Kindle, EPUB, And Amazon’s Love Of Reinventing Wheels

Last last month, a post from the relatively obscure Good e-Reader claimed that Amazon would finally allow the Kindle to read EPUB files. The story was picked up by all the major tech sites, and for a time, there was much rejoicing. After all, it was a feature that owners have been asking for since the Kindle was first released in 2007. But rather than supporting the open eBook format, Amazon had always insisted in coming up with their own proprietary formats to use on their readers. Accordingly, many users have turned to third party programs which can reliably convert their personal libraries over to whatever Amazon format their particular Kindle is most compatible with.

Native support for EPUB would make using the Kindle a lot less of a hassle for many folks, but alas, it was not to be. It wasn’t long before the original post was updated to clarify that Amazon had simply added support for EPUB to their Send to Kindle service. Granted this is still an improvement, as it represents a relatively low-effort way to get the open format files on your personal device; but in sending the files through the service they would be converted to Amazon’s KF8/AZW3 format, the result of which may not always be what you expected. At the same time the Send to Kindle documentation noted that support for AZW and MOBI files would be removed later on this year, as the older formats weren’t compatible with all the features of the latest Kindle models.

If you think this is a lot of unnecessary confusion just to get plain-text files to display on the world’s most popular ereader, you aren’t alone. Users shouldn’t have to wade through an alphabet soup of oddball file formats when there’s already an accepted industry standard in EPUB. But given that it’s the reality when using one of Amazon’s readers, this seems a good a time as any for a brief rundown of the different ebook formats, and a look at how we got into this mess in the first place.

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Review: Inkplate 6PLUS

While the price of electronic paper has dropped considerably over the last few years, it’s still relatively expensive when compared to more traditional display technology. Accordingly, we’ve seen a lot of interest in recovering the e-paper displays used in electronic shelf labels and consumer e-readers from the likes of Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo. Unfortunately, while these devices can usually be purchased cheaply on the second hand market, liberating their displays is often too complex a task for the average tinkerer.

Enter the Inkplate. With their open hardware ESP32 development board that plugs into the e-paper displays salvaged from old e-readers, the team at e-radionica is able to turn what was essentially electronic waste into a WiFi-enabled multipurpose display that can be easily programmed using either the Arduino IDE or MicroPython. The $99 Inkplate 6 clearly struck a chord with the maker community, rocketing to 926% of its funding goal on Crowd Supply back in 2020. A year later e-radionica released the larger and more refined Inkplate 10, which managed to break 1,000% of its goal.

For 2021, the team is back with the Inkplate 6PLUS. This updated version of the original Inkplate incorporates the design additions from the Inkplate 10, such as the Real-Time-Clock, expanded GPIO, and USB-C port, and uses a display recycled from newer readers such as the Kindle Paperwhite. These e-paper panels are not only sharper and faster than their predecessors, but also feature touch support and LED front lighting; capabilities which e-radionica has taken full advantage of in the latest version of their software library.

With its Crowd Supply campaign recently crossing over the 100% mark, we got a chance to go hands-on with a prototype of the Inkplate 6PLUS to see how e-radionica’s latest hacker friendly e-paper development platform holds up.

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ESP32 Inkplate Gives Kindle Displays A Second Chance

Over the years, we’ve seen plenty of hackers repurpose their Kindle or similar e-reader to reap the benefits of its electronic paper display. Usually this takes the form of some software running on the reader itself, since cracking the firmware is a lot easier than pulling out the panel and figuring out how to operate it independently. But what if somebody had already done that hard work for you?

Enter the Inkplate. By pairing a recycled Kindle display with an ESP32, Croatian electronics company e-radionica says they’ve not only created an open hardware e-paper display that’s easy for hackers and makers to use, but keeps electronic waste out of the landfill. Last year the $99 USD 6 inch version of the Inkplate ended its CrowdSupply campaign at over 920% of its original goal. The new 9.7 inch model is priced at $129, and so far managed to blow past its own funding goal just hours after the campaign went live. Clearly, the demand is there.

The new model’s e-paper display isn’t just larger, it also features a higher 1200 x 825 resolution and reduced refresh time. Outside of the screen improvements, you’ll also find more GPIO pins, an RTC module to keep more accurate time, and a USB Type-C port for both programming and power. You also get a choice of languages to use, with both Arduino and MicroPython libraries available for interfacing with the display. Interestingly, the Inkplate also features a so-called “Peripheral Mode” that allows you to draw graphics primitives on the screen using commands sent over UART.

While we’ve recently seen some very promising efforts to repurpose old e-paper displays, the turn-key solution offered by the Inkplate is admittedly very compelling. If you’re looking for an easy way to jump on the electronic paper bandwagon that works out of the box, this might be your chance.

[Thanks to Krunoslav for the tip.]

Old Kindle Shows HDMI Video, Eventually

Even with the recent price reductions on stand-alone panels, picking up a used Kindle is still arguably the most cost effective way to get your hands on a large electronic paper display. Especially when you consider the Kindle includes a battery, case, and electronics to drive the display. Bending the Kindle software to your whims introduces its own unique challenges of course, but with a little tweaking, an old e-reader can live again as whatever you wish it to be.

Case in point, the OkMonitor project by [Brendan Sleight]. Using a somewhat dizzying combination of software and hardware, he’s figured out a way to turn an older Kindle Paperwhite into a plug-and-play HDMI monitor. Is it a great monitor? Far from it. As the name implies, the best you can hope to get from this solution is an OK monitor. But at least it’s something.

