Monday, October 5, 2020

Purchasing an E-Reader for Academic Work

I purchased the Onyx Boox Max3 (OBM3) just over two weeks ago. The purpose of this post is to describe why I purchased it, and my experiences with it so far. Hopefully, the post will be of use to other academics who want to purchase an e-reader. As I get more and more accustomed to using it, I will continue to revise this post.

Here are some descriptions of the device on-line:

1. Why I bought the OBM3

I read a lot of .pdf files of papers and books for my work. I read these both for course preparation and for my research. 

When I read extensively on my computer screen, my eyes get strained. They feel tired and start to water. Then at night, they feel dry. In the past, I have printed out paper copies to read since these do not put as much strain on my eyes. But at the end of the year, I usually have a stack of papers at least two feet high that I need to recycle. Otherwise my office would be filled from floor to ceiling with stacks of papers after a few years. 

There is also the issue of toner cartridges. If I use my desktop printer, I quickly use up the toner cartridge, which has to be disposed of (another environmental issue). Buying a few cartridges throughout the year adds up in terms of cost.

Lastly, carrying a stack of papers on a trip, or on a walk, or back and forth from the office to the apartment, is heavy and inconvenient. 

For all of these reasons, I decided to buy an e-reader.

I bought the e-reader with the largest screen (13.3 inches), because I felt that a smaller screen would mean smaller print, and that would mean more strain on the eyes. The decision to buy the largest screen e-reader narrowed the possibilities. For example, Kindle and Remarkable do not have 13.3 inch e-readers.

I did not buy the e-reader to take lengthy notes (e.g., in a lecture or for fieldwork). Rather, I just want to read .pdf files with occasional underlining and perhaps some small annotations in the margins.

I could have bought an iPad for the same purposes. But I felt that the iPad would be just as hard on my eyes as a regular computer screen, and I wanted to give them a rest. I do not have any research to back up this decision, and I have not used either an iPad or a smart phone for extended periods of time. But I know for a fact that reading from my laptop makes my eyes tired (as opposed to reading a book), and I reasoned that an iPad would be like my laptop.

There is a bit more on e-readers on the following Facebook thread, talking about Kindle, iPad and Remarkable: 

Facebook Thread

It is not my intention to compare all the various options in this post.

2. Unboxing

When you open the box, you get the OBM3 itself, a stylus, two cables, a mini-SD to USB-C converter and a very small “quick start guide”.

One of the cables is a USB to USB-C cable used for charging. Just plug the USB-C cable into the OBM3 and the other end into your laptop. In the short time I have had the device, I have found that it does not use power very rapidly (as compared to a Macbook Pro). I can go for several days without recharging. 

There is also an HDMI cable which allows you to hook the OBM3 to your computer and use it as a monitor. I do not plan to use my e-reader as a monitor.

The quick start guide is 16 small pages long, and has instructions in 15 languages. The instructions for English are half a page. It references a full User Manual at 

I have read the manual, which is very poorly written. Mostly, I just ended up pressing buttons and swiping from various angles until I figured out how everything worked. I also watched a few YouTube videos that did not do a good job of explaining how things worked, but at least they made me aware of functionality.

You will need something to carry the OBM3 around in. I bought the following folding case, which works well: 

Folding Case

3. Uploading .pdf Files

Once you take it out of the box, you need to hook the OBM3 up to WIFI to be able to upload .pdf files. I use the e-reader at work and at home, so I needed to make sure that I could access my home network and my office network. This was trivial for my home network (Verizon Fios). I just entered the password when prompted. For my use of the network in the office, I had to call the NYU IT people who told me the arcane codes that needed to be entered.

3.1. Transfer Books

There are a few ways to upload .pdfs to your OBM3. The first involves using the App Transfer Books. Since the method was not at all obvious (and only partially covered in the manual), I will outline it here:

Starting from the main screen of the OBM3 (which has a sidebar of: Library Store Note Storage Apps Settings), press Apps. 

Then press Transfer Books. You will be given a URL composed of only numbers.

