Review: Onyx BOOX Max3, a 13" E Ink Android Tablet

What happens when you take a mid-tier smartphone SoC and add it to the largest portable E Ink display panel on the market? The Onyx BOOX Max3 is the answer.

Review: Onyx BOOX Max3, a 13" E Ink Android Tablet What happens when you take a mid-tier smartphone SoC and add it to the largest portable E Ink display panel on the market? The Onyx BOOX Max3 is the answer.

Following the introduction of the first-generation Amazon Kindle 12 years ago, interest in E Ink displays has skyrocketed, with various competitors such as Kobo, Nook, and PocketBook essentially aiming to compete with Kindle specifically in the e-reader market, while Sony is aiming for the digital productivity space with their Digital Paper product line. E Ink displays are a niche market, though popular among the health-conscious as the passive display technology prevents the need for a 

Onyx takes a different approach with the BOOX lineup, offering full-on Android support on a 13.3" E Ink tablet with the BOOX Max3

Onyx BOOX Max3 specifications

  • Display: 13.3" E Ink Carta, 2200x1650 display

  • CPU: Qualcomm Snapdragon 625

  • OS: Android 9.0

  • RAM: 4GB LPDDR3

  • Storage: 64GB eMMC

  • Speaker & Microphone: Stereo speakers, dual-array microphone

  • Networking: 802.1ac (Wi-Fi 5) + Bluetooth 4.1.

  • Battery: 4300mAh

  • Size: 309.8 x 227.8 x 6.8 mm, ~490g.

Design and hardware

This isn't Onyx's first time around building hardware, and it shows, largely—the Max3 is light at around 490 grams, particularly compared to the 631 grams on the 12.9" iPad Pro (2018). That said, the Max3 is decently sturdy. The white plastic shell it is designed around is quite minimalist in nature—I've seen a lot of hardware from non-major brands that feels plastic-y and fragile, and the physical feel of the Max3 is far more reassuring.

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There are a few implementation oddities—the tablet has speakers, and volume controls are handled in software. There is a grand total of two buttons, power and a combined home/back button (think the Samsung Galaxy S4), which also acts as a fingerprint reader. This feels slightly sparse at times, though there are realistically few times I'm using the BOOX for audio.

The system comes with a passive stylus, which is decently sized, though there's no slot on the system to store it when not in use. The stylus is not required, the screen is as standard a touchscreen as any other Android tablet, though Onyx touts the integration of a Wacom digitizer.

Software, performance, and battery

One of the more interesting conceits about Android is that anything can run Android, and Onyx deserves applause for shipping a product with Android 9, which was the current version available when the device was showcased at IFA earlier this year. 

That said, the BOOX Max3 can run Android apps, but it's not clear that it benefits from being able to do so. Android apps typically aren't built with E Ink displays in mind, and that can lead to inconsistent performance above the already inconsistent performance that accompanies the tablet experience on Android.

It can run the Amazon Kindle and Google Play Books app, with ease. My review unit included Onyx's own app store in addition to the Google Play store, though other reviewers have resorted to workarounds.

There is an embedded store of public domain books, though the BOOX software can handily read any file format thrown at it--PDF, EPUB, DJVU, MOBI, and CBR--as well as standard TXT/RTF files. With 64GB of storage, this is really ample for most cases, though a USB-C to microSD reader was in the box. Given how infrequently an e-reader requires being plugged in, this is probably fine, though it would be nice to have a microSD card slot.

There are times when the stock Android ROM (though truthfully, I'd be surprised if there were aftermarket ROMs) displays weird papercut-like regressions, particularly with fonts and settings. With system language set to English, it displays Japanese text inconsistently—Kanji will display in a sans-serif font, while Katakana and Hiragana are serifed. Onyx informed me the issue disappears if you set the system language to Japanese, making something that perhaps a dozen users will ever encounter, though it raises further questions as to how this implementation is so specifically broken.

The UI actually makes slightly more sense to me in Japanese—the launcher on the side was not clearly written with English in mind, so the "Settings" and "Storage" options run to the edge of the screen. (This isn't an issue in Chinese or Japanese.) This isn't a bug, it's just visually distracting. For a 13.3" tablet, there's plenty of screen space to work with, so squishing the interface is somewhat peculiar.

The battery management is quite aggressive by default, with the system shutting off entirely after 15 minutes. This can be changed to 30 minutes, one hour, 12 hours, one day, two days, or never. There's also a "network inactivity timeout," which I suspect disables the Wi-Fi. Even with this disabled, it disconnected randomly once. There's some peculiarities to how this is presented, as well—if enabled, the "network inactivity timeout" will say "inactivate after 30 minutes," which I'm unconvinced is grammatical.

The system includes a microHDMI port, allowing it to be used as a secondary monitor. Again, this is something that runs up to issues with software—there's not a lot of software that is targeted toward this use case, so it's theoretically cool, though not yet practicable. It also requires DPI-awareness, as readability on a 2200x1650 panel for software assuming 90s-style 72dpi rendering is not useful.

The verdict: Should you buy it?

There's not a better implementation of this idea—an Android-powered E Ink tablet—at this size. As it is, the software experience on the Max3 is filled with minor papercuts, indicating a lack of polish for the experience overall. Given that Onyx has been at this for years, it seems like something that should be addressed at this point.

The hardware is exceedingly generous for what it is—the system uses a Snapdragon 625 and 4GB RAM, which will easily outpace the capabilities of the display panel. This also likely contributes to the bill of materials when assembling the device, which influence the quite high retail price of $860. 

If you're set on getting E Ink for reducing eye strain, it is plausibly worth it. If you're looking for a general-purpose tablet, this might not be the solution for you.

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