Onyx Boox Nova Air C review: Color E Ink on an ambitious tablet

Some people use chamomile tea, others use breathing exercises, but for me the most reliable tactic for falling asleep quickly is to avoid screens before bed. But actually doing this requires some creativity if I want to keep up with the news online. My current system involves saving articles in the read-later app Instapaper, which sends a daily digest to my Kindle every night. But it’s a hacky approach where articles are often not formatted correctly and sometimes don’t show up at all.

I could switch to a Kobo, which offers native integration with rival read-later app Pocket, but the Onyx Boox Nova Air C offers a much more compelling alternative. Unlike a Kindle or Kobo, the E Ink display can display colors and runs on a modified version of Android that lets you download and run a variety of apps that go well beyond reading ebooks. It opens the door to tons of apps for reading later, as well as full-featured word processors and third-party note-taking software. It even includes a stylus for handwritten notes.

At $420, it’s pricey compared to Amazon’s Kindles, which often cost well under $200. But that price puts you a little closer to a full-on Android tablet than an e-reader. It’s just a shame that the total package doesn’t quite live up to its promise.

The Onyx Boox Nova Air C is a modest device, with large bezels around the 7.8-inch screen and an overall plastic-feeling build. The power button is on the top left, while a USB-C port is on the bottom next to a pair of downward-firing speakers. They’re about as bad as I expected, but better than nothing. (Amazon’s Kindles haven’t had them in years.) Internally, the Nova Air C is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 662 processor with 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage.

The main attraction here is the color E Ink display. The Nova Air C features E Ink’s Kaleido Plus display, which uses a color filter layer on top of a more typical E Ink panel to provide 4,096 colors. The approach has some obvious drawbacks. For starters, the screen can’t display color content at the same resolution as black and white, so while the screen reaches 1404 x 1872 in black and white (300 ppi), it’s limited to a paltry 468 x 624 (100 ppi) when displaying of color . And even then, the colors are much more muted than what you’d get from even a cheap LCD display, whose color range can be counted in the millions — not the thousands. My former colleague Sam Byford described the colors on the similar Kaleido-equipped PocketBook Color as “a newspaper that faded in a few days,” which seemed a very apt description of the Nova Air C.

Book covers (shown here in the Kindle app) in particular benefit from the added color.

The screen may struggle with complex color images.

And yet even a base color is better than no color at all. The Nova Air C’s colors may look faded and low-resolution, but the essence of the image remains – unlike a Kindle, where color images just look broken. I would almost compare using the Kaleido screen to watching a foreign movie with subtitles; you miss a lot of the subtlety, but you can still fundamentally understand what you’re looking at.

I briefly tried watching video on the Nova Air C’s screen via YouTube, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Content looks incredibly choppy due to the low screen refresh rate, colors look washed out and there is a huge amount of ghosting. You can see what’s going on in no time, but I’d rather watch video on literally any other screen.

Despite the color, the tablet retains the advantages of an E Ink display. I had no problem reading the Nova Air C in bright sunlight, and with a small boost to the backlight function, I was able to read it before bed in low light without eye strain. The battery life is also just as impressive as any other e-reader. I’ve been using the tablet on and off for almost two months and the battery level is still at 55 percent.

That said, part of the reason for this impressive life is probably the Nova Air C’s aggressive power management settings, with the tablet turning off completely by default if you’re not using it for just 15 minutes. This may mean that every time you want to use the tablet, you have to wait about 27 seconds for the tablet to start up. I suggest adjusting the “Power off timeout” in the settings to one or even two days so that the laptop can wake up in a few seconds when you want to use it. But be prepared to sacrifice a little battery life for this increase in responsiveness.

Taking notes is a breeze with the built-in app.

Booting from a full shutdown may take a while.

The highlight of the Onyx Boox Nova Air C is its built-in note-taking app. Handwritten notes feel great with the included stylus, with pen strokes appearing on the screen almost instantly and 4,096 levels of pressure sensitivity offering plenty of versatility. There are different brush styles and colors, and the software can try to convert your handwriting into typed text and even emoji.

This character recognition worked well in limited cases, but struggled with long passages. Once written, it’s easy to export notes to a PDF or PNG file by simply scanning a QR code with your smartphone or sharing them with another app on the tablet. All this makes the Nova Air C a great device for taking notes by hand.

