Electronic ink in readers and not only – yesterday, today, tomorrow

An interesting fact is that electronic paper has been around for over 40 years. The first attempts to create it were made in the 1970s at the Xerox research center. Almost 30 years later, the technology was able to become widespread. This happened after the introduction of electronic ink in readers, which previously used TFT screens. In this blog, we will discuss the key features, development history and possible future of E Ink electronic ink technology.

A bit of theory
At the heart of almost all modern readers is a screen built on the basis of electronic ink. This technology imitates printing on plain paper. The E Ink display consists of tiny transparent capsules, inside of which there is a liquid with two pigments – black and white. White particles are positively charged, black particles are negatively charged. Under the influence of an electric field, these particles form a monochrome image.

At the same time, the information displayed on the display is retained even after the power is turned off. Thus, energy is spent solely on updating the screen while turning pages. Hence the main trump card of the technology is the highest energy efficiency.

Generations E Ink
Today, electronic ink is strongly associated with the E Ink Corporation, which at one time bought up all promising competitors. The Japanese company Sony also made a significant contribution to the popularization of technology. Once upon a time, her readers were the dream of all bibliophiles.

E Ink Vizplex is the first generation of e-ink. The maximum resolution was 600 × 800 pixels, the contrast ratio was 7:1. The frankly gray screen was extremely slow to update, and the display quality was comparable to a tabloid novel printed on cheap paper. Devices on Vizplex are now completely discontinued.

SONY PRS-300 with E Ink Vizplex Screen

E Ink Pearl came next and shook up the market quite well. White backing, 10:1 contrast ratio, built-in backlighting and weeks of battery life – many have already wanted such readers. E Ink Pearl HD became an evolutionary continuation. They received a contrast ratio increased to 12: 1 and a resolution of 758 × 1024 pixels. Readers with such screens can still be found in stores, but leading manufacturers have already abandoned them.

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E Ink Carta is the current generation of electronic ink. Does not glare in the sun, has a lighter substrate and a high contrast ratio of 15:1. Six-inch books with this screen retained the Pearl HD resolution of 758 × 1024 pixels. For large readers, it can reach 1404 × 1872 dots. E Ink Carta’s fonts look crisper, which greatly improves reading quality. In the latest models, you can find an E Ink Carta Plus screen with a pixel density of up to 300 ppi – this display corresponds to good paper printing.

Back in the days of Pearl HD, Mobius technology appeared , designed to eliminate the main drawback of E Ink – a very fragile screen. To do this, they decided to apply electronic ink not on glass, but on a plastic substrate. As a result, it was possible to reduce the sensitivity to mechanical stress and increase the screen size. So there were readers with a diagonal of 10 and even 13 inches. For some, such dimensions may seem inconvenient, but comic book lovers and readers of technical literature will definitely not pass by.

Color reader – fact or fiction?
It took almost two decades to develop the E Ink color screen. The technology developers tried several different approaches until they settled on using a layer of color filters on top of conventional electronic ink. The first pancake called E Ink Triton came out lumpy in 2013. Users did not appreciate the low resolution, poor contrast, dull colors and high price.

The second attempt was more successful. In Kaleido / Kaleido Plus color ink , many characteristics have been significantly improved, and the screen has received three modes of operation: black and white (300 ppi), color (100 ppi) and mixed (for black and white areas – 300 ppi, in color areas – 100 ppi).

Unfortunately, the greyish background and pale colors still make the purchase decision moot. Although at a price such readers have already approached their black and white counterparts.

Now E Ink has rolled out the third generation of color electronic paper – Kaleido 3 . We are promised 30% more saturated colors and new advanced backlighting. There are plans to release displays with a diagonal of 8, 10 and even 13 inches. The first devices will be shown in the second half of 2022.

Advantages and disadvantages of electronic ink
Disputes between supporters of electronic reading and connoisseurs of real books have not subsided for years. Of course, a good paper book is much more fun than any other option. However, with its cost of conditional 300-500 rubles, even an expensive reader will easily beat itself off in a couple of years. Secondly, electronic devices take up much less space and allow the creation of huge portable libraries.

