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The Popslate 2 Is an E-Ink iPhone Case That May Actually Make Sense

A little over three years ago, the Popslate presented an intriguing idea: What if a case could turn the back of your phone into an E Ink display? Like a lot of first-generation, crowdsourced products, the original didn’t quite live up to the promise. Popslate 2, though, looks like a very promising course correction.

The original Popslate, which finally materialized last spring, worked as advertised. Its limitations, though, made it difficult to justify as an everyday case. It charged with a different cable than the iPhone 6 it was designed to fit, and at launch only displayed still images pushed from an app on the front of the phone. It eventually used IFTTT to prompt screen updates without manual intervention, but even that required a little bit more digital elbow grease—and a little less functionality—than might justify the added bulk and expense.

Popslate 2 doesn’t just promise to address these issues; it actively adds plenty of functionality as well. It’s an evolution, not merely refinement.

To start, Popslate 2 not only ditched microUSB for the Apple-preferred Lightning cable, the case itself provides a backup battery that can add up to nine hours of talk time (or four hours of browsing) to your iPhone. It manages to do so while still reducing the thickness versus the original Popslate by nearly half. The display itself has improved, as well. Still “shatterproof,” it’s now 200 dpi versus the previous version’s 115, and has a pleasant-looking curve to it.

There’s also an easy way to navigate the latest Popslate on the display itself. Three capacitive touch buttons at the bottom of the display let you switch between apps and scroll through content.

More important than the hardware upgrades, though, are the software smarts Popslate has added. Rather than lean on static images and clumsy IFTTT integration, Popslate now pulls directly from a handful of useful apps to maintain a dynamic display. You still need to download and use the Popslate app to customize your black-and-white rear display, but your options have expanded.

“We are leveraging sources with APIs and pulling that content straight into the Popslate app,” says co-founder Greg Moon. “Planned integrations for launch are: NYT, Twitter, Accuweather, and Google Calendar. We are also putting together partnerships around sports and stocks, which likely will also be part of the launch.”

Moon says the company determined what apps and areas to focus on based on people’s IFTTT usage on the original Popslate. In addition to the news, weather, and social functions it has already has—and the sports and stocks to come—you can expect to see wearable and IoT data apps at some point as well. Popslate 2 also comes with a Wallet function that lets you display items with bar or QR codes, like boarding passes or concert tickets.

That’s not to say everything is perfect. While the ideal app might seem to be Kindle—reading E Ink beats reading on an LCD display any day—you won’t find Amazon’s e-reading software here. You can use Popslate 2 as an e-reader, but currently only through Project Gutenberg, a free e-book resource whose catalog features mostly public domain classics. While Moon wouldn’t confirm if there were plans for Kindle down the road, he’s confident that the e-book selection will expand.

“We are also in discussions with additional e-book providers,” says Moon. “Unfortunately we can’t disclose the parties at present for confidentiality purposes. As a result, our e-book sources and supported formats (including EPUB) will expand substantially after launch.”

The “after launch” part is the other small cause for concern. Like its forebear, Popslate 2 is a crowdfunded project. But while it’s generally healthy to be skeptical of Indiegogo concepts, the fact that the Popslate team has already delivered once offers at least some confidence in the second generation. It’s expected to ship this July, at a cost of $149 (or $69 for early backers).

A second E Ink display isn’t a new idea; a company called Yotaphone has even built one into the handset itself. But if Popslate 2 delivers the improvements it’s promising, it will have made a pretty good product pretty great.

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