Tech Watch: E-Ink, Sonos, and Linux on Lenovo: Multimedia Life Gets Lighter

Listening to music gets easier just by using your iPhone or iPod Touch to remote control the Sonos multi-room music system, which controls all of the music around your house. And, electronic paper gets closer to real broadsheet displays.

If you’re into music and you’re not familiar with Sonos, then you might want to get acquainted. The company makes high-end wireless home stereo equipment with sound quality better than Sony, rivaling Bose, and with ease-of-use that is nearly Apple-like in its simplicity. To control your Sonos system, you used to need your laptop, or the company’s book-sized controller; as of today, you can now use your iPhone or iPod Touch.


After testing a Sonos sound system for three months, the way I use my music library fundamentally changed. The Sonos system, which uses your home WiFi network to broadcast music wirelessly to satellite speaker systems all over your house, can combine the music collections of several Mac or PCs, satellite radio, Web radio,, Rhapsody, Napster and Pandora — and now you can download the Sonos Controller app from the iTunes application store for free.

The system — and the iPhone/iPod app — can switch your music between “zones” of your house, adjust volume, pick tracks from any of the litany of sound sources it conflates, compose playlists, and even revert zones (or the entirety) of your stereo system to play a line-in source like a TV or DVD player.

There’s no word on whether applications are forthcoming for Google’s Android phone or BlackBerry’s application store. Now you don’t have to walk around the house carrying a computer or a controller just to switch background music while you read the newspaper.

Newspaper, it seems, might also be getting incrementally more convenient thanks to e-ink, or electronic paper. The stuff is nothing more than a novelty at this point, but that hasn’t stopped NEC from demonstrating how it might someday function in the stead of large format posters. The company has already begun testing A4 and A3 paper sizes, but it also announced this week that it could tile up to eight of the digital sheets together to make a billboard-like super-sheet — which means that e-ink newspaper format is well within reach.

Unlike regular paper, e-ink can print to within 1mm of the edge of its sheet of electronic paper, making stitching a group of these sheets together a relatively good-looking endeavor, albeit black and white, that stands nearly two feet tall and about five feet wide.

There’s no word on the resolution of NEC’s e-ink, but it is known that the low-power displays feature a 10:1 contrast ratio and 16 shades of grayscale, which is about four times as many gray colors as the Amazon Kindle. Most tech pundits concur that the market for e-ink will begin its uptick in late 2009 or early 2010; hopefully by then, they’ll have the capacity to reproduce color photography, which has become a staple of modern papers in the last few years.


If e-ink seems too purpose-driven, readers can always access their favorite papers online with an increasingly light (2-3lbs) and cheap ($300-$500) range of ultra-mobile PCs, or netbooks. Netbooks like those from Asus, Dell and HP are pushing the limits of the viability of Microsoft Windows XP, which most of the low-cost devices use because it runs better on weaker, cheaper hardware than graphics-intensive Vista. But even XP isn’t ideal, because it requires lots of hard drive space and is a bit overqualified for the simple Internet and word processing that netbooks are intended for. That’s why a number of companies have begun using Linux-derived operating systems, and Lenovo is the latest to jump on the bandwagon.

The company’s IdeaPad S10 ultraportable launched a month ago, but the company has just announced its own proprietary Splashtop instant-on operating system, which allows users to do basic tasks without having to do a full boot up into Windows. Lenovo’s version of Splashtop will be called QuickStart, and while it’s rather unimaginatively named, it will let you get online, check email, chat with friends or video conference within what Lenovo says is just “seconds” after turning on the device.

Splashtop is developed by a software company called DeviceVM, which also develops Asus’s Linux OS, and it excels on low-power and low-speed processors like Intel’s Atom processors. The software, and operating systems like it, might be the key to preserving the sanity of millions of road warriors around the country who may get netbooks this holiday season; as the devices stand right now, even the fastest ones — the Asus Eee 900 with its Intel Celeron, or the HP 2133 with its VIA C7-M chip — are frustratingly, painfully laggy during basic multi-tasking. After all, there’s no sense in being able to forward that great Times article to your colleague if it makes you want to throw your shiny new netbook at the wall.

About the author

I've written about innovation, design, and technology for Fast Company since 2007. I was the co-founding editor of FastCoLabs.