With tablets it is already more difficult – their owners have a much harder time admitting the need to buy another device. However, e-readers have many advantages , and the most obvious of them is long-term autonomy. The use of E Ink technology allows you not to charge the reader for weeks, while the tablet consumes energy constantly and will not last a day without recharging.

Secondly, electronic paper has a much lower impact on the eyes compared to LCD screens. First of all, this is due to the absence of a direct glow – the diodes placed around the perimeter do not shine into the eyes, but onto the substrate, and reading takes place in reflected light. Also, leading manufacturers of e-books have abandoned PWM, which is often found in tablets and smartphones. A flickering screen can tire your eyes faster, and prolonged reading from such devices can lead to visual impairment.

Another trump card of some e-books is the color adjustment of the built-in backlight. This allows you to select the screen temperature depending on the ambient light. During the day, you can make a cold backlight, in the evening – warmer.

Despite many positive aspects, E Ink technology has its drawbacks. The most obvious one is the slow screen. This does not interfere with reading at all, but it does not allow the use of interactive interface elements and smooth scrolling, which modern users are so accustomed to. Watching a movie or playing a dynamic game on the reader will not work.

The second disadvantage is a fragile display, which manufacturers are forced to either recess into the case or cover with special glass. As an additional protection, it is recommended to use a case, which can be included or sold separately.

Until recently, the problem of electronic ink was the gradual accumulation of artifacts during page turning. Regal and SNOW Field technologies were able to significantly reduce their number, which made it possible to abandon the complete redrawing when reading.

E Ink Alternatives
If we talk about direct competitors to E Ink, we managed to find only one alternative type of electronic ink in the vastness of the network – Display Electronic Slurry (DES) from the Chinese company Dalian Good Display. Several journalists and bloggers were able to get test copies of the products, which suggests that DES really exists. It is reported, however, that the software is still very crude and needs serious improvement. There have been a couple of crowdfunding campaigns, but deliveries of live devices on DES keep getting pushed back.

About a year ago, Hisense launched the 10-inch Q5 tablet. The device is equipped with an RLCD screen based on a black and white LCD panel without backlight. Unlike electronic ink, RLCD is updated much faster, but lacks the main advantage of E Ink – low power consumption. Users also note the general gray background of the display. The price was about $350.

Another Chinese company TCL showed a tablet with a color transflective display a couple of years ago. The device used NxtPaper technology, which the manufacturer described as a combination of an LCD screen and electronic paper. It also talked about the absence of flicker and blue radiation harmful to the eyes. TCL NxtPaper based displays were claimed to be 36% thinner and 65% lower power consumption compared to classic LCD panels.

In practice, NxtPaper does not look as bright as in marketing materials.

The future of technology
Electronic ink technology does not stand still and continues to evolve. E Ink screens have begun to appear in smartphones, monitors, wearables, and even license plates. Also, electronic ink is planned to be used in reusable price tags, advertising screens, calendars, hospital monitors, indexes and electronic newspapers. Many ideas are still in the concept stage, but several interesting devices have already hit the store shelves.

Many people remember the “Russian” smartphone YotaPhone, released in 2013. The device had two screens: one is a regular LCD, the second is black and white E Ink. The latter received a modest resolution of 360 × 640 pixels and a diagonal of 4.3 inches. It was assumed that the monochrome display will be used to read e-books or any other textual information, allowing you to significantly save smartphone power.

In 2020, Chinese Hisense launched the A5 phone equipped with a 5.8-inch E Ink touch screen. Later, the company showed its color version of the A5C.

ONYX International has gone even further with the introduction of the Mira Pro 25.3-inch E Ink Monitor. According to the manufacturer, such a display will be a great help for those who work a lot with text – editors, programmers, engineers, students. There is only one pitfall – the price, which today is almost 200 thousand rubles. For this amount, you can take a good professional monitor of any diagonal and resolution.

Finally, let’s watch a video with a BMW concept car, the body of which is covered with small segments made using E Ink technology. Such a car can change color at the request of the owner!