CES 2011: Duel of the Color E-reader Displays

Post updated January 8, 2011

E-readers with E-ink screens (like the Kindle) require less power and look better in the sun than their backlit LCD counterparts. But they’re missing one important thing—color (OK, they're also missing video playback speeds, too). Back in March, we did an in-depth examination of new, sunlight-readable display technologies. And at this year’s CES, we got to see and compare two of the alternatives with our own eyes. Qualcomm showed off their latest Mirasol color display, while Hanvon showed off the first e-reader with color E-ink.

The display on Hanvon's reader was about the size of A4 paper. It works basically the same as the black and white E-ink screens, with electrophoretic pixels that reflect and absorb ambient light. These pixels display color after a voltage applied to tiny capsules moves charged pigments.

Hanvon made news in November of last year when it announced that it would be first to market a color version of this technology. But at the show, the device seemed painfully slow: It took 2 or 3 seconds to refresh each page. In addition, the color was far from vivid. It was more like hints of color that worked better for the comics on the demo unit than they would for photographs.

Qualcomm's Mirasol display, on the other hand, looked generally great. We were impressed with Mirasol at last year's CES, but this year the prototype unit was out on its own, without any special lighting or display. (If anything, the booth lighting was a harsher lighting environment than most people would choose to read in). Although there was no announcement of a commercial device yet, continual leaks from PocketBook make it appear likely that a reader will be announced soon.

In addition to displaying color magazine and book images, this prototype unit was also running at 30 frames per second, allowing smooth video playback. Mirasol is based on interferometric modulation technology. It uses microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) to reflect specific colors of light (a bit like the wings of a butterfly--Mirasol's logo). The company claims that an image can remain on the screen with near zero power consumption. 

When it comes to novel display technologies, the big question is always manufacturing. Qualcomm recently announced a billion-dollar new display fabrication plant in Longtan Science Park in Taoyuan, Taiwan has started making the displays for uses in devices. Again, the first might be a line of Pocketbook e-readers, if we believe the rumors spreading around the show, but both Pocketbook and Qualcomm are keeping mum.

Posted by Joshua Romero and Joseph Calamia

For more gadget news, check out our complete coverage of the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show.

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