When I turned 10, I was finally allowed to own a pen. At school, that was when we moved from pencils to ink, and our parents were told to get us all-new stationery. That was also the year we learned to write in cursive, because we were finally big kids and cursive writing meant we could… sign checks, I guess.
I don’t know about kids these days, but physically writing notes in pen and paper is a huge part of how I learned things and organized my thoughts. It probably had something to do with the fact that my mom trained my brother and I to use “mind maps” as study tools, too. When I start planning a trip or a big project, I instinctively reach for a notepad and a pen. That’s why writing on a tablet that mimics this experience holds so much appeal for me (and probably a lot of people around my age or older).
Though you can get a decent stylus experience on an iPad, Surface or Galaxy device, e-ink tablets typically last a lot longer and offer a more paper-like reading experience with no glare or blue light hurting your eyes. They also typically don’t come with distracting apps or notifications to interrupt your work. So when Amazon announced the Kindle Scribe would be its first e-reader that would support stylus input, I was intrigued. The Kindle series are probably the most popular e-ink readers in the US, and they could make digital note taking much more accessible to a mainstream audience.
At $340, however, the Scribe is the most expensive Kindle. For that premium, you’ll get a bigger 10.2-inch screen with the same 300ppi pixel density, a front light with 35 LEDs, an included Basic Pen and at least 16GB of storage. You can sync your notes to the Kindle app to view them without the tablet. But while e-readers never fully replaced books, the Scribe might just offer a better experience than an actual pen and notepad.
Design and hardware
Like most Kindles, the Scribe is marvelously thin and light. At just 0.22 inches thick, this is one of the slimmest e-readers around, and I actually worried it might break when I left it in the flimsy purse I threw into an overhead compartment during my Thanksgiving flight to San Francisco. Luckily, with the case that Amazon sent along, the Scribe not only survived being tossed around with heavy suitcases, it also held up when I accidentally sat on it. (Yes, I’m a monster who’s too rough with gadgets.)
More importantly, at just 433 grams or 0.95 pounds, the Scribe was light enough for long periods of reading. It’s just a hair lighter than the M1 iPad Air, which weighs 1.02 pounds, and thanks to a generous bezel on the long side, the Scribe is easy to hold with one hand without accidentally triggering the touchscreen. Because the display rotates to all orientations, you can use this with your right or left hand.
Unlike the Oasis or some e-reader models by Kobo, the Scribe doesn’t have physical buttons for page turning. There’s just a single power button on the edge next to the USB-C charging socket. It’s also worth noting that, again, unlike the Oasis and Paperwhite models, the Scribe is not water-resistant.
As a notebook
In many ways, the Scribe offers a better experience than actual pen and paper. I never run out of paper or ink or have to sharpen a pencil. Erasing my mistakes is effortless, I don’t have to deal with cleaning up eraser dust, and I never end up with ink or lead stains on my hands. Amazon’s palm rejection here is almost perfect, other than when I drag it across the screen, which turned the page. That didn’t happen often enough to be annoying, and I quickly learned to not move my palm when resting it on the display.
I loved the sheer smoothness of writing on the Scribe. The latency is nearly zero, and the instant I placed the nib on the screen, it left a mark. Thanks to the screen’s matte finish and responsiveness, drawing on the Scribe felt just as natural as the real thing. The Premium Pen that Amazon sent with our review unit has a shortcut button and dedicated eraser at the top. Flipping the pen over to undo mistakes felt natural, but more importantly it was just as smooth as inking. Of course, since it’s a much larger target than the stylus’ nib, the eraser isn’t as precise, but the deleted marks on the screen fade in a satisfying way.
The one thing that took away from the Scribe being a full replica of a notepad is its screen refreshing. When you erase something, it slowly fades away and when it’s just about gone, the display refreshes itself quite jarringly. It’s a small quirk, but can definitely catch you off guard.
Just like pen and paper, the Scribe is limited. You can’t edit your notes on a phone or laptop after writing them. You can view them, sure, but because Amazon syncs them to the Kindle app as image files, you can’t make changes to them. You can export them as PDFs to another device and use a third-party editor to tweak your notes, but at that point you might as well use Evernote or Samsung Notes.
Amazon’s software doesn’t offer this function though, and compared to competing note-taking apps for iOS, Android and Windows, the Scribe’s features are very rudimentary. It doesn’t even do handwriting recognition to convert your scrawl to machine-readable text, meaning it also can’t index anything you’ve jotted down so you can search your notes by keywords later.
Still, that doesn’t mean the device isn’t a delight. I loved using the Scribe as a notepad for my many lists. You can start notebooks using various backgrounds — a simple lined pattern, or checkboxes to keep track of tasks or shopping items. I spent my week or so with the Scribe organizing my holiday shopping lists, planning a family vacation, drawing tropical fruits that my friends haven’t heard of and refamiliarizing myself with writing the Japanese alphabet (hiragana). I felt more productive and organized when I had the Scribe with me, and almost lost when I needed to jot down a thought and it wasn’t by my side.
