- Simple but distinctive design with a tactile back
- Automatic brightness adjustment
- Eye-friendly and pocket-sized, perfect for reading anywhere
- No cellular network support
- Not ideal for PDFs and some types of documents
Despite all the multimedia content available today, people seem to be reading even more, whether it’s directly through eBooks or indirectly through the Web and social media. We have plenty of devices that make this activity possible and easy almost anywhere, but while phones and tablets are indeed convenient, they are ironically the worst way to enjoy this type of content, especially as far as our eyes are concerned. eBook readers or eReaders have long been known to be the better choice for reading, and these devices are undergoing an innovation phase. New technologies, such as color E Ink panels, are popping up left and right, but it seems that all these changes are also pushing eReaders to bigger sizes. Onyx BOOX, however, is taking things in another and opposite direction to bring the world’s most portable eReader, and so we take the BOOX Palma for a ride to see where it could fit in your life.
It’s almost impossible not to mistake the Onyx BOOX Palma for a smartphone, even if you have the monochrome E Ink display turned on. If you’ve been keeping tabs on news in this market segment, you might already be aware of attempts to integrate such screens on the back of smartphones or even sell a phone with an E Ink display. As they say, however, looks can be deceiving, and the BOOX Palma isn’t really a smartphone, at least not in the technical sense of a “phone.” For all intents and purposes, however, it could almost be one, and it could even be better than your handset, especially in the design department.
The BOOX Palma embraces a completely minimalist aesthetic, in contrast to the classy yet busy designs of smartphones. You wouldn’t be able to make out any of its features unless you take a closer, more scrutinizing look. Even the camera sits almost flush against the back of the phone, so there is very little wobble or visual distraction. It’s an example of a design that gets out of your way to let you enjoy the content you want, which comes in the form of the books you’ll be reading on the screen.
Minimalist, however, doesn’t mean plain or boring. The BOOX Palma employs what the company touts as a water-repellent material on the back of the phone that also gives it a rougher, almost paper-like texture. It helps give you a better grip so that the device feels more secure and comfortable in your hand. Considering it’s meant to be held a lot in your hand, that’s a very important trait. The camera comes with a flash and sits on a small black strip that adds a contrasting accent without totally distracting your eyes.
The sides of the BOOX Palma are just as bare aside from the lone speaker grille and USB port at the bottom, buttons for power and volume on the right, and a special button on the left that triggers a screen refresh. One rather unusual design detail for the buttons is that the frame itself rises around these buttons, creating lumps that may or may not suit your taste. The front of the device is similarly devoid of extraneous details, and the screen is completely flush with the bezels. Those bezels are rather wide, as is common with eReaders, but the curved corners of the screen make them look a little more stylish. All-in-all, the BOOX Palma has an understated design that derives its elegance from its simplicity.
Although smartphones are naturally designed to be easy to hold in your hand, the combination of hardware and materials gives them a lot of weight. If you compare eReaders to tablets of the same size, the former category easily wins the lightweight contest. Given that backdrop, it’s no surprise that the BOOX Palma is significantly lighter than a smartphone, especially at 160g. What this means is that it won’t strain your hand when you’re reading for hours on end. That’s a win even against almost every eReader in the market today.
The phone-sized eReader is also easy and comfortable to grip thanks to the textured water-repellent material on its back. All the physical controls are on the sides within easy reach, and there are no special cases like an under-screen fingerprint scanner that will require you to shift your hand at any given point in time. That brings not only stability but also confidence, freeing you from worries while you get engrossed in your reading.
Truth be told, it’s difficult to categorize the Onyx BOOX Palma. The brand’s devices are already blurring the boundaries between tablets and eReaders, and this muddles the waters even more. This time, confusion arises between a smartphone and an eReader, especially considering how the BOOX Palma is almost a smartphone internally. That’s thanks to an octa-core Qualcomm CPU, 6GB of RAM that is generous for an eReader, 128GB of expandable storage, and, best of all, Android with Google Play Store pre-installed.
Yes, it’s pretty much an Android phone, except for the lack of one critical feature. It doesn’t have a SIM card slot, not even hardware to support cellular networks. Yes, it does have Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, but that’s as far as connectivity goes. In other words, this is pretty much a Wi-Fi phone, which some manufacturers have tried to offer before without much success. Given how a lot of communication today happens over the Internet, that might not be a total deal-breaker, at least as long as you’re connected to a Wi-Fi network. Then again, almost all eReaders have this limitation, so the BOOX Palma isn’t exactly an outlier, except for the fact that it looks and behaves almost like a phone, which unfortunately sets the wrong expectations.
