Boyue Likebook Muses: Review

The Boyue Likebook Muses is a 7.8” Android tablet with a Wacom-style pen and a 1404×1872 E Ink display. It has 2GB of RAM, 32GB of storage, a sufficiently speedy Freescale RK3365 8-core processor, and runs Android 6.0. While the specs are nothing to write home about, they are on par with other Android devices in this category.

The Muses is the pro model to the Likebook Mars, each playing competitor to the Boox Nova and Nova Pro. While the core specs of the devices are mostly the same, there are a few differences between the two models. The Muses adds USB-C, an additional 16GB of internal storage, the pressure sensitive pen, built-in speakers, built-in microphone, and a dedicated back button. What’s strange is Likebook removed the 3.5mm headphone jack and the microSD card, two decidedly “pro” features, from their pro model. Users who need either of those features will need to stick with the Mars or upgrade to the larger Mimas.

The main purpose of any e-reader is reading, which the Muses is unsurprisingly adept at doing. The default software can load a multitude of formats including epub, mobi, and PDF, while the screen resolution is high enough to make all the words and images sharp and clear. Page turns are sufficiently speedy and, for those seeking even more speed, you can enable “A2” mode to increase the page-turn speed while sacrificing detail. The nearly 8” screen is large enough that reading with larger fonts or seeing small details in comics is easily accomplished, but is still small enough to fit into a small bag or purse. I couldn’t personally fit it in my pocket however, so it may be too large for those wishing to travel light. The larger Mimas has a 10.3” screen which, in theory, should make it more suited to Comics or Manga, but has the same screen resolution so you aren’t sacrificing any detail by sticking with the smaller size. Most manga and comic books are physically larger than the Muses so the artwork/words will be smaller than “lifesize”… Something to keep in mind if you struggle to read smaller text. The screen is frontlit in either white or orange lights so reading in the dark is both customizable and possible. Battery life while reading is good, and the estimated 12 hours of reading time with wifi and backlight off seems easily attainable. The Muses battery is 10% larger than the competing Boox Nova Pro’s.

The hardware is well built with no creaking when holding the device. The front is white plastic which should hide skin oil and grease better than black, though it may look dirtier over time. The back plate is metal and is easy to grip. Even under heavy use the Muses never gets too warm and maxed out around 31C/88F when stress testing. There are only two buttons on the Muses, the power and back button, which leaves you touching the screen for page turns, volume changes, exiting apps, etc. Not a deal break by any means as many reading devices use touch screens for everything, but there isn’t currently a way to reassign the unlabeled back button to anything else so you are stuck with it. I find the lack of volume controls the most unusual on a device with physical speakers, but I don’t suspect many people will use them often. The speakers do get quite loud, slightly quieter than my Pixel 2 at full volume, and are definitely usable in a pinch. The microphone is so well integrated into the housing that I thought it was a manufacturing defect at first, but it does capture your voice well enough. The included pen works well and has a dedicated eraser function at the other end, but there is a side button that seeming does nothing. Not sure if it will do something in the future or just a byproduct of using a generic pen (the Boox devices appear to use the same one). There isn’t a place to store the pen inside the device (the often bundled cases does have a loop for it) so I’m sure some people will leave it at home.

