Last year, I bought my first new car since 2003. Every day, I would call a friend or family member to tell them about yet another new feature I’d discovered. It had Bluetooth! Lane change warnings! A camera for parking! With each new feature my friends and family — all who have purchased cars in the last 20 years — sighed and reminded me that these features were common and simply new to me. I imagine for a lot of people the Amazon Kindle Scribe will be the same. This thing is packed full of old ideas turned into a mediocre reality, but if you’re not deep into the world of E Ink note-taking tablets, they’ll just seem neat.
The $339.99 Kindle Scribe is Amazon’s largest Kindle ever. (It’s even bigger than the long-discontinued 9.7-inch Kindle DX.) The Scribe has a 10.2-inch display with 300 dpi, which means you can make the print bigger and not blurrier, or you can pack more words onto the page than with Amazon’s smaller Kindles. It’s also a lot more comfortable to read comic books and graphic novels on than the typical 6- or 7-inch Kindle.
But the real appeal of the Kindle Scribe is this is the first Kindle with a Wacom layer, which means you can easily annotate the books you’re reading or jot down notes in a meeting using a stylus. Unfortunately, I’ve used a lot of the Kindle Scribe’s E Ink competitors, like the similarly priced Remarkable 2 and the more expensive (but more flexible) Onyx Boox Note Air 2. And compared to those devices, the Kindle Scribe is lacking.
But look, I’m an E Ink nerd. I import e-readers from China because I want to see what the cutting edge of E Ink design looks like. I knew going in that Amazon’s device wasn’t going to have some of the fancier features of its competitors. I knew it was going to make sacrifices to keep costs down. I also knew, given Amazon has a virtual monopoly of the e-reader space in the United States, it doesn’t have to really do much to compete. I was still disappointed.
As an e-reader, the Kindle Scribe is fine. I’ve been rereading Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree, and it was extremely easy to do — even with an e-reader this big. Words are crisp and clear, and page refreshes are fast. The Scribe is light and easy to hold in one hand and read with its asymmetrical design — though it is so large, I occasionally feel like an extra in Star Trek: The Next Generation when I walk around the house while reading. The cases made for the Scribe are meant to imitate a pen pad more than a book, but I still love them. It didn’t seem to get in the way of the device like the book-style case on other e-readers do. It also has a loop built in for the (mercifully) included pen, and it doesn’t feel like a dinky add-on as pen loops almost always do.
There are two pens available: my review unit came with the more luxurious Premium Pen (a $30 upcharge), which includes a shortcut button and a built-in eraser, but there’s also the eraser- and button-free Basic Pen. Both have a magnet for latching onto the side of the device if you don’t have a case with a pen loop. Because the pen uses Wacom technology, there’s no charging it. Surprisingly, I didn’t miss my normal E Ink stylus when using the Premium Pen either.
The Scribe also has some of the best battery life I’ve seen in an e-reader this big. I don’t have to turn off the Wi-Fi to keep the battery from draining between uses like I do with other devices (though I’ve only had the Scribe for a week and a half — I’ll need more time to have definitive thoughts on the battery performance).
But one of my biggest frustrations with the Kindle Scribe is when I am trying to choose what to read. Earlier this year, Amazon finished integrating Comixology with the Kindle Store. Now, all of my books and comics are found in the same place — even when that place is a black-and-white e-reader not meant for reading comics. Recently, Amazon added the ability to filter out comics in your library. That worked on the Scribe, but it didn’t help with the recommendations on the Scribe’s homepage. That’s still filled with colorful Harley Quinn comics I have no interest in reading on this thing. (Kevin Keith, vice president of product management and marketing at Amazon, was surprised when I mentioned this to him and said he’d have the team look into it.) More obnoxious than the recommendations was how quickly the Scribe tried to get me to sign up for subscriptions to Kindle Unlimited and Audible. I had to skip ads for both services when I first turned the Scribe on. Given that the Scribe starts at $339.99 and it doesn’t have lock screen ads like other Kindle readers, the nags felt like a bit much.
