Awhile ago I spent some time reviewing how I read books, news and random internet articles day to day. My goal was to bring a Kobo Clara HD back into regular use as I greatly prefer e-ink displays for reading. As with most things in my life, a “straight forward tech rework” was just the beginning of something far bigger.

I read a lot: an average of one hour plus per day with some days being over four hours of reading. I also cannot listen to audio books due to some speech processing and memory issues. Nor do I watch much video as it can cause me to turn into “a lump” that’s borderline catatonic. Video also does not relax me or help me unwind, recenter, or similar. It’s a pure time killer that has zero benefit for my physical or mental well being on the whole.

I have a strong reading preference and it’s been a major feature of who I am and how I consume media or stay current with the news since I was a youngling. It’s such a large part of my life I work very hard to ensure I always have reading material on hand and I’m careful to ensure my barriers to reading are kept to a minimum.

During my days at Uni I noticed that I’m incredibly light sensitive and prefer darker environments that are not conducive for reading paper works like books, magazines or the comics section of the newspaper. Thankfully I was around for the Palm Pilot and digital organizer revolution (circa ~2002) and discovered e-books very early on. I’ve read thousand page long books on my Sony Clie (a color Palm Pilot compatible PDA) and really took to the medium. It allowed me to read anywhere and at any time of day. It was a huge revelation and win for me. So much so that I will rarely read printed material to this day.

When e-ink displays were first introduced I quickly shifted to a Sony PRS reader with side lights and never looked back. Ever since I’ve kept an e-ink reading device on hand and ready to go at all times. I have multiple thousands of e-books in my library and I’m judicious about ensuring their metadata is of high quality and I keep them in sync with my reading device(s). I can grab my reader and know I will be able to sit and read without a second thought. Over time I landed on the Kobo readers which are some of the best dedicated readers I’ve used to date. I regularly put them forth as a recommendation and will continue to do so far as long as Kobo continues to build and support competent hardware that “Just Works” and stays out of your way.

Common Problems

I’ve only ever had two real problems with dedicated readers: comics and news articles.

Comics are almost always drawn according to whatever paper size will be used for the book or in standard newspaper formats. I’ve found comics don’t translate well to screens less than about 10" in size and even then, the large devices sometimes struggle with formatting and navigation in my experience. Unless comics are drawn with the intent of being read on a dedicated reader, I tend to have nothing but frustrations and annoyances reading them. I end up avoiding comics at this point but I think, in time, I’ll eventually find a method that works for me. It’s just never been a priority and I have a feeling I need to dedicate time to figure out what will work best for me.

News and articles are a problem as I pull them from a variety of online sources. No dedicated reader I’ve used to date works well, if at all, for these types of reading material. I can use some computer software to bridge the gap using conversion and sync tools. Sadly, I’ve found this approach particularly tedious and basically useless as I churn through a lot of articles on a daily basis (about 10-25, up to 50, per day average). I pull articles from RSS, social media and other sources as I go about my day and having to tether a reader and do the sync via my desktop computer (I don’t own a laptop, see my Death of the Laptop for more detail) is just too much overhead for me. Please note: I use my desktop to sync books to my reader(s). However, they don’t churn and I don’t have to sync them more than once a week during heavy reading spells and about once every 3 months on average which are both within my limits for annoyance.

The Kobo Clara HD - A Baseline

Thankfully Kobo allows some 3rd party apps to run with minimal effort on their devices with KOReader being both available and having a Wallabag sync option. I use RSS to feed Wallabag (think “Pocket” and “Read It Later”) heavily. KOReader allows this data to be sync’d to Kobo devices which brings me back to my opener about updating my Kobo Clara HD.

I did update the Clara HD and spent time sorting how to integrate it into how I flag articles to read and a few other items related to my accessibility needs. Much to my surprise KOReader works quite well on the Clara HD and is a reasonable option for regular use. The downside is I now had a modified Kobo Clara HD and I’ve been around long enough to know there is a very real risk of an update breaking things in a way that’d cause me to have to rebuild the setup or find an alternative. It’s a small risk with Kobo but it’s there and tickles the back of my brain whenever I use the device. On top of that KOReader is file focused, not metadata focused, for finding content to read. Most folk I know can work with this but my brain does not engage with books or articles in this way. I strongly prefer metadata based browsing and I’m very judicious about my books metadata. So much so that some folk like to joke I should have become a librarian instead of programmer (they aren’t wrong).

