e-ink writing 101

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I’m parring down my outdoor essentials for a wild idyllic summer of writing, climbing, living! in the BC Coastal mountains, my favourite mountains of the world. I may love (obsessively) my notebooks and pens (extra fine, 0.18/0.28mm!), and all of my mind mulling, brainstorming, dredging from the deep couldn’t happen without them, but, frankly, my handwriting sucks. My hands cramp up after squeezing just a page of writing through my death grip on a pen. The bulk of my composing is best typed right directly. My macbook, beautiful as she is, is a power hungry beast that’s more a weighty liability than writing tool in the mountains. 

I recently bought an e-ink reader, a Nook Simple Touch, because of its crazy low power consumption and, a Nook specifically, because underneath its B&N facade lies a familiar Android just waiting to be freed. For the little energy that it does use, I have a wood-burning usb-powering BioLite CampStove.  

As of this week, I can now type on my rooted Nook with a usb keyboard. The process was not hard in retrospect but decoding the oodles of forum pages and ignoring the many other tantalizing mods took many non-writing hours. In case it benefits anyone, here are my detailed notes to rooting and installing the driver and app to set up the Nook with a usb keyboard.

Creating your own e-ink writer

You will need

  • one Nook Simple Touch (the colour Nook has a different process) whose warranty you’re willing to void
  • a 128 MB or larger micro SD card, suggested class 6 or higher (the speed rating), that you can completely erase
  • a means to read/write to the micro SD card directly (not via the connection with the Nook)
  • a USB keyboard, preferably one without lights to draw more power
  • an OTG adapter, USB male microB/female A — to adapt the larger USB cord from the keyboard into the little USB port on the Nook — I used this one
  • ADB software on your computer — only need platform-tools folder within SDK, can install manually without entire SDK.
  • various files: Nook OS 1.1, TouchNooter, two binaries, uImage and uRamdisk, and an app USBMode 1.7.

Procedure with links to details

Please read through everything, including links to more detailed instructions, before beginning. You should be comfortable with Terminal (in linux/mac os x) or command window (in windows). My intent was to share the process and links that are otherwise scattered across the interwebs. Good luck!

  • Backup if desired (only need noogie.img and follow steps 1-8). Alternatively, you can always reset to factory settings to revert to the B&N unrooted state (it will update to the latest OS automatically).
  • Reset your Nook to factory settings. Method 1 should suffice unless you’re restarting from a rooted Nook (I need the tedious manual reset to roll back to an old OS version). This is necessary because the rooting is most stable for a slightly older Nook OS version. Log into B&N if you want their market enabled — apparently you won’t be able to after rooting.
  • Update the Nook to version 1.1 (current is 1.2.1). Simply place the Nook OS 1.1 zip file in the root folder of your Nook through a USB connection to your computer.
  • Backup your Nook again if desired — to a different backup file! (to save the previous two steps should the rooting and/or patches not succeed).
  • Root your Nook with TouchNooter 2-1-31. This comes with a minimal app set: Gmail, access to Google Play, etc. The link provides many details.
  • Connect with ADB via USB cable (two lines of code, first may wrap to next line):

    $ mkdir -p ~/.android && echo 0x2080 > ~/.android/adb_usb.ini && adb
    $ kill-server && adb devices

    You should see your Nook serial number and device.

  • Patch the two binaries, uImage and uRamdisk in the USB host pack (in the boot folder) that 1) allow ADB wireless communication (this is how you modify the OS and apps on your Nook from your computer) and 2) enable USB hosting (allows the Nook to talk to your USB keyboard). Install USBMode 1.7 app to toggle USB hosting via ADB. The $ denotes a prompt in the terminal on your computer; # denotes the prompt within the adb shell:
      $ adb shell
      # mount -o rw,remount rootfs /
      # mkdir /boot
      # mount -t vfat /dev/block/mmcblk0p1 /boot
      # exit
      $ adb push uImage /boot/
      $ adb push uRamdisk /boot/
      $ adb install UsbMode-1.7.apk
      $ adb reboot

    • Wait one day for Google Market to work (mysteriously required).
    • Install your favourite Android text editor — I use Jota (the plus version isn’t compatible) — and webrowser (the one included with rooting doesn’t really work) — I use Opera Mobile. The easiest is to push them onto your Nook (mine is called simply “phone” in Play) from your computer.
    • Enjoy!

    I may look into rooting etc from the latest Nook OS (1.2.1) but this version seems to work stably. Til then, this setup works just fine for me.

19 thoughts on “e-ink writing 101

  1. You’re going to have an enviable summer by the looks of that scenery. Absolutely stunning. The only way you’ll be able to make this up to us is if you write all about it so we get to feel like we came along too 😉

  2. Can i ask for a quick test on your nook?
    Is Evernote fully usable? Does it synch correctly as it would on any other android device?

    Btw..that’s a fantastic text editor if i may give a reccomendation 😉

    1. I installed evernote but it doesn’t seem to run. I may try again on an updated version another time but, unfortunately, it doesn’t work with the current setup. Too bad!