There’s quite a bit going on behind the scenes in OkMonitor, which [Brendan] describes through a slideshow on the project page. But the high-level idea is that a Raspberry Pi 4 with a simple USB HDMI capture device takes the video input and converts it on the fly to a scaled down Kindle-friendly format. The converted video is streamed over WiFi to the jailbroken Kindle with netcat, where it’s displayed by a native video player. In the video after the break you can see that the end result looks pretty impressive, even if there is a considerable delay involved.

Despite the demonstration [Brendan] has put together for OkMonitor, we can’t say we’d watch many films over this setup. But the fact that you can plug any HDMI device into the “base station” and have the video sent out to one or more Kindles is undeniably impressive. It’s definitely worth a close look, even if you just take some of the concepts of this project to get your own Kindle repurposing idea off the ground.

We’ve recently seen some promising progress made towards repurposing large e-paper price tags labels, but it’s hard to imagine such niche devices will ever become cheaper than second hand Kindles. With continued software development, these old e-readers are likely to remain quite popular among hackers.

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Will 2020 (Finally) Be The Year Of Electronic Paper?

These days paper is being phased out whenever possible, and while we’re still far from being a completely digital society, the last decade or two has seen a huge reduction in the amount of paper the average person deals with on a daily basis. At the very least, we seem a lot closer to a future without the printed page than we are flying cars or any of the other concepts we generally associate with the far-flung future.

That said, there’s still something undeniably appealing about reading on paper. The idea of squirting ink on a piece of thin wood might seem increasingly archaic to us, but it sure does look nice when you hold it in your hand. Which is exactly why so much effort has been put into recreating the look of printed paper in electronic form; we all love the experience of paper, but the traditional execution doesn’t align itself particularly well with modern sensibilities.

Of course electronic “eReaders”, most notably the Kindle line from Amazon, have gone a long way towards making this a reality. At least for reading books, anyway. But what about magazines, newspapers, or even the lowly notebook we keep by the bench to jot down measurements or ideas? A PDF datasheet, with graphics where the grey tones matter? Being able to carry a whole bookshelf worth of novels in your bag is incredible, but despite what science fiction has promised us since 2001: A Space Odyssey, we’re still consuming plenty of media off of dead trees.

But that might be changing soon. This year will see the release of two tablets that promise to deliver an experience much closer to reading and writing on traditional paper than anything we’ve seen previously. They certainly aren’t cheap, and it’s too early to tell how much is just hype, but these devices could end up being an important step towards the paperless future we’ve been dreaming of.

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A Page-Turner On Kindle – One Step At A Time

You don’t have to be an avid bookworm to find use for an e-book reader. Take your local wedding band for example: with a big repertoire of songs to cover, you don’t really want to drag huge folders full of chords and lyrics around, tediously browsing through them to find the correct one for every new song. Even the biggest tree corpse enthusiast cannot deny the comfort of an e-book reader here. And since turning the page boils down to simply changing the content on a display, you don’t necessarily need to use your hands for that either. With that in mind, [mosivers] built a WiFi foot switch for his musician brother’s Kindle to flip backwards and forwards through the pages.

After jailbreaking the Kindle and installing busybox, [mosivers] set up a web server to serve two CGI scripts that write the previously recorded input events for forward and backward flipping respectively to /dev/input/event0, essentially simulating a touch screen press that way. The foot switch, as counterpart, houses a battery-powered ESP8266, acting as access point for the Kindle to connect to, and requesting those page flipping CGI scripts whenever one of its two buttons is pressed.

If you don’t like the idea of jailbreaking your device in order to change the pages without using your hands, you could of course consider combining a more mechanical solution with the foot switch concept. And in case you want to see more of [mosivers], have a look at his DIY talk box project we’ve covered earlier.

A Remotely Controlled Kindle Page Turner

One of the biggest advantages of e-readers such as the Kindle is the fact that it doesn’t weigh as much as a traditional hardcover book, much less the thousands of books it can hold in digital form. Which is especially nice if you drop the thing on your face while reading in bed. But as light and easy to use as the Kindle is, you still need to hold it in your hands and interact with it like some kind of a baby’s toy.

Looking for a way to operate the Kindle without having to go through the exhaustive effort of raising their hand, [Alex Mikes] designed and built a clip-on device that makes using Amazon’s e-reader even easier. At the press of a button, the device knocks on the edge of the screen which advances the book to the next page. Going back a page will still require you to extend your meaty digit, but that’s your own fault for standing in the way of progress.

The 3D printed case holds an Arduino and RF receiver, as well as a small servo to power the karate-chop action. There’s no battery inside, meaning the device needs to stay plugged in via a micro USB connection on the back of the case. But let’s be honest: if you’re the kind of person who has a remote-controlled Kindle, you probably aren’t leaving the house anytime soon.

To fool the Kindle into thinking a human finger is tapping the screen, the page turner’s arm has a stylus tip on the end. A channel is designed into the 3D printed arm for a wire to run from the tip to the Arduino’s ground, which triggers the capacitive screen to register a touch.

All joking aside, the idea holds promise as an assistive technology for individuals who are unable to lift an e-reader or operate its touch screen controls. With the Kindle held up in a mount, and this device clipped onto the side, anyone who can push a button (or trigger the device in whatever method they are physically capable) can read a book on their own. A simple pleasure that can come as a huge comfort to a person who may usually be dependent on others.

In the past we’ve seen physical buttons printed for touch screens, and an Arduino used to control a touch screen device. But this particular combination of physical and electrical interaction is certainly a unique way to tackle the problem without modifying the target device.