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Onyx Boox Nova Air C review: An enthusiast's e-paper tablet that struggles to compete

Great for reading and writing, with plenty of pros and cons in the mix.

Onyx Boox Nova Air C
(Image: © Namerah Saud Fatmi / Android Central)

Our Verdict

The slim and trim Onyx Boox Nova Air C has a lightweight build quality that feels premium. Despite offering Android 11 and access to virtually any app on the Google Play Store, it still struggles to break free of its identity as a very capable e-reader. Yes, you get a mic, speaker, stylus, and other advantages such as Bluetooth connectivity, but the processing power is slow and video playback is a drag. It is certainly one of the best E Ink tablets, but not one of the greatest Android tablets.

For

  • + Versatile productivity tool
  • + Improved color contrast and ghosting
  • + Slim and lightweight build
  • + Android 11 with Google Play Store and Chromecast
  • + Fun reading experience
  • + Plenty of display customization and navigational features

Against

  • No microSD slot
  • Hefty price tag
  • Dreadful video playback
  • Processor struggles to keep up
  • Unsuitable for professional graphic design

Onyx Boox is an interesting company that has has one foot in the Android tablet sphere and the other in the world of e-readers. What this has resulted in is an interesting concoction of highly versatile Android-based e-readers that moonlight as tablets. Traditionally, e-ink devices were limited to B&W display panels. Thanks to the efforts of the E Ink Corporation, we now have e-paper technology that is capable of displaying colors.

Onyx Boox hasn't made many color e-readers just yet as the technology is fairly new. The first generation of colorized Onyx Boox tablets consisted of the Poke 2 Color, followed by the second-gen Onyx Boox Nova3 Color. The third and most recent iteration has only just made its debut and it is called the Onyx Boox Nova Air C.

Bearing my colleague's sentiments about the Nova3 Color in mind, I cautiously started testing the Nova Air C sample I received from Onyx Boox. I tried to keep an open mind while also keeping my hopes in check. After all, the Onyx Boox Nova3 Color was my favorite tech device of 2021, but it just couldn't stand its ground in the face of the best Android tablets

Price and availability

Onyx Boox Nova Air C

(Image credit: Namerah Saud Fatmi / Android Central)

Onyx Boox launched the Nova Air C on March 23, 2022. Currently, the colorful e-reader and tablet can be purchased from the Onyx Boox online store, Amazon, and a few other retailers. You can purchase the Onyx Boox Nova Air C for about $420 in the US and £400 in the UK. At the time of writing, the Onyx Boox Amazon store is out of stock in most regions.

Just like the Nova3 Color, orders for the Onyx Boox Nova Air C do not come with the first-party magnetic case. You'll have to shell out an additional $60 for the magnetic case with its customizable buttons. However, you do get the accompanying Boox Pen Plus stylus along with spare tips included in the box.

What you'll enjoy

Onyx Boox Nova Air C

(Image credit: Namerah Saud Fatmi / Android Central)

The Onyx Boox Nova3 Color came with a 7.8-inch Kaleido Plus display capable of showing 4,096 colors. The Onyx Boox Nova Air C has a similar 7.8-inch panel with 4,096 colors, however this time Onyx Boox went with the new and improved On-cell Kaleido Plus Screen. This brings 30% better contrast and 15% more saturation to the table with the tablet's front lights on. Turn them and off and you'll still get 6% and 14% better contrast and saturation over the predecessor. The Nova Air C also has smaller bezels, weighs lighter than the Nova3 Color, and noticeably, the physical home button is no longer there, giving it a sleeker appearance.

So despite being an E Ink tablet that's easy on the eyes, it looks better, making your reading experience even more delightful than it already was. Comics, graphic novels, illustrated texts, and book covers look marvelous next to regular black and white Kindle Paperwhite or any other e-reader from Amazon. Actions like highlighting text, jotting down notes or scribbling doodles in your e-book are fun in hues other than shades of white or black. It also makes browsing through your Android apps or the internet a richer experience.

