Image: reMarkable

I’ve long been a fan of notetaking. Aside from the obvious practical benefit of having a record of a meeting or interaction to reference, I find the mere act of taking notes forces me to pay extra attention to the meeting or speaker and causes me to consider the content being discussed more deeply. The act of putting words on paper seems to trigger a deeper consideration and processing of the content.

Similarly, when wrestling with a difficult concept or problem, getting out pen and paper and doing something as simple as sketching out a flow diagram, outline or even random doodles can help organize thinking in a way other techniques can’t.

SEE: Power checklist: Troubleshooting hard drive failures (TechRepublic Premium)

I’m apparently not the only one who enjoys the outcomes and art of notetaking, as all manner of fancy notepads, pens and related writing tools continue to exist, and a Moleskine or Pelikan often travel together with iPads and Surfacebooks. The reMarkable 2 is squarely targeted at this demographic, with sophisticated packaging and branding that drives home the notion that the device is more “digital paper” than “laptop replacement.”

I spent the last month using the reMarkable 2 in a business setting, taking notes during videoconferences, using the device in my first in-person meeting in several months and sketching out ideas for a strategy presentation I’m developing. These are situations where I’d usually use a paper notepad and fancy pen of some sort or my last-generation iPad Pro and Apple Pencil.

Digital paper

Image: reMarkable

What’s intriguing about the reMarkable 2 is that it clearly strives to be a paper notepad replacement and little else. Instead of a colorful display, there’s an off-white e-ink display reminiscent of a Kindle or similar eBook reader. There are no apps or browsers, and while the unit does have Wi-Fi capability, it quietly syncs your notebooks in the background rather than downloading the latest Netflix series.

The screen and accompanying “pen,” which the company refers to as a Marker, duplicate a paper-like writing experience, down to the subtle scratching you hear using paper and pencil or pen. Perhaps the most notable feature of the writing experience is how similar it looks and feels to traditional pen and paper. There are no frustrations common with other tablets, like the strange feeling of writing on glass or using an odd stylus that feels like writing with a gummy bear more than a pen.

The reMarkable 2 is one of those products that does something rather special so well that you don’t even notice that writing on the device feels just like pen and paper.

There are, of course, some benefits to what amounts to a connected notepad. There are an “unlimited” (for all practical purposes) number of individual notebooks with infinite pages. Each notebook or individual page can be customized with different style pages, ranging from my preferred small grid paper to college ruled paper, or even various musical pages, including sheet music and guitar tablature. There are also a variety of checklist and organizer pages, artistic templates and a simple blank page.

The other significant benefit to the reMarkable 2 is that it will sync to the company’s cloud service when connected to a Wi-Fi network, backing up all your notebooks. For most people, the ideas captured in their notebooks are worth more than the notebook itself, so the relatively high price of admission ($697 for the version I tested that included the $399 reMarkable 2, $129 Marker Plus, and $169 for the Leather “Book Portfolio”). With an additional Connect subscription, the service adds the ability to sync to Google Drive, Dropbo, or Onedrive, as well as handwriting recognition and screen sharing.

iPad versus reMarkable 2

Image: reMarkable

Aside from the challenging-to-type branding and similar pricing (the 2020 10.2” iPad starts at $329, and the compatible first-gen Apple Pencil is now $99), an iPad and reMarkable are very different devices. The iPad is essentially a mobile computer, with all the benefits and drawbacks that entails.

This becomes obvious the moment you power the devices on. The reMarkable opens to the last open notebook and page you were working on, much like opening a paper notebook. On the iPad, you’ll need to unlock the device, avoid the temptation of any interesting notices or whatever app you were previously using, navigate to your note-taking app of choice and begin writing.

While taking notes, the reMarkable simply sits awaiting your input, and there are no notifications, beeps, rings or potential disturbances. This focus on the writing experience could also be a negative for some users. The reMarkable is decidedly a scalpel, a tool that does one thing very well, versus a Swiss Army Knife that does a half-dozen things in a manner ranging from poor to quite good.

SEE: Keyboard troubleshooting guide (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

The reMarkable Marker attaches to the device with a magnet, which provides the same benefit and Achilles heel of the Apple Pencil. A poorly placed hand can dislodge and potentially lose an expensive accessory. However, the Marker is not powered, so it doesn’t require charging or pairing. But like the Apple Pencil, it does have consumable tips that need occasional replacement. reMarkable suggests that a tip lasts one to two months, and several replacements are included with the Marker.

I’ve used the iPad for general notetaking in the past, and at the end of the day, the technology got in the way of the act of writing. The reduced weight and a display that doesn’t require a backlight make reMarkable 2 even more similar to the paper equivalent.

The iPad and Apple Pencil may still be better for digital artists, if for nothing more than access to color and the ability to export to a variety of creative tools. The iPad also might be good enough for the ultralight road warrior who wants one device to replace a laptop, notepad and tablet.

Is the reMarkable 2 worth the cost?

The price is perhaps the most challenging question facing someone considering the remarkable 2. The device is well-built, has lovely packaging and accessories, and lives up to its promise to create a paper-like experience with the benefits of customizable infinite pages and cloud-based backup. At a relatively svelte 400g, it’s not much heavier than a similarly sized paper notebook (a Muji spiral notebook with similarly sized “paper” was just over 200g).

If you’re someone who looks at writing as more than just a purely practical act and perhaps has invested in fancy notebooks and pens in the past, you’ll feel more at home with the reMarkable 2 than an iPad. Similarly, if you’re someone who is creating $1,000 ideas that might range from product sketches to business plans, a device that not only gets out of the way but also backs up those ideas could have value far beyond the price of admission.

Some money can be saved by skipping the cover, although I found the Marker Plus, which includes a built-in eraser that operates as naturally as a standard pencil, worth the additional $50 (the Marker is $79, and the Marker Plus is $129). Therein lies the rub. reMarkable 2 is indeed a remarkable device in that it provides all the benefits of a paper notepad, with the benefits of connected digital services. Depending on your needs and personality, that simple mission might be easily worth the $500 hardware and $90 annual cloud subscription. Or, if you’re someone thinking, “That’s it?” when reading about the wonders of a well-executed digital notebook, your money will likely be better spent elsewhere.

Subscribe to the Innovation Insider Newsletter

Catch up on the latest tech innovations that are changing the world, including IoT, 5G, the latest about phones, security, smart cities, AI, robotics, and more. Delivered Tuesdays and Fridays

Subscribe to the Innovation Insider Newsletter

Catch up on the latest tech innovations that are changing the world, including IoT, 5G, the latest about phones, security, smart cities, AI, robotics, and more. Delivered Tuesdays and Fridays