Beyond the iPad: Why electronic ink is becoming an alternative to tablets

Back-to-basics devices that give users a paper-like writing experience and lack notifications are gaining ground in our hyperconnected world

Magnus Wanberg invented reMarkable, an electronic ink tablet that has already sold more than a million units.
Magnus Wanberg invented reMarkable, an electronic ink tablet that has already sold more than a million units.Pexels
José Mendiola Zuriarrain

Technology ceases to be useful when it is the user who is accountable to it and not the other way around. A study carried out by Asurion, a tech service company, found that Americans check their mobile device screens in search of notifications an average of 352 times a day, or once every two minutes and 43 seconds. This is terrible for productivity, not to mention a waste of time.

Why do we look at our cellphones so often? Beyond the logical concern about not missing an important notification, FOMO (fear of missing out) also comes into play, as well as an addictive need to get a new dose of dopamine when you discover that a photo you posted on Instagram continues to get likes.

The new oasis: eliminate notifications

In these circumstances, trying to read a book without interruptions is a very ambitious mission, unless you have unbreakable willpower. And it gets harder if you are reading it on a tablet or, even worse, on the phone. Some people may think that putting their phones on silent mode will allow them to focus on other activities. Big mistake: researchers from Penn State University have found that doing this can make things worse, making some people check their screens even more often.

What to do then? The only effective solution is a radical one: eliminating the very possibility of receiving notifications by using devices that lack them altogether. This goes against the grain in a society that is increasingly dependent on notifications, to the extent that even smart watches are constantly displaying messages on their owners’ wrists.

Magnus Wanberg, a native of Norway, experienced firsthand the tyranny of notifications while he was studying at university. It reached a point where he made the decision to leave his cellphone and laptop at home and equip himself only with a notebook and a pen. That decision, in the end, would change his life, since it was the seed that would later give birth to reMarkable, a “digital paper tablet” that uses electronic ink. The device has sold more than a million units and is in its second version.

Wanberg dodged the bombardment of notifications by going back to basics: a notepad and a pen for writing, which is basically what an e-ink tablet does, albeit with some interesting technological innovations that make them a category unto themselves:

Monochrome touch screen with E-ink technology

This type of screen very faithfully emulates the experience of paper, to the point that both the sound and the touch, when sliding the pen on the screen, are almost identical. On the other hand, electronic ink technology allows minimal battery consumption, so its duration can extend for several days on a single charge.

Electronic book readers are the best reference for this technology, and their owners know that, unlike the screens of mobile phones and tablets, they can be read in direct sunlight.

Devices that don’t have notifications

Possibly the most outstanding aspect of this new category of products lies in the complete absence of interruptions derived from notifications. Tablets with electronic ink are only used to take notes and read documents or electronic books; there is no pop-up window to interrupt us and, of course, they lack social media connectivity.

“A notification can generate a wide range of emotions and chemical reactions related to dopamine, serotonin, endorphins and cortisol. Its effects can range from pleasure and excitement to stress and anxiety, and can even cause addiction,” explains Ignacia Arruabarrena, associate professor at the Department of Social Psychology at the University of the Basque Country, in northern Spain.

“Repeated attention to notifications can generate a conditioning process that motivates an involuntary response, so that, even though the person is in the middle of something really important, they reach for their mobile when they know they have received a notification. It is very difficult to ignore a notification, be it visual or auditory”, she adds.

Amazon fully enters the market

The reMarkable brand has been leading the e-ink tablet market almost single-handedly, and the second iteration of its product has eliminated the initial drawbacks of the first model. The Norwegian startup opened up the market, but it has been Amazon’s recent entry into this segment that has consolidated it with Kindle Scribe, an amped e-book reader with a stylus and the ability to operate as a notepad. Amazon’s foray into the electronic notebook market confirms that there is life beyond conventional tablets.

Electronic ink tablets represent an interesting return to basics and functionality, and an escape from the excess of stimuli derived from social media alerts and other notifications that use up so much of our time.

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