March 10, 2010, 1:25 PM — If you thought the E-Ink screen on your Kindle or Sony Reader was the epitome of high-tech for the printed page, hang on to your hat. By the end of this year, newer models--with newer display technologies--will start to make today's e-book readers look like Model T versions. These next-generation readers will sport color displays with refresh rates capable of supporting video. They'll also use flexible display technologies--but that doesn't mean you'll be able to roll them up (yet). Rather, they will make the devices a lot less fragile.
Taken together, these upgrades will usher in a new age of e-book content, including books and periodicals that depend heavily on detailed color graphics (think children's books or textbooks), video content (think magazines and newspapers), and superior durability (all of the above). While you can read printed content on just about any computer or smartphone these days, the LCD displays on most computers and smartphones aren't particularly well suited to serve as paper substitutes. For one thing, they are backlit, and gazing at a backlit display for extended periods of time can fatigue the human eye.
The Case for E-Ink
The overwhelming majority of the e-readers on the market today use so-called electronic paper displays from a company called E-Ink (now owned by Taiwanese display company Prime View International). E-Ink's Vizplex products use electrophoretic technology, in which tiny microcapsules containing even tinier black and white particles suspended in fluid are sealed into a film that is in turn laminated to a sheet of electronic circuitry. The blacks and whites respond differently to negative and positive charges: Depending on which group rises and becomes visible, the surface of the display will look white or black.
Several characteristics of electrophoretic displays make them appealing for e-books. They are thin, and they support very high resolutions, which allows for sharp, crisp fonts on a relatively skinny and lightweight device. They consume relatively little power, in part because they don't use a backlight: The technology is reflective, meaning that, as with paper, you need ambient light to see E-Ink pages. In fact, an E-Ink display gains contrast in bright sunlight, while transmissive displays such as LCDs generally fade outdoors. Lack of a backlight makes for a display with less glare that's easier on the eyes.