Onyx BOOX Afterglow 2 Review

A True Android E-Reader

The e-reader market seems to be dwindling. In June, Barnes & Noble said its Nook division would be spun off into a separate company by the end of first quarter 2015. Sony tapped out and inked a deal with Kobo. It looked like only two companies here in the US seemed content to stay in the space: Amazon and Kobo. However, B&N announced in February that its Nook business would become a part of its retail business. All three companies have several devices of varying sizes, specifications and prices. Up until now, people interested in an true e-reader, one with an e-paper display, have been forced into proprietary ebook ecosystems from Amazon, B&N and Kobo.

Polish company Onyx International Inc. is looking to give users more flexibility and options when it comes to reading on e-paper. While the company’s website and online store look a little sketchy, I decided to take the plunge. Onyx’s Afterglow 2 comes preloaded with the Google Play store, giving it access to the the digital book stores from Amazon, B&N, Kobo and Google. The device’s specs match up nicely with the competition on paper, but does this relatively unknown Polish company have what it takes to take on the top dogs? Find out after the break.

Hardware

The Afterglow 2 is an unassuming device, and that’s a good thing. The difference between tablets and e-readers is that the latter are built for utility, eschewing premium materials like aluminum for lighter plastic, allowing it to weigh under a half a pound.

On the front of the device, you’re greeted with page back and forward buttons that flank the left and right bezels respectively. Below the display is the BOOX logo and a single square button that acts as the back button. The power button sits on the top of the device, while the micro USB charging port, micro SD card slot and headphone jack take up the bottom portion of the device. The inclusion of a headphone jack allows you to listen to music and audio books, which is something the Kindle Paperwhite 2 lacks. The Afterglow 2 also comes with the IVONA text-to-speech engine (or you can download Google’s Text-to-Speech from the Play Store) so apps like Pocket, Play Books and Amazon Kindle can read to you when you’re tired of plain old reading.

While the Afterglow 2 doesn’t sport the E Ink Carta display found on Amazon’s Paperwhite 2 and Voyage e-readers, it rocks identical resolution to the Paperwhite 2 and has the same 6 inch Pearl HD E Ink display found on the original Paperwhite and Kobo Aura. This puts it’s display above the Kobo Touch and Nook GlowLight. I’ve taken advantage of its built-in Front-Light, allowing me to fall asleep while reading a book multiple nights a week.

I will say that the hardware is solid but a bit flimsy. I dropped the Afterglow 2 on its corner and the device came apart a little. I was able to snap the front and back of the right side back together with no major damage (except a small scratch on the screen), but that experience lead me to buy a case. Fortunately, there is one case available for the Afterglow 2 that both looks good and protects everything. The faux leather case has built-in magnets in the top flap that keep the cover shut and provides sleep-to-wake functionality.

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looks good, right?

 

Onyx claims the Afterglow 2 lasts up to two weeks, which turned out to be fairly accurate. They more or less achieve this through aggressive timeout settings. The device powers off after the screen saver is on for 20 minutes, but that can be changed to 30 minutes, an hour or never. You can also adjust the screen timeout and wifi timeout, but the standard settings should be good enough. Just like any device, the more you use it, the quicker it runs out of battery. I never worried about the battery dying on me, since it hovered around 30% for several days.

Software

The Afterglow 2 runs a custom Onyx interface on top of the Android 4.2.2 many of you have come to love. If you’ve ever used It looks very much like other e-reader software. The Afterglow 2 comes preloaded with a bunch of free famous and historic ebooks. However, all of those are in Polish. The Onyx interface displays the last read ebook or file read using the built in OReader and Onyx Neo Reader. Now, this is great if you manually load your ebooks onto the device or you use the Onyx Book Store. However, it does not show books that you read apps like Amazon Kindle and Google Play Books.

Since this device runs Android, I was able to remedy this situation easily. I just downloaded home screen replacement app Apex Launcher and added the Google Play Books widget to the home screen so I could easily get to my most recent books. I placed my other apps in the dock at the bottom of the screen and I was good to go. The Kindle, Nook and Kobo widgets work too if Play Books is not your thing.

my homescreen after I installed apex launcher
my homescreen after I installed apex launcher

However, I ran into another problem: I was running out of space. I thought this was strange, since the device comes with 4GB of storage. I found out that my apps only had 512MB of internal storage to use. Although initially shocked, I found out that Onyx wasn’t lying when it claimed they included 4GB of internal storage. In order to cut costs, Onyx opted for internal SD card storage in addition to including an SD card slot for removable storage. To get around this, all I had to do was go into the Application settings and move apps like Play Books and Pocket to the internal SD card. I also deleted all of the included Polish ebooks to free up some space. Although I was able to easily do this, people less familiar with Android and the underlying technology would have no idea how to do this. Some apps, like Amazon Kindle, automatically store their data on the SD card.

The dual-core processor and 512MB of RAM allow the Afterglow 2 run as smooth as can be expected from a device with an E Ink display. The refresh rate is quick enough and the image ghosting is minimal on a white background and present on dark ones. However, if you really want fast refresh rates, you can click the circular arrows in the top right of the screen to switch into performance mode. While this does in fact increase the speed while reading, it weirdly made my homescreens mushy and ghosty. I never really found the need for this mode.

The page buttons work well when using the built in reader, but start to get a little finicky while using Play Books. They work fine as long as you don’t touch the screen while reading, after which they cease to work. Only exiting and reopening the app will make them work again. While the button worked perfectly in Pocket, they didn’t work at all with the Amazon Kindle and NYTimes apps. While unfortunate and annoying, the problem seems to stem from the apps and not the device, and the inclusion of a touch screen made up button reliability.

TL;DR

Today, there are so many ways to read content digitally. You can buy e-books from the likes of Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple and Google. You can even use Netflix-for-books subscription services Oyster and Scribd. Every news outlet has there own app. Services like feedly, Flipboard and Play Newsstand aggregate articles from multiple sites in own app. Then there are the read-it-later apps like Pocket and Instapaper so you can read those interesting articles later. However, the screens we spend most of our time using can strain our eyes and keep us awake at night. Having an e-paper screen that I can read all of that content on is great.

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For those who want that freedom and versatility in an e-reader, then the Afterglow 2 is a great choice. Still, the Afterglow 2 is not for everybody, since it takes a bit of tweaking to get things up an running. Once you get it up an running, the combination of the Play Store access, good hardware and nighttime readability make this a great e-reader. However, the inconsistency of the page turn buttons may make this a deal breaker for some. But where else are you going to find an Android powered e-reader this well rounded? Maybe nowhere, since Onyx has the device listed as out of stock. Good luck finding it.

If you have any other questions about the device for me, feel free to shoot me an email at austinsimpulse@gmail.com or leave a comment down below.

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