Academic journal article Library Technology Reports

Chapter 2: Electronic Book Readers

Academic journal article Library Technology Reports

Chapter 2: Electronic Book Readers

Article excerpt


E-readers are one of the hottest gadgets on the market today. This chapter of "Gadgets and Gizmos: Personal Electronics and the Library" explores these devices and how they can work for librarians. After an exploration of how these devices work and the different types of devices, the author provides a comparison of current popular products, followed by a look at some devices that may catch on in the future.


The year 2010 is poised to be the year that e-book devices break into the mainstream. Electronic readers have been around for some time, but since the advent of the PDA and the cell phone, people have been using them to read on the go. It was the development of a new kind of display technology (more on that below) and the participation of one of the largest media companies in the world that really created the stand-alone e-book reader. The display technology is called E Ink, and the media company was Sony.

How E-readers Work

The current generation of e-book readers has standardized around a type of display designed and built by the E Ink Corporation, a private firm based on technology developed at the MIT Media Lab in the early to mid-2000s. What makes E Ink different from previous display technologies, and perfect for an e-book, are its incredibly low power consumption and high contrast, combined with the fact that it's a reflective, rather than transmissive, display, so it is easier on the eyes while using less power.

The easiest way to understand how E Ink works is to imagine a flat sheet covered in Ping-Pong balls. Imagine that for each ball, we've colored half of the sphere black and half of it white. Now, to display things on the sheet, we simply have to flip the balls needed to the black side and leave the remainder white. If you take that basic idea, reduce it in size by a few million times (the "balls" in an E Ink display are roughly the circumference of a human hair), and make the whole thing respond to electrical charges.

The development of E Ink led to a breakthrough in the development of new devices for reading. The new screens consumed very little power, which meant that readers could be thin and portable, without having a large battery packed into the design. It also meant that the contrast between the text and the background necessary for reading was finally good enough for nearly everyone to be able to consume text comfortably. Finally, the display draws current from the battery only when it is actively changing the screen. When you are reading a page of text on an E Ink screen, the device is, for all intents and purposes, off. It draws no power for the display until you hit the Next Page button, at which point it redraws the screen and flips all the tiny spheres into their new configuration.

That fact, however beneficial to users, also leads to one of the disadvantages of E Ink. When it redraws the screen, it refreshes every pixel, which for the end user means that screen changes have a built-in "flash," a "blanking" while everything flips around. Some users find the refresh lag distracting, but personally I got used to it very quickly, and newer versions of the technology speed the refresh to make it less of an issue. This does mean that the current crop of E Ink displays are very much static displays, unable to render movement or video in any way.

The second disadvantage of current E Ink technology is a disadvantage only when compared to a more standard type of electronic display, the LCD. Since E Ink is composed of tiny black and white spheres, it is capable of displaying text and pictures only in shades of gray. The best current screens do sixteen shades of gray, whereas any modern LCD display that you might find on a mobile phone is capable of millions of different colors. When you're reading text, this isn't a severe limitation, but for texts with detailed graphics, charts, graphs, or other visual content, it can be a significant downside. …

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