First consumer color E Ink device unveiled; is it relevant?

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Currently readers of e-books are faced with something of a conundrum. You can get a lightweight E Ink device that only supports grayscale, or go with a heavier, power-hungry LCD tablet that can deliver e-books and periodicals in color.

In theory at least, color E Ink will put an end to this compromise. Color E Ink technology should be as light and energy-efficient as grayscale E Ink, but until now it hasn't been available to consumers. That should change today at the FPD International tradeshow in Tokyo, when Beijing-based Hanvon Technology introduces a 9.68" color E Ink reader, due to ship by March 2011 in China for the equivalent of about $440. The New York Times has all the details.

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So is this the holy grail for e-book enthusiasts? Possibly. But it's important to note that this new device is intended as an e-reader and not as a general purpose tablet. Color E Ink is, well, E Ink in color. If you've used an E Ink device you'll know what the screen refresh rates are like. It's fine for reading, but you won't be sneaking in a quick video or playing a game (well, nothing with fast action anyway) on this device. On the flip side, you'll get 30 days of use on a charge.

Compare this device with, for example, the NOOKcolor. Barnes & Noble is using LCD technology to deliver an e-reader that supports color e-books and which can play video and eventually run apps. It is intended as an e-reader but also has some tablet functionality. When a publisher digitizes a colorful coffee table book either color E Ink or LCD will work equally well, but if you want an enhanced version of a favorite magazine – one that includes video clips and illustrative animations – then you're going to want an LCD device.

Assuming the Hanvon device is the first in a new range of color E Ink devices, are we headed for more divergence in e-content? Right now things are pretty simple: publishers know that any device that can display color can also display 'enhanced content.' Adding color E Ink devices will mean making a choice of static color content vs dynamic color content. Grayscale content won't change.

I have to confess that after getting into the habit of reading several magazines and newspapers in color on the iPad, I'd be loathe to give up the interactive features. I'd love to have a color device that is lighter than the iPad, but I'm not sure I want to go back to E Ink screen refresh-rates. When flipping text-dense pages on my Kindle (where I'm reading every page) the screen refresh rate isn't a problem, but flipping through pages of a full color magazine looking for something to read? That's going to feel really sluggish.

My ideal color e-reader device, then, would have the screen refresh rate of an LCD device, with the light weight, battery life and sunlight-friendliness of today's E Ink devices. As long as color E Ink devices have page refresh rates similar to gray scale devices, I think I'll pass. What about you?

E Ink Triton Imaging Film from E Ink on Vimeo.

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