For my purposes, the Scribe was perfectly adequate. But for others who might need a more sophisticated note-taking system, Amazon’s device is seriously lacking. A bio-medical engineering professor I spoke to who was keen on using the Scribe to annotate notes and research articles, for example, was disappointed to learn the device didn’t support colors. You can only highlight in grayscale. If you’re looking to create works of art, you won’t find a complete toolkit in Amazon’s app — just a pencil with a few thickness options or a highlighter. And unlike on an iPad, you can’t move portions of your drawings around just by dragging and dropping them with your stylus.
Creating a notebook isn’t the only way you can doodle on the Kindle Scribe, by the way. You can also take down notes when you’re reading an e-book. But it’s not like you can scribble directly onto the words of your e-books. You can use the floating toolbox to create a sticky note, then draw within a designated rectangle. When you close the sticky note, a small symbol appears over the word it was attached to, but otherwise, your scribbles are hidden. No annotating in the margins here.
Like I said, Amazon’s software is rudimentary. Still, if you think about the Scribe primarily as a blank writing pad that replaces all your loose pieces of paper as opposed to a sophisticated notes management system, then it’ll still serve a purpose.
A large component of the Scribe experience is the pen. The Premium Pen I received costs $30 more, and adds a dedicated eraser and shortcut button along the edge. Both the Basic and pricier pens snap magnetically to the edge of the Scribe and don’t need to be charged, which is nice. The stylus stays securely attached to the tablet, thanks to the strong magnets, though you can remove it without too much force. I did find the shortcut button on the Premium Pen a little too easy to accidentally trigger, since it’s placed right where my thumb or index finger would rest. I frequently had to remind myself to turn the stylus so I wouldn’t press it by mistake.
Amazon’s Premium Pen is about the same size as an Apple Pencil or Samsung’s larger S Pen for tablets and reminiscent of a real pen. Anecdotally, it actually felt more comfortable than Apple’s stylus, possibly due to a touch of malleability in its body.
As an e-reader
It’s no surprise that the Scribe shines as an e-reader. It may be the biggest Kindle yet, but when I was reading Blackout by Erin Flanagan, words were as crisp and legible as on the smaller entry-level Kindle I’m used to. I appreciated the ability to tweak the display’s color temperature just like I would on other Kindles, and cut down on blue light near my bedtime. The front light made it possible for me to read in a dark airplane cabin, and though the Scribe was easy to see in sunlight, it did have some glare under the harsh overhead lights in our office.
Of course, thanks to the larger canvas, I could see more text on a page and didn’t have to squint. Amazon also offers Large Mode under Display Size so that those with visual impairments can read with greater ease. Other Kindle accessibility features are also available, including the VoiceView screen reader over Bluetooth audio (in English only). You can also adjust the font size, face, line spacing, margins and invert black and white.
The company also introduced a new Send to Kindle for Web tool to make it easier to transfer your personal documents from your computer to your Scribe. Basically, as an e-reader, the Scribe is everything you’ve gotten used to on a Kindle, from the excellent library of available content down to Amazon’s cumbersome interface.
This brings me to my two biggest frustrations with the Scribe, and, spoiler alert, they’re pretty minor complaints. First, I wish Amazon would update its layout to make it easier or faster to switch between notes. To go from my to-do list to my packing list, for example, I have to tap the top of the screen to invoke the navigation bar, hit the Notebooks button to view my notes, then select the list I want. That would be bothersome on a regular touchscreen, not to mention a slowly refreshing e-ink one. If Amazon let me view a carousel of my open notes by swiping from the bottom, perhaps, it might make jumping between them easier.
Secondly, the premium leather cover that Amazon sent with the Scribe folds into a stand, but it’s tricky to figure out how. Obviously you don’t have to buy this case, which is good since it costs an absurd $80. And the interface is slow, but works as expected and is perhaps as good as it gets for e-ink.
The best thing about black-and-white e-readers, though, is their longevity. Amazon says the Scribe will last up to 3 weeks if you write about half an hour a day. While I was concerned to see the battery level drop from 83 to 80 percent during one of my hiragana practice sprees, in my week with the device it’s gone down about 35 percent. I’d say if you weren’t writing continuously for hours, you’d get more out of the Scribe, but at the very least it easily should last you two and a half weeks.
As a child of the nineties, I’m enamored with the Scribe. Amazon has managed to not only replicate a pen-and-paper experience, but without the associated limitations like running out of ink. Some of my main issues with the Scribe, particularly its lack of editing tools, are possibly solvable by software updates. And indeed, when I asked Amazon about possible handwriting recognition tools in future, a representative indicated that “While we can’t comment on future roadmap features, we are always listening to customer feedback.” So maybe if we all complain loudly enough, the company will add it.
The Kindle Scribe’s biggest competition is the Remarkable Tablet, which retails for slightly more than Amazon’s device, though you can find it on sale for less nowadays. It has a slightly larger 10.3-inch screen but comes in noticeably thinner at 4.7mm (or 0.18 inches) thick. ReMarkable offers slightly better syncing and writing software than Amazon, but it pales in comparison to the Kindle as an e-reader.
Artists, designers and serious note-takers also probably want to look elsewhere for a more sophisticated drawing and annotating solution — the iPad and Apple Pencil might be your best bet. But as a combo of an e-reader that can also serve as a basic digital notepad, the Kindle Scribe is surprisingly satisfying.