PDA's and Open Hardware - M5Paper and Franky

2021-10-18

This is somewhat of a response to rmgr's recent post about building an open PDA.

rmgr's most recent post on diy PDAs

Since this is something I'm quite interested in here are some of my own thoughts on the possibilities of future open PDA hardware.

I picked up an M5Paper with specifically using it as a PDA/reading device as the main long term goal. So far I have only managed to get the M5Paper to be an ePaper weather forecast display. It is a really cool forecast dashboard that can stick to the fridge and only needs to be charged about once a month. Awesome, but not really fulfilling my dreams for this type of hardware. Some softtware projects have popped up that might hold some promise. One I found recently is a smartwatch software aimed at ESP32 based watches that has also been ported to M5Paper called My-TTGO-Watch. It has some apps that are somewhat PDA like like calendar and alarms among other things. This could be a good starting point to mold into a more PDA style environment.

My TTGO Watch prject on github

Another really cool device that I have been keeping my eye on which straddles a couple of my hobby interests, PDAs and handheld gaming. The Franky from SQFMI, an ESP32 and Sharp memory lcd powered portable device. It was quietly announced last year. The design diagrams on the website show the general board layout with a dpad and 4 action buttons in a typical handheld console style configuration. There hasn't been a lot of details or chatter about it since then. That is until I found the recent interview on the 1 Bit Wonders podcast with someone from SQFMI about the Franky. Then I found some short videos on their youtube channel of some different Franky prototypes with different input configurations. The most interesting one to me is the with the full qwerty keyboard just below the display. From listening to the interview it sounds like the version with the keyboard may be the final design or possibly there will be multiple input configurations available. What exact inputs it will have in the end is not clear just yet.

Franky Prototype with Keyboard

Franky Prototype with Gaming Controls

They are developing it with the hardware and software being fully open as a specific goal which is great. It is intended as a platform to be experimented with and to hack on. It is still a little ways off in the future until we can get one of these in our hands but it is sounding really great and like a good candidate for an open PDA project.

Franky on SQFMI website

I think both devices have potential as an open PDA. The M5Paper currently has the edge because it actually exists. The ePaper display is really great for reading but also has ePaper's limitations of comparatively low refresh rate. From what I know of display technologies the lcd in the Franky is likely to be much easier to work with for developers than the epaper. The Franky's memory lcd is also very reflective and readable and has the faster refresh rate that LCDs can achieve. This will make some things like gaming better suited to the Franky than the M5Paper. Input methods are a mixed bag with M5Paper having a touch panel only and the Franky having no touch panel but possibly physical gaming buttons or physical keyboard. Both do have options for hacking in other possible input methods. There are some expansion connectors on the M5Paper and the Franky will be have some pins accessible such as i2c and spi.

Anyways, both of these devices are pretty neat and interesting. Looking forward to learning more about the Franky as it gets closer to production. What would be really cool would be having both the keyboard and gaming buttons on the Franky.

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