Thursday, February 4, 2010

Netbooks with e-paper screens

A few months ago, I was wondering when will the print book disappear?
One reason I didn't see that happening in the short term was that there was no ubiquitous device that served as a really good e-reader. Sure, there are e-books out there that are great for reading books, but that's all they can do. I bemoaned the lack of a ubiquitous mobile device that could serve as both an excellent e-reader (for static content like books, articles, etc.) and still be a fully functional computer. I have always loved e-paper- for reading static texts it beats any other electronic display I've seen. But e-paper is miserable at doing almost anything else you'd use an electronic display for- watching a movie, playing a game, or doing basically anything that uses moving elements. That's for two reasons; most e-paper displays are only gray scale (the rare, more expensive color ones aren't going to wow you either yet. It's more "Oh, look, color, finally!" than "Oh wow, that's beautiful. It's every bit as brilliant as my HDTV!"), and all e-paper has a limitation when it comes to the technology's refresh rate—how fast the display can update the image on the screen. For most people, it's too slow to even consider using it to type out even a short instant message. Think of that terrible frustration you feel when your computer gets bogged and the words are constantly about a half-sentence or more behind. Now imagine if that was the best your computer could ever do. And that limitation has, thus far, relegated e-paper to e-books, instead of netbooks, laptops, and other multi-purpose mobile devices. Well, I just saw two promising new products that solve exactly this problem—the enTourage eDGe e-book and a new screen LCD technology from 3qi.

The enTourage eDGe (enough with the case toggling guys—curse you iApple!) takes the brute force approach I suggested--just slap both an e-paper screen and an LCD display onto one netbook. Well, not quite a netbook… maybe next year enTourage? At its heart the Edge (I'm done toggling cases :P ) is more a beefed up cell phone than a pared down laptop/netbook. Quick rundown on some key specs: CPU: 1.2GHz Marvell ARMADA™ PXA168, 4 GB internal memory, LCD Display: 1024 x 600, E-paper Display: 1200 x 825 e-Ink, Operating System: Linux with Google Android. And all for less than $500 (which is about what I had expected—I predicted $450). I was on the cusp of overlooking the pokey processor and lack of an SSD to snap one of these up, but then I read about 3qi's new twist on some old school technology. If the interbuzz can be believed, these screens will soon be popping up on e-books, netbooks, and even full blown laptops soon.

3qi's new screen isn't actually an e-paper technology. It's a low
cost LCD that takes advantage of both transmissive (normal screen, like your laptop or HDTV) and reflective (like e-paper) light. This allows for both high-resolution, reflected grayscale images (at about 200 dpi) like e-paper, when in low power (.5 watts) backlight off mode, or full color, full motion content (just like your laptop) high power (2.5 watts peak) mode. The screen uses less power than traditional LCD (3qi expects it to consume about ½ to ¼ of the power of traditional LCDs under typical use), but it's not going to beat any actual e-paper. E-paper only needs to draw power when it is actually refreshing (redrawing) the screen. So once you pull up a page and start reading, your screen isn't drawing any power until you turn the page again. 3qi's screen will always being drawing some power, even when in backlight-off grayscale mode.

Me, I'm okay with sipping just a bit more power. After all, that means I only will be buying one device in the near future- a laptop with a 3qi screen (or similar tech from someone else :), rather than both a laptop and an e-book. I'm sure my overflowing book bag will appreciate that. If the 3qi screen is as impressive in hand as it looks on paper, then I'm sold.