Hackaday has been online in some form or another since 2004, which for the Internet, makes us pretty damn old. But while that makes us one of the oldest surviving web resources for hacker types, we’ve got nothing on 2600 — they’ve been publishing their quarterly zine since 1984.
While the physical magazine can still be found on store shelves, the iconic publication expanded into digital distribution some time ago, thanks largely to the Kindle’s Newsstand service. Unfortunately, that meant Amazon’s recent decision to shutter Newsstand threatened to deprive 2600 of a sizable chunk of their income. So what would any group of hackers do? They took matters into their own hands and spun-up their own digital distribution system.
As of today you’re able to subscribe to the digital version of 2600 in DRM-free PDF or EPUB formats, directly from the magazine’s official website. Which one you pick largely depends on how you want to read it: those looking for the highest fidelity experience should go with PDF, as it features an identical layout to the physical magazine, while those who are more concerned with how the content looks on their reader of choice would perhaps be better served by the flexibility of EPUB. After signing up you can download the current Summer issue immediately, with future issues hitting your inbox automatically. Load it onto your home-built Open Book, and you can really stick it to the establishment.
While the ending of this story seems to be a happy one, we can’t help but see it as a cautionary tale. How many other magazines would have the means and experience to offer up their own digital subscriptions? Or for that matter, how many could boast readers savvy enough to utilize it? The reality is many publications will be injured by Amazon’s decision, some mortally so. That’s a lot of power to be put into the hands of just one company, no matter how quick the shipping is.
While we tend to think of Amazon’s e-paper Kindles as more or less single-purpose devices (which to be fair, is how they’re advertised), there’s actually a full-featured Linux computer running behind that simple interface, just waiting to be put to work. Given how cheap you can get old Kindles on the second hand market, this has always struck us as something of a wasted opportunity.
This is why we love to see projects like Kindlefusion from [Diggedypomme]. It turns the Kindle into a picture frame to show off the latest in machine learning art thanks to Stable Diffusion. Just connect your browser to the web-based control interface running on the Kindle, give it a prompt, and away it goes. There are also functions to recall previously generated images, and if you’re connecting from a mobile device, support for creating images from voice prompts.
All you need is a Kindle that can be jailbroken, though technically the software has only been tested against older third and fourth-generation hardware. From there you install a few required packages as listed in the project documentation, including Python 3. Then you just move the Kindlefusion package over either via USB or SSH, and do a little final housekeeping before starting it up and letting it take over the Kindle’s normal UI.
Given the somewhat niche nature of Kindle hacking, we’re particularly glad to see that [Diggedypomme] went through the trouble of explaining the nuances of getting the e-reader ready to run your own code. While it’s not difficult to do, there are plenty of pitfalls if you’ve never done it before, so a concise guide is a nice thing to have. Unfortunately, it seems like Amazon has recently gone on the offensive, with firmware updates blocking the exploits the community was using for jailbreaking on all but the older models that are no longer officially supported.
While it’s a shame you can’t just pick up a new Kindle and start hacking (at least, for now), there are still millions of older devices floating around that could be put to good use. Hopefully, projects like this can help inspire others to pick one up and start experimenting with what’s possible.
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 Kindledocumentation 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.