Gizmodo's just secured its latest hot-topic gizmo leak, the Barnes and Noble e-reader that we got excited about last week with color e-ink rumors. Guess what: There's no color e-ink! It's got something almost better.
We've known for months that bookseller and publisher B&N had an e-reader on the works, and last week's color e-ink rumor really stirred things up—it would be a feature beating all other available or due-soon e-readers, including Amazon's Kindle. That excitement was abruptly quashed by B&N itself, which flatly denied a color e-reader was coming. But now that Gizmodo's secured some photos, renderings and details via a "source from within" the company, it seems that B&N was telling a half-truth. The device (which may, or may not, be named the eBook) has not one screen, but two: A standard daylight-viewable e-ink unit, and a neat full-width, multitouch, full-color LCD one.
The e-ink screen is a typical six-inch 800 x 600 pixel number, with the same benefits (easy on the eye, low power consumption, good daylight performance) as screens on all similar e-readers, and the same flaws (slow refresh rates, limited grayscale powers). As such, it's no more exciting than the Kindle 2, the Cool-er, or any other one you can buy.
But the lower LCD is where everything gets much more exciting: it's a 480 x 144 pixel screen (at 150dpi) that takes up the bottom fifth of the whole e-reader, and it's designed for doing all those nice graphical extras that an e-ink display just can't do. Things like full-color CoverFlow-esque book cover browsing, advanced menu control, touchscreen keyboard, and perhaps social-net chatting. This last is suggested by the rumored social-net tie-ins built deep into B&N's device, which also explains why the sparse button interface of the machine includes a user-profile button. To lower the power consumption, the color screen will disengage when you're reading—though I'm guessing you can choose to reactivate it and take the hit on battery life, should you wish.
The upshot of all this? Barnes and Noble may genuinely be about to tear to the top of the e-reader game. The dual-screen option is a neat work-around, which lets it make the most of the two different screen techs without compromising performance, and beats any one else's attempt at a glitzy e-reader hands-down. Gizmodo's also reporting that though the price isn't known, B&N will be bringing it in at a lower price than the Kindle 2—that means less than $259—and that e-book versions of its own publications will come with deep discounts, compared to Amazon's relatively high prices. If B&N's gone with a GSM chipset to enable wireless downloading/social networking, the device could also beat Amazon's bungled International Kindle effort.
Obviously it's a hybrid device, and the history of such gizmos suggests that they're not very long-lived—in B&N's case, the threat to its e-reader is the upcoming slew of tablet PCs, and the fact it's a largely single-use device in an era of product consolidation. Admittedly, being single use isn't perceived as a boundary by Openmoko with their portable Wikireader, but nevertheless I suspect there's a little window of opportunity for B&N to really clean up with this machine, whatever it ends up being called.