I’ve long been struggling to describe why e-ink is so much fun for me, but I think I’ve finally realized what it is: e-ink is just so so so retropunk.
An e-ink device is a hacker’s dream - or at least, this hacker’s dream. They
are a return to the magical feeling of computers of the 80s and 90s. It’s a
Microsoft Windows and Apple Mac OS X never existed and we
don’t have to suffer with abstractions on top of abstractions. It’s DOS for
the 2020s. It’s graphing calculators for grown-ups.
The e-ink devices I favor are low powered ARM devices running linux without a display server or gigabytes of RAM. Let’s break down why that’s so awesome:
- e-ink: The display is visible in the light of day :-D
- Low Powered: They can last for weeks on a single charge
- ARM is a simple architecture with a low instruction count and even lower cost
- Linux: as much as I like it, Android is a complicated mess
- Apps are simple: they talk to the kernel to read input and draw directly to the framebuffer
- Low RAM and slow CPUs: There’s no room to build complicated stacks of software, which means no window managers, no browsers and definitely no electron apps
As similar as they are to the computers of the early 90s, they are different in some tangible ways:
- The resolution is much higher than an old computer - The PPI is between 200 - 300
- All devices supports touch events, some even support a pen stylus
- They are super portable, weighing between 200 - 400 grams, with displays ranging from 6” to 10”
Since the devices are niche, the software ecosystem is way more homebrew (as in the Homebrew Computing Club): people write and share their apps and the community is tight knit. The people who use eink devices are enthusiasts: they’ve given up the joys of color displays to work on these under-powered devices that are devoid of app stores, tracking pixels, pay to play features and constant distractions. There’s no email on these devices, there’s no chat or social networks, there’s only simple applications.
Don’t be fooled though: the device constraints lead to interesting and quirky software. In the reMarkable eco-system, there’s dozens of applications, including:
- multi-tasking application launchers like oxide and remux
- terminal emulators
- an interactive fiction interpreter
- an experimental editor & shell that you can write into
- a procedural drawing app with layers
- alternative ebook readers like koreader and plato
- a simple app script for building applications that follows the unix philosphy
- a chess board
- even a port of doom
- and so much more - like much, much, more
- InkBox - an alternative OS with many built in applications
- KoReader - koreader is supported on almost all eink platforms, no surprise it works on Kobo
- NickelMenu - an augment to the Kobo’s UI system that adds many features
Since eink is currently niche, it also means green fields: there are lots of opportunities to write applications that fills out the ecosystem. In short, a hacker’s playground.
How to get started
The toltec repository is a good place to get started
- one of the maintainers, Eeems, has written a great tutorial. Another good start is the awesome reMarkable repo.
The main piece of software to get started hacking is KoboStuff from NiLuJE which includes a tarball for getting SSH up and running instead of having to use telnet.
devmodeon to be able to telnet in,then turn on SSH. It looks complex, but it isn’t so bad
These devices are not all rosy fun times, though:
the rM2 uses a proprietary display driver (SWTCON) that’s hosted within their UI (Xochitl). In order for applications to work on the rM2, a shim was built that lets us repurpose the driver within Xochitl. Unfortunately, the shim needs to be updated for every release to give it the correct binary addresses to hook. There’s an alternative display driver that is in development.
the rM1 is preferable to the rM2 for that reason, but the rM1 battery life is not as good! It seems they didn’t connect the peripherals (wacom display) to regulators, so the device only gets a few days of idle battery life.
the Kobo does not have strong package management: to install software, typically a KoboRoot.tgz is provided and that gets unpacked after the next reboot. To uninstall software: you better hope the dev supplied instructions or an uninstall script ;)
Why write a post now?
Several years ago, I started hacking on e-ink devices and had an enormous amount of fun writing applications and seeing what others have built. Unfortunately, I’ve had several false starts with writing about e-ink: whether it was about what I’ve actually done, or the lessons learned along the way or even a set of things to consider when developing e-ink apps, the posts would lay half finished because they just never felt compelling - my enthusiasm for e-ink just wasn’t coming through.
Instead of trying to push any of those posts to completion, I’ve decided to try to articulate what is so cool about e-ink to me.
Appendix: Hacker unfriendly devices
The Kindle requires a jailbreak to use and is running a modified version of Android OS (Kindle Fire). Newer FW versions may be JB resistant. The Kindle Scribe is still secured, though. For this reason, I don’t particularly recommend the Kindle devices.
In every eink thread that comes up, the Onyx is brought up as not following the GPL: they use a modified linux kernel and haven’t published the source for it.
The Pine Note is cool and open, but its software is still in development. Use only if you are willing to take on an early product aimed at early adopters and developers - In other words, maybe the Pine Note is too hacker friendly.
Appendix: Responses to HN Comments
Can you brick your RM2 by playing with this? I’m interested, but the device was a bit pricey for potentially destructive fooling around.
sort of - you can soft brick it and cause the screen to not display something, but you will still have SSH and can undo that. If you lose SSH, you can always recover but it’s more work. I understand this is scary, but I’ve never bricked myself because I have my SSH keys installed.
when you’re spending multiple hundreds of dollars for a new part, I don’t consider that the hacker realm.
you can find rM1 for under $200 on ebay, a kobo clara is under $100, but regardless: hacking is orthogonal to price. i understand the concern, though
Retro? Sure. Punk? Not when the patents are tightly held by a greedy patent troll who seems to do everything in their power to stop hobbyists and hackers
a lot of comments are talking about what retro and punk mean and whether they are applicable. i like the back and forth going on. the thought i had in mind when i called it retropunk is: what if there was an alternative path that was taken for computing from the 80s to today?