eReaders with Color eInk Displays – Will we ever get them?

Color E-Ink, technology for displaying text and images on an eReader in color, exists today. It’s just not good enough and not cheap enough yet.

We have a lot of ‘Reading Tablets’ (such as the new Kindle Fire HD and the Nook Tablet). However, these are tablets with LCD screens with minor adjustments (such as an anti-glare coating) to make the LCD screen good for reading. It’s far from the ideal color eInk screen.

While LCD displays are stunning they have their limitations.

Some Limitations of LCD Screens

  • Difficult to read on LCDs for a long time. Unless you are LCD-compatible you’ll experience eye-strain.
  • Difficult to read in direct sunlight. Pretty much impossible, actually.
  • High contrast and brightness makes it difficult to read it in a dimly lit room. You have to dim the brightness and adjust the theme to a Night Reading theme.
  • Some people find it difficult to sleep after reading for a long time on a back-lit screen (LCD display). The brightness messes with the Circadian rhythm (your body assumes it’s not night yet because a bright light was right in your face so recently).
  • More power consumption, drains battery very fast. IGZO screens are trying to solve this in one way (to only refresh the screen once per second when displaying photos and other static items). However, color eInk is a much more promising solution.
  • Devices using LCD screens can sometimes heat up.

A LCD display is excellent for media consumption and performing utility tasks like checking mail, browsing (short durations). However, LCD displays are not the ideal book reading screen (unless you are LCD compatible or think that a device/screen optimized for reading is a stupid idea).

Is Color eInk the solution? Is anyone EVER going to ship eReaders with color eInk? 

Black and White eInk screens (16 shades of grey, not quite as exciting as 50) have been the screens of choice for eReaders (Sony Reader, Kindle, Nook). This is despite the fact that eInk can only display 16 shades of grey.

Why are eInk screens so popular for eReaders?

E-Ink is a reflective display technology and it works by reflecting the light that falls on it (unlike the back-lit LCD). This makes eInk ideal for reading in sunlight.

eInk also only changes the screen when required. There is no constant refreshing of the screen (as you have in TVs and Computer LCD screens). So it only uses power when the screen is changed. This makes eInk very good for uses where the screen is not often changed (reading, posters, price tags).

Since the screen is not refreshing constantly. Since the technology is very similar to actual ink on paper – there are eInk dots that are moved up and down to show different shades of grey. Since there is no light coming out of the screen at your eyes.

eInk is great for reading.

E-Ink is the closest we have got to the real paper experience. Readers find it very comfortable to read from eInk screens, regardless of duration.

LCD-compatible people claim that they can read War and Peace off a LCD screen at one go without bothering their eyes even a bit. However, for us LCD-incompatible mere mortals, eInk is the only screen that allows us to read non-stop for long stretches without eye strains or worse (headaches, loss of sleep, etc.).

eInk uses very little power and thus eReaders using eInk do not heat up. This is critical for eReaders as people hold them in their hand(s) while reading.

E-Ink displays are also light weight.

However, eInk is far from perfect

The biggest disadvantage of E-Ink is that currently eInk screens are only available in Black and White. Color eInk screens have been promised for years and years. However, they either have very washed out colors, or very high prices.

This puts Amazon and B&N and Sony in a bind. They would probably LOVE to get color eInk and makes cool new Kindles and Nooks and Sony Readers. However, the technology hasn’t arrived yet.

Limitations of Color E-Ink and eInk

  • Low/Slow page turn, page refresh rates. Since the dots of electronic ink are literally ‘moving’ every time the page refreshes, it’s hard to match LCD screens. Advances are being made but we are still a long way off from catching LCD screens on speed.
  • Relatively expensive (this is in part due to lack of bulk production capacity).
  • Limitations on natural color reproduction, dull colors, limited color palette. Color eInk screens shown so far can’t compare with the richness of IPS and AMOLED displays.
  • No multimedia, video display capability. Most Color eInk display technologies do not support Video.

To compete with LCDs (or to even have a chance), eInk needs color and video support and lower prices and higher volumes and faster evolution. Right now, none of this is happening.

Prominent manufacturers of eInk and Color E-Ink

E Ink Corporation (eInk Triton): E-Ink has almost become the de facto standard for monochrome eReader displays. Can E-Ink repeat that success with its color E-Ink Triton display?

They do have the technology and there is even a product in the market (Ectaco Jetbook Color) that uses the color E-Ink Triton technology. However, none of the big eReader makers have embraced eInk Triton.

Pixel Qi:  Pixel Qi’s e-paper display technology modifies existing LCD technology to create multiple modes. A black and white reading mode that consumes very little power. A color mode that lets you use video. Combine the modes and you can display full color video and images, read in sunlight, and consume less power.

Pixel Qi has a multi-mode screen whose back-light can be switched on and off by the reader. When the back-light is switched on, it works similar to a LCD display and when the back-light is switched off, it becomes a reflective screen for reading books. The technology has been implemented in the Notion Ink Adam tablet. Again, none of the big eReader makers have adopted the technology.

Mirasol: There are at least four devices using Mirasol displays in the Korean and Chinese markets. Kyobo eReader was perhaps the most popular among them. However, Kyobo discontinued its color eReader products. Mirasol recently decided to license its technology to others instead of manufacturing its own displays. All signs that perhaps the technology has no future.

Plastic Logic: Plastic Logic is another company with a color e-paper technology that has decided to license its technology to others. There were no products released with Plastic Logic displays, even thought they sent out a lot of very impressive Press Releases.

Fujitsu e-paper: Fujitsu was one of the first vendors to bring out an eReader using color e-paper technology (Fujitsu FLEPia Lite). They even did a technology refresh. However, their color ePaper screen was too expensive and was not released in the West.

Fujitsu is now planning to come out with improved color eReaders that are flexible (bendable) and have better displays. Let’s hope they succeed.

Samsung: Samsung bought Liquavista, a company which manufactures color e-paper displays that work with and without back-light. These displays also have limited video capability.

Samsung is working to release these electrowetting-based color e-paper displays. These will be flexible and might even support video. Samsung’s backing should increase the chances of this technology making it to actual users at some point of time.

Conclusion

Color eInk isn’t here yet. There are a lot of contenders. However, none of the competing technologies seem to be ready. None of them seem to be able to land a big client like Amazon or Sony.

There also seems to have been a shift. Instead of focusing on eReaders with Color eInk, companies that make Color eInk seem to be trying to take on LCD Tablets. That’s a really strange move. Why not start with a smaller, less competitive market first? Why would you try to take on a firmly entrenched screen technology like LCD technology?

It is actually quite disappointing to see that the major eReader vendors (Read: Amazon, B&N, Sony, Kobo, etc) are focusing on Tablets and aren’t releasing any Color eInk display powered eReaders. You’d think that a Color eInk powered eReader would make for a wonderful TextBook Reader and also a very good device for Magazines and Newspapers. It would have the sort of battery life that LCD powered Tablets can only dream about.

Amazon has recently released a lot of new Kindles but none of them have a color eInk screen. Will B&N spring a surprise? Will Samsung?

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