E-ink phone

Wednesday, Jun 1, 2022
#hardware Picture of my Hisense A5 in it's box

It’s finally arrived! I thought I’d write a little bit a about my new phone as it’s quite rare in the English speaking world. It’s the Hisense A5 Pro CC. This phone and it’s larger cousin, the A7, are the only two color E-ink phones in the world and are among a very short list of E-ink phones in general.

I was in love E-ink the moment I saw it but, funnily enough I’ve only owned a single other e-ink device. It was a first generation Kobo touch, a sort of kindle knockoff and I used it up until a few months ago when unfortunately it broke in a fall. So I’m not really qualified to talk all about how this phone compares to the few other e-ink phones or even any other e-ink devices. I’ll compare it against my LG v20 and my Pinephone to a lesser extent, but mostly I’ll talk about what it’s like actually using an e-ink phone every day.

Hardware

When people talk about e-ink it’s typically in comparison to either physical paper or LCD based tablets/phones. In many instances, though not all, I prefer e-ink. Compared to an LCD it is far more comfortable to read on, looks bright out in the midday sun, and perhaps most notably is several times more power efficient as the display only consumes battery while updating the screen. There are of course trade-offs for this. The refresh rate is slower, ghosting is more common, and even color e-ink is still only 4096 different colors compared to the standard 16.7 million on a cheap LCD.

Refresh Rate

The A5 allows you to quickly adjust the refresh rate, per app. There are four modes: “Clear”, “Balanced”, “Smooth”, and “Speed”. Clear mode is clean and without any ghosting, this mode works great for reading books, but is to slow for many normal phone tasks. The middle two modes are similar one being a bit more crisp and the other being a bit faster. I use one of these two modes for the majority of my apps (email, clock, web, notes, calculator, etc).

The final mode, “Speed” reasonably feels fast; maybe around 20 “FPS” very subjectively. It’s plenty fast enough to use maps for navigation, and you can play videos to some extent although you don’t buy an e-ink phone for it’s video watching capabilities. In general it’s a bit hard to measure e-ink devices in “FPS”. Most of the time only a small portion of your screen needs updated. The smaller the area the faster it happens. The actual speed of doing a full frame update is fairly slow, but uncommon enough that it isn’t an issue for me.

Color

In my opinion the colors looks very good on this device. They’re slightly soft and muted and the display driver will actually use some light dithering which makes it appear to have more colors. It has a really cool aesthetic to it.

Viewing a green watercolor image

As for how it compares to paper? Well I can message my friends with it, I can read blog posts on the bus, check the weather, and many other things that would require carrying quite a bit of paper with me at all times. If I decide to go out on a hike, I can stop to relax and read whatever book I’d like. If I had to carry a physical book with me instead: I would probably leave it at home as it wouldn’t fit in my pocket and I don’t want to carry it if I might not read it. Both the 128Gb and 64Gb models can hold more books than you could read in your lifetime.

I debated for a while about getting the color or non-color version of this phone. First of all the color one is more expensive, but the bigger concern is that it has lower overall contrast. The whitest a background can get is not as white as traditional e-ink or a physical sheet of paper. It’s closer to the look of a newspaper.

A5 reading the book 'Busy Doing Nothing' by 100 Rabbits

In reality it doesn’t really bother me. The contrast is still quite good and the colors are lovely, and notably less attention grabbing than on an LCD.

Software

An e-ink device would be a bit painful to use on stock android with its bright colors and slow animations. The majority of the apps that came on this phone are similar to stock android, but have been adjusted to remove needless animations and given a more minimalistic design. They’re not bloated or slow as you might be used to with Samsung and friends. Normally, the very first thing I do with any new phone is enable developer mode and then remove all the stock apps to replace them with simpler cleaner versions. This phone came with developer mode unlocked, a toggle to enable root access, and other than a few Chinese specific apps I’ve kept the stock ones. Here’s the clock app for example:

Clock app on the A5

It came with preset timers for “Instant Noodles”, “Apply Mask”, “Siesta”, “Boil Egg”, and “Tea” which was the same 3 minutes as “Instant Noodles”. This phone is designed and marketed for the internal Chinese market only. You can get your hands on one via third party sellers on Aliexpress and the UI is even translated as shown. There’s a number of small silly mistranslations.

Play Store

You cannot install the Google Play store on this phone. I haven’t used I phone with Google Play installed in nearly 5 years, so this was no change for me personally, but may be a deal breaker for some people. I install most of my apps from Fdroid which is an alternative app store that strictly open source apps. It has just about everything I need. Perhaps in the future I’ll put together a list of all the apps I use.

If you really need play store apps there is a way… On Fdroid there’s an app called AuroraStore which allows you to search and install most play store apps. I use this for the lichess app (which for some reason still isn’t on Fdroid…) and my bank’s app.