The Boox Palma is an amazing gadget I didn’t even know I wanted

There are really only three things you need to know about the Boox Palma. One: it’s about the size of a smartphone. Two: it runs Android, with the Play Store. Three: it has an E Ink screen. There are other specs and features I’ll get to, but that combination — smartphone, Android, E Ink — is the Palma’s whole reason for existence.

In a couple of months of using the Palma, a $280 device that has been on sale since last fall, that combination has turned out to be exactly what I needed. Because it’s smartphone-sized, with a 6.1-inch screen and an overall footprint just a smidge larger than the Samsung Galaxy S24 Plus, I can hold it in one hand and fit in my pocket. Because it runs Android, I can download any app I need. And because it’s E Ink, the battery lasts somewhere between four days and a week, the screen is easy to look at even in the dark, and — and this is the most important part — most apps are just awful to use.

Sure, the Palma can technically download TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube. It can even, stutteringly, play videos from those apps. But because of E Ink’s low resolution, slow refresh rate, and overall black-and-white-ness, it’s a crummy enough experience that I’m never tempted to do so. Instead, I find myself doing the things the Palma’s screen is built for. This thing is first and foremost an e-reader. It’s just that, unlike all the other e-readers, this one lets you read in whatever app you like to use.

The first app I downloaded onto the Palma was Amazon Kindle, which is where all my digital books are. And before you’re like, dude, why didn’t you just buy a Kindle, the second app I downloaded was Readwise Reader, an app for reading and organizing longform articles, PDFs, and just about anything else. Already, I’d accomplished something no other e-reader offers. Then, I downloaded a couple of news apps, Flipboard, and the note-taking app Obsidian.

Two months later, those are still the apps I use most on the Palma. Boox preinstalls a few others, like a voice recorder and a music app, but I barely touched those. Who needs ‘em when I have Android! I downloaded Pocket Casts and Spotify instead, and now my Palma is my iPod in addition to being my Kindle. When I go out for coffee in the morning or to walk the dog in the afternoon, only the Palma comes with me. 

The rare marketing image that actually matches how I use the device, every night before bed.
Image: Boox

I’ve been amazed by how much of my phone activity disappeared when I put all my listening and reading onto another device. I never noticed how often I’d dig my phone out to change songs, only to get pulled in by a Slack message or a Gmail notification. (Come to think of it, thanks to the “Notification Mute” feature in Boox’s version of Android, I don’t think I’ve gotten a single notification the whole time I’ve had this thing.) Now that I’m bringing the Palma and not my phone with me to the coffee shop, I’m getting more reading done because TikTok isn’t remotely tempting on this device. I’m actually offline most of the time — I’ll just take it off Airplane mode to sync the various apps, then shut off the connection and go back to reading. A device that is easy to have with me, that can technically do everything but only makes it easy to do the stuff I want, has been everything I wanted.

“It’s just the absolute perfect amount of friction,” Craig Mod told me when I recounted my experience with the Palma. Mod — a blogger, author, and bookmaker who has been writing about digital reading for years — loves his Palma, too. He wrote a blog post about it in May that got a lot of people excited about the device — he reckons he convinced at least a few hundred people to buy one. “You wouldn’t want to go surf YouTube and be like, ‘All right, let me watch MKBHD,’” he says. “But if I needed to… I could pop into that for a second.” 

“It’s just the absolute perfect amount of friction”

That friction is a function of the device itself: E Ink screens just don’t refresh fast enough to look good playing video. Serviceable in a pinch? Sure. But not good enough to really suck you in. 

Like me, Mod said the Palma’s combination of size and screen sold him on the device. “It’s perfect one-handed, it’s not heavy, it’s not going to fall on your face in a weird way,” he said. “You’ve got it in your hand with your thumb on the volume controls, and you can easily go through an article until you fall asleep.” Did I mention you can set the Palma to flip pages when you press the volume buttons? Love that. Mod called the Palma “a gentle lullaby of a reader.”

Matt Martin, the CEO of calendar startup Clockwise and another new Palma owner, echoed the sentiment. “I aspire to read more,” he said. “I aspire to not spend the 30 minutes before bed on Instagram Reels.” He downloaded the New York Times app, Instapaper, Libby, and Kindle and said he’s been reading more and Reels-ing less ever since. 

The Palma is definitely a reader first, but I’ve enjoyed it as a music and podcast player, too.
Image: Boox

“There’s the old anecdote we were all taught in Psych 101,” Martin said, “which is that physical environment matters. I think a separate device matters here: sometimes you’re reading, and you’re in a slow section, and you have that random thought, like, what was that thing I wanted to buy on Amazon? And you’re there without thinking about it.” A device like the Palma adds just enough friction to stop that train before it goes too far.

Mod has enjoyed the Palma so much that he wants Boox to go even further. “I would love to have this thing as my main driver,” he said, “so much more than the dopamine casino iPhone where it’s vying for your attention every two seconds.” He also wants Boox to get rid of the camera on the back of the Palma, which, candidly, I’d completely forgotten about until he mentioned it. I suppose it’s nice to have in a pinch, but a point-and-shoot this is not. 

Boox didn’t build a perfect gadget here. Not by any stretch. The plastic body is a little flimsy, the screen is set pretty far behind the bezels, everything takes a half-second longer than it should, the screen can be unresponsive at times, and I wish it would full-refresh the E Ink to remove ghosting a little more often. (There’s a dedicated button for doing that last part, though, which helps.) For a $280 e-reader, I’d expect a little more polish in both hardware and software. Worst of all, the Palma runs Android 11, which is already wildly out of date, and I’m not counting on Boox updating it soon or ever. More than likely, my Palma will just slowly stop working, app by app, over the next couple of years. That’s particularly frustrating given how simple my needs are; for playing music and reading articles, there’s no reason this shouldn’t last forever.

All Boox really did was put together the right set of ingredients

All Boox really did was put together the right set of ingredients — size, screen, apps — into something that feels less like a replacement for my smartphone and more like a complement to it. I keep finding small new things I like doing on the Palma rather than my phone; I have The New York Times’ games app on there now for some E Ink crosswords, and I just installed the Roku app, for instance, so now it’s a backup remote control and a place to plug in my headphones when I need to listen quietly.

This year has been filled with companies trying to overhaul the way we use our gadgets. Humane, Rabbit, and others have introduced wild new kinds of devices, hoping we might find new and different things to do with them. The Palma represents a much less ambitious — but maybe much more likely — alternative: it just tweaks the smartphone formula, leaving what works but subtly changing the device’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s not as bright, not as fast, not as frictionless. Instead, it’s quiet, simple, sane. And I love it for that.

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