Journey to Digital Minimalism: An Exploration of E-Paper Phones

For the past few years, I have been pursuing a healthier relationship with technology, one which allows me to work in IT, while also reducing my usage and dependency on technology.

I started by deleting any apps and accounts I knew I could live without. I bid farewell to my Clash of Clans account, and reduced my social platforms down to just a few direct messaging services. My inbox stopped receiving so much junk, and my phone became boring but practical. This took a bit of getting used to at first, but I soon realised I no longer felt the incessant pull to constantly check in on my phone, and I welcomed the truly refreshing sense of liberation and clarity which it brought.

Having gone from at least 4 hours of daily phone usage to under half an hour on most days, I found myself enjoying my downtime disconnected from the online realm. But during the times I was connected, I was still looking to improve the way I interact with technology.

I began to find myself allured to the qualities of e-paper displays. Their paper-like appearance, easiness on the eyes, and impressive battery life seemed like the perfect way for me to strike a balance between staying connected and prioritising my well-being. As someone who enjoys reading, I decided an eReader would be a great way to get started with the technology, so I bought a Kobo and found myself incredibly pleased with the device.

With my eReader, I expanded beyond reading just eBooks. By utilising Calibre and KOReader, I was reading blogs and articles, documentation, RSS feeds, and anything which would have required me to stare at an LED display for extended periods of time. This allowed me to engage with digital content without subjecting myself to the potential pitfalls of traditional screens.

As someone who no longer felt a strong need for a smartphone, I found myself interested in feature phones, often referred to as “dumbphones,” thanks to the insights of Jose Briones, a writer and digital minimalist who explores minimalist phone options. One device that caught my attention was the Light Phone 2, a credit card-sized phone with an e-paper screen, designed to be used as little as possible. However, upon further investigation, I discovered a significant drawback: the inability to replace the battery without irreversibly damaging the phone. This limitation was disappointing, especially considering the reports of many long term users who are unable to rely on the phone for a full day without recharging.

Eventually I stumbled upon the Mudita Pure, a crowdfunded modern minimalist phone featuring a numeric keypad and an e-paper display. With its open-source operating system and focus on essential functions, coupled with a user-replaceable battery, I was filled with hope and anticipation for this project. However, despite the promising features, my experience with the Mudita Pure proved to be underwhelming.

Mudita Pure

Following numerous delays, I finally received the phone, eager to put it to use. The phone had a great feel and held much promise. Unfortunately, the software lacked the polish I had anticipated. The included applications were often buggy and lacking in features. The low Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) antenna, which was intended to reduce radiation exposure, came at the expense of a reliable cellular connection. I found myself frequently struggling with poor call quality, dropped calls and poor reception, significantly hindering the phone’s effectiveness as a communication device.

Furthermore, the absence of T9 predictive text, a widely used feature on traditional phones with numeric keypads, proved to be a major drawback. Typing messages and composing texts became a frustrating and time-consuming task, which was disappointing considering the phone’s focus on simplicity and ease of use. After about a month as my primary phone, I decided to put it aside until improvements to the software had been made.

Despite my disappointing experience with the Mudita Pure, my fascination with e-paper phones persisted. I soon discovered that Hisense manufactured Android-based phones equipped with fast-refreshing e-paper displays, and my curiosity was piqued. The prospect of combining the benefits of e-paper technology with the versatility of an Android operating system seemed promising and had the potential to address some of the shortcomings I had encountered before. With optimism and anticipation built within me, I ordered the Hisense A9 in hopes that it would finally provide the seamless and satisfying user experience I had been searching for.

Hisense A9

The Hisense A9 with its fast-refreshing e-paper display proved to be the closest option to what I had envisioned, although it was not without its flaws. Immediately upon receiving the device, I dedicated myself to removing the excessive bloatware and potential spyware that came pre-installed. Taking control of my privacy and security was a top priority.

Armed with tools like ClassyShark and the Android Developer Bridge, I meticulously reviewed each application, identifying and uninstalling those that contained invasive trackers or served no essential purpose on the phone. This process allowed me to curate a more personalised device that better aligned with my values and needs.

Additionally, I took advantage of alternative app stores like F-Droid and the Aurora Store to access and download applications that were more in line with my preferences. With time and effort, I managed to curate a decent collection of apps that served my essential needs and enhanced my overall smartphone experience. However, the lack of Google Play Services added further difficulties in receiving notifications reliably.

While the Hisense A9 came closest to fulfilling my vision of an e-paper phone, it was still not perfect. The ongoing need for manual intervention to optimise the device and ensure a privacy-focused environment reminded me that a truly “healthy” phone, one that seamlessly combines e-paper technology with a user-friendly interface and privacy-conscious software, is still elusive.

Despite its imperfections, the Hisense A9 with its fast-refreshing e-paper display represented a step in the right direction. It demonstrated that there is potential for e-paper phones to meet the needs of individuals seeking a more balanced and mindful smartphone experience. It is my hope that manufacturers will continue to refine these devices, addressing the limitations and incorporating user feedback to create smartphones that truly embody the principles of privacy, functionality, and well-being.