Like any device there are always quirks to their operation and the Likebook Muses is no exception. The most obvious is the lack of documentation. Outside of a very simple quickstart guide in the box, there isn’t much to help you learn about what your tablet can and can’t do. Want to figure out how to change an obscure setting? Ask online. While a paper manual isn’t required, I would have expected a full guide to be included as an epub (this IS an ereader after all). A sometimes odd translation doesn’t help things, I stared at the “boot from boot” option until I hopefully surmised correctly that it means “load on boot” and not “remove from boot”, and often you need to discover how an unlabeled icon works by trial and error. I STILL haven’t figured out how to take native screenshots on the Muses even though there is an option menu for them. Further complicating the issue is the Likebook has two settings menus: one by them, the other the default Google setting menu. Many settings are listed in both places, but some settings, like Lockscreen Wallpaper, are only found in the Boyue settings. Some seemingly easy tasks like changing the wallpaper become multi-step processes (you have to manually move your images into a folder using the Files app for them to even be recognized and then it will stretch the images if the aspect ratio isn’t the same as the screen), and others just plain don’t (currently) work. The “pull-down” notification window from every other Android device is present, but it will only stay open if you press the notification bar instead of pull. Want to install Google Play Books, one of only 12 apps included in the devices app store? It does install, but then won’t run since the Muses doesn’t ship with Google services. Things like this annoy people who know how to work around them, but those who don’t may find the lack of polish disappointing or frustrating. Google Play and all Google services should be coming in a future firmware, but as of now almost nothing Google will work at all.

So what are the downsides of getting the Muses versus a traditional ereader (aka Kindle) or Android tablet? Battery life is very good when reading for an Android device, although still far short of what a Kindle will give you. Just like an Android device, though, load it up with CPU intensive tasks and you can drain the battery in 90 mins. To increase battery the system wants to shut down after as little as 30 mins of use, which thankfully you can disable, but a Kindle would remain on 24/7 by default. You can increase the battery life by limiting the number of background processes in the Developer Settings, but it’s not something every user would know about. The screen is multitouch, but only for two fingers and you can’t use the pen and your fingers at the same time. The screen is frontlit with only a little bit of light bleed at the bottom, but you can’t mix the two lighting colors like you can on other devices and, since there is no light sensor, it can be hard to enable the light if you are already in a dark location. There are two different display modes, standard and A2, and each one has its advantages. Standard produces more shades of gray and cleaner images, but refreshes slowly and can produce gradient bands. A2 limits the shades of gray in exchange for a faster refresh rate and dithers the display to produce smooth gradients, but increased ghosting and loss in detail due to dithering can reduce the quality. Luckily you can change which mode you are in with a dedicated software button in the menu bar or on an app-by-app basis in the settings, but neither is always the better option. You also have contrast controls to help dial the shades of gray, but leaving it close to the minimum seems to work best for me and there are still times when things like text on a colored background is hidden since they are both assigned the same shade. When it comes to actually reading, the default reader is great for PDFs and simple epubs, but more complex files can become unreadable. You can always install something like Moon+ Reader which handles everything fine, but this is one more step which a Kindle wouldn’t have. Kindle devices don’t currently offer pen support so notetakers and doodlers will be better suited with a Muses, but the Muses lacks the native handwriting recognition of the Boox Nova Pro and the pen makes a scratching noise until the tip is worn down. While it is technically possible for the Muses to play video, the lag from the display makes the video always behind the audio by at least half a second so a proper tablet would be better suited if you needed video. The Muses adds USB Type C, which is great for users trying to carry only one charger, but it doesn’t support USB OTG so loading files from a flashdrive isn’t possible (you can send files using the included WiFi app) and oddly it won’t even recognize all USB Fast Chargers (the included charger from my Samsung Chromebook works fine on my Pixel 2, but the Muses won’t charge at all) so you may need two chargers anyways.

So who is the Likebook Muses for and should you get one? If you are looking for a primarily reading device and are either not tied to one ebook store (Amazon, B&N, Kobo) or want to be able do a bit more with your hardware than the more unitasker approach from Amazon and Kobo, the Muses may be what you are looking for. Anyone looking at the Muses should cross-shop the Likebook Mars since that device is cheaper, the Likebook Mimas since it’s larger and includes a 3.5mm headphone jack and TF card reader, and the Onyx Boox Nova Pro which is similarly equipped and priced to the Muses but does offer handwriting recognition and better frontlight control. All are similarly capable devices and should perform most tasks identically well. But for $300, the Muses hits a nice middle point of features, portability, and price. You may want to hold off until the Google Play Store is available, but even now the Muses is a good option for users who want more out of their ebook reader and can work around its limitations.

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