Why Nobody Will Buy a Color E-Ink E-book Reader

Kindle with books

E-ink is one of the more unusual technologies to spring up in recent years. It's both more expensive and less versatile than LCD, a long-established product seen in everything from iPods to TVs. It's incredibly specific, but also incredibly good at its one job: reading text.

E-ink e-book readers like the Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook offer, in the opinion of myself and many others, the best digital book-reading experience available. The battery life is astounding (the new Kindle gets up to a month of battery life. An entire month!), they can be used outside without glare, and they quite simply look more like printed, physical ink and paper than any other display ever created. You can lose yourself in e-ink, which is about the best compliment I can give to a digital reader.

On the other hand, LCD devices in a similar package, including tablets like Apple's iPad, offer a passable reading experience on top of a whole host of features e-ink will never, ever be able to handle. E-book readers are better for books; tablets are better for everything else. So tablets and e-book readers exist in an odd sort of stalemate right now: neither can quite replace the other.

But I do believe that LCD and other, more modern displays (including Pixel Qi, LED, AMOLED, and countless other acronymic display types) will advance to the point where they offer a reading experience at least comparable to e-ink. Some have already been made--the iPad's IPS LCD display is better than expected in outdoor use, for example--and that's the wave of the future. And at that point, e-ink will die.

E-ink will die mostly because it fundamentally can't compete with tablets. That's why announcements like today's, in which E-Ink (it's a company as well as that company's main--or only?--product) claimed it will release both a color and a touchscreen version by early 2011, is so confusing. But color and interface are hardly the only obstacles e-ink has to overcome to compete with tablets: Its refresh rates make video largely impossible, it can't cram in enough pixels to make still photos look any more crisp than a day-old McDonald's french fry, and, most damnably, it's still extremely expensive.

I've used both color and touchscreen e-ink displays before. Before its untimely demise, I saw a prototype version of the Skiff newspaper reader with color, and I've used Sony's Reader Touch Edition as well. The Skiff's color was faded, like a photocopy of a photocopy, an extremely unimpressive display closer to old four-color comics than crisp digital imagery. Sony's Touch Edition suffers from enjoyment-killing glare and a slow response rate. While I'm sure the technology for both color and touch can be advanced, I'm not the least bit convinced that it'll ever get to the point where those features are competitive. By the time e-ink catches up to modern-day LCD (and that's assuming it ever does, which is a hefty assumption), LCD will have advanced as well.

Amazon showed that the way to make e-book readers sell like blazes is to lower the price to near-impulse-item territory. Its new $140 Kindle sold out of pre-orders almost immediately, and there's been more buzz around the next version than can be explained through hardware upgrades alone. It's a great reader, don't get me wrong, but its incredible sales numbers are due in large part to the price cut.

Color and touchscreen e-book readers would require a substantial increase in price, to accommodate the new technology. But that's exactly the wrong way to advance e-ink--the price needs to remain as low as possible.

Why is E-Ink pretending that features like color and touch interfaces are important, necessary, or even desirable for its product? E-ink readers like the Kindle offer the best digital reading experience on the market--why muck it up with expensive and useless features?

E-ink may not have a long future, but until LCD can learn some very difficult new tricks, it'll survive. Diluting that purpose for half-baked progress to compete with tablets is the wrong direction for e-ink.

Dan Nosowitz, the author of this post, can be followed on Twitter, corresponded with via email, and stalked in Brooklyn (no link for that one--you'll have to do the legwork yourself).

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15 Comments

  • Contributor

    As of now, I don't see E-ink technology as having the same direction as LCD, even though it has similarities. It would be cool to one day watch a movie using this tech.
    It is good on my eyes!! I don't feel tired after reading heaps of technical papers vs on a monitor. It is a good tech for me, thumbs up for it to improve!! 

  • Kalera Stratton

    I love stumbling on articles like this a year and a half later, it makes me LOL my pance.

  • Reyter

    I agree with most of the comments here. I own a Sony e-book reader and am absolutely delighted with it.  Specifically, reading books off an LCD screen is very tiresome and very difficult. E-ink seems just like a real book to me. When and if a color e-book reader with a performance that matches Sony's (probably Kindle and others are just as good but I can't comment because I've never used them) I am very much looking forward to buying it.

    Of course Fujitsu came out with a color e-ink e-book reader some years ago but it was very expensive and the performance quite poor.

