Ah E-Ink. Wonderfully reproducing that paper feeling to limit eye strain for reading, a brilliant canvas for electronic notebooks, and... Listening to music? Sure.
About six months ago I was on holiday in Northern Ireland. Sat in a cottage on a traditionally rainy day, I was browsing the web for unique and interesting devices. Having reviewed the reMarkable 2 a while back and having owned a few eReaders, E-Ink was something I was familiar with and enjoyed using. It intrigued me. It intrigued me enough to start looking for fun things that incorporated it. To my surprise there was plenty out there. Want a secondary E-Ink monitor to read documents on while you work? You can buy it. A laptop with an E-Ink display on the outer lid? That exists. But the standout oddity was the one I saw had just released: the HiSense Touch.
Now this is marketed oddly. On (electronic) paper, it's a music player. You know, those things famous for having their screen off 90% of the time they're in use? I suppose it just baffled me. Who would think this was a profitable venture to pursue, and how long would it take to arrive if I ordered it that day? I actually remember turning it on for the first time, despite it being months ago now. It was a deep sense of dread and regret, and it's rare I look at a purchase like this. I went into this device knowing its absurdity and bought it anyway, and a part of me was terrified by that. This wasn't some cheap AliExpress punt, this thing came in at £290.
With the Touch using its own strain of Android, the setup process is about what you'd expect. It's simple enough, but with this being something not available in western markets, you'll be stuck with non-Google apps and unique bloat. Thankfully you're able to set things to English from the get-go, but you still have to deal with the bundled apps until you install your own. Functionally, everything works fine out of the box. It's rough around the edges and the English UI isn't perfect, but you'll have no issues using it. You get a unique home screen layout with icons across the bottom for music, apps, settings, and books. Tapping these will load you straight into the respective app while keeping you in the home UI for a really seamless experience. If you want more apps you can use the bundled app store, but I'd generally advise against this unless you're a native Chinese speaker, as this isn't translated. Sideloading will be your best bet.
It's a bit awkward using the bundled keyboard and browser, but it didn't take me long to find a Firefox and Gboard APK online for something a bit more familiar. With these tools at my disposal, I set out to fix my biggest irritation with the phone: the bundled eReader app. As one of the four apps so nicely integrated into the home screen, and representing a genuine selling point for such a pocketable device, my heart sunk when I saw the eReader app was almost entirely Chinese and difficult to navigate. Were it not for KOReader this think would've been on eBay months ago. KOReader was a game changer. An absolutely beautiful open source app, KOReader gives you an eReader experience on any Android device, but my God does it elevate an E-Ink device to something higher. It's like it was made for it, and gives you an experience on par with the likes of Kobo and Kindle. You can install dictionaries, use bookmarks, highlight snippets, and even use the volume buttons to turn pages. I keep the Touch in my pocket and love to take it out on the train or during a break at work for some brilliantly portable reading. This is the device's biggest selling point, and it's not even something I knew about prior to getting it.
Though I tend to use it as a pocket eReader, I feel like I should probably address the elephant in the room: it’s a music player. It’s just not the best one. There are a few basics you want out of a music player, especially one at this price. You want a headphone jack. Okay it has that, that’s the bare essential. Outside of this though, you want plenty of storage to actually keep your tracks. This is a 128 GB device with no expandability, and 26 GB of that is taken up by the system. 100 GB can go a long way, but if you’re wanting to load it up with large lossless audio you’ll be running out of space sooner than you’d want. The bundled app and general listening experience is fine, seeming to put a little more power to my headphones than the NWZ A15 Walkman I was using previously. My 20 ohm Audeze LCD-GX don’t need all that much power to sound good, but it naturally won’t compare to the desktop experience you can get by hooking them up to something more powerful. I will add here that the built-in speakers pack a surprising punch for a device this small. It's not really a feature you see on many music players nowadays, with the focus being on the headphone listening experience, but it is pleasant to have and see done well.
When it comes to specs you have an adequate 4 GB of RAM on offer, which has proved to be fine in my time using it. To go with this you have a 1.8 GHz octa-core Snapdragon 460 processor and the aforementioned 128 GB of internal storage. The 3000 mAh battery keeps the device powered for a few weeks at a time when used lightly thanks to the limited power an E-Ink screen actually pulls. The device also features a ES9038 DAC and ES9603 amp chip, though I don’t know enough to comment on how great these are when compared to other offerings. Perhaps the weirdest inclusion is a front facing camera, allowing you to recreate A-ha’s hit music video for Take On Me in the included camera app. The device runs fine, but what was constantly on my mind as I used it was a single word: why?
It can also function as the most expensive alarm clock you're likely to own with a nicely customisable lock screen.
The HiSense Touch remains a mystery to me, and one I really couldn’t recommend to the majority of people with it costing just shy of £300 when I bought it. It’s a novelty that slaps an E-Ink screen where one really isn’t needed and while I appreciate what it offers, I feel there’s better value to be found elsewhere. The HiSense Touch grew on me and has become something I use regularly, but not so much as a music player. For the vast majority of people, a phone is more than adequate for an on the go listening experience, and for those who want more, you have better offerings from the likes of FiiO and other well known music player creators. And for those who want an eReader, there's cheaper dedicated options. It's a collision of worlds that shouldn't exist, but a small part of me is glad it does.