Android tablets have improved significantly in the past couple of years, and good ones like the Samsung Galaxy Tab S8 Ultra can perhaps suit the needs of some power users more than even the best iPad. But the reality remains that Apple’s iPads are more polished and enjoy far higher mainstream popularity. Go to any coffee shop in America, and 90% of the tablets you see are likely iPads.
What I’m trying to say is that Android tablets are widely considered second-class products in the tablet space, so what happens when a small company makes an even more niche and restricted version of the Android tablet? That’s what Shenzhen-based Boox is looking to find out with the Tab Ultra, an E Ink tablet with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 662 chip, stylus support, and an optional keyboard case that turns it into something that can double as a laptop.
I’ve been using the tablet for a couple of weeks and found it surprisingly usable as a “laptop.” And while I adore its paper-like screen, which makes tasks like sketching fun, it’s ultimately too pricey to justify for most people.
About this review: Boox provided me with a review unit of the Tab Ultra and keyboard for testing. Boox did not have input in this review.
BOOX Tab Ultra
The BOOX Tab Ultra is a unique and powerful tablet with a thin build and an E Ink display. However, it’s priced too high for most people, especially when you can spend a bit more for an iPad Pro.
- 128GB (expandable via MicroSD)
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 662
- Operating System
- Android 11
- 6200 mAh
- Camera (Rear, Front)
- Display (Size, Resolution)
- 10.3-inch e-ink display
- $599 (keyboard sold separately for $109)
- 8.9 x 7.3 x 0.26″
- Headphone jack
|E Ink screen feels like paper
|Really pricey at $599, with the keyboard requiring another $109
|Fast for an E Ink tablet, slower than any normal tablet
|Works surprisingly well as a word-processing productivity machine
|A bit heavy to hold with one hand if you’re reading
Boox Tab Ultra: Pricing and availability
The Boox Tab Ultra is available now on Amazon and other retailers. Its official price is $599 for the tablet and stylus, with the keyboard case being a separate purchase at $109.
Design and hardware: All about that paper-like display
- E Ink screen feels like paper
- Optional keyboard case turns it into a laptop
The Boox Tab Ultra is an aluminum-bodied tablet with a 10.3-inch E Ink display. The device is thin at around 0.26 inches thick, and the construction feels sturdy, with a quality we’d expect from a larger Android brand. Unlike other tablets, the Tab Ultra only has a single power button that doubles as a fingerprint scanner — there is no volume rocker. There are a pair of speaker grills on each side of the tablet, but volume is handled entirely via software. Boox’s logic is likely that very few people would use this as a video or music-playing machine, so volume control isn’t as important.
The display looks great for an E Ink panel, pumping out deep blacks and rich contrast, with an anti-glare coating and matte finish that makes it very aesthetically pleasing to use even outdoors.
There’s a charging port and a microSD card slot at the bottom of the device for expandable storage. However, the latter is probably only needed for those with a giant book collection since the 128GB of onboard storage should be enough for this type of tablet, which won’t exactly be storing 4K videos or games.
There is also a 16MP rear camera, but it’s purely used to scan documents, not for snapping photos. The Tab Ultra package includes a mostly plastic stylus, which magnetically attaches to the right side of the tablet. The stylus can detect over 4,000 levels of pressure, but it doesn’t have tilt sensitivity (more on its performance later).
The tablet weighs 480g, which is heavy if you use it as a handheld e-book reader, but light for an overall tablet. Under the hood, you have Qualcomm Snapdragon 662 with 4GB of RAM. These components can be considered low-powered in 2023, especially if this was a normal tablet meant to do everything. But this is an E Ink tablet, and its main purpose is reading and text input, so it’s enough.
By itself, the Tab Ultra is a slightly heavier than usual e-book reader or notepad, so the best way to use it is to pair it with Boox’s keyboard case, which, unfortunately, costs $100 extra. But the case is built well, with a leather exterior that feels warm and grippy to the touch, and the keys themselves are excellent, evenly spaced, and tactile with solid travel.
The Tab Ultra attaches to the case via a pogo pin and provides all-around coverage and protection. The case, of course, can prop up the tablet (but only at one standard 45-degree-ish angle) turning it into a mini laptop.
The stylus itself doesn’t require any power, and the keyboard draws power from the tablet itself, so you only have to worry about charging. And with a low-res black-and-white display with a below-average refresh rate, battery life on the Boox Tab Ultra is of no concern.
