If I had any doubts that the e-book wars are officially on, my first day at CES dispelled them thoroughly. Note that I said “e-book wars,” and not “e-reader wars.” That’s because there’s a tidal wave of E-Ink-based e-readers that are about to hit the US, so that by the second half of this year (at the latest) E-Ink screens will be a dime a dozen. And on top of the E-Ink screens will be the tablets, and on top of those will be LCD/E-Ink tablet combos in various configurations.
But as thick as the market will be with e-book hardware, the readers aren’t the only crowded part of the market. Everyone also wants to control a distribution platform. And then there are the publishers, who are scrambling to adapt to the new medium.
In short, right now, the emerging e-book market is in a full-blown melee—a free-for-all where everyone along the chain from content producer to reader is trying to be the first to figure it all out. Over the next few days, we’ll talk about how the battle lines are shaping up in the following areas: displays, chips, storefronts, and publishers. Many of the combatants are involved in more than one of these areas—Qualcomm is in displays and chips; newcomer Copia is pushing hardware and a storefront; Sprint, Hearst, Skiff, and LG are all allied across displays, storefronts, and publishers under the Skiff banner; and so on.
The Sprint/Hearst Skiff and the Plastic Logic QUE
Most of the e-readers coming out in the next few months are based on E-Ink, but that doesn’t mean that the displays will be identical. Reading devices will compete with each other on size, thickness, resolution, contrast, and price. The screens will also compete to offer color as quickly as possible.
Of the readers that I saw, the Skiff has the edge on size so far with an 11.5″ diagonal screen. Plastic Logic comes in a close second, but, to be 100 percent honest I couldn’t actually tell that there was much of a difference in sizes (I saw them one after the other); the Skiff executive I talked to told me that the Skiff’s screen was a bit bigger. Regardless, both are easily large enough to view a full 8.5 x 11 inch page without doing any scaling, and both have solid industrial design.
The Sprint/Hearst Skiff
As far as contrast goes, Plastic Logic’s screen definitely looks better than my Kindle DX—the latter has a grayish cast, while the former presents a much cleaner black-on-white look. I can’t judge between the Skiff and the Plastic Logic screens on contrast, though, because I didn’t see them in similar lighting conditions.
The Plastic Logic QUE
Both the Skiff and the Plastic Logic QUE were incredibly thin—about quarter of an inch or less. This thinness is made possible in part by the fact that both have flexible display substrates—Skiff’s uses a foil substrate developed by LG, while Plastic Logic’s uses a plastic substrate developed in-house. Both of these make for flexible displays, but of the two only the Skiff itself is physically flexible (you can actually bend the device a bit and it doesn’t hurt it).
On the resolution front, the Skiff wins at 174dpi to Plastic Logic’s slightly lower 150dpi. I couldn’t visually tell a difference, but again, lighting conditions were drastically different.
Color E-Ink is in the offing, and I saw a prototype of it at the Skiff presentation. At this point, the technology looks promising but it needs a lot of work. Color saturation was pretty poor, and right now I’d prefer the black-and-white to it. There are supposedly better color E-Ink prototypes than the one I saw, and if I can catch a glimpse of a superior iteration of the tech then I’ll post an update.