The eInk Revolution

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I want to put a concept on the public map for those who have not heard of it. The more people start googling it and asking their service providers and electronic stores about it, the sooner it could become a reality. Yes, I am guilty for slapping a jingoistic title to this otherwise bland blog post. “Revolution” is far too common a word, but I am really excited about this one.

First a few small examples of recent technologies that have changed the way we use gadgets:

  • Solid State Drives consume less battery power, last longer, and have a much higher information density than disk drives. Frankly, I am surprised the latter are still in common use.
  • Touch Screens, rather low-hanging fruit, I admit. I would be wasting my words explaining or clarifying the impact that portable touch-screen devices have changed the way we use technology in our everyday lives.
  • Universal Chargers took the world quietly. Do you remember a time not so long ago when every new cell phone came with its own special, proprietary charger, and you had to pay extra for it? Now, almost every phone (smart and dumb) charges via a micro-USB plugged into a computer or USB wall outlet adapter.
  • eReaders have changed the way we consume books. I could write a post all to itself concerning the advent of eReaders and the pros and cons of reading print vs ebook.

Which brings me nicely around to eInk Screens. Do you know why your iPhone won’t hold a charge for longer than two hours? The number one drain to a modern phone battery is the screen. It’s one thing to use the phone as a phone, leaving the screen turned off for long stretches of time, then using the phone to make a call or look something up. But you know as well as I do that we don’t use our phones that way. Phones are always on. If we’re not talking to or texting somebody, then we’re streaming video or music, navigating, or reading/commenting blog posts and social media. This, along with an always-transmitting wireless, drains the battery terribly.

I have a kindle. I like my kindle. Among other things, my kindle has a battery life of thirty days, regardless of use. That is not a joke or a typo. When the low-battery “warning” icon comes on, that really means, “you need to charge this puppy, you know, sometime this week.” Which leads one to two questions:

  1. Why does it last so long when my phone/tablet, etc doesn’t?
  2. Why can’t I get a smartphone or laptop with one of those screens?

I won’t answer the first question, because there are plenty of good articles out there already, like this one. As for the second question, it is important to understand that both eInk and LCD have their strengths and weaknesses. One of eInk’s weaknesses, and therefore LCD’s strengths, explains why kindles have evolved from simple eInk devices (like the one I have) to practically indistinguishable from tablets: refresh rate. LCD can play video, ads, and render web content. That makes it indispensable when designing a device you want to advertise on or take the user to the world wide web to shop. Hence, the Kindle Fire. Note, I have emphasized the words that suggest LCDs are more useful for designing a revenue-generating device.

E-Ink Screens, on the other hand, have max refresh rate of about twice a second, far slower than a typical LCD’s 60 Hz. They are also black-and-white only, although a handful of cutting edge eInk devices are tri-color now, supporting black, white, and red. Again, bad for media. While all of this sounds extraordinarily limited, even to the point of revulsion, keep in mind that reading is a very low-tech exercise. We’ve been reading paper for millennia, and what modern eReaders have added to that experience has mostly been interactivity and information density. Which brings us to eInk’s second desirable feature: zero glare. I won’t expound on this, because, again, there are plenty of great articles explaining this phenomenon. Simply put, you can read a kindle in direct sunlight as easily as paper, but a smartphone becomes shadowy to the point of uselessness.

All of this adds up to my excitement for the following product, for which prototypes exist but no robust, mass-marketable devices have yet been created. Imagine a laptop that runs thirty days on a charge that you can use outside in bright sunlight. For that matter, imagine ditching your micro-usb charger because your smartphone could hold a charge for weeks, despite constant use, and perform just as well in sunlight as shadow. While “revolution” may be a stretch, I do believe this is in our near future. I believe that once all of these prototypes mature, we will be faced with an explosion of sales akin to the touchscreen market of 2007-2009.

When I bought my laptop in 2011, it was fairly cutting edge for the time. An SSD, 8GB of RAM etc, were not yet available in the mainstream machines you’d find at electronic stores. The result is that, four years later, I’m typing this post on a machine that’s fairly relevant. I figure it’ll take another four years before it becomes obsolete. That is, when a standard laptop includes a 4TB SSD, 64GB of RAM, unlimited cloud storage capability, and of course a full-color, 60Hz eInk screen, giving it a 10-day battery. All I can do is watch the market as my machine slowly wanes in relevance, hoping it survives until these exciting new gadgets take over the world. Until then, happy reading.

Victor A. Davis has always loved reading and writing short stories. He is an avid hiker and even when away from the world of laptops and wifi, keeps a pocket paperback and a handwritten journal to keep him company on trail. He is the author of two short story collections, Grains of Sand and The Gingerbread Collection. Join his Mailing List for special announcements about upcoming works.