  3. Lara, thanks for your detailed guide! I have an already-rooted NST v1.2.1; did you ever look into that version, as per your closing remarks in your post? Additionally, I unfortunately don’t know how to handle ADB (though I’m trying to figure out my way through the Android SDK Manager…), so I get stuck at the “ADB via USB cable” part, as I don’t know where to type the lines of code into. Thanks for your time.

    1. In a terminal window (Mac) or at the command prompt (Windows), or equivalent. Already if you restart adb then list devices, with your nook connected it should be listed. If it’s not, there’s a good chance your rooted nook can only connect via wifi. In that case you need to issue the command: ‘adb connect [ip]’ where you put the nook’s actual ip in (you can find that in the settings under the wifi connection). I hope that works for you!

  4. Wow, thanks for the report! Any updates on how well it’s worked for you? Still happy with it? I’ve wanted to do this for a long time, for the exact same reasons (climbing, hiking, living out of my car, etc), but I have a Kindle Touch and not a Nook. Nooks are on sale right now, however, and I’m strongly considering getting one, for this and for the possibility of getting the Mountain Project App working on it.

    1. Sorry for the long delay. Internet is terrible on Galiano Island. I’m still very happy with my nook but possibly not using it for typing as much as I expected (I do have electricity). So I can’t really say how happy I’d been if I was actually writing my novel into it. The week of typing on it was somewhat full of strange typos and stuck capitalization. Fine after spell check for the most part. I haven’t used Mountain project app… I’ll see if it even installs on the Nook though (many apps do not!). Apparently it will install! (I haven’t though!). Let me know if you try and how it goes.

      1. Interesting, good to know. I ended up ordering a nook anyway for all of the features that you get from rooting, and i’m super happy with it. Great PDF support with e-ink fastmode, and other things. I got an OTG cord online and I’m gonna test it with a usb keyboard from work. If it works well I plan to order an Anker wireless keyboard; since the keyboard has its own battery I’ve heard that these are possibly better for battery life on the nook.

        As for the mountain project app, it works! More or less. Worth the $5 to me, at any rate.

        There’s one major bug, and for that it’s helpful to install an app to change the resolution of your screen – I used LCD Density (https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=lv.n3o.lcddensity). What happens is that any time a route description (or area description, or comment, or list of sub-areas) is too large to fit on the nook screen, it just completely vanishes. So if you increase your resolution you can read some routes that otherwise would disappear. This has only happened with a few, long routes for me (like Epinephrine and Solar Slab in Red Rock).

        If you’re in a new area and it’s not well divided into sub-areas (Zion was a bad one, with 50+ sub-areas), then you’re pretty much going to have to navigate it via the “classic routes” list and other detective work; you won’t be able to see the list of routes.

  5. Hmm, with a wireless keyboard the nook battery will need wireless on which drains the battery quicker too — let me know how the two ways compare. A wifi keyboard is not a bad idea for a second reason: you can charge the nook at the same time as type then (I keep a back up battery of ~2 nook charges when I’m in the backcountry; it’s what i charge with a solar panel on the rare sunny days on the BC coast).
    I’m still not sold on the mountain app — I get my topos usually from other sources (often borrowed guide books, scanned) — but the resolution tweak sounds like great advice. Thanks.
    Ah, red rocks… weird rock for me (the cracks are much harder to protect than granite) and I still suck at sport (at least I expect trad to feel hard; sport feels like a workout that’s impossibly draining all the time).

  6. Wonderful article!

    I know I’m a bit late to the scene seeing as the last comment was in January. Anyway, I’ve been looking for an alternate way to write other than longhand or on a typewriter that isn’t on a backlit computer screen. It hurts my eyes terribly.

    A quick question. How would editing your novel work on that little nook? Would it work at all or would it only be useful for the first draft?

    Thanks

    1. You can always tap to move the cursor, but like on a smartphone, it’s finicky. I don’t mind (in fact it helps) that I can’t go back and edit during a first draft, and certainly read-throughs are great on the nook, but I keep my intensive editing for my mac.
      There are ways of turning a kindle into a second display (allowing full software, keyboard/mouse control but using the easy-on-the-eyes e-ink screen); maybe that’ll be possible with the NST (I couldn’t find). There are e-ink display modules you can hook up to a raspberry pi or arduino but that would be a fair bit of work (and the screens are small?). Pixel Qi is worth watching too. Let me know what you end up doing.

      1. I am watching Pixel Qi. So far they only sell screens you can replace on older netbooks, as far as I know.

        That comment about the kindle sounds great, though. I’ll look into that.

        Sorry to take up your time, but I just have a few more questions if you don’t mind.

        Is it difficult to get the text off of the Nook and onto a computer? And someone said something about flickering. Does the device flicker while you type? And, last question. Is there a lag time between when you type and when it appears on the Nook’s screen?

  7. The Nook mounts as a drive so its easy to get files on/off. The flicker happens every once in a while, much like reading a book: most page flips are smooth, but some are jumpy. Definitely the screen doesn’t flicker with regular text input. There is a lag, especially if you type quickly. Worst of all, with my usb keyboard (I haven’t tried anything but the cheapest of small usb keyboards), I get a stutter sometimes (say, I press ‘a’ and linger a bit then I might get ‘aaa’) that I would never get on my laptop. Spellcheck fixes this mostly, but it’s still very annoying.

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