Thinking of buying an e-reader? Hit the brakes. Two near-future technologies make today’s products obsolete in 2018. And they’re a big deal.
Why Today’s E-Readers Won’t Hold Up in 2018
Technology changes. Unlike smartphones, e-reader technological progress occurs at a glacial pace. Incremental refinements to e-paper screens — known as E Ink — release every three years. Updates to the guts of the device (the processor) occur even less frequently.
That means major technological innovation occurs so rarely that when it does reach devices, it’s a very big deal. And two major inventions to e-readers will release sometime between 2017 and 2018.
Of the two innovations, the biggest is a new e-paper display: CLEARink. CLEARink comes in two versions. The first, CLEARink “video,” releases at the tail end of 2017. The second, CLEARink “bistable,” may release in 2018 and targets digital signage, e-readers, and more.
CLEARink Blots Out E Ink
New screen technologies rarely enter the market. The two biggest reasons, among all of these concerns, are cost and appearance. If a display costs more to manufacture than competitors, it needs to look great. If it doesn’t look amazing, then consumers won’t buy it.
What makes CLEARink a contender in many different markets: it’s both cheaper to produce and looks better than its e-paper competitors. The technology brims with so much promise that it won Best of Show at Display Week 2017.
Sri Peruvemba, Head of Marketing at CLEARink Displays, answered several questions regarding CLEARink Display’s electrophoretic technology. Here are just a few reasons why CLEARink seems destined to become a mover and shaker in the e-reader space.
CLEARink Looks Better Than E Ink
The CLEARink technology looks like E Ink, but with some big differences. While both share an underlying technology (electrophoresis), the secret behind CLEARink lies in a new type of ink, co-developed with Merck, and a reflective panel. Here’s how it compares to LCD, OLED, and e-paper:
The new ink and reflective panel make images that are sharper and clearer compared to E Ink displays. According to CLEARink Displays CEO Frank Christiaens, CLEARink’s whites offer twice the “reflectance” (or whiteness) of E Ink, which almost equals ink on paper. Part of its competitive edge lies in its simplicity. Instead of using two kinds of inks (or pigments), CLEARink employs just one. According to Peruvemba:
“E Ink uses a two particle system to generate black and white. To generate white, E Ink uses a white particle to reflect light. Whereas CLEARink only uses one particle — black — to generate black state. To generate white, CLEARink uses a TIR (Total Internal Reflection) film on the front surface.”
The end result: higher contrast, lower power consumption, and even color video, when combined with an LCD layer.
While CLEARink’s video variant consumes more energy than E Ink, its power consumption relative to LCD comes in around 80 to 90 percent less. In addition, it can display motion video with a refresh rate of around 33 Hz — a little choppy, but good enough.
But there’s more. A lot more.
It Comes in Color
Unlike E-Ink, CLEARink can overlay an LCD color layer in order to create images with 4,096 levels of color (that’s known as high color). That means it can do a lot more than just read books. It can also render the screen animations and icons of an operating system.
Beyond Reading E-Books: Preventing Insomnia and Eye Damage
Some of you might wonder why an e-reader should display color and video. After all, you really only want to read on it — not watch videos. One reason is health-related.
It seems that glowing screens can cause insomnia and eye damage. While you can install blue-filter apps on LCD panels, they don’t block 100% of blue light. The only 100% effective filter is to use a reflective (non-emissive) technology, like an E Ink or similar e-paper display. For example, a technology like CLEARink emits zero ultraviolet and blue light.
On top of that, a display technology capable of rendering color and video can also run the Android operating system. Here’s an example of just a few indispensable Android apps:
- Google Play Books: Google Books allows you to upload your own digital books and sync your reading position across any device.
- FeedMe RSS Reader: If you read RSS (and you should, it’s an amazing platform for consuming news),
- Firefox Mobile: Firefox is one of the best mobile browsers around. Not only is it extensible (you can add crazy extensions to Firefox), it can also open tabs in the background).
