I’m on a coast-to-coast flight and my latest hyperfixation is Operation Gladio, the CIA, a powerful Masonic lodge, and Italy’s terrorism-flecked 1970s. This conspiratorial topic is a double-edged sword for my ADHD tendencies. One the one hand, an endless supply of characters and unresolved connections results in an exciting choose-your-own adventure story about history. On the other hand, you need to keep track of the sprawling details.
I have ten EPUBs on the topic loaded into an e-reader and I’m taking notes on Puppetmasters: The Political Use of Terrorism in Italy with unusual productivity. Unusual because, again, distractibility does not mix well with the need to change mediums to take notes. If I go on my phone to type some notes my latest info-binge could end and with an intrusive detour. Even moving to old-fashioned pen-and-paper isn’t ideal because of the anxious nature of managing different tools for one job, especially in the tight space of economy class.
Fortunately, my e-reader in question is the reMarkable 2, a calm device that was clearly built with physical succinctness in mind. It has the dimensions of a mass-market magazine, and combines e-reader functionality with some stripped-down features of a grayscale, e-ink tablet. Mine has a leather cover that puts the device to sleep when it folds shut, and a heavy stylus that allows for writing, drawing, erasing, and manipulating the interface. These optional accessories secure to the left and right sides of the device with a satisfying magnetic snap. I can easily pull out the e-reader for when I want more firmness and less bulk in my hands, and the stylus will always be present when I need to mark important points. It can be used to read books or documents, or it can be just like a blank paper notebook without physical limitations on the page count.
Under the reading light I slide the stylus across a sentence about a mysterious “suicide” and the device snaps my markings into a perfectly rectangular highlight. A German-accented man catches sight of my work on his way to the bathroom and asks what kind of e-reader allows me to mark book pages. I tell him, and show him that you can also write with simulated pen- or pencil-strokes, and even insert your own blank pages for notes or doodles between the ebook’s pages. I commend the high sensitivity that stylus-strokes are captured with and the display’s high refresh rate. He says thanks and gives me high praise of a German smiling. I feel proud, having identified with the tool after only a few hours.
The end-point of this research-hobby is to make a YouTube video essay, so my home office comes into the equation for most of that process. I need my desktop to do web research and to quickly cross-reference my ebooks with Ctrl-F. All of this research inside and out of the reMarkable 2 ends up compiled and edited in a script on Google Doc also on my desktop, and that script will be consummated in a video that I also need my home office to produce. To my right is a studio-quality microphone on an arm claimed to the side of my desk, and to the right of that is a bookshelf containing relevant literature, some redundant with my ebooks and others not available electronically. It’s a cozy little nook for my side project, but sometimes I need to simplify, to have one tool that I can reason about with my hands and fingers, and I’ll open up my reMarkable 2 at my desk or on the couch.
For all its elegance, I can’t call the reMarkable 2 perfect. There’s some interface and feature bloat that would benefit from further simplification. For writing and drawing there are eight different pen modes that control what kind of markings stylus strokes produce, and they just aren’t that different. Each of those modes have further specifications such as stroke width and what color strokes produce when the document is exported to a computer. When you do export your documents to your computer, the only easy way is through the proprietary reMarkable software, which lacks the features of open-standards equivalents and doesn’t seem to be interoperable with anything. Using the reMarkable 2 with an open-standards software like Calibri requires clunky addons diametrically opposed to the device’s principle of simplicity.
I also don’t like that the stylus needs to be purchased separately. The reMarkable 2 is purchased for $299 on its own, and is just a plain ebook without any note-taking features unless you spend another $79 on a basic stylus, or $129 if you want the satisfying weight of the heavier stylus that I use. The cheapest option for leather “Folio” is another $129 on top of that. You’re talking about a device that ends up being over $500.
This boils down to a rating of an A-minus. At its price, the reMarkable 2 is a tool for professionals, hobbyists, and calmness optimizers. If you just want to read books, you’ll be happy with a conventional e-reader and save a few hundred dollars.