The promise of digital note-taking is an alluring one. Sure, you can bring your laptop into a meeting and type your notes, and that gets the job done. Most studies point out that you actually retain more if you write – rather than type – as you’re forced to make decisions about what you’re writing down, instead of simply transcribing (most of us type much faster than we write). This is why an eInk device like the Mobiscribe is so interesting to me, as it seems to be the best of both worlds – notes recorded digitally, but in your own handwriting.
At it’s core, the Mobiscribe is going to look and feel like a familiar device, particularly if you own – or are familiar with – a Kindle. The Mobiscribe is slightly larger (6.8” screen) , but it’s still a small, relatively compact rectangle of black plastic and an eInk screen, complete with a backlight (which can be on or off, and adjust across a range of color temperatures, something my Kindle Paperwhite cannot do). In fact, in a few meetings, people thought I was taking notes on a Kindle. Given the fact that the Mobiscribe relies on Android under the covers (in this case, an older version, Android 4.4) so it can operate as an e-reader quite easily, and across a variety of formats (.mobi/.epub/.pdf/.txt/.azw3/.azw/.fb2/.prc).
The older version of Android underpinning the Mobiscribe is the first wrinkle I ran into. While you can install Android apps, the Play store won’t be running here – so you need to find your .apk files out in the wild and side load them onto the device. Not the end of the world, but it’s another hoop to jump through. Past that, you’ll need to find older versions of apps that will work with this version of Android (more on that in a moment). Then again, you may not care about the apps, as this is a note taker, not necessarily an entertainment device.
Getting used to writing with the stylus on the Mobiscribe went very quickly. You’ve got a variety of implement styles (pencil, pen, brush) and line widths that you can play with to find what works for you. Not only that, the stylus is pressure-sensitive, so you can make lighter or heavier lines, just as you would on a regular piece of paper. Unlike a regular piece of paper, you can simply erase bits of your notes. Conveniently, when you put the back of the stylus to the screen, the Mobiscribe senses this and goes into eraser mode. I found this to be a convenient way to fix a mis-spelled word, or something I misheard and later needed to correct. You also have endless “sheets” of paper in a particular note, so you never run out of space to record your thoughts.
There are also a variety of templates that you can use for note taking. I used one of the prebuilt “lined paper” ones, but you can easily load on others if you have specific things you’re trying to do (say, a daily planner view or a dotted grid). You could just as easily use a “blank” sheet as well, but I liked the experience of the lined template, as it kept the notes going along evenly. One of the key points to note taking – at least for me – is being able to find things on down the road. In a physical notebook, you can flip through pages to find what you’re looking for. With digitally typed notes, you can search through what you’ve got. What about with the Mobiscribe?
For me, that’s where things started to break down a bit. On the device itself, it’s totally reliant on the tags you assign to the notebook itself. The notes are saved (basically) as image files on the device, so it can’t search through what you’ve written to find all the instances you wrote about something. I thought, no problem, I’ve got an Evernote Premium account, I’ll just offload things there, and let it’s handwriting recognition do it’s magic. For a point of reference, this is what I normally do – I take notes in a regular notebook, take photos on my phone, and upload them into Evernote. The OCR for handwriting is fairly magical, and makes searching through things a breeze.
The first step was finding a version of Evernote that would work with Android 4.4. That found and loaded, it was time to experiment. The Mobiscribe can save the notes off as either a PDF or a PNG file, so I tried both. I managed to get them (slowly) loaded into Evernote notebooks, synced them up to my account, and waited for the magic to happen. Unfortunately, it never did. They just sat there as simple attachments. Attachments I could open, but they were never scanned – and therefore, not searchable. Which, for me and how I rely on my notes, was a deal breaker.
I expect my digitized notes to be searchable and indexed, so I can find what I’m looking for, whether it’s references to a project, or how many times I jotted something down on a particular topic. With how the Mobiscribe is currently setup to work, you are totally beholden to (a) how you tag the notebooks and (b) searching on the device itself. While I don’t have a strong preference for what sort of device I take my notes on, when it comes to searching, I prefer the full keyboard and large screen of a laptop – not a small eInk tablet. In many ways, it’s a shame that the usability of the Mobiscribe broke down here, with it’s OS and app integrations.
I say it’s a shame because, from a hardware perspective, the device seemed to have a lot going for it. The screen was responsive (no perceptible lag when writing) and you quickly get used to the feel of writing on the device. Sure, if you were trying to do something other than take notes (like, download a Kindle book and read it) it was laggy, but I wasn’t judging it on that merit. And, ok, using a bit of (strong) two-sided tape to hold the device into it’s cover wasn’t a great idea, but until the device takes off, more robust case solutions probably won’t exist. And some screen protection is better than none.
At the end of the day, the Mobiscribe feels like a very interesting first-release product. It has a lot of promise and potential to it, but as it stands right now, it’s not particularly a device I would find myself relying on or wanting to use regularly. And that is only because of it’s lack of integrations. If they were able to get it working on a newer version of Android, that could ease things a good deal. Better yet, if they could get it working more seamlessly with a service like Evernote, it would be an excellent piece of kit. For now, sadly, the Mobiscribe is not the device for me.
Those are just my thoughts on it, as there are plenty in their user group on Facebook that are super pumped about the device (and my kids were plenty interested in it, though I didn’t let them play with the loaner). If you’re finding yourself curious – or simply not broken by the lack of Evernote-style usability – you can pick up your own Mobiscribe in a $264 bundle that gets you the tablet with a cover and stylus. It’s definitely the most affordable eInk notebook I’ve run across so far, and I’m glad I got to play with it. Going into the review, I really wanted to like this little device. As it stands for now, though, I think I’ll wait and see what might come in the next generation from the brand. mobiscribe.com
Have a tip on another digital note-taking device you think I should check out? Drop me a line and let me know!
- Device: Mobiscribe eInk Note Tablet
- Price: $264 (with stylus and cover)
- Recommended for: folks looking to scribble their notes and ideas electrically, rather than with pen and paper
- Would I use it? Unfortunately, no – it just doesn’t lend itself to easy search after the note taking is done
- Main competition:
- For eInk devices, the main one that comes to mind is Remarkable, thought there are apparently other cheap devices out there
- For tablets, the obvious comparison is the iPad with the Apple Pencil, or the Samsung Galaxy Note series
- Potential alternate uses: eReader, doodle pad
Tech Specs from Mobiscribe
- Screen size: 6.8”
- Screen type: eInk, lit, anti-glare
- Built in templates
- Rechargeable battery provides up to a week of use
- Screen lighting is adjustable in brightness and color temperature
- Pressure-sensitive stylus with replaceable tips
- Built-in wifi
- Multi-format: Supports .mobi/.epub/.pdf/.txt/.azw3/.azw/.fb2/.prc