We’ve been keeping a close eye on the development of electronic paper tablets such as the reMarkable for a while now. These large-format devices would be a great way to view schematics and datasheets, and with the right software, could easily become an invaluable digital sidekick. Unfortunately, a troubling discovery made in a beta version of the reMarkable firmware is a strong indication the $400 USD device may be heading down a path that many in this community wouldn’t feel comfortable with.
While trying to get a reMarkable tablet running firmware version 126.96.36.1995 synced up to self-hosted server using rmfakecloud, Reddit user [dobum] was presented with a very unusual prompt. The tablet displayed several subscription levels, as well as brief description of what each one unlocked. It explained that standard users would get “basic functions only”, while the highest tier subscription would unlock an “expanding universe of powerful tools” for the e-paper tablet. In addition, only recently used documents would be synced with the cloud unless you had a paid subscription.
If you’re looking to rid your day to day life of dead trees, there’s a good chance you’ve already heard of the reMarkable tablet. The sleek device aims to replace the traditional notebook. To that end, remarkable was designed to mimic the feeling of writing on actual paper as closely as possible. But like so many modern gadgets, it’s unfortunately encumbered by proprietary code with a dash of vendor lock-in. Or at least, it was.
[Davis Remmel] has been hard at work porting Parabola, a completely free and open source GNU/Linux distribution, to the reMarkable. Developers will appreciate the opportunity to audit and modify the OS, but even from an end-user perspective, Parabola greatly opens up what you can do on the device. Before you were limited to a tablet UI and a select number of applications, but with this replacement OS installed, you’ll have a full-blown Linux desktop to play with.
You still won’t be watching videos or gaming on the reMarkable (though technically, you would be able to), but you could certainly use it to read and edit documents the original OS didn’t support. You could even use it for light software development. Since USB serial adapters are supported, microcontroller work isn’t out of the question either. All while reaping the considerable benefits of electronic paper.
The only downside is that the WiFi hardware is not currently supported as it requires proprietary firmware to operate. No word on whether or not [Davis] is willing to make some concession there for users who aren’t quite so strict about their software freedoms.
ePaper is an interesting thing, providing a non-backlit viewing experience that is much more akin to reading a book than staring at a screen. The reMarkable tablet is a device designed around just such a display, and [Davis Remmel] has been hacking away at the platform. His latest work brings full-fat Linux to the fore.
The work builds upon [Davis]’s earlier work, installing a microSD slot in the tablet to make development easier. Getting Linux running required a custom kernel, but once sorted, working with the reMarkable is easy. apt is available for easy software installs, and the tablet is demonstrated using several different pieces of software, like mtPaint and Xournal.
The golden part of all this has been getting automated partial screen refreshes working. ePaper displays take a long time to refresh the whole screen. Being able to do faster partial writes makes for a much faster interface, which is evident when some of the drawing software is demonstrated. Even Doom runs, but remains largely unplayable, sadly – the ePaper is still a long way off hitting 25 fps.
We look forward to seeing where [Davis] takes this project, and how display performance improves with newer reMarkable tablets. With the reMarkable 2 out for pre-order, there could be a step change in display speed on the horizon. We’re betting that there’s big things to come yet for ePaper – 2020 may finally be its year.
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.
There’s been a marked trend towards modern tablets and phones having fewer expansion options. It’s becoming rarer to find a microSD slot available, which can be particularly frustrating. For [davisr], this simply wouldn’t do, and they set about hacking their ReMarkable tablet.
The ReMarkable already has a set of pads for an SDHC interface on the main board, ready to go. Despite this, both hardware and software modifications are required to get things up and running. [davisr] started by soldering some wires to the main board, feeding them to a microSD socket, which was mounted on the edge of the tablet in a convenient nook. The case was then delicately modified to make a slot for cards to be inserted and removed. With this done, the kernel was then recompiled to enable support for the SDHC interface, and everything was up and running.