Sunday, March 3, 2013

E Ink coming to smartphones. And I kinda dig it.

This is pretty cool. They're working on low-cost smartphones with screens utilizing the same E Ink technology as those grayscale Kindle and Nook e-readers. Impressed with a prototype from the Mobile World Congress last week, LiveScience reported that "The device is designed to last at least a week on a charge and cost as little as 150 euros unsubsidized." (Which, frankly, isn't that impressive at all, but it's the potential (of this dead-end technology?) that excites me.)

I own a third-generation Amazon Kindle, which is what I use now to do most of my book-reading. It's somewhat outdated, but I like it. It's about as light and readable as a paperback, and it's more comfortable overall, because I don't have to apply any pressure to keep the pages flat. And, of course, there are the many digital conveniences: being able to store multiple books on one slim device, saving on shelf space, instant delivery for online purchases, etc. That said, I almost pulled the trigger on buying a Nexus 7 tablet last year, thinking it could replace my Kindle. It would have allowed me access to more e-book formats, not to mention I could watch video, access the Internet, and play games on it. But I knew that all that fun stuff would have come with a cost (that is, on top of the cost of the device itself). One of the great things about my comparatively basic Kindle is how long the battery lasts—weeks usually—before I have to recharge it. Meanwhile, I've never owned a tablet, but I sometimes barely make it through the workday before having to recharge my smartphone, and I can only imagine that a tablet would run out of juice at an even faster rate. That wouldn't really be acceptable for my regular-use e-reader. What a bother it would be, if I were in the middle of a chapter, and suddenly the warning light for my battery came on, forcing me to take a break from reading until it recharged, or at least momentarily taking me out of the experience. With how quickly these mini computers drain, I would expect that to be a regular occurrence on a tablet. At that point, I would rather go back to paper books.

So, yeah, I can see that an E Ink smartphone might have a certain appeal. I do consider battery life to be the major Achilles' heel of current smartphones—the most palpable limitation that, within a few tech generations, is going to make today's devices feel painfully out of the Dark Ages. Nevertheless, I don't think I would actually give up my full-color HD display for a longer-lasting E Ink phone with inevitably more limited functionality. It would almost seem to be a different category of device, much as the e-reader is not redundant, despite the existence of the tablet. And I almost wish I could have one to complement my current smartphone. Except that would be ridiculous—having both a "practical phone" and a "fun phone."

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