Clearly all of the above reads like I’ve found an amazing reader, enhancements and good accessibility when it comes to digital reading. Yet, I also give off the vibe of wanting a unicorn and could be taken as whining when there are clearly options available to me. That would be a reasonable hot take. However, it would get you blocked or cut out of my life if you tried to push such a take upon me despite being told to back down. If you’ve tracked my blog and public works you’ll quickly discover I’m a really good unicorn hunter and have a weird aptitude when it comes to finding and developing accessible solutions in tech.

If the above works for you: Great! Please use the above to make your reading better, easier and more accessible. I regularly tell folk about the above and how well it can work for most humans.

Sadly I don’t have the brain for long-term use of the above and even though I can make it work for short periods, I always end up frustrated which reduces my engagement with reading to the point I stop and “take a break”. I’m AuDHD with pain and inflammation problems. My penultimate form of entertainment and sanity keeping (reading) must not get in the way of my brain and must feel natural and “smooth” to use if I want long term success.

The Boox Palma - The Unicorn I Was Hunting

The good news is I found my unicorn in this world.

As I was reworking the Clara HD, I was posting about my journey on The Socials. True to form, at least one person suggested an alternate device maker as a possible option for my needs. Boox makes Android based e-ink devices designed for reading. They also have a few models that have a proper hardware stylus and digitizer for note taking. In the past I have used Android for reading but battery life and screens (brightness and crispness) have proven problematic at times. Thankfully Android devices have come a long way but I still don’t care for the OLED or IPS panels in modern devices for extended reading sessions. I rarely spend more than 15-30 minutes for a reading session on non e-ink devices and this has been pretty consistent since I bought into the Android ecosystem. Back when there were still alternatives other than Apple’s iOS devices.

Imagine my surprise and excitement when shown a proper e-ink device running Android as the OS!

The Boox devices are the unicorn I was hunting. Boox uses good e-ink panels that are similar, if not better, specs than the Kobo, Kindle and other device panels with a recent version of Android as the main OS. They also sell a wide range of devices in a number of sizes ranging from “phone sized” to “full sheet of paper” sized. I happen to prefer “phone sized” and had compromised with 8" readers for years. Suddenly I was looking at a device sized to my preference capable of running the same reading setup as my phone but with an e-ink screen. [Editors note: Kemo maintains a reading environment on their phone to ensure there is always an option for reading “at hand”] I did a quick scan of reviews, discovered they make competent hardware and bought the Boox Palma within an hour of discovering it existed. Yes, I was that excited.

I do not regret this impulse buy in the least. It ranks as one of the best impulse purchases of my life thus far. It is the unicorn I was trying to find.

Like anything else, the Boox devices are not perfect for everyone and there are plenty of reviews that make this fact abundantly clear. For a lot of folk, a Kobo or similar will be a better hardware choice. For others, like me, the Boox is a vastly superior option.

My Boox Palma arrived shortly after I finished the Clara HD rework and right as I was starting to find pain points that’d continue to block me from using the Clara HD on a regular basis.

I almost immediately started setting up the Palma and started taking notes. Within 3 days I found (and reported) a firmware bug, found a few “hidden” gems and further honed my Android based reading setup with a focus on open source software and a few Play Store apps for things like library books and paying open source devs that have paid options in the Play Store (ie. I use the open source app and bought the paid version to support the dev despite not using the paid version). I also setup Moon+ which is my preferred Android book reader despite it being closed source. I also have KOReader setup to help with Calibre sync and as a hedge against Moon+ going away or worse.

About a week after receiving the Palma I shelved the Clara HD. I switched to the Palma almost immediately despite the firmware bug I found (see the battery drain note in The Ugly section below) and barely looked back at the Clara HD once my key needs were sorted on the Palma. Within 2 weeks of receiving the Palma, I sold the Clara HD to a friend.

Due to the flexibility of Android and the Boox hardware, particularly the Palma for me, you can build a reading environment around your individual needs quickly and in a robust way. The side light makes the e-ink display usable in the dark and the firmware/software flexibility is second to none in my experience.

That said, like most tech, there is plenty good, bad and ugly to be had with the Boox devices. They aren’t for everyone and if not, definitely look at the Kobo offerings closely. (See above for the key points regarding Kobo hardware)

The rest of this post is a collection of my notes and information on how I setup a Boox Palma for my needs. I’ve included the good, bad and ugly so you can make a better informed decision about the Boox devices and if they might work for you. Nothing is perfect but the Boox pain points are ones that don’t affect me and can easily be worked around without making me frustrated, angry or worse.

I found my unicorn.