Software and performance: Use it like an Android tablet
- The display is excellent for reading and sketching
- With the keyboard, it performs surprisingly fine as a productivity machine — including writing part of this article
- The UI is a beat slower than any normal tablet
The Boox Tab Ultra runs on Android 11. Yup, it’s two generations behind, but that’s not a huge deal considering the Android running here is a bare-bones version, and it’s heavily skinned to run Boox’s software. The overall UI won’t look too foreign; you still have a notification panel accessed via a swipe from the top, and there’s even an app tray and gesture navigation. But since this is an E Ink display, the refresh rate is slower. That, paired with just 4GB of RAM, means everything moves a beat slower. Launch an app, and you must wait a second or two before it loads. This is also the case for swiping the app away.
However, once you accept the slower speed, the tablet is surprisingly usable for productivity tasks. There’s full Google Mobile Services support so that the Google Play Store can install practically any app from the Play Store. I installed Chrome, Twitter, Slack, Gmail, and Google Docs, and all five ran without issues. With these four apps, I got a lot of my work done. In fact, I even wrote part of this article on the Boox Tab Ultra, so the device can handle a custom CMS inside Chrome, too.
Typing on the keyboard is a joy, but it does take time to get used to the roughly half-second delay between my finger hitting the key and the letter showing up on the screen. This delay has to do with the screen refresh rate more than keyboard latency. I’m a touch typer, so I got used to it after 20 minutes and could pound away at my usual speeds.
Speaking of refresh rate, Boox’s software gives you the option to switch between four refresh rates, with the fastest one getting the display to move fast enough to feel somewhat like a normal Android UI. The slower refresh rate is for reading, and the E Ink display is excellent for that, displaying rich contrast visuals. For those wondering, you can play videos or even games on this thing, but do you really want to? It’s a black-and-white screen, and the refresh rate will be too slow for most games.
Features: What can you do with an E Ink reader?
- The tablet is great for sketching, taking notes, and scanning documents
- Due to the E Ink display, battery life is amazing
Boox’s software includes its native e-book reader, which includes a category of free books, including Shakespeare’s complete works. You can, of course, download Amazon Kindle, which as of late 2022, claimed to have 48 million books available for download (although many cost money). I also enjoy reading Japanese manga on the screen, as the original source material is in black and white.
Sketching and jotting notes
I enjoyed sketching and writing words on the tablet thanks to its paper-like screen that produces friction against the rubbery stylus tip. Latency is virtually non-existent, so I could sketch away like I used to in high school art class. There’s also excellent palm rejection. Overall, I never had an issue sketching or jotting down words on the screen. One small nitpick is that the stylus cannot detect angles, so I can’t shade colors in like I could with the Apple Pencil.
The document scanning software mostly works well. Just point the camera at a document and snap the photo. Boox’s software will turn it into a digital scan, or you can use OCR (optical character recognition) to turn the words from a photo into a text file. This works with English and Chinese so far from my testing.
Battery life, as teased earlier, is absolutely epic. This is a tablet that mostly can’t be drained all at once on a single day. Throughout the review period, I’d take the Tab Ultra out to coffee shops and use as my writing and reading machine for 2-3 hours daily, and even with this usage, the tablet made it through an entire Monday to Friday work week still with more than 70% battery to spare.
Should you buy the Boox Tab Ultra?
You should buy the Boox Tab Ultra if:
- You want an E Ink tablet for reading, stylus input, and the ability to run Android apps.
- You want a tablet purely for productivity tasks that involve typing and physically writing words
- You want a great way to sketch or take notes on the go
You should not buy the Boox Tab Ultra if:
- You only need an E Ink tablet for reading and writing — there are lower-priced options
- You can pay a bit more for an iPad
In a vacuum, I really like the Boox Tab Ultra. I enjoy sketching and physically writing in a Moleskin notepad occasionally (usually when I’m stuck in one spot with no place to go). This tablet is like a larger, digitalized version of that. And as someone who frequently enjoys writing XDA articles out at coffee shops, the tablet and keyboard makes for a more portable machine than even an iPad Pro or MacBook Air.
But I can’t get over the $599 starting price for just the tablet, plus another $109 for the keyboard cover. At $708, the price is close enough that you might as well buy an 2022 iPad Air, which can be had for around $700. Even if you buy Apple’s expensive Magic Keyboard, the price would be around $950. Sure, the iPad Air isn’t an E Ink tablet, so the screen is not as easy on the eyes for long reading sessions, but there are enough software tricks an iPad can do to simulate the effects of an e-ink display, and it gets close enough. On the other hand, a 2022 iPad Air can do about 5,000 other things better than the Boox Tab Ultra. And if you don’t really need the keyboard — meaning if you only care about reading text and sketching and writing with a stylus — then the ReMarkable 2 E Ink tablet starts at $279.
I really like the Boox Tab Ultra, but I can’t justify it at over $700. If there are discounts later that knock the price down to $500, then I’d say those interested can consider it.
Boox Tab Ultra
The Boox Tab Ultra is an E Ink tablet running Android 11 with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 662 and 4GB of RAM.