The InkCase Plus is an E Ink display that you can pair with your smartphone and slap into the cover of a smartphone case.
It lets you view pictures or read eBooks without turning your phone’s screen on. This can help save battery life and make it easier to view some content in direct sunlight or other bright environments.
First unveiled through a Kickstarter campaign last year, early units have gone out to backers of the campaign. Now you can purchase an InkCase Plus for $80 from Oaxis, but adding a smartphone case will bring the price up to at least $90.
It’s also available from Gearbest with a case for $95.
The folks at FirstGrabber (who were taking pre-orders for the InkCase Plus in late 2014) sent me a demo unit to review recently. They also included a custom fit case for my Nexus 5 smartphone, although I haven’t found a place where you can currently by that particular case.
Update: Gearbest offers cases for a handful of phones including the Google Nexus 5, LG G3, HTC One M8, Samsung Galaxy S4, and a few tohers.
There’s also a one-size-doesn’t really-fit-all case.
The Nexus 5 case is pretty barebones, but it works. It protects the back and sides of my phone (although not the top or bottom), and includes cut-outs for the power and volume keys. The E Ink display fits into a space on the flip-cover that protects my phone’s screen.
The display itself is an interesting little piece of hardware. It’s a 3.5 inch, 360 x 600 pixel grayscale E Ink display with a power/function button and back and forward keys below the screen. You can use it to view pictures or read eBooks, and the buttons let you change pages or images.
But that’s just about all you can do at this point.
There’s a free InkCase Companion app in the Google Play Store. You can use it to pair your phone with the InkCase Plus and download third-party apps that work with the screen. but there are currently only four apps: InkCase Photo, InkCase Sports, and two eReader apps (one of which is in Chinese).
The InkCase Photo app works pretty well. Fire it up and you can snap a picture with your camera or choose photos from your gallery, resize them to fit on the E Ink screen, and send them to the display.
You can use that to send any photo to the display and use it as a sort of custom cover for your case. But you could also snap a screenshot of anything on your phone and send it to the display. That could include maps, directions, phone numbers, or other notes.
That way you’re able to see important information without unlocking your phone or turning on the screen.
The EpiReader app is a basic eBook reader which you can use to download, manage, and read digital books. What makes it special is the Send to InkCase button which lets you use the InkCase Plus to read, even when your phone’s screen is off.
Just use the arrow buttons on the InkCase Plus to change pages and your reading progress is synchronized with the app on your phone. In fact, if you leave the page turn sound enabled, you’ll hear pages turning while you’re reading even if the screen is off.
InkCase Sports can use your phone’s hardware to track walking, cycling, and other activities while displaying your progress on the screen — although it did a mediocre job at actually tracking my distance while walking.
And that’s it.
You can’t use the InkCase Plus with the Amazon Kindle, B&N NOOK, or Kobo eReader apps. You can’t surf the web, play games, or answer phone calls using the E Ink screen.
As of January, 2015, there are a grand total of 4 apps that work with the InkCase Plus display. If you get creative with use of screenshots at the InkCase Photo app, and if you read eBooks that are available in the eBook apps, you may be able to get your money’s worth out of this $80 – $90 display/case combo.
But it’s the sort of device that’s mostly about potential. If more apps are developed for the InkCase screen and if more custom fit cases become available for a wider range of smartphones, this device could grow more and more useful over time.
Right now it’s kind of a novelty. But it’s a nifty little novelty that’s not ridiculously expensive… until you realize that you could just buy a Kindle eReader for $79, which is about the same price as the InkCase Plus.
That’s the same price as an InkCase Plus. But just like the best camera is the one you have with you most of the time (your smartphone camera), maybe the best eReader is also the one that you carry in your pocket. It’d just be nice if it didn’t require using a third-party eReader apps like EpiReader.
If you’re looking for a more capable device, the Yotaphone 2 is a dual-screen smartphone with built-in color and E Ink displays. You can use a mirror function to interact with any Android app on the E Ink display. But the Yotaphone 2 is expected to be a relatively expensive smartphone when it launches in the US later this year.
Update: After using the InkCase Plus a little longer, I have a few more things to add. First, don’t expect spectacular battery life savings: while you can use the E Ink display for a few functions without turning on your phone’s screen, it does use Bluetooth to ePaper display connected to your device.
On the plus side, the more time I spent glancing down at the phone and seeing a picture of my kitty, the more I’m enamored of the idea of a custom wallpaper that’s always visible, even when your phone’s display is off.