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InkCase i5: A very unique iPhone 5/5s case you can't buy (yet)

It's always fascinating to get your hands on a product that isn't yet available in your country. That's the case with the InkCase i5, an interesting iPhone case concept that just needs a bit more in terms of app support to become a fully baked idea. Here's what makes it different: The back of the case is an e-ink display intended to be used as a "second screen" for your iPhone. The case is manufactured by Singapore-based Gajah International and distributed by Oaxis.

TUAW received an iPhone 5/5s version of the case from Nate Hoffelder at The Digital Reader, who had written a review of a version of the case for the Samsung Galaxy Note 2. Nate had no use for the iPhone version, so he sent it along to TUAW so we could see what the InkCase was all about.

Any case like this requires three components to work: 1) a low-power e-ink display that can be used to show images or text, 2) Bluetooth for communications with the iPhone and 3) apps to drive the e-ink display. While the InkCase has all three parts, the lack of apps that support the case limits its functionality right now.

That's not to say that the InkCase isn't cool -- in fact, I like the idea of being able to see my images on the back of the case in all of their grayscale glory (no color display...). But it would be about a thousand times more useful if you could do things like display notifications or the time; show live images from one of the cameras; or cycle through a combination of various text, alerts and images.

The plastic case that holds the electronics for the display is nothing to write home about, being a very generic black or white case. There's a USB to micro-USB cable included for charging the battery in the case, and the bottom status line indicates that the device is being charged when it's plugged in. I was not able to test battery life, although the battery level moved noticeably after using the case to display some of my photos and reading a few e-books.

The first thing you do with the InkCase is install at least one of the apps. In my case, I first chose to try the free InkCase Photo app, which takes any of your photo library images and allows you to manipulate, crop, apply filters and even write text on them. The images appear in grayscale, and once you have the image looking the way you want it, it's sent to the display with a tap. That's, of course, after you've pressed the button below the e-ink display to activate the device.

The images take about 30 seconds to appear on the e-ink display, after which they're visible until the next time you change the image. The only indication that the case is "live" is a tiny Zzz icon that appears after about a minute, indicating that the display is "sleeping," and a battery level indicator.

Next, I loaded the EpiReader app, which supports a number of e-book formats: Mobi, TXT, DOC, FB2, EPUB, PDF and more. Many dedicated e-reader devices use e-ink displays of this type for extra-long battery life and high-contrast letters on a white background, so I had high hopes. I have to admit that for reading an e-book in sunlit locations, the InkCase and this app might be an excellent solution. Once you've linked EpiReader and the case, you just need to click the button on the InkCase to load another page to read.

Whatever text in the book is on the screen of the EpiReader app appears on the e-ink display, so sometimes the display may show some oddly-formatted text. I thought it was odd that the font displayed on the e-ink wasn't the same as the one in the app, although the sans serif typeface used on the case was quite a bit more readable.

It all basically boils down to a few things. First, there's no indication of whether or not you will actually be able to buy the InkCase in North America or Europe in the near future. Next, the company really needs to get more apps created before the InkCase is really useful. And third, if they're going to market it in the USA, it will need to be priced below the US$69 base price of the entry-level Kindle e-reader.

Gajah and Oaxis aren't the only companies looking at a second screen for the iPhone -- there are already wrist devices like the Pebble, and there's a similar product called PopSlate that received Indiegogo funding, but still doesn't appear to have shipped. Whether or not these cases will be successful is another question, but it's good to see that at least one e-ink case has made it out of the labs and into reality.