CategoryOnyx Boox Nova Air C
Display7.8-inch On-cell Kaleido Plus display with 4,096 colors
Resolution1404x1872 (B&W), 468x624 (color)
ProcessorQualcomm Snapdragon 662
Memory3GB RAM
Storage32GB eMMC
Operating systemAndroid 11
Battery2,000mAh, USB-C charging
ConnectivityWi-Fi (802.11b/g/n/ac) , Bluetooth 5.0
AudioSpeaker, microphone
Supported file formatsTXT, HTML, RTF, FB2, FB2.zip, DOC, DOCX, PRC, MOBI, CHM, EPUB, JPG, PNG, GIF, BMP, PDF, DjVu, MP3, WAV, CBR, CBZ
Dimensions194 x 136.5 x 6.3mm
Weight235g

The Onyx Boox Nova Air C has a Wacom layer on top, making it compatible with any Wacom stylus and enabling 4,096 levels of pressure sensitivity. You get a Boox Pen Plus stylus along with the tablet, and it has a really satisfying marker nib that feels really good to write with. The overall size and build of this excellent stylus is ergonomic and quite comfortable to hold for prolonged periods of time. When not in use, the Boox Pen Plus attaches magnetically to the side of the Nova Air C.

Onyx Boox Nova Air C

(Image credit: Namerah Saud Fatmi / Android Central)

Another plus point of having a large e-ink panel is that sweet papery look and feel. If you're tired of staring at bright AMOLED and LCD screens, your eyes will relish the Nova Air C's understated color display. The e-ink tablet has Google Play Services but you have to enable them first, which isn't very hard. After you've turned them on, it's smooth sailing from there. This means you can install anything from the Google Play Store, including a great e-book app, even the Kindle app if you want, and enjoy reading your favorite titles or listening to audiobooks.

Speaking of software, the e-book reader within the Boox tablet is awesome. Personally, I find the Boox NeoReader fantastic for all intents and purposes. You get so much customization in terms of fonts, line spacing, color contrast, warmth, having something read out to you, searching text, translating, looking up meanings, and access to dictionaries in various languages. The Boox Pen Plus can be used to annotate e-books, highlight text, and do a lot more in color.

If you enter the split-screen mode, you can read two files at the same time or multitask with an e-book file in one screen and either a notepad or translator in the other screen. Not to mention, Onyx Boox's NeoReader supports so many file formats that you don't need to worry about conversion or compatibility.

Onyx Boox Nova Air C

(Image credit: Namerah Saud Fatmi / Android Central)

Availability of third party apps also allows you to use any of the best drawing apps like Sketchbook and MediBang if you don't like the Boox Notes app. There's a good reason why you'd want to consider an alternative for your sketching needs. 

You can also install any other app such as Wattpad, Facebook, Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, Google Keep, Bilibili Comics, Spotify, Telegram, and Google Chrome. As long as it's on Google Play, you can get it on your Onyx Boox Nova Air C. Of course, the performance will vary when it comes to apps like TikTok and YouTube, but you can still install these apps if you want. Because we tend to rely on Google's services so much, it is awesome that Google's core apps in particular work so well on the Nova Air C, with the exception of YouTube.

As long an app is on Google Play, you can get it on your Onyx Boox Nova Air C.

I found it so easy to multitask with my laptop and the Boox tablet side by side, playing music on the tablet via Spotify while connected to a Bluetooth speaker, sending tabs to it via Google Chrome and taking down notes. Bluetooth, Chromecast, and Nearby Share also made sharing files between my devices easy, on top of the convenient auto-sync facilities of Google Drive. When I got too lazy even for that, Boox's own sharing tool created a QR code that I could scan with my Pixel 6 to access the file instantly.

The Nova Air C's convenient gesture navigation is as easy as any other Android device and you can change to good ol' buttons if you're an old soul. To improve accessibility, there is a fully customizable assistive navigation ball that you can place anywhere on the screen. Dedicated E Ink settings can be accessed from the bottom left corner of the tab, bringing even more color customization for the display.

Onyx Boox Nova Air C

(Image credit: Namerah Saud Fatmi / Android Central)

All of this goes to show that they really put a lot of thought in the software. You'll also be pleased to know that Onyx Boox regularly rolls out bug fixes and new features to the Nova Air C and all other Boox devices, which is something to appreciate.

