Pen and paper were always by favorite tools for technical designs and for capturing ongoing work notes and I used to buy blue grid paper notebooks in packs of five, to save me a trip to Staples. I even developed a system to cross reference pages to link notes made at different times.
With all those paper notebooks lying around, whenever new note taking technologies emerged, I rushed to try them out and it worked out well enough for me in that I didn't buy a paper notebook in years. Mostly because OneNote covers majority of note taking needs now and partly because some of those new technologies make taking notes as easy as pulling a paper notebook out of the desk drawer.
A reMarkable tablet is a good example of the latter.
I use an HP Spectre x360 convertible with a stylus to take handwritten notes, which works out better than typed text for initial technical designs because switching between typing and drawing in diagrams is quite cumbersome. This also works out quite well because OneNote indexes handwriting, making it searchable, which provides a huge advantage over other note taking platforms.
Using a laptop for note taking is functionally versatile, but having to fire it up or detach from the dock every time an idea comes mind or to have it sitting next to a desktop computer at all times is a big hassle, compared to using a paper notebook just lying around. This is where a reMarkable tablet comes in.
A reMarkable tablet uses electronic ink technology and consumes very little power. It can be used almost immediately after pushing the power button, whether you want to write down a quick idea or just need to take a note of some time stamp in correlation to a thread identifier while troubleshooting an issue.
Writing on a reMarkable tablet feels just like using a felt pen on paper, rather than a stylus on a glass display of a regular laptop or tablet. Those who love pen and paper, will feel right at home with this device.
Notes in reMarkable are organized as pages in notebooks, which are stored in a hierarchy of folders. This allows one to keep notes in a well-structured folder hierarchy. There is also a Quick Sheets notebook, which is always available via the top menu in the folder view.
Pages in reMarkable notebooks are fixed in size and if you run out of room in one page, a new page must be added, which gets tricky for technical designs that may require different note sequences stemming from the same original diagram. This is different from OneNote pages, which offer a boundless canvas and allow notes to expand in a tree-like fashion within a page.
reMarkable screen is smaller than I originally anticipated and this does present a challenge when trying to lay out a diagram that grows as your thoughts continue to emerge and you keep adding notes around it. I often end up selecting the whole drawing, scaling it down, and then using page zoom to add more scaled down bits and pieces to the diagram. Having the screen a centimeter or two wider on either side would go a long way, even if it meant that a wider backpack is needed to carry it around.
Some of the paper notebook tricks I used to link notes, such as adding +2p to point to a note two pages further in the notebook, do not work with reMarkable notebooks because pages can be deleted and inserted between existing pages. Lack of automated linking between pages is definitely a missed feature opportunity, such as being able to select some strokes on one page and link the selection to another page.
reMarkable designers clearly spent a great deal of effort on making the tablet behave like a paper notebook and it worked out amazingly well in most part - in the first couple of days after I got the tablet, I would sketch some random diagrams and write random thoughts, just to use it one more time.
Having said that, after using the tablet for a while, I feel like this paper notebook loyalty went a bit too far. For example, there is no built-in ruler, like there is one in OneNote, so if you want to draw a source repository diagram, you either need to settle for a less than perfect lines or use a plastic ruler, like you would do in a paper notebook.
Similarly, there is no stroke-to-shape functionality, so all your rectangles and circles will be crooked one way or another, even with the grid background, unless you choose to rotate the device at least twice for each rectangle to make strokes naturally parallel with the movement of your hand.
Erasing strokes also falls into the same category because reMarkable provides no stroke eraser, so if you draw a line across other strokes, there is no way to just tap the line and erase it without affecting other stuff, like one would do in OneNote. The eraser on the back of the stylus is flimsy and often erases more than needed and is only good for erasing well isolated strokes.
The selection tool does a better job with strokes, so it is possible to select a line across some text or a word in a sentence and cut it from the page, but that takes a few extra steps and feels like a workaround for a problem that shouldn't be there in the first place.
reMarkable may be used on its own, which costs $499 CAD for the tablet, $179 CAD for a stylus with a built-in eraser (vs. $99 CAD for a regular stylus) and $119 CAD for the folio. Additional reMarkable's cloud offering (Connect) costs $6.99 CAD/month for just cloud storage and $9.99 CAD per month for 3rd-party cloud integration, handwriting conversion and screen sharing via the desktop app.
Screen Share is a truly powerful service that makes it very easy to share sketches in online meetings and visualize quick discussions. It is unfortunate that this feature is only available as a part of the full Connect subscription because it uses only local resources and would be a good incentive to use reMarkable more than it is now, even without a subscription.
