These days paper is being phased out whenever possible, and while we’re still far from being a completely digital society, the last decade or two has seen a huge reduction in the amount of paper the average person deals with on a daily basis. At the very least, we seem a lot closer to a future without the printed page than we are flying cars or any of the other concepts we generally associate with the far-flung future.

That said, there’s still something undeniably appealing about reading on paper. The idea of squirting ink on a piece of thin wood might seem increasingly archaic to us, but it sure does look nice when you hold it in your hand. Which is exactly why so much effort has been put into recreating the look of printed paper in electronic form; we all love the experience of paper, but the traditional execution doesn’t align itself particularly well with modern sensibilities.

Of course electronic “eReaders”, most notably the Kindle line from Amazon, have gone a long way towards making this a reality. At least for reading books, anyway. But what about magazines, newspapers, or even the lowly notebook we keep by the bench to jot down measurements or ideas? A PDF datasheet, with graphics where the grey tones matter? Being able to carry a whole bookshelf worth of novels in your bag is incredible, but despite what science fiction has promised us since 2001: A Space Odyssey, we’re still consuming plenty of media off of dead trees.

But that might be changing soon. This year will see the release of two tablets that promise to deliver an experience much closer to reading and writing on traditional paper than anything we’ve seen previously. They certainly aren’t cheap, and it’s too early to tell how much is just hype, but these devices could end up being an important step towards the paperless future we’ve been dreaming of.

Going Beyond Books

There’s a number of eReaders on the market today, and they’re all fairly similar in terms of hardware. Whether you get a Kindle from Amazon, a Nook from Barnes and Noble, or support the underdog and go with a Kobo, the technology isn’t all that different. All of them will be using a roughly six to eight inch front-lit eInk display that shows monochrome text and images at somewhere north of 200 DPI. Of course, it should come as no surprise that this screen technology has standardized over the years; after all, the pages of most novels look pretty much the same once you get past the dust jacket anyway.

reMarkable’s screen is designed to feel like real paper.

These devices have evolved to be nearly perfect tools for reading novels on the go, but they aren’t good for much of anything else. Occasionally there have been attempts to expand their core functionality: Amazon at one time had a Kindle with a full QWERTY keyboard, and the Nooks had rudimentary web browsers, but that’s all in the past now. It’s clear that everyone making eReaders is more than happy to stick with the status quo so long as it keeps the money coming in.

Luckily, not everyone is worried about playing it safe. In 2017 reMarkable launched their first “paper tablet” that was designed specifically to recreate the experience of using a standard notepad. The company worked closely with E Ink Holdings, the the Taiwanese company that actually makes many of the screens we see used in eReaders, to come up with a proprietary textured display that looks and feels like traditional paper when the user writes on it with a stylus. It was an impressive piece of hardware, but a tough sell for the casual user at $700.

This year the company will start shipping the 10 inch reMarkable 2, which is said to be an improvement on the original in every way. The new 10 inch tablet will sell for $399, lasts three times longer on battery power, and critically, halves the stylus response time to just 20 milliseconds. This is perhaps the most important aspect of any electronic replacement for traditional notebooks, as there’s obviously zero latency when putting pen to paper.

Sony Hasn’t Given Up

Most people probably associate eInk displays with the Kindle, and frankly, it’s hard to blame them. Amazon has dominated the eReader market to the point that their particular device is basically the de facto standard. But it was actually Sony, all the way back in 2004, that brought the first eReader to market. In fact, Sony’s reader was already on its third hardware generation before Amazon released the Kindle in 2007.

Sony’s large format Digital Paper. Maybe you can read a datasheet on it!

Despite being first to market, Sony couldn’t compete against the retail juggernaut and shelved the product line in 2014. But while the company would never again release an eInk reader, they certainly didn’t abandon the technology itself. Shortly after ending sales of their consumer eReader, they unveiled the Digital Paper DPTS1. At $1,100 it was certainly not for the casual user, but over the years subsequent models brought the price down to somewhat more reasonable levels.

In 2020, Sony is slated to refresh the Digital Paper line with a new 13 inch model. Not much is known about the new Digital Paper other than the fact it will have the standard incremental upgrades in processing power, RAM, and storage capacity that we’ve become used to with mobile devices. Given the larger screen size when compared to the reMarkable 2 it will almost certainly be more expensive, though it’s expected to stay under the $600 price point that the earlier Digital Paper versions eventually stabilized at.

Priced To Sell

It might not seem like it, but the fact that both of these fairly high-profile devices will be available this year for $400 to $600 is a pretty big deal. While they’d hardly be considered budget devices for hackers such as ourselves, it’s low enough that you don’t necessarily have to be a doctor or lawyer to justify the purchase.

It’s also no coincidence that Amazon released the original Kindle at $399. It seems ludicrous today, but back then it was seen as a fair price for such an advanced piece of hardware. You have to remember that at this point, electronic paper was so rare that most people had never even seen it before. In fact, the name Kindle was specifically chosen because it was believed the device would “start a fire” of digital readers; a prediction which clearly came to pass.

Will these similarly priced paper tablets start their own fire? It’s difficult to say. What ended up being the sweet spot for eReaders might not be the same for electronic paper tablets. But no matter what happens, these two devices are a clear indication that the technology is not only getting better, but it’s getting cheaper. The reMarkable 2 or new Sony Digital Paper may not end up replacing your trusty bench notebook this year, but the next generation that’s inspired by them might have a pretty good shot.

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