I don’t mean to be picky, but the Kindle is not enough for me. For years, I called the Amazon Kindle Oasis the platonic ideal of e-readers, with its physical page-turning buttons, sharp display, solid backlight, and (then) unique design. It felt like I’d hit e-reader endgame. But then, I embraced Libby for library books, Viz for manga, and started reading more galleys straight from publishers, and the Kindle felt more like it was getting in the way than helping me read the things I wanted to.
So I started buying Android E Ink tablets from China and waiting for one to finally merge Android’s flexibility with Amazon’s superior design and build quality. And I’m pretty sure Onyx Boox’s new $199 Leaf 2 has it. This is, at least for now, my endgame e-reader.
HOW WE RATE AND REVIEW PRODUCTS
You might not be aware of Onyx Boox, and that’s okay. The company is based in China, and the only way to get its products in the US is from Good e-Reader (a site that reviews e-readers and also sells them), Onyx Boox’s website (boox.com), or Amazon. And because the company is largely based in China, tech support is spotty at best. Complicating the matter even more is the fact that Onyx Boox also shares its name with what appears to be a Russian company with a virtually identical URL and absolutely identical product lineup. The feeling of scams is strong with this brand.
But I’ve interacted with real people from the (Chinese) company, received embargoes and pricing information, and now purchased at least three different products from its website with no issues, so the Boox found at boox.com is, at least in my experience, on the up and up.
Onyx Boox has been making Android E Ink tablets for years now, but they tend to be extremely expensive compared to a Kindle or a Kobo. The Leaf 2’s $199 price is a lot more than you’ll pay for a basic Kindle or even a Paperwhite, but it is a full $150 less than the premium Kindle Oasis. For the price, you get 32GB of storage, 2GB of RAM, a seven-inch 300ppi E Ink display, warm and cool front lights, Android 11, and a microSD slot. The only thing missing is it being waterproof, but I’m not normally settling into a bath to read, so this isn’t a deal-breaker for me.
Its display is virtually identical to the one found on the latest Kindle Oasis, and text is sharp and easy to read. Black-and-white comics look as good on it as they do on an iPad, and the front light gives you the ability to tweak the brightness of warm and cool lights individually or separately so you can always adjust them to the perfect brightness for any given reading situation. (I usually leave them off if I have other light sources around.)
But the feature that really sets the Leaf 2 apart from any other Android E Ink tablet (or their less flexible e-reader acquaintances) is its page-turning buttons, which magically make this one of the best e-readers I’ve used. The Leaf 2 comes with two physical page-turning buttons on the left side of the device and, thanks to the internal G-sensor, the page will quickly orient itself when you switch hands.
Also, new to the Leaf 2, the buttons will work with just about any app — regardless of if it has a built-in feature to recognize page-turning buttons. Typically, Onyx Boox and other Android E Ink tablet makers have relied on an accessibility feature that turns the volume buttons on a phone into page-turning buttons. The e-readers would simply map the page-turning buttons to volume, and voilà — a Kindle or Nook experience as natural as their native e-readers.
But with the Leaf 2, there’s an alternate setting in the menu (under Side key settings) that lets you force other apps to recognize page-turning as well. So with the Nook and Kindle app, I use the Volume Button setting, and with apps like Libby, which has no page-turning feature at all, I hop back to the Turn Page Button setting. It’s a little finicky and could be annoying if you’re hopping around multiple apps to read daily, but it also allows me to neatly turn pages in Libby — a thing I haven’t been able to do before!
As for battery life… it depends. If you have a lot of Android apps running and Wi-Fi active, you can expect about a week or less of battery life. But turning the Wi-Fi off means I usually only have to charge every few weeks.
The Android apps can drain the battery, but they also give this device flexibility, and it’s the flexibility of the Leaf 2 that charms me. The Leaf 2 comes with its own built-in mediocre app store, and because it’s a Chinese e-reader, Google Play isn’t available out of the box. But Onyx Boox provides a guide for getting the Play Store working — which mainly involves registering the device with your Google account and waiting for Google’s servers to acknowledge its existence (in my experience, this takes about two to three hours, but Onyx Boox warns it can take up to 48 hours).
Once the store was working, this just becomes a full-fledged E Ink Android tablet, and it was easy to download apps for Libby, Kindle, Barnes & Noble, and even NetGalley — which handles book galleys for publishers. You can also add video apps, if you’re so inclined, but laggy black-and-white versions of YouTube and TikTok aren’t an ideal way to use either app, so I wouldn’t recommend it.
Agree to Continue: Onyx Boox Leaf 2
Every smart device now requires you to agree to a series of terms and conditions before you can use it — contracts that no one actually reads. It’s impossible for us to read and analyze every single one of these agreements. But we started counting exactly how many times you have to hit “agree” to use devices when we review them, since these are agreements most people don’t read and definitely can’t negotiate.
By setting up the Onyx Boox Leaf 2, you’re agreeing to:
Optionally, you can add the Google Play Store. If so, you’re agreeing to:
- Google’s Terms of Service
Final tally: one mandatory agreement and two optional ones.
An actual automatic download for me was EinkBro, a browser designed for E Ink. That sounds silly given the Leaf 2 comes with its own browser, but EinkBro is fast and will paginate websites instead of forcing you to scroll — extremely useful if you’re reading some 200,000-word coffee shop AU on Archive of Our Own.
Besides the built-in browser, the Leaf 2 has a lot of other apps intended to make it act more like a tablet than I’d like. There’s an audio recorder, a gallery, a music player, and, unlike the iPad, even a calculator. With the Play Store installed, I never bothered using Boox’s app store — same goes for BooxDrop, the native cloud storage app. Both require an Onyx account, but I’ve never set one up and haven’t missed anything as a consequence.
Despite the many, many caveats, and despite all the goofy built-in apps trying to style this as a competitor to traditional tablets, the Leaf 2 is simply one of the most pleasurable ways to read books. I’m not constrained by anyone’s walled garden, and I don’t have to make weird sacrifices to read what I want when I want. I have actual physical buttons to press to turn pages. The Onyx Boox Leaf 2 has finally scratched that itch I’ve had for an ideal e-reader, and I don’t see anything displacing it anytime soon.
Photography by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge