Android + E Ink = awesome
Color e-ink is still far less capable than LCD and OLED, thanks to long refresh times and washed-out colors. So the Onyx Boox Nova3 Color might not be on everyone’s radar. The 7.8-inch color screen is too small to read magazines and comic books comfortably, vastly limiting the usefulness of a color screen, but the Nova3 Color is still a capable e-reader for books. The built-in reading app offers a robust selection of settings, which is why text-based e-books format nicely on the screen. Plus, there are tons of benefits from the included Android app support, and the note-taking options are robust too.
There’s a lot to like about the Boox Nova3 Color. Yes, the $420 price tag is high for a dedicated e-reading and note-taking device (especially with the cheaper and thinner Nova Air on the horizon), but functionality offered by Android blows Kindles out of the water.
Design, hardware, what’s in the box
The e-reader market is slow-moving when it comes to design, so most devices look pretty similar. The Boox Nova3 Color does not deviate from this trend. There’s a flush etched glass screen that cuts down on reflections (much like the Kindle Oasis), with a smooth plastic rear that houses a single speaker port, and the back is a fingerprint magnet. A power button is on the top-right edge with an accompanying charging indicator light, and a USB-C port sits in the middle of the bottom edge with a small mic hole to the right. There’s also a physical home button centered below the screen, and that’s it. No camera, no volume buttons, no expandable storage, no headphone jack. It’s a black and grey slab, innocuous but with a premium feel.
Underneath the etched glass, the Boox Nova3 has a 7.8-inch E Ink Kaleido Plus screen. This is the third generation color screen from E Ink that offers 4,096 colors, and there’s a Wacom digitizer layer that offers 4096 levels of pressure sensitivity for responsive note-taking. When reading simple black and white material, the resolution goes as high as 1404×1872 with 300 dpi, but the res drops to 468×624 with 100 dpi with color content. There are 17 white LEDs underneath the bottom bezel that point upwards to backlight the screen, somewhat unevenly, and there’s no warm lighting or auto-brightness. You’re stuck with a clinical white hue, but at least the LEDs are pretty bright when maxed. With the lighting turned off, the greyish-white screen is about as dark as the Kindle Oasis with its LEDs off. A lighter background for better text contrast would have been nice to see, but what’s provided is no worse than anything currently available from the more prominent players like Amazon, which also uses E Ink-branded electronic paper panels.
Powering the Boox Nova3 Color is a Snapdragon 636 with 3GB of RAM, 32GB of storage, and a 3150 mAh Li-Pol battery to keep the e-reader running for weeks without the need to charge. Bluetooth 5.0 is included, making up for the lack of a headphone jack. The lack of expandable storage feels like a significant oversight, although 32GB is enough to hold a boatload of e-books and a handful of digital comics. If you’re just going to read books, the hardware is overkill.
One thing that really sets Boox apart from the crowd is what’s included in the box. There’s a literal bounty of accessories packed in with the Nova3 Color, all included at the base price. A Wacom-compatible pen is in the box, a USB charging cable (sans power-brick), plus you get a couple of screen protectors, extra nubs for your pen (handy since the etched screen will wear down these nubs), wipes to apply the protectors, a strap, and a quality fabric-like case that protects the front and back, with magnets that turn the device on when the case is opened. The accessories help to alleviate concerns over the $420 price tag.
Software, reading, and battery
The Boox Nova3 Color is essentially an E Ink tablet with Android 10 baked in. I’m a fan of this approach, but there are plenty of caveats. You’ll have to jump through a few hoops to get the Play Store installed, but Boox provides instructions as well as a pre-installed app to help get this done. You will have to wait for 24-hours for Play Store access to propagate once you jump through these hoops, which is annoying, but once set up, using the Play Store was smooth sailing. If you wish to forgo adding a Google account, there’s also a built-in app store from Boox that offers some of the more popular Android reading apps, as well as a built-in browser and a public domain e-book store. Seeing that I had to install Spotify so I’d have access to my favorite tunes while reading, I opted to install the Play Store.
Homescreen and Play Store toggle
The primary problem with Android apps displayed on an e-ink screen is that they are designed with far more than 4,096 colors in mind. So, they look horrible and are difficult to navigate, with zones of blurred images and text in many apps. This extends to all of the Android e-reading apps like Kindle, Nook, and Kobo. It’s also an issue with comic reading apps like Comixology and Marvel Unlimited. This problem is then exacerbated by the way Android apps refresh on e-ink screens, which is to say they don’t. This is why the right-most Android navigation gesture has been replaced with a quick way to refresh the Nova3 Color’s screen. Having to manually refresh the screen just to enjoy Android apps wasn’t worth it to me. These apps might be useful in a pinch, but the best reading experience on the Nova3 Color is through the built-in NeoReader app.
