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Color e-book readers expected late this year or early in 2011

Consumer Reports News: January 22, 2010 11:28 AM

The Alex features a second, color LCD screen.
E Ink, which makes the larger display screens,
says it expects to send color versions to e-book
manufacturers later this year.
Photo: Spring Design

Dedicated e-book readers with color screens will likely arrive on the North American market early in 2011, likely employing a range of screen technologies.

E Ink, the company that provides the display technology used in e-book readers of many brands, says it expects to begin shipping screens that use a color version of its existing monochromatic display technology to e-book manufacturers late in 2010. It's questionable if any models will actually hit the U.S. market this year. More likely, said the E Ink spokesmen, is that at least some color models will be unveiled at next year's edition of the Consumer Electronics Show, and go on sale later in 2011.

Meantime, e ink may not be the only technology that brings color to dedicated e-book readers. The Times of London this week reported that Asus has a color e-book reader set to launch later in 2010 that will use a 6-inch OLED screen. Used in some smartphones and select smaller TVs, OLED (for organic light-emitting diode) screens are very bright and yield deep blacks. No price is reported for the Asus, but it could be stiff, since the only OLED TV available in North America, a 11-inch Sony model, costs a stunning $2,500. But it looks great, as we reported when it launched in 2008. 

The only color e-book reader on the market to date is a pricey Fujitsu model available only in Japan, which appears to use another low-energy technology similar to e ink's. The only color model I saw at CES this year was a prototype second-generation version of the Skiff, a new e ink reader that's yet to launch in even its monochrome version. The results weren't perfect—colors appeared less saturated than in print—but the demo was fascinating nonetheless. Hanvon, a Chinese brand, used CES to announce that they'd go into production with a color model late in 2010; price, images, and other details were not provided.

A number of e-book readers, including the Barnes and Noble Nook and Alex, now add color capability by supplementing their e-ink screen with a second, LCD touchscreen that's typically used for a combination of navigation and display of color content.  

A key design challenge to developing color capability on e-ink screens has been that it produces a slightly grayer background to type, possibly compromising the readability of monochromatic type—still the most important attribute of an e-book reader, after all. The E Ink executives told me that they've conquered the problem by developing deeper black e inks. Those blacker blacks, they said, will allow color e ink screens to have comparable contrast—the key attribute that drives readability, they said—to today's monochromatic models, even though the background on which the type sits is grayer.

Paul Reynolds

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