Screen Share pairs the tablet with a desktop application either via a USB-C cable or via a local network and once you hit that screen share button on the tablet and confirm it in the desktop app, all sketching is immediately visible on the desktop screen, which can be shared in any in-meeting screen sharing tool.
reMarkable's handwriting recognition feels like a solution bolted on top of the existing platform and barely integrated into it. The way it works is that the resulting text can only be emailed and cannot be used on the tablet for searches or saved as text in exported PDF files.
Oddly enough, once handwriting recognition is performed, there is a hidden text file created on the device, which could be used for searches, but search ignores those files. My guess would be that the current platform cannot handle background processing for all notebooks out there and including only some notebooks would make this feature frustratingly inconsistent.
In contrast, OneNote always performs handwriting recognition and allows users to search through their handwritten notes when indexing is done, which may take hours and even days. This is an amazingly useful feature that makes handwriting in quick notes almost as good as typed text, depending on handwriting quality.
Handwriting recognition in reMarkable is usable with simple text notes, but for technical diagrams and blocks of text around the diagram, it is absolutely useless. It is simpler to export the diagram into a PDF, import it into OneNote and trace over it rather than to try reconstruct a diagram from the bits and pieces of exported text.
3rd-Party Cloud Integration
3rd-party cloud integration is the worst part of the Connect offering. It requires full access to the cloud account, which is very unsettling to begin with, and it will only store exported formats, such as PDF, which means that all pen strokes are gone. I don't know why anybody would use this feature, as it is.
OneNote can be used for free with Windows 10 and Microsoft gives away free 5 GB of OneDrive storage, which can store a few notebooks. For more storage, and to be able to store OneNote notebooks on a local drive, one can buy an MS Office subscription, which costs about $8.99 CAD/month and includes all MS Office applications and 1TB of OneDrive storage.
A reMarkable subscription, on the other hand, costs $9.99 CAD/month and buys one limited handwriting recognition and screen sharing. The OneDrive integration that comes with it is useless and the unlimited storage is just a marketing gimmick because this is a platform for handwritten notebooks and not a picture or a music library. A six-page notebook with lots of diagrams and text requires about 2 MB of storage and one can store about 3000 of them on the device with 6 GB of storage.
reMarkable should have provided an option to export reMarkable notebooks as OneNote notebooks and convert all pen strokes to OneNote inking, which would add a lot of value for those who want to use an always-on tablet to capture notes and sketches quickly, but maintain those notes in a more feature rich platform and be able to search through handwritten text in OneNote.
Screen sharing, which is available only with a full Connect subscription, is a very powerful feature and works quite well for presenting drawings in online meetings. However, as good as it is, there is a number of shortcomings in this feature that will leave one frustrated over how easy it is to mess up drawings during a presentation.
When screen sharing is enabled on the tablet, it automatically finds a computer running a desktop reMarkable app over WiFi and connects to it. Once connected, the entire tablet screen is shared and it even shows a large red dot over the spot where the marker is hovering. This part is quite good, but soon enough you realize that it is impossible to maintain that red dot distance between the marker and the screen surface, so you either end up drawing random dots and lines on the page or the red dot disappears while you are narrating with the marker moved away a millimeter too far.
The only way to deal with this is to add a new layer to the page and let random scribbles end up in that layer. So far so good, but you then have to do it for every page that will be presented and before every meeting you must remember to visit all pages you want to present and add that extra layer and then after the meeting remove it page by page.
There are some smaller shortcomings in screen sharing, but this one is quite frustrating and could have been designed much better for activities typically done when presenting and adding content during discussions.
I love my reMarkable tablet and use it for screen sharing during online meetings and for transient diagrams and notes in various contexts, such as adding quick diagrams in work item comments or for capturing troubleshooting notes. However, for notes that I want to keep for a while, I would rather fire up my laptop and use OneNote, so my handwritten notes are searchable and editable on multiple devices.
If you want a straight replacement for paper notebooks, including having to use a good old ruler to draw a straight line, if you would be happy with notes exported as images or SVG files, and can live without being able to search your handwritten notes, you will find reMarkable delightfully awesome. Otherwise you may want to explore other note taking solutions.
Pros & Cons
This section is a random list of good and bad things I ran into for my reMarkable tablet with software version 22.214.171.1248.
- Pages can be moved between notebooks, so they can be created in Quick Sheets, when an idea strikes, and moved later to a named notebook for storage.
- Can export notebooks in PDF, PNG and SVG. OneNote doesn't import pen strokes from SVG, but it's promising that there is an export format that preserves pen strokes.
- It's possible to use blue and red colors in exported images, which helps with diagram annotations. Those colors are not very visible on the tablet though.
