New Gadget Mantra: The Screen’s The Thing

We’re used to fairly similar LCD screens on pretty much all our mobile gadgets and TVs. That’s all about to change.


By now, we’re used to fairly similar LCD screens on pretty much all our mobile gadgets and TVs now. That looks like it’s about to change, with makers vying for consumer attention by promoting screen tech. Is this the new version of “megapixel wars”?


When the iPhone 4 arrived, much fuss was made of its “retina” display–an LCD with pixels so fine that in normal use they fall below the detection level of the human eyeball. Since then things have evolved, and the screen is, it seems, the new battleground for persuading users your device is better than a different one. And with some new tech breakthroughs, all our screens are about to change. You’ll need to be up on the tech in order to make an informed choice, because unlike the “megapixel wars” where camera manufacturers tried to win consumers with essentially irrelevant specs, this battle affects how you’ll see your phones and tablets:

Book-like E-ink

E-ink and Epson have just turbo-boosted E-ink “electronic paper” screen tech to new heights of pixel size that make it closer than ever to a real ink-and-paper reading experience. E-ink powers e-readers like the Kindle, and is loved by some because of its nearish print-like appearance, daylight visibility and long gadget battery life–but these current displays are typically limited to about 160 dots per inch, meaning they’re slightly pixelated, and thus detract from the ink-like feeling.

Not so E-ink’s new display which is 9.7 inches across and has 2400 by 1650 pixels on its surface. That’s 300 dots per inch, close to the limit at which the average human eye could detect the shape of a pixel. Epson has partnered with E-ink to add faster page turning and updating powers, and the result is the world’s highest resolution electronic paper display, with a speedy performance better than currently possible. Is this how Amazon could delineate its next-gen Kindle against LCD-based tablet computers?

Nanodot-boosted LCD

Nanosys’s Quantum Dot Enhancement Film does two things: It really boosts the color of a traditional LCD display, offering “OLED color depth without OLED power consumption and OLED price,” and it proves that quantum mechanics isn’t a dusty old physics concept with no real-world applications. It’s been around for a while but at the Society for Information Display conference, Nanosys just showed their tech hacked into an existing iPad design to show off its powers, and revealed it’s actually coming to market in a “mobile device” from a Korean firm in late 2011–is this the new screen tech for Samsung’s Galaxy tablets and smartphones?


Color E-ink

Ricoh has revealed a new color e-paper display that’s about two and a half times brighter than existing ones, and has around four times broader color display powers–basically beating every other on-sale or announced tech.

Color e-ink has been dismissed several times by tech-champion Jeff Bezos, who’s ruled it out of Kindles for exactly those reasons–perhaps Jeff will soon have to reconsider.


Super-retina screen for 4-inch smartphones

Also at SID 11, Toshiba revealed a 4-inch LCD-based screen for smartphones that has 1280 by 720 pixels–basically the same size in pixels as your 720p giant TV screen. This actually equates to 367 pixels per inch, blowing away Apple’s iPhone 4 display which has that hyped 326 pixels per inch “retina” status. Carrying a 720p HDTV in your pocket may sound amazing, but it’ll need the next-gen of smartphone CPUs to power it to deliver quality graphics without draining your phone’s batteries.

Long-standing rumors suggest Apple was investing in a 720p “retina” display production plant…so is this actually the first example of that, and evidence the fab partner is Toshiba rather than LG (Apple’s long-term display making partner)? We can’t tell. What we do know is that any smartphone sporting such a screen would look gorgeous–as well as all those pixels it has a contrast ratio of 1,500:1 versus the iPhone’s current 800:1.

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.


About the author

I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise. I've also got a PhD, and worked in such roles as professional scientist and theater technician...thankfully avoiding jobs like bodyguard and chicken shed-cleaner (bonus points if you get that reference!)