E-book readers: Intriguing new type of power-frugal color screen is coming

A pre-production e-reader displaying
Marisol's color technology.
Photo: Qualcomm

A new color-screen technology for e-book screens that claims power efficiency to at least match that of current e-ink technology appears promising, based on a preview I saw yesterday at an e-reading conference in New York. 

Scheduled to be out on a device with a 5.7-inch screen in the third quarter of this year, the Marisol screen technology is made by Qualcomm, a company best-known for its cell-phone processors. Speaking with me at "The E-Reading Revolution," a Magazine Publishers of America conference at which we both appeared as panelists, Qualcomm's Cheryl Goodman said the company eventually plans to roll out the technology to a wider array of devices, with screens both larger and smaller than the first Marisol device. 

Like the e-ink screens used in almost all of the current e-book readers, Marisol uses reflected ambient light. Viewed on a pre-production version of the upcoming device (shown above), the Marisol images varied in brightness depending on the viewing conditions, as would be expected. Even in fairly bright light—standing near a window, for example—the screen, like e-ink ones, lacked the backlit pop of the LCD screens found on computers and cell phones. 

Also, as with the e-ink color screen of the Skiff e-book reader prototype I saw at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, the colors were somewhat muted. The type also lacked the crisp immediacy of most e-ink screens. What I saw, however, is still a work in progress, and it looked at least passable; I'll be curious to see the finished product. 

Qualcomm claims that Marisol, like e-ink, will use dramatically less power than backlit LCD screens. But the company also claims it will have an edge on e-ink in its power handling of video content—likely to be a growing addition to e-reader content in the coming years, as a number of speakers emphasized at the conference. That, Qualcomm says, is because Marisol avoids the frequent page refreshes—up to 30 a second—required to display video on e-ink screens, each of which has a power drain comparable to a page turn. (No video content was available to view on the Marisol prototype.) 

Qualcomm isn't disclosing the manufacturer under whose nameplate the first Marisol device will be sold. Nor could they say whether 3G will be a feature of the unit, or give a firm price for it. However, their spokeswoman said the company realizes it must be priced below that of the Apple iPad, whose screen is more than twice as large and costs $499 and up. But she demurred when I asked if it might cost as little as $199—the price of the Sony Pocket, which has a 5-inch screen. 

Meantime, demos of some color e-ink screens were part of a trade show in China this week, according to PC World. The previews included some demos of video, reportedly with compromised quality, on a color e-ink screen. However, in an interview with E Ink's new CEO on Xconomy suggests that, even in its color iteration, E Ink is aiming to be a color reading technology rather than a media-rich platform for video and the like. 

Also, while some reports are suggesting that color e-ink devices will hit the market late this year, the CEO's remarks suggest that the early 2011 timing I reported after CES remains the more likely scenario.

Paul Reynolds