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  • nassik

    Dan, pal dont make technology predictions. It's just not your thing man. IMO e-ink and especially color e-inc both have very bright feature and are poised to replace LCD in most applications. And for the fellow readers, please take into account that e-inc is not matured enough yet. Moore's law however is quickly taking charge. My observations follow:

    E-INC DOES NOT CONSUME  ENERGY TO PRESERVE STATE and DOES NOT REQUIRE ADDITIONAL ENERGY TO BE HIGHLY VISIBLE/READABLE.E-INC DOES NOT CAUSE THE SAME EYE STRAIN AND FATIGUE AS SCREENS THAT EMIT LIGHT.If we go back in time we can see similar articles discussing LCD vs CRT. "Who with their right mind could ever use those expensive dim, ghostly LCDs, right?" :) was the usual mantra of the talkin heads of the time.LCDs won because they offered 50% reduction in space and energy consumption, not to mention the reduced fatigue after long exposure. They started small (indicator displays, industrial equipment) and then completely took over.Today e-inc and similar technologies offer 99% reduction of energy consumption and 50% space reduction.  The fatigue reduction advantage is also much greater compared to LCD vs CRT battle. So the outcome is no brainer to me :).I predict three waves of e-inc adoption:

    1. The main driver of e-inc RND in the near feature will be all those self powered electronic devices that have to constantly display status information and require slow refresh rate.
    Network & industrial equipment, 
    Home electronic clocks, 
    stupid (not smart) phones, 
    medical scales (all medical devices actually)
    house/building management consoles... so on so forth. will all pretty soon start employing e-inc. 
    Main reasons being reduction in energy consumption along with high visibility.
    Case in point: My 4GLTE hotspot already has e-inc display to preserve battery.

    2. Second wave will be presentation, advertising and marketing devices and specialized screens. 
    All those are poised to go to e-inc. for the very same reasons mentioned above plus:
     a) reduced legal exposure (light emitting billboards are increasingly being banned from residential and recreational areas because they disturb residents, especially at night).
     b) e-inc due to its mechanical nature can be easily and conveniently scaled up, much more so than Plasma, LCD or OLED
     c) Government regulations such as 15 min rest for every 45 min screen work can be relaxed leading to stuff reduction (i.e. profit increases).
     
    Applications include but are not limited to
    The big billboards you see in the city; 
    Floating signs, 
    airport and train station schedules; 
    Company and merchant signs. 
    Restaurant and shopping centers menu/pick of the day boards. Bank, train airport clerks (all those that look at the same screen 8 hours each day)... etc.3. Third wave are the devices where color depth, response/refresh speed and smoothness of motion are important: Medical tablets, newspapers, e-books .. etc. 

    e-inc is the future folks. Click your belts and enjoy the ride.

  • yahman

    Interesting article but again as U P pointed out, eye strain and ergonomic design is an issue with LCD screens. I wish that they make eink monitors for computers. the internet has more information than you can get in a book, and people do rely on the internet to get their facts and information, books are just for pleasure reading, such as reading a novel but when it comes to reading for homework, obtaining information, and facts, the internet is your best source.

    I think I've seen hybrid screens (combination of LCD and eink), and I think that would be the future monitors for now untill the make them even better (erognomically designed to reduce strain).

    one problem with eink is speed, it's very slow, and perhaps they will make them faster, in color, and cheaper (I hope that happens in the future).

    I personally don't like small screens because they cause eye strain for prolonged reading, the bigger the screen, the better it is for prologned reading. small screens are only good for portability, such as reading a book on the subway for few minutes. I hope that they make eink with bigger screens, in color, fast, and cheap.

    in the future they may even have something better than eink or LCD ! the point is that you can't predict the future, it is full of surprises.

  • U P

    Nice article, it has plenty strengths but I have some questions to challenge your point,

    1. How can you be so sure about e-ink's future, if it has the potential to substitute newspapers, magazines books, as in now, and providing it for a very little price and benefiting both customers and publishers?

    2. Have you met anyone who is having problems staring at a laptop screen at their homes, in a park or on a beach? Do not you think that an e-book reader has another strong point for being readable under bright light? In addition, it is a fact that, e-readers cannot show videos, or connect to web, or let you play Angry Birds, but are not iOS and Android tablets a niche market in their rights? How do you justify not giving e-book readers/e-ink a niche market for their right? Additionally, in my opinion, you are missing the point of reading books, articles, programming books, medical journals, news, etc. with watching videos, checking your e-mails, playing games, surfing the web, etc.?

    3. When I bought my first e-ink device (Hanlin V3) in 2008, I thought I was the one of the few people, who owns the device, due to its rather high price then and effort needed to get it delivered to Europe. However, even then, there was a huge fan base, and company, today, has not discontinued the device the same device yet, on the contrary, Hanlin has been providing upgrades for it. If you ever visited cities like, London, Moscow and Beijing, you would be surprised, how many people rely on this technology while commuting. If there is demand in some countries, why would this technology diminish?

