Mary Lou Jepsen just popped into town from Taiwan, and brought along a few prototypes of her company’s new displays with her. So I went over to her houseboat for a quick visit this morning. I’m pretty excited: This could be the magic bullet for the e-reader market—at least for the next few years.
Mary Lou knows displays. While at MIT, as the founding CTO of One Laptop Per Child, she concentrated on the display and decided that that’s all that matters these days. The chips and operating systems are fungible. But, as you probably know, there was a bit of a religious split among the team members over which was the best display technology: one group went off to start E Ink, while Mary Lou and her husband, John Ryan, launched Pixel Qi. The basic idea of their company is that by rearranging the same ingredients used in LCD technology—the most popular display tech in the world, and the cheapest—you can come up with something far better than E Ink, or any other display technology now on the market. After seeing a laptop this morning that had been modded with a PQ screen, I’m even more of a believer than ever.
E Ink’s main advantages are this: A reflective technology (meaning it doesn’t emit light, like a standard LCD, so you can’t read it in a dark room but you can in daylight) it draws minimal power while rendering very crisp text. The Kindle uses E Ink and if I turn wireless off on mine, it can go nearly two months without a charge. The downside is E Ink is relatively expensive to produce, and is still years away from doing color, let alone video.
Now let’s look at Pixel Qi’s technology.
Mary Lou had a pair of off-the-shelf Acer laptops that she had purchased at Radio Shack. Her team modded them with the new, 10-inch Pixel Qi screens for demo purposes; a jerry-rigged switch, on the side of the screen, allows you to switch between emissive mode—similar to the typical, flashlight-in-your-eyes LCD display—and reflective mode, which rivaled E Ink. Actually, it was better than E Ink: My Kindle only handles 167 DPI (the measure of dot pitch, or crispness of the font); the Pixel Qi, Mary Lou said, does 205 DPI.
In black and white, reflective mode, I couldn’t see any difference when we held up the Kindle alongside the PQ-modded Netbook. Both were easy to read without any flicker or speckling. Color on the Pixel Qi was like color on an LCD, which, I guess, it is. That’s the killer app, right there, of course. Good news for the magazine business!
It provides a wide gamut of color, which you’d expect.
And it does video to the tune of 60 frames per second. We sat on the deck of her houseboat and watched a clip on YouTube in reflective mode, and the video ran perfectly smoothly.
The displays still have a way to go, of course. A third party would need to build a proper motherboard, optimized for the display and an e-reader. (Simply slapping a PQ display on the Acer gives it an extra hour or so of battery life; an optimized e-reader essentially goes to sleep between the turn of each page, saving far more power, among other things.) But Mary Lou said that a manufacturer could buy PQ’s technology today and have an e-reader that could render high-def text, on a full color page, and video, by the first quarter of next year. The screens are cheap to produce, too—well under $200, she said. Such a device ought to enjoy 40 hours or so of use as an e-reader, between charges. Video would drain the battery faster, obviously.
In the race to build a better e-reader, Pixel Qi looks like the frontrunner at this point.