- Layers are useful in adding annotations and can be made visible/invisible with one tap. Must be used with care, though - it is very hard to erase annotations if the primary layer is selected by mistake.
- Adding a layer while presenting keeps accidental drawings temporary, but it must be enabled manually - easy to forget and mess up the main sketch.
- Very natural feel when writing. Feels like using a felt tip pen.
- Notebook live sharing is very good. It even shows a red dot, like a laser pointer, where pen points, which makes it easier to talk about things, although it's not always easy to keep hovering a couple of millimeters above the screen surface to maintain that red dot.
- Screen sharing over local WiFi is very well done and is very convenient for presenting things. No wire mess - it just pops an question to approve screen sharing in the desktop app and starts sharing the tablet screen.
- Adding annotations to existing PDF files is done quite well, with the PDF rendered in background and annotations are in the lagers, like in regular reMarkable notebooks with a template.
- The selection tool is stroke-aware and allows one to select inner parts of a drawing.
- The selection tool moves selected shapes very smoothly, showily all contents, which is pleasantly surprising with the electronic ink technology.
- A magnetic pen is nice when juggling folio, pen and tablet on the go.
- The menu on the tablet can be hidden away to reduce UI clutter. Having a pen with an eraser helps here because erasing can be done without using the menu. A nice touch for this minimalistic view is that notebooks can be closed and navigated with gestures.
- Screen sharing only shows notebooks. This is helpful when switching notebooks in that it won't flash folders and notebook names while presenting.
- OneDrive integration asks for a full access to the entire account, not just some folder. This integration is fairly useless to begin with, but if desired, using a separate dedicated OneDrive account might be a good idea to limit the exposure.
- No in-tablet ruler support - need to use an actual ruler to draw a straight line.
- Portrait/landscape mode isn't for the entire device and if a notebook is switched between these, only the menu is moved and the drawing must be rotated manually via the selection tool.
- No way to convert a notebook to text in-place - it allows only to export pages as text and email the result.
- Moving a selection to the edge of the page will cut off excess strokes without any warning.
- Pages cannot be named and to make it easier to navigate, a bold marker must be used to write a title at the top, using some of the precious page real estate.
- No stroke eraser and it gets tricky to erase in busy drawings or tight multi-line text.
- The built-in pen eraser is awkward and often erases some strokes, but leaves behind others. It is practically impossible to erase a long line without going over it more than once with the eraser.
- No way to change stroke type for existing strokes. For example, if I used a pen that is too thin, there's no way to select the sketch and change selected strokes to a fineliner or a marker.
- When exporting handwritten text, doesn't recognize and preserve diagrams and instead sends bits and pieces of text from diagram boxes, often rendering most of it incoherent.
- There is no one-tap stroke selection, so it is impossible to select and move a box around its text or remove a random annotation.
- OneDrive integration won't allow storing notebooks in OneDrive. When a notebook is moved to OneDrive, a PDF export is stored, which may be confusing at first.
- Exported PDF files show light gray page template lines as very visible black lines, which is quite distracting and one must remember to switch the template to the blank one before exporting to avoid this. This must be done manually for each page.
- Sending exported text via email send adds a promo link, which cannot be disabled and makes it impossible to just send converted text to anyone without repackaging it into a new email.
- Shared PDF is not rotated for landscape documents (at least not via those sent via email)
- Desktop app can convert to PDF, PNG, SVG, but offers no conversion to text.
- Converting to text is done page by page and each must be selected manually in the notebook.
- When selecting a tool, tapping the screen with the pen to dismiss the visible menu leaves a mark on the page.
- The erase tool looks like the selection tool in how selection is done, but it will erase across strokes, which makes it not very useful in tight spots.
- Once an email address was used, it cannot be removed from the list or recently used email addresses.
- No indication of what tool or color is selected and it takes a couple of taps to verify what is selected.
- No page history or a recycle bin for pages, just a stern warning when pages are being removed.
- When multiple layers are used, there is no way to select and move/scale selection across all layers, which makes layer annotations unmanageable because they cross many strokes in other layers and cannot be collapsed for moving/scaling.
- Sometimes live share of one notebook gets stuck and closing that notebook makes it impossible to open another notebook. Very frustrating when this happens during a presentation. Happens intermittently.
- Sometimes selecting a few strokes and trying to move the selection erases random bits around them. Undo/redo gets messed up, as if it is used in selecting/moving. Intermittently reproducible, but happened a couple of times for me. This makes it very hard to recover affected sketches or handwriting.
- There is no way to duplicate a layer, so it can be split onto stages for better presenting. Cutting fragments of the page moves content because content is pasted with its center being at the center of where marker touches the screen when pasting, which is impossible to align with the original position of the copied content.