Why Don't We Have Color E-Ink Readers Here In The U.S.?

While there are a number of full-color devices like the Kindle Fire or the Nook that are sold as e-readers, there is a segment of the e-book reading world that views them as dumbed-down tablets with too-bright backlit screens that suck up battery power. Many of these people have been waiting for a color version of the E-Ink technology used in all the non-Fire Kindles and a few other readers to eventually become a reality. Well, now it is, but you won’t be seeing it stateside in the near future.

Ectaco and Mirasol, the two companies responsible for manufacturing much of this tech are both here at the Consumer Electronics Show touting color versions of some of the e-readers here they produce.

I got a look at the Jetbook Color, a product from Ectaco now available in Russia that has a nearly 10″ screen. My colleague Paul Reynolds from Consumer Reports also got his hands on the Hanvon C18 from Mirasol, a 5.7″ reader set to be released in China.

Though the color on these devices is a notable improvement over previous protoypes of color E-Ink readers, the nature of the technology currently limits how bright and vivid colors can be. E-Ink uses very little energy — a huge plus for those who don’t want another device they have to remember to constantly charge — but to do so, it has to rely on reflected ambient light to make the text and graphics readable to the user. Thus, without that bright backlighting that you see in tablets and some other e-readers, the colors tend to look muted by comparison, almost like the color pages of your local newspaper.

And though there have been some prototypes that have been able to simulate a video-like experience by quickly flipping through sequential frames (yes, that is different from an actual continuous video feed), no one has been able to approach a level that would allow you to do more than maybe animate a few pages of an illustrated children’s book.

One nice thing is that the color doesn’t take away from the crispness of the E-Ink text and reps say that it doesn’t drastically alter the battery life.

The biggest speedbump to getting color E-Ink readers into U.S. stores is Amazon. Its Kindle dominates the e-reader market and the company just did a huge release of newer, less expensive versions of the Kindle to go along with the release of the Kindle Fire. When Paul recently asked Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos about color Kindles, Bezos responded that the technology “isn’t ready for prime time.”

None of the other producers of E-Ink based readers in the States are in a position to risk going big with a color version, and are likely waiting either until Amazon leads the way or until they can come out with a device that would rival the Nook or the iPad.