by Gennadiy Detinich
02/03/2010 | 10:20 AM
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.
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?
The first announced SiPix-based device was BenQ’s nReader K60. It is oriented mostly at the Chinese market and at BenQ’s Chinese service that sales electronic texts and educational materials. BenQ owes its precedence in mastering SiPix displays to close ties with AU Optronics (both companies spun off from Acer). There is another Chinese maker Jinke Electronics which produces its e-book readers under the Hanlin brand and also distributes them with localized firmware on other markets.
There are four Hanlin models with SiPix displays. Two of them are equipped with a keyboard instead of a joystick (you can see the difference between the two versions of the 9-inch model):
I must confess the 9-inch model looks much better than the earlier angular products from Jinke/Hanlin. This is due to its rather large size, though. The model with a 6-inch display still looks somewhat angular.
The Hanlin A6 with a 6-inch display and the Hanlin A9 with a 9-inch display are scheduled for a March release. The pricing is going to be very affordable in comparison with E Ink-based devices: $275-280 for the 6-incher and $325-330 for the 9-incher. It looks like people at PVI have something to worry about. Even considering that the retail pricing of both readers is going to be higher than recommended, there is no other inexpensive 9-inch alternative for working with technical PDFs and reading magazines as yet. When it comes to E Ink-based products, you can only find a 6-inch reader for that price. Such small screens are no good for reading PDF files.
Besides, both readers, as mentioned above, support touch input without a stylus. The devices will be shipped with preinstalled dictionaries and will support various helpful features such as localized search, side notes, news aggregator, etc.
The A6 and A9 models differ in mass and weight as well as in screen resolution. The A6 measures 185.2 x 124.6 x 10.9 millimeters; the A9 measures 262 x 170 x 11.9 millimeters. They weigh 260 and 390 grams, respectively. The screen resolution of the A6 is 800x600 pixels. The A9 is 1025x768 pixels (16 grades of gray). Both are based on a Samsung ARM 400MHz processor. They are equipped with a detachable Li-Ion 1600mAh battery, a gyroscope, a Wi-Fi module, and an optical 3G module. The A6 comes with 2 gigabytes of integrated memory. The A9 has 4 gigabytes of memory. The default memory can be expanded by means of SD cards. The operating system is Linux 2.6. Both models support the protected ePub format (with Adobe ADEPT DRM). Besides, they support a regular set of ordinary formats: pdf, doc, djvu, rtf, txt, html, ppt, bmp, jpg, png, gif, tif and mp3.
As for other major makers of e-book readers, Booken has also announced its plans to use SiPix displays. The Cybook Orizon model will have a 6-inch touch-sensitive display. It will support Wi-Fi and Bluetooth and will cost about $250, which is cheaper than Bookeen’s current basic model, the 5-inch Cybook Opus with an E Ink display, which is neither touch-sensitive nor equipped with wireless interfaces.
The four years of users’ working with e-book readers that have E Ink displays have shown how fragile large displays on thin glass wafers can be. The developers of electrophoretic displays are trying to make e-book readers lighter and slimmer by using thin wafers but they prove to be too sensitive to bending or accidental shocks. And the bigger the screen, the higher the chance of the glass being broken. An e-reader can be dropped or crushed in public transport. Users at forums do not report too many of such accidents, yet the problem has to be dealt with somehow.
Back in 2000 E Ink bought a license from Lucent Technologies to produce plastic wafers with transistors made from semiconductor plastics (it was Bell Labs’ innovation). Then, the development process was split up. Philips’ daughter company Polymer Vision began to develop flexible plastic displays (it was sold to the Taiwan-based Wistron in the fall of 2009, so we expect to hear some hot news from them soon) whereas E Ink’s English partner Plastic Logic was assigned the responsibility of developing and producing ordinary plastic displays. Plastic Logic received over $100 million of investments, built its own factory near Dresden in 2008, but still does not produce plastic displays commercially. PVI seems to be ready to begin producing displays on plastic wafers simultaneously with Plastic Logic. AU Optronics is also working with plastic for SiPix films. All of this is needed to make the displays of e-book readers protected against physical damage. Plastic is far more tolerant to shocks and bending.
E-book readers with plastic displays are one of the most highly anticipated innovations of this year. All of them are going to use E Link films. Here is an example: the 901 model from PocketBook.
The PocketBook 901 is coming to the market in March. Its price is not yet disclosed. Perhaps the pricing will be based on the level set by the opponent Hanlin A9. The PocketBook 901 has a larger, 9.7-inch screen (as opposed to the Hanlin A9’s 9.1 inches) and its plastic display can only be counterweighed by the Hanlin A9’s touch sensitivity. The PocketBook 901 will be lighter than most competing large-format e-book readers due to the lack of glass in the display wafer. It weighs 350 grams, which is 150 grams lighter than the 9.7-inch Amazon Kindle DX and 40 grams lighter than the above-mentioned Hanlin A9. It should be noted that first batches of PocketBook 901 may come with older glass displays. Like Plastic Logic, PVI has problems producing plastic E Ink displays in commercial quantities.
