Todd Davies

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New technology that works

21.11.2020

Technology is supposed to improve our lives by solving problems that we face every day, but doesn't always live up to its promises. This post discusses how the reMarkable v2 tablet is a device that delivers on technology's promises.

The reMarkable in action, with my todo list on it

As a political science student, a typical week's work includes reading about five academic papers. The papers are usually interesting and selected by course leaders for their high quality and relevance, but since starting my degree over a year ago, I often found that while I enjoyed the content of what I was reading, the process of reading itself wasn't so great.

Papers are typically available as pdf files, and to begin with, I would read them on the computer. However, I also sit in the same place when doing my day job as a software engineer, meaning that I would often spend over ten increasingly uncomfortable hours a day working in the same position at my desk. Such prolonged sitting is really bad for you. Further, I never found a good way to annotate pdf files on my computer, and ended up making separate notes which could be hard to keep track of, or just forgetting what I'd read.

The alternative to reading papers on the computer is to print them out on paper, but is very wasteful and inefficient given that each paper is around 25 pages long (some can run to over one hundred). Despite this, reading printed out papers has numerous advantages over reading on a computer screen; they're easier on the eyes, compatible with working outside in the sunshine, easy to write on, and can be done while sitting, standing, pacing or lying down.

Yet neither solution was good enough, computers are uncomfortable to use and paper is wasteful and inefficient. I wanted something better.

A few years ago, a friend showed me their reMarkable `paper tablet', Instead of a LED display, reMarkable tablets have an E Ink display uses very lower power and doesn't require a backlight (though it doesn't show colour and has a slower refresh rate than ordinary screens). As suggested, the tablet is made to behave like a digital version of paper; it stores documents which you can read and annotate with a stylus, and can act as a notebook for you to jot things down on.

When I first saw the reMarkable, I thought it was cool but too expensive for the limited use case. When I heard that the company had recently released a second version which was more reasonably priced and had better specifications, I decided to get one in light of my reading dilemma above.

Though I'm very happy with it, I won't write a review of the tablet, since there are professionals who do that instead (see here or here). Instead, I want to write about how the reMarkable has actually followed through on the promises of technology; it's made my life better! All too often, technology like smart watches, home assistants, and even plain old software updates, ends up being frustrating to use and taking up just as much `mental space' as whatever it replaced.

The reMarkable however is a perfect example how technology should be. In the style of calm technology, it's defined by what it does incredibly well (reading and annotating documents) and also by what it doesn't do at all (browse the web, show notifications, emit bright blue light before bedtime, use a privacy violating business model, etc). It looks great, with a classy and functional design, and has a long enough battery life that you rarely have to charge it.

In short, its a product made to satisfy a specific need, rather than one that aims to create new needs which only it can satisfy.

Now I can read papers wherever and however I like, annotate them as required, and disseminate the annotated versions easily over email. I can read as many papers as I have time for, without the guilt or cost of printing off paper. I can even send web articles to it with a single click from my computer, and all the content on there syncs to my phone.

It's fun to be able to use new technology like the reMarkable that works so well. It fits into the same class of technology as dishwashers, washing machines, trains and lightbulbs; things that makes life easier while `fading into the background' itself. These technologies help you get on with whatever you actually want to do, are dependable, reliable and don't cause secondary problems that dramatically lower their net value (such as being addictive, or hard to use, or not really required in the first place).

I hope that in the future, technologists, regulators and people generally can remember the promise that technology brings, and make more devices like the reMarkable.