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Txtr beagle Clears the FCC

txtr beagle fccThe formerly World’s Smallest eReader showed up on the FCC website yesterday, raising the hopes of smartphone owners everywhere that they might be able to overspend on their next phone and get a beagle as well.

All the interesting details are visible to our prying eyes, including both the internal photos (including a teardown), external photos, quick start guide, and the test results.

I haven’t had a chance to put my hands on the beagle (txtr seems determined to lend it to everyone except me), but I do know something about it.

This device excited us all when it was announced back in October, but once the all the details had been revealed it became much less appealing. The thing is, this isn’t an ereader. It doesn’t let you read ebooks; no, it displays page images.

The beagle is perhaps the most well-known faux-ereader, on or off the market. It has a 5″ E-ink screen, and can hold the equivalent of 5 ebooks as folders of page images (manga fans, eat your heart out). Content is transferred to the beagle over Bluetooth, and it requires txtr’s reading app on a late model Android smartphone running Android 4.0 or above.

There’s no word yet on when this device will hit the market, but the last I heard was that txtr wasn’t planning to introduce it to the US market any time soon. But now that it’s cleared the FCC I wonder if that is correct.

When it is on the market you will only be able to get it from a cell phone company the next time you get a new smartphone and contract. Txtr isn’t planning to allow for direct to consumer sales.


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Flobber February 1, 2013 um 11:52 am

Nice photos. Quick analysis of the PCB: the two chips on the right hand side (U606/607) are a bluetooth modem (a BC417 + 8 Mbit bluetooth firmware flash). The chip left of them (U901) is a Cortex-M3 microcontroller (an LPC1313 – only 32 Kbyte flash + 8 Kbyte RAM). Far to the left (U401) an E-Ink power management controller, and the big one on the top (U501) presumably the display controller (can’t read it). The metallic thing in the center (P903) looks like an SD-card slot. All the other small chips are simple glue stuff.

So, not really an 8-bit micro – a 32 bit one, but not very capable. You can’t put much into its 32k ROM / 8k RAM – the bluetooth chip is beefier 😉 I wouldn’t be surprised if it even has to load the graphics for menus etc. from the SD-card on the fly as there’s really no space for fancy images in the microcontroller itself.

Overall, a poor e-Book reader but (if cheap) a nice device for modders (status display for PC, etc.).

Nate Hoffelder February 1, 2013 um 12:10 pm

Thanks! How much more would it have cost to give this device a real CPU?

Flobber February 1, 2013 um 4:14 pm

If you mean by "real CPU" one that is good enough for rendering e-pub than that’s like asking how much it costs to make a real car out of a motorcycle – it would be a completely different design.

The txtr is designed to be cheap and run a couple of months or even over a year with a single pair of AAAs. You can’t build an e-pub capable system with these contraints.

The txtr’s CPU is a low-power microcontroller which costs less then $2 including memory (RAM and ROM). It basically takes no power when waiting for the next keypress (similar in power consumption to a remote control). This thing doesn’t have to "boot" – there’s basically no difference between power-off and stand-by. If you press a key, it wakes up for a fraction of a second, displays a new page and goes back to sleep/power-off (reading a 600 page book is maybe 5 minute of total run-time). I guess the most power consuming action is uploading a new book (CPU, bluetooth and flash active for a long time and erasing/writing the flash memory – probably taking more power than reading it later a couple of times *g*). Everything else is cheap, too – a single PCB, only 4 simple buttons, cheap plastic, cheap batteries, easy assembly (only 2 screws if I get it right). I think the device (without display) can be made for $10-$15 (in volume).

A system that can render e-pub needs a faster CPU (more power) and at least 8MB RAM (1000 times that of the txtr-CPU!). That has to be dynamic RAM but D-RAM needs to be refreshed to keep its content and that takes a fair amount of power. Then you need a lot of ROM for the software, too (another chip). All this comes down to using better batteries: LiPo & co (expensive) with charging circuits etc. But even those won’t give you anything near the run-time of the txtr (they would self-discharge in that time without ever using the device). Such a device may be "only" $10 more expensive but that’s already double the price and it would still not fulfill the requirements.

And then there’s software development: the SW on the txtr is a one-man show. Porting an e-pub renderer to an embedded system (and doing it well) is in a different league.

So, give the constraints, txtr has succeeded – a cheap device with long battery life. But IMHO they could have done better. If they had taken a slightly better CPU (i.e. 128K ROM, 32K RAM, maybe $1 more) they would had enough leeway to give it more features. I.e. compressed pages (hundreds of books), multiple pre-rendered versions of each book (portrait/landscape or different text sizes), library browser, bookmarks, history, searching, zooming, a simple renderer for txt-files, etc. As they already have an SD-card slot, it wouldn’t have cost them a cent if it were user accessible so that one could upgrade the device for even more books.

Well, if the txtr shows up on ebay for a low price there’ll probably enough people who’ll tweak it – let’s see what they’ll make out of it 🙂

Nate Hoffelder February 4, 2013 um 9:19 am

So I was correct when I said that for $10 or $15 more this could be a real ereader? Cool.

BTW, txtr has embedded developers (or at least they did). They could have developed the firmware.

Flobber February 4, 2013 um 12:16 pm

Sure – and you can buy them now. They are called Odys Scout (40€), eBook Reader 3 (45€), Pyrus Mini (50€), eBook Reader 4 (60€), Wisereader N526 (60€), etc. These are retail prices including profit and taxes (the prices in my previous post were manufacturing costs without display). But none of them uses a pair of AAAs or has a run-time that gets counted in months. And lot of those cheap ereaders get bad reviews due to their mediocre software (self- or china-made – licensing Adobe’s epub/pdf/drm software is too expensive or it’s too resource demanding).

Nate Hoffelder February 4, 2013 um 12:33 pm

Except the beagle has a real retail price of around 30€ to 40€, so there’s not all that much saved over the cost of the Pyrus Mini or the other devices.

But you do have a point about the quality of the software running on those other devices. It ranges from poor to dreadful.

Parosprint March 14, 2013 um 1:38 pm

wow flobber.
Impressing the way you described in details what you could see from the teardown images furnished.
do you think is then easy to hack as a device? So you would say that the production maybe is like in order of 10-15 dollars and the price is just so high for profit?
Its impressive. I think they really lost the opportunity to hit the market as they were saying. they could do it but at the end they got lost. Seems to be?

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