A PocketBook 901 measures almost exactly like a Hanlin A9. It is only somewhat shorter (at 24 rather than 26 centimeters) due to the smaller diagonal of the screen (its full dimensions are 240.2 x 180.7 x 11 millimeters). The preinstalled software offers such features as dictionaries, side notes, search, sorting of books, etc. There is no Wi-Fi because this feature, together with a touch-sensitive display, will be available later in the business model PocketBook 902. The functional simplification (and the price reduction) of the PocketBook 901 model may reflect the manufacturer’s desire to extend its model range as well as its plans to promote this model as an electronic textbook. One problem I’d like to be solved in PocketBook products is the support of protected formats (Mobipocket or Adobe ADEPT DRM) which are necessary for buying books in Internet shops.
By the way, PocketBook has grandiose plans on new models of e-book readers. I am quite sure this maker is going to show its full potential in this year because in January PocketBook and the Taiwanese company Netronix, which is a major OEM of e-book readers, announced a joint venture called PocketBook Global.
Starting from mid-April, Plastic Logic will also begin to ship its exciting e-book reader called QUE:
The Plastic Logic QUE will be equipped with a 10.5-inch plastic E Ink display with a resolution of 944x1264 pixels and 8 grades of gray. Measuring 215.9 x 279.4 x 8.4 millimeters, this e-book reader will weigh 482 grams. The key feature of the Plastic Logic QUE is that it offers extended support for Microsoft Office formats, including Outlook. Being compatible with smartphones (with BlackBerries by default), the QUE can serve as an organizer and a sort of a mobile paper-less office. It must be noted that Microsoft’s formats seem to be supported through conversion into other formats through QUE’s auxiliary utilities (but PDF, GIF, JPEG, PNG, BMP, ePub and TXT are supported natively).
Besides a Bluetooth interface, the QUE is equipped with a Wi-Fi module. The senior model – there are two versions with 4GB and 8GB of memory on board – is equipped with a 3G communication module. The rich connectivity of this e-book reader is targeted at services that sell books and subscription publications (newspapers and magazines) as the 10.5-inch display will show a magazine page well without zooming in or out. The reader has a touch-sensitive display, so you can search and type test by means of a software keyboard.
Later in this year the device will be available through the retail network of Barnes & Noble, a major American bookseller which already has its own and very original model of an e-book reader called the Nook. Considering that Amazon has officially launched the 6-inch Kindle and the 9.7-inch Kindle DX readers in many countries of the world, other large publication houses may follow the suit. The QUE comes at a recommended price of $650 and $800 for the versions with and without a 3G module, respectively.
And finally, the most intriguing debut of the spring may prove to be the e-book reader Skiff with a plastic 11.5-inch E Ink display and a resolution of 1200x1600 pixels:
Skiff will have its plastic displays produced by LG Display, the number one player on the market of monitors. It means the production schedule should be followed closely, although the release date is not yet set. It will be somewhere in the first half of the year. The price is not announced yet, either. Considering the superior parameters of that model, the Skiff is unlikely to cost much below $1000 but LG’s displays are going to be the most reliable ones in their class due to the steel-foil frame integrated into the display wafer.
Like the Plastic Logic QUE, the Skiff will be equipped with Wi-Fi and 3G. The display is touch-sensitive (supports finger and stylus input). Interestingly, although the Skiff’s screen is larger by an inch, the dimensions and weight of the reader are almost unchanged. Moreover, the device is only 6.8 millimeters thick, its width and height measuring 228.6 x 279.4 millimeters. Its weight is 498 grams. The Skiff has a magnesium case, which makes it stylish and pompous. It is going to be a real aristocrat on the market of e-book readers. What is important, Skiff and its device are backed up by the publishing giant Hearst which has dozens of newspapers and almost two hundred magazines under its belt, including Cosmopolitan, Esquire and Popular Mechanics.
The year has just begun, so there will be more and more models of e-book readers. There will be a clash between 9-inch products from Hanlin and PocketBook. There will appear inexpensive and functional 6-inch e-readers with SiPix displays – the Plastic Logic QUE and the Skiff are going to cost two or three times as that. Anyway, the choice will be much broader than just a year ago.
As for the perspectives of these e-readers against the iPad, the upcoming tablet from Apple, the e-readers can win due to a long battery life. They can last days, not hours as tablets with LCD screens, on a single battery charge. They also have a lower weight (about 150-250 grams for 5-6-inch models as opposed to tablets that weigh almost 1 kilo at a screen diagonal of 10-11 inches) and can work in reflected light. However glamorous a colorful LCD screen can be, it can hardly be read in sunlight whereas electronic-ink displays work perfectly under bright ambient lighting.