But trying to use the tablet as a traditional e-reader is more complicated, and you’ll have to jump through more hoops than competing devices like the Kindle. While the Nova Air C technically comes with a built-in ‘store’, in practice it seemed mostly filled with public domain works, and I couldn’t find any of the modern books I was hoping to read.

That leaves you with a few other options. You can download ebooks from elsewhere on the web and then transfer them to the tablet, and it supports a wide range of file types, including PDF, ePub, TXT, RTF, and MOBI. But when I actually bought an ePUB from eBooks.com and tried to load it on the Nova Air C, I found that it doesn’t support the Adobe DRM the store uses. (The only DRM that the e-reader supports is the China-focused JD DRM.)

Fortunately, Onyx uses a heavily modified version of Android 11 as software on the Nova Air C, meaning you’re not limited to using the built-in software. You can download and install most apps from the Play Store as if you were using any other Android tablet, including, crucially, Amazon’s Kindle app. Setting up Google Play Services on the device is a bit of a weird process that involves jumping through some strange hoops. But once I was set up, it was relatively easy to take advantage of my pre-existing Kindle library. While there, I downloaded some other Android apps: Instapaper for reading all the web articles I bookmark to read later in my day; obsidian for taking notes; and Comixology for reading comics.

It is perfectly possible to download the Kindle app and use it alongside other Android apps.

In black and white, text is nice and sharp.

Here’s what I hoped the Nova Air C’s superpower would be: the ability to download and install all the Android apps I wanted.

Make notes. The Nova Air 2 comes with a decent note-taking app that works really well with the stylus. But it doesn’t work as well for typed notes, which you may want to do if you have a Bluetooth keyboard to pair with the tablet.

So instead I downloaded the note-taking app Obsidian. It worked well, allowing me to type notes much faster than I could ever write them by hand. And, unlike when I’m using a laptop or my phone, I’d love to do it late at night without having to look at a bright screen. You could use any word processing or note taking software you like – as long as it has an Android app. It is also possible to download alternative stylus-compatible apps, but my experience has been a bit hit and miss. OneNote worked well, but INKredible felt laggy with Onyx’s stylus.

I was also able to get Instapaper up and running with minimal effort. I had full access to all my saved articles that I could read without going through the clunky syncing process that Instapaper’s Kindle integration requires. Comixology worked well for reading comics, but the screen was a little too low-resolution and too small to feel like I was getting the most out of the experience.

But very soon I ran into problems with these apps that were clearly never designed with E Ink displays in mind. You control apps on the Nova Air C with a combination of taps and swipes, just like on any other Android tablet. But the E Ink screen is so much less responsive than the 60Hz LCD or OLED panels found on most other Android devices that it’s hard to “feel” your way around any app. You can’t half swipe to see what a full swipe could do; you have to put in your full effort and hope you did it right.

It feels a lot better when you start using physical buttons to control the tablet, which is made possible through Onyx’s magnetic Nova Air case. Not only does this add a protective cover to the tablet, but it also includes a pair of physical volume buttons, which many reading-focused Android apps allow you to remap to page-turn controls. If you are going to pick up a Nova Air C, I highly recommend getting this case for it. It sells separately from the tablet for $59.99, which feels expensive given its need.

The optional case and included stylus.

The 7.8-inch screen feels like a nice size.

I had high hopes for the Onyx Boox Nova Air C. I wanted it to be able to do everything: read books; read articles online; and act as a repository for all my notes — all in a form factor that I could use late at night without eye strain.

And yes, it can do absolutely all of these things. But the more I asked of the tablet, the more I felt the E Ink screen crack under the pressure. E Ink panels are more than responsive enough to read books using software designed especially for them. But throw in an app designed for a 60Hz touchscreen, and it can be a struggle to use. And packing in so much functionality means the Nova Air C struggles to match a basic Kindle when it comes to just flipping it open and starting reading right away. You have to choose the app and possibly even the book first.

I wanted a lot from the Nova Air C, and for $450 I think it’s fair to expect it. Amazon’s Kindles cost about half what Onyx charges, and you can even get an alternative e-reader with a color screen from PocketBook for $234. Or, if your priorities are less about having an E Ink screen and more about it If you have the functionality of a tablet, you can get an iPad Mini with an 8.3-inch screen for $499 or a base-level iPad with a 10.2-inch screen for $329. None of these devices will check all the boxes. But then again, neither does the Nova Air C.

Photography by Jon Porter / The Verge

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