Lenovo Smart Paper review: A solid e-ink tablet spoiled by cost

Despite my fascination with most things e-ink, I have resisted the world of e-ink notebooks. I’m one of the few people who once owned a Kindle DX, that giant e-reader that only existed for a few years before it was retired.

Over the past few years, we’ve seen Amazon get into e-ink scribes, while startups like Remarkable have found their niche with capable hardware for reasonable prices. After working with e-ink on devices like the Yoga Book, Lenovo has decided to join the fray with smart paper.

Although the product has not yet launched in the US (and is curiously absent from Lenovo’s retail site for now), 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 more than the Remarkable 2, too. I tried using Smart Paper instead of a normal paper notepad, especially curious to see if offline handwriting recognition would create a seamless way to share notes on my laptop or phone. There are enough reasons for Lenovo’s digital notepad to stand out – but not all of them are good.

hardware

lenovo smart paper review
Photo by Matt Smith/Engadget

The Smart Paper has a relatively simple design, with an indent for the stylus on the left side of the device, the only detail being the front of the device, apart from a 10.3-inch E Ink touchscreen. You can interact with the screen via both a stylus and typical touch input, although you can’t type with your finger. The Smart Paper’s matte screen is quite crisp, at 227 pixels per inch (ppi), but a little crisper 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 a stylus and a folio case to protect the screen – which also keeps the stylus safe inside. Like the Kindle stylus, the Lenovo Pen can also be attached magnetically.

This pencil is more than enough for sketches, doodles and note-taking. The Smart Paper’s matte finish makes it a pleasure to write on, and unlike the ReMarkable 2, it has a built-in light to use it regardless of ambient light levels. I have only used it at its lowest brightness. (Who writes in the dark, anyway?) There’s also a built-in mic for recording voice notes, but no speaker.

The Smart Paper’s stylus feels almost like a pencil, with a flat sided grip. The writing experience is smooth and responsive – it’s not at iPad level, but the 25 ms latency is smooth enough to ensure it doesn’t disrupt your writing flow. The nibs are replaceable, and it feels just as good as most other e-ink styluses I’ve used so far. Compared to the Kindle Scribe’s pen, I like Lenovo’s streamlined design: no buttons, no eraser end, just an input device. Tech-wise, the stylus has tilt and pressure sensitivity (4,096 levels of pressure), which better shows off nine different input styles, including some decent calligraphy nibs, highlighters, and more simple pen options.

software

lenovo smart paper review
Photo by Matt Smith/Engadget

Lenovo’s Smart Paper runs Android 11, but with an open-source twist, which should create more powerful software that I expected would overtake Amazon’s Kindle Scribe. Sadly, unless you’re willing to dive into sideloading and software tinkering, this isn’t the Android experience I was hoping for. Instead, it’s a way for Lenovo to introduce a responsive but simple touch interface.

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 most of them are incredibly similar.

In addition to tapping with the stylus, you can use swipe and tap to navigate between Notepad pages, but it’s very temperamental. A tappable icon – arrows to move you between pages would be fine – would save me a lot of meaningless swipes.

Instead, I have to deal with the display slipping outwards from the center. Get it wrong, and you’ll be back in your Notepad library or going back a page instead of moving forward.

Even the most basic apps are present, including a clock, calendar, and email client. The reader supports your digital notepad made on smart paper as well as ePUB, PDF and Office files. If you’re feeling lucky, you can even record voice notes and dictate the notes. There is an eBooks.com app, which will be your primary destination for shopping for books.

eBooks.com door Ok? Amazon, predictably, dominates ebooks, but at least there’s something compatible with an established platform here. Having said that, books purchased through eBooks.com also don’t look good. There are no borders, so the text flows from one edge to the other. Instead of moving to the next page, the main text itself slides across the screen, which is a bit irritating on low-refresh rate e-ink displays. Barring the whole sideloading can of worms, the only way to get your Kindle books here is to load them on the Firefox browser, which requires a data connection.

If you already have a PDF, or ePUB file of a book you can easily transfer the compatible files. There is one app that can make transferring files easier: Google Drive. But it’s not on the homepage, it’s tabbed away. However, you cannot use the drive to transfer your digital notebook. Unfortunately, this requires you to have a special subscription.

That’s where Lenovo’s Smart Paper app comes in. If you’re willing to pay for a subscription, it offers cloud-synced notebook files. However, it is extremely expensive. Here in the UK, the smallest option is £9 per month for three months, with an upload limit of 5GB. It grows from there for longer periods and even more storage. By comparison, Google Drive gives you 200GB of storage for just £2.49 per month. (And it works on everything.)

lenovo smart paper review
Photo by Matt Smith/Engadget

What’s even more shocking is that 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. This is another headache for an incredibly overpriced, low-cost service. Unfortunately, there’s no easy solution, even with those Google Drive shortcuts,

I initially thought Smart Paper’s offline handwriting recognition would be the standout feature, but without easy ways to sync your files (or copy and paste text), it’s a handy skill that’s occasionally useful. Once I turned my chicken scratches into digital text, I was still grateful for a data connection — and either Lenovo’s Cloud Sync or G Drive — to access those digital notes. I have a horrible feeling that, with the handwriting changing page after page, it would be easier for me to type out my written notes, which defeats the purpose of the thing.

wrap up

lenovo smart paper review
Photo by Matt Smith/Engadget

The hardware is expensive, but solid. However, despite those Android roots, it lacks the flexibility of upstarts like Remarkable’s e-ink devices. While the Google Drive integration is useful, your digital scribblings are stuck in Lenovo’s expensive companion cloud service. Just a few more simple (and relevant!) apps could have made for an even more compelling device. If Google Drive is hooked, why not try getting a basic interface for Google Docs? Even though it doesn’t support handwriting recognition, the device doesn’t have a way to easily transfer your text notes to a text editor.

Ignoring the poorly thought-out cloud subscription pricing, Smart Paper also costs around £200 more notable 2, For that amount, the Smart Paper should be the perfect e-ink notepad, but it’s not.

This article was originally published on Engadget

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