Enter that URL in the web browser on your computer. On your computer, you will be presented a screen called “Boox | WIFI Transfer”. On that screen click Upload Files and choose the files you want to upload from your computer to the OBM3. Your files are automatically uploaded to the OBM3. 

To find your files on the OBM3, click Storage on the sidebar of the main menu. Then click the WifiTransfer folder. Your uploaded papers will be there. You can arrange the files in the WifiTransfer folder into different subfolders.

Although this process is not obvious to the novice, once you get used to it, it is fairly quick and easy to execute. 

3.2. Google Drive

Another way to upload .pdf files is through Google Drive. The steps are given here:

On the OBM3 homepage go to Apps. Then click on App Store.

Go to the Work apps, and find the Google Drive app. Download it.

Once you have downloaded Google Drive, it should appear on your OBM3 Apps page. Click on it.

You will now have access to your Google Drive. Open the paper you want to download (by clicking on it).

Click the three dots on the top right side of the page, and a menu of options will appear that contains the option to Download. Click on it.

On the OBM3 homepage, go to Storage, and click on Download. You should find your downloaded file there.

4. Reading Novels

I did not buy the e-reader to read fiction. I much prefer physical books. But because of the pandemic, I am hesitant to enter crowded bookstores (e.g., the Strand in NYC). So, I have been forced to do my leisure reading on the e-reader as well. I describe my experiences with the OBM3 in reading novels here.

To access novels, go to the OBM3 homepage, and click Apps. Then click on the App Store. You will need to download the Amazon Kindle app.

Amazon Kindle should now be visible under Apps. Click on it.

Here you can buy any book you want in the Kindle Store.

Even if you are offline, you will be able to read your novel since it will be stored in the Library of the Amazon Kindle app.

I have already purchased a novel which I have started to read. In general, I do not like the reading experience as much as holding a hardcopy book. But given the circumstances of the pandemic, it is acceptable. I usually read at night in my bed. The OBM3 has no lighting, so you need to make sure you have a well-lighted space to read in. The OBM3 is pretty light, but not light enough to hold in the air for an hour. So normally, I just prop it up on something (pillow, blanket, bed) and read it there. One benefit of having the OBM3 is that the screen is much bigger than the usually novel page. For people like me who have a hard time reading small fonts, this is a blessing.

5. Evaluation

So far, the OBM3 does seem much easier on my eyes than my laptop, so I can read for long periods without eyestrain (just like a book or a physical paper). Since this was the most important property of the OBM3 from my perspective, I am happy with the purchase. It is also quite lightweight, so I can take it to the park or read in bed (both impossible with a laptop).

Reading .pdfs is quite easy. Once you open the document you have various options to adjust the font size and the contrast of the text. You can also change the orientation of the document easily. Tables and syntactic trees from typical syntax papers are displayed nicely. An important caveat is that the OBM3 only displays black and white images, and they are basically newspaper quality. At Richard Larson’s request, I uploaded an introductory linguistics text with colored images. These do not display well on the OBM3. The color was displayed as black and white, with the consequence that the imagine was not very clear.

The online manual is not very good, so I basically had to figure out everything by myself, by just pushing various buttons until it worked. This took a bit of time and persistence. 

A recurring minor issue is that it sometimes takes two or three taps to get a function to work (e.g., turning pages). Or sometimes I tap, and it looks like the page is turning, but I end up on the same page. Cleaning the screen (with computer screen wipes) seems to help. On the other extreme, the screen can be very sensitive, so even if my finger brushes over it, the page turns. I am not sure if iPads face the same issues.

I have not yet used to OBM3 to make notes on .pdf files, so I cannot comment on that at the present time. In a future revision of this post, I will try to look into it.

I also feel the OBM3 is too expensive. I paid 780 dollars for it on An iPad Pro with much greater functionality (e.g., a camera) is 900 dollars. I speculate that the price has to do with the fact that there are relatively few people who want a 13.3 inch e-reader (as opposed to smaller e-readers or similar sized iPads).

If you have no problem with eye strain, I would recommend an iPad for work. And if the large 13.3 inch screen is not a necessity for you, then I would recommend a small screened device (either Onyx or Kindle) for reading novels. They are much cheaper.

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