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CES 2012: Color e-Ink readers are finally a reality, though not in the U.S.

Consumer Reports News: January 12, 2012 04:08 PM

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The first color e-book readers that use low-energy screens like those on black-and-white models like the Kindle and Nook Simple Touch will hit some foreign markets this year, but won't might not be available in the U.S., at least to typical consumers.

The two leading manufacturers for energy-efficient color e-book screens were both at CES, showing the first-ever color e-book readers that aren't based on LCD screen technology. E Ink, which makes the black-and-white screens for both Nooks and Kindles, was showing the Jetbook Color from Ectaco, a 9.7-inch device aimed at educational use that's already in use in Russian schools. And Mirasol, the Qualcomm division whose prototype color reader I saw at last year's CES, has the Hanvon C18, a 5.7-inch device that will launch soon in China.

Ectaco won an Innovation Award from CES for the Jetbook Color, which focuses on educational use with such features as an interface that organizes homework by subject and provides links for communications to and from teachers. The company has an unremarkable 5-inch black-and-white reader in our e-book reader Ratings, but has no plans for a U.S. launch for this device, according to E Ink spokespeople.

Although E Ink says its color screens will not be available in the U.S. this year, a representative for Ectaco says the company is taking online pre-orders for its $500 JetBook Color e-reader with shipments to U.S. customers expected to begin on Monday January 16.

These devices are interesting to Americans mostly as a glimpse of the evolution of color e-ink. To ensure miserly energy use, e-ink relies on illumination from reflected ambient light. That's tended to limit the color intensity of images on its prototype color screens compared with those on the backlit LCD screens of existing color e-book readers such as the Barnes & Noble Nook Color.

The two devices at CES looked to me to have slightly bolder colors than prototypes I had seen at past shows, from these and other companies. Yet the color palette was still muted, and resembled that of color images in newspapers during their early years of experimentation with four-color printing, and would never be mistaken for the bright bold images from an LCD screen. The e-ink devices, too, are limited for now to still photo images, with no video capability.

Their type, however, looked comparable in quality and readability to those of better monochrome e-book readers, and company spokespeople said run times on a charge will be in the same ballpark as those devices---that is, in the realm of weeks rather than days or hours.

My bottom line: Though interesting, color e-ink still "isn't ready for prime time," as Amazon president Jeff Bezos declared when I asked him about the technology in an interview last year. That said, it's a technology that merits continued monitoring, given the appeal of color devices that would allow you to read and view images without having to worry about battery life.

Paul Reynolds

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