The Good

Let’s start with the good as it greatly outweighs the bad and the ugly. The below list may be large but it’s everything positive I noted while working through setup and testing of the Boox Palma. These items are in no particular order.

  • It has an auto color temp (red shift) option for the screen light
  • The Neutron Music player light theme is usable and Neutron is a viable alternative to USB Audio Player Pro for DAC use
  • There is no digitizer on the screen but ‘generic’ styluses do work
  • Solid Explorer needs adjustments to be usable on e-ink
    • Max dark color enhancement
    • Min light color filter
    • High contrast on
  • Per app optimizations are a thing and can sort issues with background tasks or long running tasks or music player apps
    • Run app -> Open e-ink center -> App optimization button
    • Long press app icon -> Optimization
  • Light themes seem to do better than dark for readability, dark themes may work but would need vetting as many I tried do not work properly
  • It has an auto brightness option for the screen light
  • Battery life is holding up good IMO (no worse than other devices, far better than some)
    • WiFi and Bluetooth will eat an average amount for an Android device, if not do a bit better
      • Please note I think the Kobo and Kindle have major battery drain issues with WiFi and Bluetooth
    • Heavy screen refreshes and similar dont seem to be real problematic
    • This is NOT a highly tuned, embedded device like a Kobo or Kindle…
    • I recommend folk adjust expectations related to battery life
    • The battery is better than any Android device I’ve used to date: by a massive margin thanks to the e-ink screen
  • Bluetooth audio isn’t trash yet isn’t great, more ‘meh’. It is good enough for my desires despite being ‘meh’ quality overall (this is not an audiophiles audio device)
  • The SD card slot supports a 512Gb micro SD card. Note: I don’t have a bigger one and cannot test further despite it appearing to support larger cards
  • The case is a standard silicone esque case. It’s nothing special and good enough that I’m using it
  • The screen is nice overall, though I’d recommend minimizing any animation effects
  • The ‘refresh screen’ shortcut that’s everwhere helps a ton and sheds the gray newspaper feel the display can get when refreshing frequently
  • It has dedicated per app refresh settings
  • It has dedicated per app dpi settings
  • It has per app volume key settings (volume / scrolling are the options)
  • It has long press volume button setting (global scope only)
  • The function button has short press, double click, long press tunables via predefined functions only
  • Navi ball is an interesting looking feature (best looked up in docs, it’s hard to describe)
  • It has options for turning WiFi and/or Bluetooth off when suspended which can save a lot of battery life
  • The SD card popped up and seems to work fine without any intervention by the user
  • They have two ways of ‘pulling down’ from the top of the notifications. I like this approach way more than the usual ‘pull down to get notifications, pull again for more options’ thats the default in Android
    • Left half is notifications
    • Right half is a quick settings panel
  • The side hardware button is tunable and in a decent spot despite limited options for tuning
  • I hear a chime whenever I plug it in, this is mutable with the ‘mute’ quick action panel and main volume settings
  • The bottom button bar has excess buttons for me (I prefer the stock Android bar). Thankfully you can adjust the icons shown in the bottom bar quite extensively
  • The standard launcher appears to be pretty decent for what they set out to build. I’m not going to use it but looks like they put some thought into it. I didn’t reel in horror like I might at other highly tuned launchers from device makers.
  • F-Droid works well and is fully supported
  • It has recent security updates for Android 11 near as I can tell and it’s been kept up to date but the speed and cadence is on the slow side for updates

The Bad

The below list is everything mildly negative I noted while working through setup and testing of the Boox Palma. These items are in no particular order.

  • The pure white backlight I don’t like
    • I have the same complaints as the Kindle
    • It does has a red shift which took away my main complaints but it gave me pause initially
  • USB Audio Player Pro is unusable and I cannot find way for its gui to work for import/folder scan setup
  • It will kill background tasks aggressively unless app allowed to run in background
    • You can use the little lock on app switcher to ‘pin’ running apps (music/book reader in particular would be good for this)
    • Dsub file caching/bulk downloading is affected
    • Solid Explorer file transfers are affected
  • The double tap on app switcher button won’t auto-flip to last app like it does with other Android devices
  • I’d prefer 8Gb RAM over the included 6Gb as I seem to be idling around 2-5Gb RAM used at all times
    • It does seem ok overall
    • I’m pretty sure I overshot the RAM and hit the out of memory killer at least once but not since I completed the initial setup and heavy app use
  • WiFi and Bluetooth chew on battery but I don’t feel its terrible or off base given the Qualcomm platform used. The battery size (per specs) and the light being on non-stop fits with my expectations overall. It’s NOT a Kindle or Kobo for battery though, fair warning (This was the biggest pain point in negative reviews online)
  • I’ve adjusted to the ghosting on ‘balanced’ display refresh settings. I don’t think I’m going to fiddle with it really, it is balanced like I’d expect it to be given my history with e-ink
  • Device boot up is about as slow as my Samsung Z Fold 4. Think ’this is a computer’ like all mobile devices seem to be these days. It’s not a major complaint, just an item to note
  • The default launcher is just a slew of screens full of app icons, similar to other devices. It’s not my cup of tea and I almost immediately switched to a different launcher
    • There are many launcher options
    • This should be a non-issue given some spelunking for alternatives
    • Olauncher is the one I’ll be using long term (it’s in both F-Droid and Play Store)

