PopSlate Lightning Review: This iPhone Case Has an E-Ink Screen in its Back

By Sean Hollister on at

What does the back of your phone look like? Is it covered by a case? Either way, I’m willing to bet it looks the same every day. What if you could personalise it with the push of a button, wirelessly beaming your favourite photos to an e-ink screen that lives in a special iPhone 6 case? Say hello to the PopSlate.

Over two years ago, PopSlate raised $150,000 (£99.7k) on Indiegogo to build an iPhone case like none we’d ever seen: a thin iPhone 5 shell with a second screen around back that you could use to display any image semi-permanently. Photos, art, or just useful things like boarding passes you’d like to always have on hand. (E-ink screens don’t need power to retain their images.)

PopSlate Lightning Review: This iPhone Case Has An E-Ink Screen in Back

It was a brilliant idea. It failed. Two years went by without the promised product; all the while competing products like the YotaPhone capitalised on the idea. Until today. Today, the PopSlate is finally shipping to the remaining backers — and soon, to anyone willing to pay $130 (£87).

Is it worth all that cash? I’ve been using a PopSlate for about a week now, and it’s pretty cool... but I’m not totally convinced. There’s a lot of promise here, but some people have already been waiting years.

What Is It?

A $130 (£87) iPhone 6 case with a 4-inch e-ink screen around back and a Bluetooth chip inside to let you wirelessly beam practically any image from your phone to the display, and leave it there as long as you like. It displays low-res 240 x 400 images in 16 shades of grey, and stores eight pictures at a time.

PopSlate Lightning Review: This iPhone Case Has An E-Ink Screen in Back

Who’s It For?

People looking to change their phone as often as they change their mood. People who need access to a single piece of information even if their phone’s battery dies. Black and white photography enthusiasts.

Design

Disappointingly chunky. While the original promised PopSlate for iPhone 5 was supposed to be super thin, this plastic brick will double your iPhone 6’s thickness. It’s big and knobby and awkward to stuff into a pocket. It holds the phone securely (you remove the bottom and slide it in), feels fairly protective, and doesn’t block any buttons or ports, so there’s that. But gosh is this thing kind of ugly. I can’t quite get over the lopsided camera window.

PopSlate Lightning Review: This iPhone Case Has An E-Ink Screen in Back

PopSlate Lightning Review: This iPhone Case Has An E-Ink Screen in Back

Using It

Setup is pretty easy: just charge up the case, download the PopSlate app, slide in the phone, turn on Bluetooth, and hit a button in the software to pair. Then, all you have to do is take a picture or screenshot anything on your phone (you know, by hitting the home and power buttons simultaneously) and you can beam it to the PopSlate. You have to do that from the PopSlate app, unfortunately: you can’t just send images to the case from iOS, but it’s still easy enough. Just navigate to the right tab, pick the image out of your iOS photo library, and hit the Pop button.

You can also edit images you add this way, though I haven’t found a reason to do so yet. (They’re low-res, grey images, after all.) Oh wait, I take that back, I do rotate landscape images: otherwise, when I’m holding up my iPhone as a camera or up to my left ear for a call, the PopSlate will display them upside down.

Anyway, once you’ve got your image, you press the nice big orange Pop button on the app, and poof, you’ll find it displayed in 16 shades of grey on the back of your phone.

This Might Be Cool Someday

But that’s only one way to add an image. What the PopSlate app is really about is a social network for black and white photography.

PopSlate Lightning Review: This iPhone Case Has An E-Ink Screen in Back

Every time you Pop an image — unless you turn it off — the app shares that picture to a public feed that everyone else sees too. You can follow other users, creating your own social stream of images, and hit the Pop button on any image you like to beam it to the back of your phone (and again, to the social feed) too.

It’s really, really half-baked right now. You can’t tell who originally popped an image — no credit to artists or photographers — you can’t comment or like or star or otherwise express any sort of feeling about the images you see, and you generally can’t tell if you’ve had any impact whatsoever unless you get a notification that someone else popped your image, or see your pictures appear in other people’s feeds over and over.

PopSlate Lightning Review: This iPhone Case Has An E-Ink Screen in Back

Right now, it’s just a raw stream of content for you to help personalise your phone, but I like to imagine it could have the power to re-popularise black and white photography if only PopSlate built it out.

And speaking of things that aren’t here yet, PopSlate says that apps will be eventually able to push images to the case instead of waiting for you to do it yourself. The company’s adding IFTTT integration soon (“within a month of launch”) and plans an SDK as well.

PopSlate Lightning Review: This iPhone Case Has An E-Ink Screen in Back

This is Bad Right Now

It’s cool that you can just push a button on the side of the case to cycle through eight stored images without touching your phone. But I was never able to line up eight perfect images without some sort of nasty bug with the e-ink refresh mechanism screwing it all up.

Every time I popped an image, it would appear on the back. That always worked. But which of the eight stored images would it replace? I could never figure that out. There’s no way to delete any of the images, no way to see which images are in which slots, you just have to pop and hope it’s replacing the right one. And sometimes, I would pop images only to find previous images had disappeared... often, I mysteriously went from seven or eight stored images down to four.

Sometimes, the e-ink refresh screwed up and combined my pictures, leaving an annoying afterimage. For instance, this cute dog got mixed with my Hearthstone infatuation:

PopSlate Lightning Review: This iPhone Case Has An E-Ink Screen in Back

PopSlate Lightning Review: This iPhone Case Has An E-Ink Screen in Back

It’s also worth noting that PopSlate supports Instagram: you can log right in and grab your photos there, then pop them too. But square, colour images don’t necessarily translate well to black and white rectangles.

PopSlate Lightning Review: This iPhone Case Has An E-Ink Screen in Back

PopSlate Lightning Review: This iPhone Case Has An E-Ink Screen in Back

PopSlate Lightning Review: This iPhone Case Has An E-Ink Screen in Back

Some things get lost in translation.

Should You Buy It?

Probably not. It’s pricey and kind of ugly and kind of half-baked for $130 (£87 – that's without the $20 (£13.29) shipping fee. But at the same time, it’s a cool idea that actually works, is pretty damn easy to use, and unique in the market. You could maybe be part of a community of black and white photography enthusiasts who wear their favourite images loud and proud on the back of their phones, and share them online too.

And if PopSlate sells enough of these things, maybe there’ll be enough incentive for them to build out a real photography social network for this stuff too. Right now, it’s an above-average crowdfunded piece of hardware with plenty of wrinkles. Buyer beware. But it’s hard to deny there’s a certain charm to the idea.

PopSlate Lightning Review: This iPhone Case Has An E-Ink Screen in Back