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Electronic paper’s future
Are tablets making it irrelevant?

05/26/11
By John Andrews jandrews@hippopress.com



There was a time when an e-book reader couldn’t really be considered an e-book reader unless it had a certain type of screen.
LCDs, for all their versatility, just weren’t the right tool for the job. You want to display crisp text? You want to read on the beach? You want your battery to last for not just hours, but days and weeks? Electronic paper was the way to go.

Technologically, that’s all still true. Digital ink displays have gotten better by leaps and bounds in the past few years, in fact: higher contrast and faster page turns have removed the distractions that made earlier generations of e-readers such a hard sell.

The marketplace hasn’t been so kind. Sure, the Amazon Kindle still sells like gangbusters, and a few competitors like the Barnes & Noble nook and Sony Reader are able to hold their own, but the single-use device just doesn’t work for a lot of people. If our phones can shoot video, send e-mail, browse the Web and play our music, why should we tolerate a bigger gadget that only displays books?

Along came the iPad, showing everyone what a device its size could really do, and the battleground was set. Barnes & Noble hedged its bets with the nook color, a $250 tablet that was primarily for books, sure, but could also do the Web, apps, music and video — and was fairly easy to hack, too.

Eyestrain? Psssh. We look at computer screens all day, so what’s one more? Battery life? As long as an overnight charge gives us a few hours the next day, we’re good. LCDs still aren’t fantastic outside, but really, who goes outside? Not us geeks.

Electronic paper isn’t giving up, though. If improvements in the pipeline now can make it to mainstream products soon, and cheaply, a world with energy-efficient, low-eyestrain screens that can do more than text could still be possible.

A big win would be color. Displaying more than black and white opens up graphic novels, children’s books and illustrated technical books to e-readers. A Chinese company called Hanvon showed off its “world’s first” color e-reader at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, but it’s still not available on the company’s website. The colors weren’t particularly vivid, either. It uses an E Ink Triton screen, capable of displaying 16 shades of gray and 4,096 colors.

Meanwhile, the Society for Information Display held its annual conference this month, and both Sony and Ricoh had color electronic paper on tap. Neither was actually in a product, mind you. Sony’s was flexible, 13.3 inches on the diagonal, and boasted a 1600 x 1200 resolution.

As for video … well. A big reason electronic paper saves so much energy is that it only refreshes when the image changes. Video, by definition, changes a lot. Still, a screen that didn’t refresh most of the time but had the capability when video (or scrolling through a website or music catalog) was involved would be nice, huh?

Pixel Qi has been promising this for a while, with a screen that switches between e-reader and backlit modes. It’s in precious few devices, but does look much better in sunlight than any other laptop or tablet screen. If they can ramp up production, they could really give LCDs a run for their money.






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