Millions of people are clambering for a full color e-reader, but it isn’t going to be a reality anytime soon. Various companies have spent a copious amount of money developing screen tech, but it failed to catch on. This is a shame because digital comics, magazines and newspapers would look glorious on a large screen color e-reader. There is a demand, people want it, but where in the world is color e-paper?
One of the only companies that went beyond proof of concept and actually made it in a commercial product was E Ink Triton 1 and Triton 2. E-Ink Triton 2 came out in 2013 and the big selling point was the added layer of film that will give customers a higher degree of contrast and better color display from the previous generation, which came out in 2010. Triton 1 had a grid of 2×2 pixels, red, green, blue, and white and used a square color filter array. Meanwhile, Triton 2 has the same color display, but instead of using square pixels it is using rectangular. It should give you 4096 degrees of color with 16 levels of each.
There was a few color e-readers that employed Triton 1 and Triton 2, most notably the Jetbook Color and the Hanvon. These devices all retailed for $400 to $600 and failed to catch on.
Qualcomm spent a copious amount of money and four years developing Mirasol technology. It was billed as an alternative existing Color e-Paper solutions on the market. It was based on IMOD (Interferometric MODulation), with MEMS structures at its core. This MEMS-based innovation is bistable & highly reflective, meaning the display itself can be seen in direct sunlight. There were only a handful of devices ever made, most notably the Kyobo e-reader sold in Korea. Qualcomm abandoned this tech for the e-reader space and tried to get smartphone and smartwatch companies to embrace it, but failed to do so.
There are a few color e-paper solutions on the horizon. Clearink has been developing their color tech for four years. In early 2018 they unveiled the first 1.32 inch color e-paper display with a 202 DPI screen, which is a dramatic increase from the 106 DPI prototype they announced last year. They also announced this model has a 30.4% more improved Color Gamut and it needs less power because they managed to incorporate a 5V battery, which is a 50% decrease from last year.
The big priority with Clearink right now is a full color 9.7 inch screen and the smaller one for wearables. They decided to cancel everything else they have been working on over the course of the past two years. Their core focus is to develop color screens for smart jewelry, watches and e-readers.
Clearink might be a reality in a few years, thanks to a timely investment. In early 2019, Lenovo gave Clearink a lifeline of several million dollars in CLEARink and the two companies have commenced joint development activities to develop the next generation of tablet devices. Lenovo has also joined CLEARink’s board of directors. Lenovo might even use Clearink tech in one of their upcoming products, since they have seen a ton of success with their C930 convertible tablet with an E-Ink keyboard.
Although Clearink has garnered all of the media attention, this has not stopped Onyx Boox from creating their own solution. The Onyx Youngy Boox is a new 10.7 inch e-reader that displays color. This device is utilizing a special Red, Green and Blue color filter applied on top of the E Ink Carta HD layer. The resolution is only 150 DPI because the requirements that greyscale and the color filter needs to display content. This device is primarily aimed at the educational sector and has a camera on the back to take pictures of homework and it also has a microphone and stereo speakers to playback lectures. It is only going to be made available in China and not internationally.
Onyx has told Good e-Reader that they might employ this technology on an upcoming e-reader sometime in 2019 and are currently testing different products internally.
A few years ago E Ink developed Advanced Color E-Paper, with digital signage in mind. It hit mass production past August and is now shipping out to customers. The first commercial product is from TOPPAN Printing and Isetan Mitsukoshi with their digital point-of-purchase machine.
There are only two different e-paper display systems that utilize ACeP; 32 and 13.3 inches. The 13.3 inch variant can display over 32,000 different colors and has a resolution of 1600 x 2500 pixels and 150 PPI. Old E ink Triton color epaper could only display 4,600 colors, so this is a huge step in the right direction.
The President of E Ink, Johnson Lee told Good e-Reader that “Since the debut of ACeP a few years ago, we have made many improvements on the platform, increasing both the color gamut and the update times. The current version of ACeP is the most sophisticated color ePaper available.”
ACeP achieves a full color gamut, including all eight primary colors, using only colored pigments. The display utilizes a single layer of electrophoretic fluid, which is controlled using voltages compatible with commercial TFT backplanes. The fluid can be incorporated into either microcapsule or Microcup structures. The richness of the colors is achieved by having all the colored pigments in every picture element (pixel) rather than the side-by-side pixel colors achieved with a CFA. This eliminates the light attenuation, which can be quite significant. Like regular E Ink ePaper, ACeP maintains the ultra-low-power and paperlike readability under all lighting conditions.
In developing ACeP, E Ink researchers solved the very complex problem of how to get reflective color at every pixel in a commercially viable structure. Other approaches have utilized stacked backplane structures that are complex, difficult to manufacture and costly. The E Ink approach utilizes only a single backplane. Many materials and waveform inventions were required to independently control the position of the multiple color pigments.
Will Advanced Color E-paper ever be available for ereaders? Johnson did not rule it out. “The first applications we are targeting for ACeP is signage. I would not state that it will never be in ereaders; we do continuous work to improve refresh and update times, and it would have its own waveform that had similar properties to Regal. However, since ereaders are not our focus for this product line, we are not announcing a date to expect it.” I estimate that ACEP will not be a reality until 2021.
It does not look like color e-paper will be a reality anytime soon, which is a shame. Clearink is likely going to be the first company to market something, but they are not going to release anything themselves, they simply will license their screentech to another company, this is similar to what E Ink does. The color solution from Onyx Boox is also something to watch, although it doesn’t have many colors, it might the only thing that will be commercially available sometime this year.
Michael Kozlowski has written about audiobooks and e-readers for the past twelve years. Newspapers and websites such as the CBC, CNET, Engadget, Huffington Post and the New York Times have picked up his articles. He Lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.