Is color e-ink really important, or is a black and white screen good enough?

Color e-ink tablets allow users to read graphic novels, magazines, PDFs, and more at an acceptable refresh rate. Vibrant colors finally make their way into the world of e-reading, without the harshness of some of the best Android tablets. I own nearly every Kindle and am part of that rare breed that has followed the development of color e-paper from its inception. From Mirasol to Triton to Kaleido, color e-readers excite me. However, let me tell you first, in my opinion, color e-ink is just not there yet in its current state, especially compared to the performance of black and white e-ink screens. Let’s explore it.


What is an e-ink display and how does it work?

Learn how fascinating screen technology works

Color e-ink has been around for a long time

The first color e-ink technology demonstration dates back more than a decade

The first demonstrations of color e-paper date back more than a decade. I remember checking out Qualcomm’s interferometry-based Mirasol display at MWC around 2011. While not as fast or as high-resolution as grayscale e-paper, these displays could theoretically last a long time on batteries. Elsewhere, the color isn’t perfect, but I hope Mirasol continues to improve over successive generations. Unfortunately, Qualcomm wasn’t as confident in the project as I was and shelved it after a few years.

Seeing the future, my curiosity was piqued again in 2013, when I came across devices with E Ink Triton technology such as the Jetbook Color. With slightly improved colors and the same battery draw, this is definitely the one. Unfortunately, the PowerPoint slide-like refresh rate makes it little more than a technology presentation. I wanted to believe it and considered the Pocketbook Color Lux, one of the few with the same specific screen. Unfortunately, between the extremely low contrast ratio and the multi-second refresh rate, this isn’t the solution anyone is looking for. Reading a graphic novel about it is a frustrating exercise, not to mention the sky-high price.

Surely things should have improved since then? As it turns out, color e-ink hasn’t evolved as much as I’d hoped over the past decade.

The technology hasn’t gotten that far yet

Colors are cool, but usability challenges remain

Before you get ready to tear this site apart, hear me out. I’m well aware of the advancements in color with e-ink. The Kaleido 3 and Gallery E Ink displays are very impressive and easily demonstrate the advancement of technology. However, technology demos do not make great consumer products. I’ve been keeping an eye on the Kobo Libra Color with Kaleido 3 since it was released a few weeks ago. A $220 color e-ink screen that seems to be getting good reviews? Sign me up but the pessimist in me knew there had to be a catch. I am not wrong.

Purely as a technology showcase, the Kobo Libra Color is a great example of the advancements made in color E Ink. As a reader, however, I ask for more. The current shortcomings of even the latest color e-ink readers are obvious. Look at any real picture of Kobo Libra Color and you’ll immediately notice the screen door effect. For anyone reading at close range, or perhaps in bed, the screen door effect creates a mesh pattern between pixels and inhibits full immersion.

Unfortunately, that’s not all. Color e-ink displays have lower pixel density, which means that materials typically read, such as graphic novels and magazines, are less clear. Most current black and white e-ink readers have 300ppi displays with clear text. Color e-ink readers have half the resolution, at 150ppi. See what I mean?


Kindle needs to release a color e-ink reader before anyone else does

The color war begins

I hope this ends the problem. If you’re reading text, e-ink refresh is rarely a hassle. Color e-ink screens, however, are designed to consume magazines, graphic novels, and similar rich media. Due to the lower resolution of the monitor, users need to zoom in and scroll to read the text. However, the current refresh rate of color e-ink screens is much slower than that of regular black and white e-ink displays. Predictably, this results in a surprisingly bad experience filled with ghosting.

Finally, there’s the fact that color e-ink displays are neither as vibrant as tablets nor have the sheer contrast offered by devices like the latest black-and-white Kindles. You have to turn up the brightness to get there. What this actually means is that you’ll drain the battery faster to get a similar picture to a tablet or black and white e-ink screen. Who wants that?

The future looks bright, but it will take time

For now, tablets may be a better choice

Look, I’m not here to dissuade you from buying a color e-ink reader. As I mentioned before, I’m very excited about the existence and continued improvement of this technology. However, I don’t think it’s ready for mass adoption in primetime in its current form. If you take a lot of notes or absolutely must have the latest (but probably not the best) e-reader technology, go for it. For everyone else, there’s no doubt that color e-ink displays don’t add much value right now. Existing e-readers already provide a top-notch reading experience, and if you want high-quality color content, tablets are the way to go. Additionally, there are dimensions to consider. E-ink readers tend to be much smaller than tablets. The latter has solved the problem of reading high-resolution rich media content while lying on the sofa or on the go.

All that said, color e-ink may have a future, but it’s not here yet.

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