low power computing

..

2021-04-09

I wrote a previous post about constructing what I called a longform computer and in other places has been called "heirloom computing." Here I am writing about an overlapping but distinct project to construct an e-Ink screen based low power and portable computer.

I'm writing in winter 2021 and there does not (yet) seem to be an easy solution for this yet. We do not seem to be much farther beyond this 2013 post about constructing a Kindleberry Pi.

Kindleberry Pi

In fact, that screen looks better than most of what I see today.

Back in 2013 I purchased a used e-ink Barnes and Noble Nook Simple Touch for something like $40, rooted it and installed Android. There was a little bit of hacking around involved, mostly in the install process, but afterwards I was able to browse the web, use a terminal, continue to read e-books, use a ReadItLater article saving app. I think I even tried out watching videos (yes, does not really work at all usable on e-Ink but I tried!). How strange that since that time there have been so few improvements and there are a slim number of out of the box android e-ink devices that I know of.

Rooting my Nook Simple Touch with e-Ink screen in 2013 required a micro-SD card with the Android OS I believe and at some point I lost it! In 2021 there is no longer documentation, up to date software and a straightforward or even intermediate way to root and load a micro-SD card card that will boot this way on the Nook any more. So we've regressed!

One thing I will say is that due to the low power requirements of the Nook simple touch, this is a longform computing device! It's somewhat robust. It can stand being uncharged/dead for months/years and then when I plug it back in and charge it starts up with no problem. So it's still useful as an e-reader as long as I use a micro-sd card to pull articles and e-pub files off another computer and then plug that into the Nook. The device is 8 years old and still works the same as when I bought it. In that sense, it's great! 8 years is not ancient, but it's certainly quite old compared to the lifecycle of many laptops and phones these days.

Doing a simple search on Amazon (which I won't order from) does turn up a small handful of Android e-ink tablets. I see maybe 3 or so. There is the Likebook P6 E-Reader (6 inches) currently listed on A as $150.

And there is this article on Gizmodo from 2020 about the Onyx Boox Nova 2, about $350 on A. Can my small wired atreus mechanical keyboard work with this?

Android e-Ink Tablet

However I really don't want to have to buy something new though! I want to re-use as much as possible. I rarely buy electronic devices anymore. I'm still using a 5 year old iphone that I keep working for 5 years, which will get increasingly difficult as old screens or parts will probably become harder to source.

As far as I'm aware there is no out-of-the-box way to plug a Raspberry Pi into an e-ink screen either and just start using it normally like a (Linux) computer!

The small Adafruit e-ink displays require using a fairly primitive Python library to draw graphics and text to the screen. You can't just fire up a regular image viewer, text browser, e-book reader, etc yet. It seems like new software will have to be written for that format, and since these display sizes vary, some accounting for the various sizes may be necessary. At best, I might be able to mockup some simple reader application that is a wrapper around text files like gemini gmi files, text txt, epub, html. But that is a far cry from just a simple screen software that works 'out of the box.'

I'd love to also be able to charge this either a tablet computer or Pi computer with e-ink screen with a small solar charger. Will have to run some tests. Would be great to package up the computer, charger and keyboard into a portable cyberdeck of sorts.

I'll post again possibly if I do get one of those Book things used or if I figure out how to root the nook. It's been on my mind for years and I keep feel like it's getting closer but that day never comes for me! Perhaps soon my dream of a solar e-ink cyberdeck (with removable tablet mode) will come to fruition!