Aside from reading web pages, news, and RSS feeds, CLEARink might be able to reduce the cost of your devices.
Why CLEARink Costs Less Than E Ink and LCD
CLEARink fits into the already enormous LCD manufacturing process. On top of that, it requires fewer materials in order to produce it.
Think of it this way: LCD screens and E Ink screens consist of a number of sandwiched layers. LCD requires a polarizing layer, a reflecting layer, three color layers, and more. E Ink also requires several layers. CLEARink simplifies the production process down to three layers. In theory, it would cost less to manufacture than even LCD (which is already the cheapest screen for manufacturers to produce).
CLEARink Comes in Larger Sizes Than E Ink
While E Ink panels — after years of development — only recently began releasing in sizes larger than six inches, CLEARink’s manufacturing process works at any size. While 17-inch laptops may fall outside of its purview, it wouldn’t surprise me to see larger reading devices available some time in the near future.
There’s No Competition
As of 2017, no other e-paper display offers full motion video and color. However, in 2016, E Ink Holdings Inc. announced its Advanced Color ePaper Display (ACeP). Unfortunately, ACeP’s sluggish refresh speed made it a poor candidate for use in an e-reader. ACeP’s only application, until at least 2018, will be in digital signage.
Another color e-paper display seemed ideal for use in a tablet: Amazon’s Liquavista. Unfortunately, despite some false signs of hope, Liquavista screens failed to enter any of Amazon’s e-reader or tablet product lines.
Unlike smartphones and tablets, e-readers heavily rely on their system-on-a-chip (SoC) for page refreshes. The screen technology alone is only half the equation for building a better e-reader.
The i.MX 7 Makes E-Paper Screens a Lot Faster
Two issues with E Ink are jarring screen transitions and an inability to render video. At its worst, E Ink looks as demonstrated in the following video:
In short, it lacks the fluidity of the Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) found in almost all televisions and some smartphones.
However, here’s a little-known secret: E Ink technology can display video. The problem is that it cannot fluidly display animated images without something called a waveform.
A waveform [PDF] is the code that governs how hardware draws images on an E Ink display. Due to a technical limitation of the current generation of hardware, a separate waveform must be written for each application.
For example, watching video would require a separate waveform from reading a book. The additional programming overhead required of a waveform greatly slows down the development and release of e-readers. Fortunately, the company responsible for e-reader processors (Freescale) came up with a novel solution.
The Freescale i.MX 7 System on a Chip
Writing the underlying software of a waveform requires an absurd amount of expertise and skill — and that’s where the Freescale i.MX 7 comes into the spotlight. The i.MX 7 no longer requires individual waveforms for each application. Instead, the i.MX 7 employs hardware features to efficiently draw images. This means lower power consumption and lightning fast screen refreshes.
Despite some serious delays, the i.MX 7 appears to have finally received a home in Dasung’s Paperlike Pro E Ink monitor, which sells for around $800. As you can see from the video below, both screen animation and text fluidly move at a speed approaching an LCD panel:
I’m not entirely certain that the Paperlike Pro uses the i.MX 7 processor, but given its LCD-like refresh speed, there doesn’t appear to be any other explanation.
Absolutely Need an E-Reader? What Should You Buy?
If you absolutely must purchase an e-reader immediately, I recommend a stop-gap solution — something inexpensive to tide you over until CLEARink or the i.MX 7 releases. One option comes to mind: the Kindle Paperwhite 2.
The Kindle Paperwhite 2 offers pretty much identical hardware to the latest version, at a killer price of around $60. It’s also available on used marketplaces, such as eBay, for even less. On the downside, it suffers from an inability to read .EPUB files (which means you have to convert EPUB or MOBI into PDF). In my opinion, not being able to natively read .EPUB files is a deal-breaker. However, if you’re looking for a stop-gap solution, it’s an adequate device.
Image Credit: NikolaJankovic via Shutterstock.com