The Playdate is a surprisingly good e-reader

From the Boox Palma to the Light Phone 2, it seems like everyone is looking for distraction-free reading, if only they have the right device. I don’t blame them: every time I pick up my phone to mindlessly scroll, I know I could be spending my time in better ways. But as an owner of a lot of nice gadgets, I don’t really need another one in my life, so I was pretty excited to find a partial solution with a gadget I already have: the Playdate.

Yes, I’m talking about that little yellow Game Boy from Panic and Teenage Engineering, the one with the crank sticking out of the side. Since the launch of its on-device store, Catalog, the handheld has become home to a pretty wide range of experiences. I’ve played tiny city builders and dungeon crawlers and egg touchers. Still, I was surprised to discover Playbook, a full-fledged e-reading app. Perhaps even more surprising is that it actually works pretty well.

The app comes with a handful of classic books pre-installed, and I tested it out first by reading most of them Frankenstein. The Playdate’s black-and-white LCD screen does a pretty good job of displaying text, which looks sharp and clear. The downside is that it doesn’t have a backlight for nighttime reading, and the screen is small. At one point, a single sentence from Mary Shelley took up the entire screen.

Long sentences can take up the entire screen.
Photo by Andrew Webster/The Verge

But like the device itself, the app is also charming. You can scroll through books with the crank, which is odd but fun in a tactile way (you can also use the D-pad). And instead of telling you what percentage of the book you’ve read or how much time you have left, Playbook has a candle that acts as a progress bar, slowly burning down as you read. It’s less scientific but a lot cozier, with the flame flickering every now and then.

There are some missing features—there’s no way to skip through a book without scrolling, for instance, and you can’t highlight passages—but perhaps the biggest hurdle is getting books onto your Playdate. It’s not as simple as syncing your Kindle library. Instead, you have to plug your handheld into a computer, put it into USB mode, and then drag and drop files into the appropriate folder. To do that, you’ll need to convert .epub files to .txt, which is relatively painless.

To test this, I grabbed a number of Project Gutenberg e-books, including Dracula, The Fall of the House of UsherAnd Turning the screw(In retrospect, my choices may have been influenced by the idea of ​​reading by virtual candlelight.) Everything I added to the app worked fine, with the exception of The Complete Works of William Shakespearewhich caused my Playdate to crash every time I tried to open it, probably because it’s so big.

Let’s face it: A $5 Playdate app isn’t the be-all, end-all for reading more. For me, it isn’t. I still have a Kindle on my nightstand and carry paperbacks with me everywhere I go. But just as the Playdate serves a complementary role, offering unique games that aren’t meant to replace a Switch or PlayStation, so too does the Playbook.

The app isn’t my primary reading tool. But it works well enough and, crucially, is handy enough to have on hand in an emergency. Having a library of classic novels on a device the size of a credit card is handy — and at least it helps me avoid buying a new gadget.

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