Whatever you might think the BOOX Palma is, what isn’t arguable is that it has a top-of-the-line display as far as E Ink panels are concerned. The 6.13-inch screen has a resolution of 824×1648, giving it a high 300 ppi density, making every text look crisp and sharp. Yes, it’s not the color E Ink variant, but those have yet to become available in smaller and denser sizes. This screen shares many of the traits of the most recent BOOX devices, particularly bearing a dedicated graphics processor to really kick up performance to the next level. The result is one of the fastest E Ink screens you’ll see in the market, which makes reading even more pleasurable.
The display is also front-lit and, like its siblings, it has two kinds of light that you can tweak to your comfort. What the Onyx BOOX Palma does differently is that it has an ambient light sensor, which means it can automatically adjust the brightness or even turn off one or both front lights, depending on the environment. You can still manually control the settings, but you don’t have to worry about them every time.
All these make the BOOX Palma an ideal reading device no matter where you are, especially for times and places where holding up a larger device isn’t convenient or even possible. That said, that same size is also the device’s biggest Achilles’ heel because it caters to only a specific kind of content, text that can be reflowed to fit the screen without shrinking the fonts. That applies to Kindle books, ePubs, and most web pages, but documents with fixed font sizes like PDFs, or content with lots of images like comics are a poor fit for a screen of this size. Granted, most people with eReaders probably read eBooks from Kindle or Kobo or ePubs so that might not be relevant. But as the use cases from these devices grow, so do the types of content people read from them.
As an Android device, you’re not limited to just reading books either. You can install almost any app from the Google Play Store and use them normally, though your experience will vary greatly. Even at its fastest setting, watching videos or playing games is still going to be painful, especially with the ghosting and lower quality. Reading from social media apps is definitely doable, except when it comes to photos that are best viewed in full color. You can technically do anything that you would also do on a phone, at least within some expectations, but you’ll have to remember that the device isn’t really a phone, which might be a bit difficult to do considering it looks exactly like one.
Rounding up the hardware is a 3,950mAh battery that can last for 2 or 3 days with constant use. It’s not the week-long life of most eReaders, mostly because of everything that can happen in the background, just like a regular phone. The BOOX Palma also has a 16MP camera with an LED flash that can take color photos, even if you can’t view them with color. It’s intended more as a document scanner, though it remains to be seen how useful it really is.
As with many of Onyx’s products, there’s not much to be said about the BOOX Palma when it comes to sustainability. Making matters a bit worse is the thorough use of plastic instead of aluminum seen in some of its larger eReaders. The decision was most likely based on making the device light to hold, not on its long-term impact on the environment. We’re still waiting for the day when Onyx makes sustainability one of the selling points of its products, embracing recycled and eco-friendly materials, both for packaging as well as for the devices themselves.
The BOOX Palma does score points in other aspects, though. Because it uses considerably less power than mobile devices, charging it becomes less frequent, reducing its carbon footprint in the long run. Its water-repellent back and overall durability means you won’t be losing the device any time soon. It has the same longevity and long-lasting use as all eReaders, just that you’re getting it in a smaller package.
Simply based on its features, the Onyx BOOX Palma is definitely an impressive device. It has a sharp and crisp E Ink display made better by a dedicated graphics chip that really pushes the envelope of performance. Its small size makes it trivial to slip the device inside your bag or even your other pocket, allowing you to pick up where you left off on your favorite novel or self-help book. The fact that it runs Android with Google Play Store already installed is the icing on the cake, making it just as versatile as a regular Android phone, except it has an eye-friendly, power-efficient monochrome screen.
That, unfortunately, is also where the BOOX Palma becomes a little bit less convincing. It looks like a phone, but the lack of cellular network support doesn’t make it one. It behaves like an eReader, but its size also limits what you can comfortably read from it. It’s like sitting in a no man’s land, which is often the case for pioneering designs and products. It’s not like it doesn’t have any use, but you’ll have to really think hard about what you’ll use it for and whether you’ll be reading that much on the go in order to justify that $280 price tag.
eBook Readers have come a long way since the days of the first Kindle. There are large, 13-inch slabs that can almost function as laptops, as well as color E Ink screens that add a bit of vibrancy to your reading. Perhaps the biggest and boldest change, however, is offering that experience on a significantly smaller scale, something that can almost be your smartphone. Almost.
The Onyx BOOX Palma is undoubtedly an intriguing device, offering nearly the same capabilities as the company’s other eReaders but in a size you can slip into your pocket. It almost sounds like heaven for those who constantly rub their eyes from strain after reading for hours on their phones. That phone size, hover, can be a bit confusing and misleading because it is definitely not a phone. But for those who want a distraction-free, strain-free, and simple reading experience anywhere and everywhere, the Onyx BOOX Palma definitely meets expectations, as long as you set those expectations right.