But maybe that’s okay because you’re not just buying this to read books; you probably also want it to take notes. Amazon aped the Remarkable 2 and gave the glass a rougher surface. The nibs on the stylus have a rougher texture, which gives the Scribe a more pleasant feeling when writing that the hard glass of the iPad will never have. It, dare I say, almost feels like actual paper.
Yet, the Remarkable 2 still does it better. Unlike the Remarkable 2, the Scribe has front lights that create a small gap between the glass you’re writing on and the E Ink surface beneath. That gap is obviously visible, and it creates a very tiny but noticeable delay as you write. But given the choice between this small delay and front lights or no delay and no lights, I’ll happily take the delay.
I’ll also happily take the reading experience of the Scribe over the Remarkable 2 — and especially the annotation ability. On the Scribe, you can create little notes as you read a book, and it automatically collects all of the annotations in one place. If you’re constantly jotting down marginalia, it works like a dream. There isn’t really another mainstream device that lets you do that so easily.
The same goes for marking up PDFs — it just works. You open the PDF, you start scrawling all over it, and then you email it to yourself. Done.
The dedicated notebook feature is adequate but not as good as anything Remarkable or Onyx Boox is doing. It’s pretty easy to get writing: just flip open the cover, open a notebook, and go. But you cannot choose from multiple pen and pencil grades or shades. You get five different pen thicknesses, five different highlighter thicknesses, and an eraser. I would have loved to have a few pencil options and more than one kind of pen choice. Keith didn’t give specifics but did suggest that software updates could bring more features to the Scribe’s Notebook app. So fingers crossed it will improve with time.
I’m also crossing my fingers that the whole sync situation will improve because right now it is goofy as hell. To get articles and other documents on the Scribe, you email your Kindle and wait for it to receive the files, which it automatically loads into your library alongside any books (or comics) you might already own. But it doesn’t actually sync any notes you make to the Kindle app on your phone or the web. So annotations disappear when you open the same PDF on your phone. Notebooks do sync, but you can’t add to them on your phone or other device — only read them. And if you’re hoping to instantly convert your handwriting to text… seek another device. The Scribe doesn’t do that. Given Amazon is one of the largest and most successful cloud computing companies in the world, it’s stunningly goofy how poorly this whole process works.
Here was a place where Amazon couldn’t just match the Remarkable 2, it could have ground the other company into dust. It could have followed after Apple, Samsung, and Microsoft, which all have intuitive and flexible note-taking options — even if their tablets aren’t as pleasant to write on as a Remarkable 2. Instead, the Scribe just provides a perfectly adequate, if underbaked, service. The whole time I’ve used the Scribe, I’ve struggled to escape the sense that this is a sort of lazy entry into a burgeoning market. While I keep comparing Amazon’s Kindle lineup to the Remarkable 2 and devices like the Onyx Boox Note Air 2, they aren’t really significant competitors. Amazon has far more resources, and I expected something of real quality from Amazon — especially given the Scribe starts at $339.99.
The Scribe is technically cheaper than the Remarkable 2, which starts at $299 but requires you to spend at least $79 on a stylus. And it’s cheaper than the Onyx Boox Note Air 2, which includes a pen (and a case!) for free but starts at $449. While Amazon might position the Kindle Scribe as a luxurious option compared to its smaller e-readers, it’s still a bargain compared to the 10-inch competition. I just wish it did more and took the note-taking abilities further.
For most people, the Kindle Scribe probably is the easiest choice if they’re looking for a simple note-taking device or big e-reader. It works, and there’s plenty of room for improvement for the software. Amazon’s own execs have told me the company plans to roll out more updates. But right now, the Scribe does just enough to keep up with the competition, and not a single bit more.
Photography by Amelia Holowaty Krales