing it for a beach day.
What the marketing doesn’t mention
Other devices may make reading a little easier. iPads and Android tablets can run Amazon’s Kindle app, which includes a neat feature the Scribe lacks: a two-column view when you hold your gadget horizontally. It feels a bit more and more like reading a real book, and its absence here will be a real shame for some.
You can simply drag and drop files onto the Scribe. Using Amazon’s Send to Kindle website to send files to the Scribe is easy enough and took no more than a few minutes to arrive. But if you can’t get online somewhere – or don’t want Amazon as a middleman – 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 technically states this. But it’s worth repeating that you can move digital books in the EPUB format you did not purchase from Amazon on the scribe. So far the books I tested this with look as they should, but your mileage may vary.
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What are the alternatives?
If the Scribe is an e-book reader first, then a digital notebook second, the reMarkable 2 is the exact opposite. You can’t buy books on it, although it’s trivial to load it full of files to read. And the lack of built-in lighting means reading in bed may require turning on a lamp.
However, what really shines is how it approaches writing and organization. The features I mentioned that the Scribe lacks, such as moving text snippets and converting handwriting to text, work great here. The reMarkable also includes more options to customize your 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 will cost you at least an extra $79. The full package costs more than the Scribe, but people who like to be productive might 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 modified version of Android. That means you can install Amazon’s Kindle app – or the Kobo Store or Libby – and read books almost anywhere.
The catch: The software is, quite frankly, a mess. You don’t have to poke around for long before you run into confusing menu options, and app crashes are not uncommon.