Despite an infatuation with most things e-ink, I’ve resisted the world of e-ink notebooks. I’m one of the few who once owned a Kindle DX, that huge e-reader that existed for only a few years before being retired.
In the last few years, we’ve seen Amazon get into e-ink scribes, while startups like ReMarkable have carved out their own niche with capable hardware for a reasonable price. Lenovo, having dabbled with e-ink on devices like the Yoga Book, has decided to join the fray with the Smart Paper.
While the product hasn’t yet launched in the US (and is now curiously absent from Lenovo’s retail site), the Smart Paper is now available in other countries, including the UK.
At around $400 (or £500 in the UK) it’s expensive. That’s more than the Kindle Scribe – and much more than the ReMarkable 2. I tried using the Smart Paper instead of a typical paper notepad, especially intrigued to see if the offline handwriting recognition would create a seamless way of sharing notes across to my laptop or phone. There are enough reasons that Lenovo’s digital notepad stands out – but not all of them are good.
The Smart Paper has a relatively simple design, with an indent for the stylus, along the left side of the device, the only detail on the front of the device, besides the 10.3-inch E Ink touchscreen. You can interact with the screen through both the stylus and typical touch input, although you can’t scribble with your finger. The Smart Paper’s matte screen is crisp enough, at 227 pixels per inch (ppi), but noticeably a little jaggier than the Kindle Scribe’s 300-ppi screen, which is closer to a high-definition tablet display.
The hardware is solid too, and Lenovo bundles in both the stylus and a folio case for protecting the screen – which also keeps the stylus safe inside. Like the Kindle Stylus, the Lenovo pen can also be magnetically attached.
It’s more than sufficient for pencil sketches, doodles and note-taking. The Smart Paper’s matte finish makes it a delight to write on, and unlike the ReMarkable 2, it has a built-in light to use it regardless of ambient light levels. I only ever used it at its lowest brightness. (Who writes in the dark, anyway?) There’s also a built-in mic to record voice notes, but no speakers.
The Smart Paper’s stylus feels almost like a pencil, with a single flat side aiding grip. The writing experience is smooth and responsive – it’s not at iPad levels, but the 25 ms latency is smooth enough to ensure it doesn’t interrupt your writing flow. The nibs are replaceable, and it feels, well, as good as most other e-ink styluses I’ve used so far. Compared to the Kindle Scribe’s pen, I prefer Lenovo’s streamlined design: no buttons, no eraser ends, just an input device. Tech-wise, the stylus has tilt and pressure sensitivity (4,096 levels of pressure), to better show off nine different input styles, including some decent calligraphy nibs, highlighter and more straightforward pen options.
Lenovo’s Smart Paper runs Android 11, but with an open-source twist, which should make for more powerful software that I’d hoped would go beyond Amazon’s Kindle Scribe. Sadly, unless you’re willing to dive into sideloading and software tinkering, it’s not remotely the Android experience I was hoping for. Instead, it’s a way for Lenovo to offer a responsive but simple touch interface.
The Smart Paper’s notepad templates run the gamut from simple lined paper to multi-column affairs for spreadsheets on the go. Lenovo claims there are 74 templates, but the majority of them are incredibly similar.
Beyond tapping with the stylus, you can use swipes and taps to navigate between notepad pages, but it’s so temperamental. A tappable icon to nudge you between pages – arrows would have been fine – would have saved me a lot of fruitless swipes.
Instead, I’d have to wrestle with sliding from the center of the display outwards. Do it wrong, and you’ll bounce out to your notepad library or go back a page instead of forward.
There are also the most basic of basic apps, including a clock, calendar and email client. The reader supports EPUB, PDF and Office files, alongside your digital notepads made on the Smart Paper itself. You can also record voice notes and even dictate notes, if you’re feeling lucky. There’s an eBooks.com app, which will be your principal place for book shopping.
The eBooks.com portal is… fine? Amazon, predictably, dominates ebooks, but at least there’s something here compatible with an established platform. Having said that, even books bought through eBooks.com don’t look great. There are no borders, so the text goes from edge to edge. Instead of jumping to the next page, the body text itself slides across the screen, which is a little jarring on a low-refresh-rate e-ink display. Barring the whole sideloading can of worms, the only way to get your Kindle books on here is to load them up on the Firefox browser, which requires a data connection.
You can pretty easily transfer compatible files if you already have a PDF of a book, or an EPUB file. There is one app that could make it easier to move files: Google Drive. But it isn’t on the homepage, it’s tabbed away. You also can’t use Drive to move your digital notebooks, though. Unfortunately, for that you need a special subscription.
This is where Lenovo’s Smart Paper app comes in. It offers cloud-synced notebook files, if you’re willing to pay for a subscription. It’s prohibitively expensive, though. Here in the UK, the shortest option is £9 per month for three months, with an upload limit of 5GB. It scales up from there for longer periods and even more storage. By comparison, Google Drive gives you 200 GB of storage for a mere £2.49 a month. (And it works on everything.)
Even more bafflingly, to subscribe to the service, you’ll need access to a Windows or Android device and subscribe from those apps. For some reason, Lenovo doesn’t offer subscription purchases on iOS, despite offering the app on the App Store. It’s yet another headache for an incredibly overpriced, underwhelming service. Unfortunately, there’s no easy workaround, even with those Google Drive shortcuts,
I initially thought the Smart Paper’s offline handwriting recognition would be the standout feature, but without easier ways to sync your files (or copy and paste text), it’s more of a handy skill that occasionally comes in useful. Once I’d converted my chicken scratch to digital text, I was still beholden to a data connection – and either Lenovo’s cloud sync or G Drive – to utilize those digital notes. I have a horrible feeling that, with pages upon pages of handwriting to convert, it would just be easier for me to type out my written notes, which defeats the purpose of the thing.
The hardware is expensive, but solid. Despite those Android roots, though, it lacks the flexibility of upstarts like ReMarkable’s e-ink devices. While the Google Drive integration is useful, your digital scribblings are trapped in Lenovo’s pricey companion cloud service. Just a few more simple (relevant!) apps would also have made for a more compelling device. If there’s Google Drive hooks, why not try to get a basic interface for Google Docs? Even if it didn’t support handwriting recognition, the device lacks a way to transpose your text notes to a text editor easily.
Ignoring the poorly thought-out cloud subscription pricing, the Smart Paper is also almost £200 more than the ReMarkable 2. For that amount, the Smart Paper would have to be the perfect e-ink notepad, but it’s not.
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