Play Store and Spotify looking rough
NeoReader offers some of the most robust formatting options I’ve seen on a dedicated e-reader, physical, or apps. On the first day, I loaded up several ePubs and CBZs and then dug into the formatting settings. After playing with these settings, I managed to make all of my ePubs look pretty good with very few changes required when switching books, which is a difficult task for ePubs, highlighting why both the Kindle and Kobo stores offer their own proprietary e-book formats. I chose to refresh after every page swipe and have opted for a deep refresh with the Normal Mode. If you don’t mind ghosting, then the Speed Mode or the A2 Mode may be more fitting, especially if you look at images more than you read text. This is why I love to see so many options in the settings—my preferences won’t be the same as yours, but NeoReader probably supports whatever you have in mind.
Many different formatting settings, all useful
The Nova3 Color’s performance is good thanks to the overkill-for-an-e-reader specs. Somehow Boox has managed to create a device that almost feels like you’re using a typical Android tablet. System navigation is speedy, opening and closing apps is reasonably quick, even the built-in web browser pulls up pages with hardly any delay. Heck, I went ahead and installed a Game Boy Color emulator just to see how well it worked, not only because it seemed fitting to play a GBC game on a color e-ink screen but to see how well the hardware performs. Sadly the screen isn’t ready for fast-moving images in a video game, but it’s surprising how close we are getting to a satisfactory experience.
Zelda, in color, but the image is washed out a bit
Since Android apps are a bit of a lost cause for reading on the Nova3 Color, you’re going to want to sideload your e-book library to take advantage of the stock reading app NeoReader. This reader supports many formats, including MOBI, EPUB, and CBR/CBZ. There’s a free e-book store included, but the books are all old public domain classics. So yes, you’ll have to manually manage your library if you want to get the most out of the Nova3 Color. That could be a hindrance for some, but I prefer to manage my own collection by stripping DRM and storing the files locally.
The Nova3 Color also excels as a powerful note-taking device, primarily because of the color screen. You can actually highlight text with multiple bright and transparent colors, just as you would on paper, so if you’re a student or would like a way to quickly highlight text or take notes, the built-in Wacom support is excellent. Pen delay is almost comparable to the high-refresh-rate screens on iPads and Android devices, and with the etched glass screen, writing feels as close to paper as you’re going to get (this does wear down the nubs faster). Things aren’t perfect, though. If you draw or take notes with a thick line, things can get bogged down, especially if you choose an opaque color, seemingly a limitation of the color screen. It clearly has trouble refreshing quickly with lots of colors unless you switch to the Speed Mode or the A2 Mode, but then you’ll have to balance how much ghosting is acceptable.
Highlights and notes
Battery life is great. You won’t have to charge for at least two weeks at a time, but this is with an auto power-off timeout that’s set to 15-minutes by default. If you choose not to power the device down automatically, simply letting it sleep instead of powering down, you’ll still manage to get a week between charges with the power timeout off. Standby time is also excellent, with the battery lasting almost a month or more.
Exceptional standby time
Should you buy it?
Onyx Boox Nova3 Color
The Onyx Boox Nova3 Color is an excellent e-reading device, especially for Android and e-reader tinkerers. For the first time in a long time, I’m excited to see what Android can do in an entirely new realm. I’ve been a big fan of physical e-readers ever since the first Nook, and the use of Android OS feels like a natural evolution for the dated software currently used on the majority of dedicated e-reading devices. Reading within Android apps isn’t there yet, even with the manual refresh gesture. On the other hand, having access to Spotify, Gmail, and Keep is helpful even though they look awful on an e-ink screen. For me, reading with some tunes playing through the speaker is such a joy that Amazon’s readers feel dated compared to the Boox Nova3 Color.
Still, there are plenty of caveats too. The price is high for a 7.8-inch e-reader, and the color screen feels like a waste since most color content doesn’t often fit on a screen this size without zooming. Having to manually refresh the screen when using Android apps is also a bummer, and sideloading e-books to take advantage of the excellent formatting settings in NeoReader isn’t going to be for everyone.
The Nova3 Color isn’t a casual device like a Kindle. You wouldn’t purchase it for your grandmother. Ultimately, the Boox Nova3 Color is better suited for tech enthusiasts and students, or those who simply insist on managing their own e-book libraries. For me, there’s no going back to Kindle, Nook, or Kobo, which is why I can confidently recommend the Boox Nova3 Color. It’s not a perfect experience, but Android on an e-ink device sure beats the closed systems and featureless proprietary firmware preferred by the competition.
Buy it if…
- Typical e-readers like the Kindle don’t offer enough functionality for you
- If you love living on the bleeding edge using new tech
- You’re looking for a powerful note-taking device for school or work that isn’t an iPad
Don’t buy it if…
- You require competent e-reading functionality from Android apps
- Color E Ink doesn’t matter to you (there are cheaper options)