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When in the spring of 2009 E Ink Corporation proudly introduced its first batch of e-book readers at the SID conference, that was a huge success. But the real breakthrough occurred later on. The innovations were brewing all summer and fall and came to the surface at the January Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas with a burst of four dozen new shiny products. Some of the new models were clones of already known devices. Others were based on new technologies and promised all sorts of unimaginable benefits. But the most interesting ones are scheduled for a release in this spring or summer. Therefore, the goal of this review is to tell you about the short-term perspectives of e-book readers.

Before proceeding to the products proper, I want to make it clear that this review is about devices with bistable displays which can work in reflected light and do not need to be powered to maintain the image. Reading from such a screen is virtually the same as reading from a sheet of paper. Many users of such devices, including myself, often catch themselves trying to turn over the page, so similar electrophoretic displays are to reading a conventional book.

The Alternative

I want to start out with the events of the spring of 2009. It was then that one of the major makers of LCD panels, the Taiwan-headquartered AU Optronics, bought up the American developer of “electronic paper” SiPix Imaging. The internals of SiPix technology are beyond the scope of this review, but, cutting it short, a SiPix cell contains only white microcapsules in a black liquid whereas an E Link cell (the name of the company has already come to denote any electronic paper, actually) has a dual-color suspension  of microcapsules (black and white) in a transparent liquid. Besides, the manufacturing technology of SiPix displays is adapted for production with the method of rolling in a continuous tape whereas E Ink films are produced as individual sheets. Thus, SiPix displays are less expensive to make than E Ink displays, and SiPix-based e-readers can prove to be considerably cheaper than those with E Ink screens.

E Ink electronic paper

SiPix electronic paper

Besides the price advantage, SiPix displays have an integrated capacitance sensor that can recognize multiple touches (the touch screen of the iPhone and other newest smartphones supports this multi-touch feature, too). As opposed to coordinate top-layer films, the capacitive layer is up to 97% transparent and thus has almost no effect on the whiteness and contrast ratio of the screen. It is due to the deterioration of these properties, particularly because of the top-layer sensor, that Sony discontinued its rather interesting PRS-700 model after less than a year of market life. On the other hand, the new PRS-600 with a touch-sensitive screen is inferior to the PRS-505 in whiteness, too.

Alas, SiPix displays have a couple of downsides that make them less appealing than they might be. Particularly, the whiteness (reflective capacity) of SiPix is 10% lower than that of new-generation E Ink displays: 30% against 40%. It means that SiPix displays look grayer than E Ink ones. And the refresh time of SiPix is somewhat higher (although E Ink displays also flicker noticeably when you turn over the pages of an e-book because their maximum refresh time is 0.7 seconds). AU Optronics is expected to get rid of both drawbacks by February, i.e. by the beginning of mass production of 6-inch and 9.1-inch SiPix displays. Test samples of such products began to be produced at the Taiwan manufacturer’s facilities back in the summer of 2009.

So, if AU Optronics does launch a powerful assault on PVI, the owner of E Ink technology that enjoys an almost 100% share of the e-book reader market, we will get an interesting alternative. It is highly exciting because tough competition would make both types of displays get cheaper at a faster rate. The market of electrophoretic displays is on the rise, but it is not infinite, after all. The display makers will have to do their best to have a larger share in those 10 million e-book readers that are supposed to be sold in 2010.

Here is one fact: PVI sold 1.7 to 2.5 million displays in 2009. Additionally, E Ink displays are manufactured by LG Display but in smaller volumes: 300 to 500 thousand units. In the current year LG is going to step up its E Ink panel manufacture and PVI is going to do the same by exclusively allocating its third China-located fab (in addition to its Taiwan and South Korean facilities) to production of E Ink panels. Besides that, Chi Mei Optoelectronics will begin to produce E Ink displays by a contract. All of this means that, being inferior to AU Optronics in production facilities, PVI is trying to avoid the possibility of a shortage of E Ink panels. But is the opponent so dangerous?

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