The Ugly

The below list is everything I noted that could easily be a show stopper issue while working through setup and testing of the Boox Palma. These items are in no particular order.

  • The stock keyboard asks for a lot more permission than I’m ok with. Seriously, it was a wall of permissions. “Not a good look” vibes go here.
    • Floris Board is an alternative that I’ll be using long term (it’s oss, free, offline, no shit shared to a ‘cloud’ and available via F-Droid and Play Store)
  • Battery Drain Issues…
    • Happened during early tests and I found the cause and a work around
    • Workaround: set the device to disconnect WiFi / Bluetooth / audio when asleep
    • onyx_workLowPower is the package/service causing battery drain
    • WiFi being turned off during Sleep seems to work around the issue
    • I’ve tried with an onyx account setup and without an onyx account setup in the main device settings – this had zero effect on the drain
    • gsam battery monitor pro can shed light on the issue and is usable on e-ink
    • Google battery historian (cli tools and docker required) sheds further insights
  • USB-C DAC and USB-C dock important considerations
    • You can NOT use USB OTG and charge the device at the same time
    • You get USB devices XOR charging
    • It’s likely a kernel, Android system or electrical ’thing’ causing this
    • Common USB-C docks will provide only the USB devices attached or charge the Palma, not both
    • Dock’s do not seem to allow external display use (tested with an Anker dock and an uPerfect lapdock)

Book Management and Tracking Reading Progress

Below is my recommended process of using The Story Graph and/or Good Reads in conjunction with Calibre for managing and syncing books to the Palma.

  • Update tags and status in Story Graph
  • Update tags and status in Calibre
  • Polish books in Calibre to set the tags/tweaked metadata
  • Use KOReader Calibre sync to send all updated books to device
  • Exit KOReader
  • Re-import updated books in Moon+
  • Done

Please Note:

  • Moon+ is smart enough to see its the same book with updated tags and will keep the reading position and such from what I can tell (you’ll want to test annotations if you do annotations)
  • If Moon+ ever ‘goes away’ KOReader being used for the Calibre sync will ensure KOReader has the Calibre metadata so you can use the KOReader feature that lets you browse by Calibre metadata info. IMO this is super handy as I loathe a wall of file names in the default KOReader book browser and only care about the metadata as that’s all I can engage with for finding reading material

Parting Thoughts

Succinctly: the Book Palma is the unicorn e-reader I’ve wanted for a very long time.

Is it perfect? Absolutely not.

Is it viable and usable for me? Absolutely.

The Kobo devices I still recommend to others as a 100% valid option as they have better battery life and tend to be a bit more ‘focused’ in nature. They are great, just not ‘for me’ in the end.

If you’re looking for an e-reader, the Boox devices and the Kobo devices are worth researching. Things have come a long, long way over time.

The Palma and other Boox e-readers are solid devices that have a ton of utility given they are built on top of Android as the OS. This gave me an impressive amount of flexibility to setup a reading environment highly tuned to my needs overall. It does sacrifice some battery in favor of the flexibility but I’ve found that to be a non-issue for me over time. If your main concern is battery life: definitely look at the Kobo offerings instead. Android, a generic mobile OS, just cannot match embedded OS’s like you get with a Kobo device.

I’ve totally switched to the Palma as my primary device for reading and it’s even reduced how many articles I read on my phone as I’ve come to just prefer the Palma to the phone for all things reading. In the past I used my phone heavily for reading articles but now I really only use the phone for reading when the Palma is not close at hand. The Palma imprinted so strongly that I’ve gotten into the habit of just grabbing the Palma with my phone when I move between my various ‘sitting spots’ at home.

See also