The Boox Nova Air C's onboard OCR is very, very good at what it does. I have a "doctor's hand" if you catch my drift. My lopsided, wonky cursive looks like it's trying to run off the page and launch into space. It could even accurately understand that, which was impressive. The handwriting input feature isn't just limited to note-taking, you can even use it as your normal input method and let me tell you, I had some good fun with that as I adore handwriting input in keyboards. A simple task such as naming a file or entering a search query on Google becomes exciting with a fine stylus in hand.

The Onyx Boox Nova Air C is an excellent writing tool for writers of all trades.

I used the Boox Pen Plus to write different languages, translating some of my documents from Arabic to English and testing the waters with what little Japanese I retained from college. The conversion was smooth, fast, and efficient. It felt so good to write with the comfy stylus that I wrote a short story on the fly. The marker tip grazes the display in a very satisfying way, simulating your creative writing juices while also saving paper.

The Wacom-layer adds support for 4,096 pressure levels, so you can alter your strokes as you would with a normal pen. This makes the Onyx Boox Nova Air C an excellent writing tool for writers of all trades, be they educators, researchers, authors, or students.

What you won't like

Onyx Boox Nova Air C

(Image credit: Namerah Saud Fatmi / Android Central)

As I mentioned earlier, the ghosting issues from the Nova3 Color have improved, but this improvement is barely noticeable when it comes to videos. Unfortunately, you still don't get watchable video playback and the washed out colors don't make the idea appealing either. Cartoons and anime look alright, but anything with real-life content looks blurry, dull, murky, and barely discernible.

I think watching animated media is acceptable when you're in a pickle. But you'll never be able to stomach more than few seconds of any other video content on the Onyx Boox Nova Air C.

A big problem on the software side is app optimization. You might be able to download and install anything off the Play Store, but there's no guarantee that that app will work properly on the Onyx Boox tablet. Some apps may not fit properly or you may not be able to access all of its functions.

There's another reason to be more selective with the apps you use on the Nova Air C. The E Ink tablet gets annoyingly slow at times, usually when you're trying to run a processor-heavy app like Sketch or Boox Notes with several layers in your project. Clearly, the aged Snapdragon 662 chipset and 3GB of RAM just aren't powerful enough. Forget about video consumption, even serious drawing projects can be frustratingly laggy.

Onyx Boox Nova Air C

(Image credit: Namerah Saud Fatmi / Android Central)

Onyx Boox's own Notes app couldn't handle more than three layers in my attempt to sketch out a portrait, pictured below. After I added the fourth layer, everything slowed down and I couldn't see my pen's strokes appear until a few seconds later. To add to that, the striking color difference between the colors I thought I was using while sketching and the actual result was shocking. I felt like I drew with a blindfold on, guessing at the shades and strokes, and hoping they would turn out alright in the end.

I am just a casual artist, but from a professional standpoint, it's really hard to work on something when you have no idea what colors you're working with. Imagine working with pastels and finding out that the shades were actually neon, which is what happened in my case. Not being able to see the etches and strokes appear right away is messy and difficult.

(Image credit: Namerah Saud Fatmi / Android Central)

There are a few other quirks that I have a bone to pick with. For instance, the Nova Air C doesn't have a microSD slot. 32GB of storage isn't nearly enough if you plan on using the tablet to its full potential. Sure, you can use a USB-C OTG or a USB-C thumb drive, but lets be honest, how many people have the time or energy to use it. It's an unnecessary hassle, leaving you to rely on cloud storage. That doesn't help when you want to store something on-device. For example, you might want to store your music offline for on-the-go playback, as internet access isn't available everywhere. Storing your entire library would occupy too much space so it's not feasible.

The Nova Air C has a single power button situated on top, but no other physical navigation button. You have to rely on the device's touch screen to find your way around the tablet. If you really need extra buttons to alter the volume or take screenshots, you'll need to purchase the $60 magnetic case with two customizable buttons.

Can we take a moment to discuss the ridiculous price? The fact that you still don't get the magnetic case for free, after shelling out over four Benjamins, just angers me, plain and simple. The total cost of properly owning an Onyx Boox Nova Air C tab along with the case adds up to around $500. Instead of all those caveats, I could just get the Samsung Galaxy Tab S7 FE or the 10.2-inch Apple iPad (2021) for the price.