    See the artilcle, mentioned device in the article is Lbook.ua - which is again a Hanlin V3; http://www.telegraph.co.uk/spo...

    4. Since 2008, the time when Sony Prs 550, Hanlin V3, Kindle, Cygen and iRex were in circulation, e-ink readers have not lost their impetus, have not they; on the contrary, as we have seen during this Christmas, e-book readers was one the fast selling gadgets? (I live in the UK)

    See; http://www.reghardware.com/201...

    5. How about eye strain issue? Though, I have not found a reliable research comparing the advantages and vice versa of both technologies, anyone that I have met so far, mentioned about how their 'eyes' are happy thanks to this e-ink technology. Even if there is no proven advantage of e-ink over lcd yet, it can be claimed that many feel happy with e-ink screens for an unproven reason. It seems to me that there e-ink screens have a self-attracting factor. Do not you think it is another reason that will keep the e-book sales up?

    Regards,

  • dat tou

    So there's this little thing called Color E Ink. I realize this article is a few months old, but I agree with Joshua that it is a bit shotty, even for it's time. Check out the Hanvon, a 10 inch Color E ink reader to be released in China. The Hanvon device itself has some drawbacks (resistive touch screen, and the like), but the color e ink is a step towards bridging the gap between the ease of reading with gray scale e ink and the attractive color and improved viewing angle of ISP enhanced LCD based readers.

    I'd give Amazon another year to catch up before expecting to see this integrated with the Kindle.

  • theNewerYork Press

    Man, incredibly flimsy article!

    The difference between e-ink and LCD, that you did not mention, was that there is actual ink, like an electric etch n' sketch. It is strange for a tech writer that you didn't once think about the fact that not only are there glareless LCD screens, but there are e-ink devices with glares, it has to do with the interface/screen covering being glass or something else.

    No body wants to read an entire book with light shooting into their retinas. If LCD does "catch up" as you say it might, it will still need to face problems of backlighting or external writing, at which point it will just be color e-ink. Me and many other people will not buy a tablet until we can switch its e-ink on for extended reading.

    Think a little more. . . if you guys need extra writers gimme a call.

  • Simon Thompson

    Why do you think any of these things about either e-ink or LCD? Do you have an inside track on the physics and manufacturing technology required to make LCD's that are e-ink competitive?

    It's weird that you define market sectors in as uninhabitable for a particular technology - if colour e-ink or touch e-ink are excellent products why should they not sell at ipad price points?

    Video is a great application - but not the only internet application; or the only media application.

  • Jim Fallone

    The questions is really about short term and long term. The crispness of LCD (like a very tiny Lite-Brite board) is not the best optical solution for long viewing. You can compare the two here.http://bit.ly/brwUnt Simply stare are the magnified images of both an e-ink and LCD screen and you quickly seen how when reading off LCD screens you eye is forced to subtly but constantly bounce across all the points of light. With e-ink the negative space disappears into the background and the eye can focus on just the lines of ink. Once technology gets the process down in price or there is an equally well executed but cheaper equivalent to e-ink there will be a tipping point and we will see e-ink monitors for laptops and workstations. As long as cost is an issue we will put up with eye strain but once I have a choice of a relatively equally priced and equally crisp e-ink display and LCD display my eyesight will become the deciding factor.

  • jakemayer

    Oh I don't know. Perhaps I am just old fashioned, but as much as I love gadgets I still prefer to turn off the computer at the end of the day and read an actual book. Especially with prices so low at websites like ebay, or with book price finders like http://www.bargainbookmole.org (I use their firefox add-on), it is less expensive to just buy the book- and then you really do own it!

  • MITDGreenb

    As sad as it makes me to say it, it's today's version of...
    RISC processors in the 90's (e.g., Mac G3, G4, G5)
    Ferroelectric memory in the 80's
    Magnetic bubble memory in the 70's
    All of these have certain things in common: they are all better than alternatives for certain applications... and those applications do not drive enough volume relative to the alternatives. Therefore, over time, the alternatives catch up in functionality (because they have more absolute dollars invested in R&D due to higher volumes), widen the price gap (because more volumes drives more manufacturing investment and a better learning curve), or both. Eventually the price gap is so wide that brute force with the alternatives becomes economical. (Cheap disk drives are unreliable? Buy 5 and make RAID.) Or the functionality difference is too small for the mass market to care. (MP3 is not as good as CD Audio? Who cares if I am using it for background noise while jogging.) Or both.

  • Yacko

    E-ink will always have the Franklin reader $50 share of the market that all book reader devices will inhabit in 3 or 4 years.