The Stasis of E-Ink

I’m fond of e-ink displays and devices catering to the display type.

My kitchen calendar display project was one of my favorite projects of the year: it became a combination of playing with a RaspberryPi, and learning how to make the right sequence of API calls to properly render graphics to an e-ink display. It turned out to be similar to drawing on a JavaScript-esque canvas 2D surface, but the hardware imposes its quirks around slow refresh rates and the need to manually clear out the previous screen before drawing. At least it’s getting good adoption from the family.

I’ve also amassed a collection of e-readers and note-taking tablets. I’ve upgraded multiple Kindles and Oasis’s1 over the years, grabbed a Remarkable 2 tablet as well as Kindle Scribe for comparison, and I’m currently trying out the Kobo Sage as an alternative to the Amazon e-reader line. So far, the Kobo is like the Android to Kindle’s iPhone: rougher on the edges, but a more open ecosystem friendlier to tinkering2 and less beholden to Amazon’s DRM.

But it’s hard to see how the technology is going to progress at a pace that keeps it competitive with other display categories. Every year there are billions of dollars of R&D going into advancing state-of-the-art screens, both at handheld phone and wall-spanning TV sizes. The current tech then pushes further in both directions, with high-resolution smartwatch screens on the micro end and the Vegas Sphere dome screen at the macro extreme. The chase for higher refresh rates, denser pixels, and a wider gamut of colors has produced a range of alphabet-soup screen technologies—LCD, LED, OLED, µLED, etc.—to get us ever closer to rendering reality in 2D3.

E-ink displays are trying to improve on similar dimensions, but at a much slower pace and with progress haphazardly. There are some color e-ink displays, but they’re less vibrant than their LED/OLED counterparts and slow to refresh; in one instance, the manufacturer seems to have mismanaged its product’s commercialization completely. Some displays have much faster refresh rates, but at the cost of contrast and sharpness. On the screen resolution front, there are at least a couple of common e-reader screens that feature a density of up to 300ppi—dense enough for the pixels to be indiscernible to the human eye. Unfortunately, most screens that are available outside of the 5″–8″ range have disappointingly low resolutions, or are manufactured at such low quantities as to make them prohibitively expensive.

Or, it may be that e-ink displays are…fine, as they already are. The biggest technical differentiator of the technology is its ability to set pixels once and have them stay in that state for years with no additional power. Combined with matte screens and sufficiently high resolutions, there’s a reason why it was first introduced as “digital paper,” as it just works like paper—in presenting organized ink on a flat surface. And if paper is any indication, while there have been improvements in the 2000 years since its invention, it’s a bit harder to drive wood fiber innovation on an annual cadence.

Perhaps a more pragmatic explanation is that paper, and activities that rely on paper, have been going out of style in the modern age. People no longer physically write their notes when typing them out or dictating voice notes is much faster. Reading a physical book4 is displaced by social media feeds and video consumption. Board games—with cardboard paper and plastic pieces in all their glory—are a comparative niche to their video game counterparts. The primary area of growth for paper is in packaging, where it rides the tailwind of online shopping and its associated shipping needs.

So e-ink displays and devices will stay a niche category of consumer electronics for the foreseeable future. The natural inclination is to push the tech in the direction of LCDs—enabling all those use cases trivial on a phone or an iPad—but persistently trading off between battery consumption and visual fidelity. Us paper enthusiasts will, in the corner over here, just be happy that there’s a digital successor at all.

  1. Before they completely stopped making new hardware revisions, 4 years ago.

  2. For instance, I was able to use an app called calibre-web, built on top of the e-book manager calibre, and override Kobo’s sync APIs to sync with my local hosted library running on a Synology.

  3. And the Apple Vision Pro is trying to extend that into the third dimension.

  4. To be fair, I also do the vast majority of my book reading on said e-readers above.

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