Bye-Bye Kindle, E-Reader Screens Coming for Netbooks

Netbook makers will soon play a larger role in the e-reader market if start-up Pixel Qi has anything to say about it.

By Dan Nystedt and Martyn Williams
Fri, May 29, 2009

IDG News Service — Netbook makers will soon play a larger role in the e-reader market if start-up Pixel Qi has anything to say about it.

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The company, founded by former One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) CTO Mary Lou Jepsen, will show off engineering samples of its first screen product at Computex Taipei 2009 next week, and IDG News Service was able to catch a first look on Friday.

The first Pixel Qi product, called 3qi, is a 10.1-inch netbook screen designed to work in three modes: a black-and-white e-ink mode for reading text documents and e-books, and two color modes, designed for use indoors or in bright sunlight, that are more suitable for Web surfing and video playback.

E-ink mode extends battery life by shutting off the backlight, and is intended for reading e-books, documents, Web sites or blogs and other text-based material.

The screens should be in netbooks and on store shelves by the end of this year, said Jepsen. Giving netbooks new screens capable of making them e-readers could make them compelling holiday presents, for price and functionality alone.

E-reader makers have reason to fear such innovation because people will be able to buy devices with more functions for about the same price. The latest Kindle, a stand-alone e-reader, costs US$359 according to Amazon.com, while some of the world's most popular netbooks with 10-inch screens, Asustek's Eee PC 1000HE and Acer's Aspire One AOD150-1165, are similarly priced.

New netbooks designed to include e-reader functions will likely have displays that can swivel around to cover the keyboard, a tablet mode good for an e-book reader, said John Ryan, chief operating officer at Pixel Qi.

Beyond the screen, netbook users will need e-reader software, which is already available from several companies, including Adobe Digital Editions, Microsoft Reader, Times Reader made from Adobe Air and even Kindle software made for other devices, such as the iPhone.

Power consumption is another issue Pixel Qi tackled in its 3qi screens.

"What you're looking at is a screen that's entirely reflective," said Ryan, at Pixel Qi's temporary office in Taipei. "It's just running like e-paper so that it's running on the ambient light. It's not fighting the office light , it's not fighting the sunlight. That makes it better for reading but it also cuts the power consumption. The backlight in the screen is typically the largest power drain in any notebook computer."

Battery life is vital in mobile devices such as netbooks. Once Pixel Qi screens are more widely adopted in the industry, the company plans to start working more closely with laptop and netbook designers on ways to lower power drain in the overall system, not just the screen.

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