If you were expecting to make the Nova Air C last as long as your Kindle or Kobo, you can kiss that dream goodbye.

Lastly, I truly believe that the Nova Air C's battery life could be much better. I managed to get just about a day and a half's worth, or a tad bit more, out of it with heavy usage. This included playing music while drawing, switching between apps, using the internet, keeping the brightness at max levels, and keeping the Bluetooth on to connect to a wireless speaker. This may be impressive for an excellent cheap Android tablet, but the Boox tablet's E Ink display should give a us a longer uptime. In earnest, it left me wanting for more.

Internet and Bluetooth take a serious toll on the Onyx Boox Nova Air C's measly 2,000mAh. Yes, that's a decent amount of juice for e-readers, but this isn't entirely an e-reader is it? Those fancy extra functions like Chromecast, Nearby Share, and heavy-duty third-party apps, consume more battery life. If you were expecting to make the Nova Air C last as long as your Kindle or Kobo, you can kiss that dream goodbye.

Competition

Drawing on the Samsung Galaxy Tab S8+

(Image credit: Michael Hicks / Android Central)

It's hard to determine an exact alternative tablet that offers everything the Onyx Boox Nova Air C does. The Nova Air C is a weird cross between drawing tablets, e-readers and full-fledged Android tablets. Therefore, the competition largely depends on what angle you look at it from.

As an e-reader, any latest gen Amazon Kindle can provide you with that brilliant E Ink display that imitates paper so well. Now that Kindle devices support ePub file formats, Amazon's waterproof e-readers have become even more attractive. They do, however, have a very restricted ecosystem and you can't install third-party apps or view anything in color.

If it's a drawing tablet that you're after, a Wacom One or Wacom Cintiq is better in every way that you can think of. Starting from the accuracy of the stylus, to the depiction of colors and shades, there's nothing the Nova Air C does better. Graphic designers seeking a professional drawing tool won't benefit much from Onyx Boox's colorful creation, apart from reduced eye strain.

For all other uses, any flagship Android tablet will serve you much better as a multipurpose entertainment and productivity tool. Pitching in a little more money can fetch you the excellent Samsung Galaxy Tab S8+ which crushes the Nova Air C in terms of performance, features, user experience, and productivity. Other noteworthy competitors include the affordable Samsung Galaxy Tab S7 FE and the 10.2-inch Apple iPad (2021).

Should you buy it?

Onyx Boox Nova Air C

(Image credit: Namerah Saud Fatmi / Android Central)

You should buy this if...

  • You want a color e-reader that can do a lot more
  • You want access to the Google Play Store
  • You don't care about video playback
  • You are a casual artist

You shouldn't buy this if...

  • You need a professional drawing tablet
  • You want a tablet for video consumption
  • You have a constricted budget
  • You don't have the patience for slow performance

Once again, this E Ink tablet is a very confusing one to figure out. It has some unique features and performs well as a reading and writing tool. There aren't many e-readers that can do everything that the Onyx Boox Nova Air C can. However, there are far too many Android and iOS tablets that are capable of doing everything this tablet does and more, with far better execution too.

This, then, is an enthusiast's e-reader at an enthusiast's price. The actual percentage of people who are likely to buy this is so small. Too many problems make it hard to recommend to everyone. If you ask me whether I'd spend my own money on the Nova Air C, I would probably only say yes if I had the extra cash and nothing to do with it.

This e-paper tab works well enough for an art hobbyist just starting their journey in graphic design. However, as an intermediate or advanced artist, I would much rather save a little more and invest in something even more versatile and capable, like the Samsung Galaxy Tab S8 Plus or a Wacom Cintiq.

Namerah Saud Fatmi is a freelance writer for Android Central. She has a passion for all things tech & gaming and has been an honorary Goodreads librarian since 2011. When she isn't writing, she can be found chasing stray cats and dogs in the streets of Dhaka or slaying dragons in the land of Skyrim. You can reach her on Twitter @NamerahS.