Display tech to watch this year: E-paper stretches its wings

Color e-paper screens are coming soon, with video support and even flexible displays on the horizon.

Editor's note: This is the third of a four-part series on red-hot display technologies.

Hanvon color e-reader

No. 3 on our list of display tech to watch this year is e-paper, the technology behind most of today's popular e-book readers. Apple's April 2010 launch of the iPad media tablet and its runaway success gave e-reader manufacturers a scare. But while the market has bifurcated, the pie has gotten bigger and both markets continue to grow.

E-reader vendors are rolling out ever-more-sophisticated e-paper-based devices, including some with color screens. And before long, we'll even see e-paper displays fast enough to support video.

E-paper's killer app

Unlike LCDs and most other digital screens, e-paper displays are designed to look like ink on paper, with no backlighting required. The most popular type of e-paper in use today is E Ink's electrophoretic technology, which creates images by moving around charged white and black particles floating in a clear fluid. The current generation, called E Ink Pearl, offers faster refresh rates and better contrast than earlier displays and is found in such popular e-book readers as Amazon's Kindle 3.

In fact, the e-reader has become the quintessential application for e-paper display technology. The reflective, low-power, high-contrast display media is perfect for reading page after page of black-and-white text with minimal strain on the eyes.

Many people who spend a lot of time reading appreciate e-paper displays, which are thin and light enough to hold in one hand, easier on the eyes than backlit LCD screens and viewable in bright sunlight. "LCD technology is better suited [to] gaming and video than long-form reading," says E Ink Vice President Sriram Peruvemba.

E-paper-based e-readers can also last for weeks on a charge, rather than hours. E-paper's power savings derive from the fact that the display media is bistable, which means it can maintain an image when power is turned off, and that the reflective screen requires no backlight. (As with a paper book, you need an external light to read an e-paper screen in low-light conditions.)

After a few false starts for commercial e-paper-based e-readers in the mid-2000s, Amazon's original Kindle, launched in 2007, became an instant hit and gave the technology a major push. Competitors quickly launched their own models, and the market grew rapidly over the next two years, with about 3.6 million e-readers sold in 2009, according to Gartner.

Amazon Kindle 3G
The third generation of Amazon's Kindle e-reader uses an E Ink Pearl e-paper display. Source: Amazon.com

"Then the iPad happened," says Vinita Jakhanwal, an analyst at market research firm iSuppli. Apple's wildly popular tablet, with its high-resolution, high-performance color active-matrix LCD, split users into two camps: those who want a device optimized for e-book reading, and those who read e-books occasionally but also want a high-performance color display that can support video and Web surfing.

Following Apple's lead, other tablet vendors began incorporating e-book reading functionality into their own devices. And e-reader vendor Barnes & Noble has opted for LCD over e-paper in one of its offerings. The company's NookColor is an LCD-based device that runs on Android and blurs the line between e-readers and tablets.

Despite the threat from the iPad and other media tablets, however, the market for dedicated e-readers hasn't died. Quite the contrary: DisplaySearch predicts rapid growth for both types of devices. The market research firm expects more than 20 million e-reader units to ship this year, up from 14 million in 2010, while sales of touch-screen tablets and netbooks are expected to top 19 million units in 2010 before exploding to more than 50 million this year.

For its part, iSuppli is forecasting slower growth for the e-reader market in the wake of the iPad's disruption, but Jakhanwal says the trend is still upward.

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