A comparison of second generation displays: Why Pixel Qi, Mirasol, QR-LPD and Liquavista are the future of tablet screens.

The Pixel Qi 3qi screen - one of the many 2nd gen color screens (photo from Liliputing)

The battle lines are being drawn as we type this. At the center of contention is exactly what future E-Ink or ePaper screens have in the tablet marketplace. E-Ink has been embraced by the digital reader base — and for good reason. It’s the closest to actual paper that digital technology allows. There’s basically no eye strain while reading because the screen is reflective and textured — just like real paper. E-Ink also has an extremely low power consumption that allows for an eReader to last for weeks before having to charge again.

Now the second generation of displays are massing at the gates. Color is coming and traditionalists are fearful. In the past “color” has meant one thing — backlit LCD screens that emit light. These LCD screens are the ones found in all computers, laptops and even a few “eReaders.” They’ve also been proven to tax the eye. People can’t stare at them for hours like E-Ink. Reading for long periods of time produce headaches, crossed eyes and lots of rubbing of the eyelids.

That’s where the main problems comes into play for proponents of E-Ink. When they heard “color eReader” they think of LCD. But these 2nd generation screens aren’t your daddy’s color screens. In fact they offer nearly all of the advantages of E-Ink with none of the limitations. First, they’re reflective. They emit no light to strain the eyes or blur the vision. They’re the digital equivalent of reading a magazine page. Magazines are in color but don’t strain the eyes anymore than newsprint. Second, they use much, much less power than typical LCD. In some cases they even use less power than E-Ink — only using minute amounts of energy every time the page changes.

This brave new world of color display tech conquers E-Ink’s accomplishments and deletes all of its detriments. Gone are the slow screen refreshes and flickers. E-Ink screens are slow and sometimes take a second or more to refresh content. One second might not sound like a lot, but if you read a 300 page eBook that’s at least 5 minutes of downtime between pages. This faster refresh rate also allows for video playback, internet browsing and graphic rendering. It’s also either around the same price or cheaper than E-Ink screens. What’s not to like?

The main developers of color second generation screens are Pixel Qi, Qualcomm’s Mirasol, Bridgestone’s LPD (Liquid Powder Display) and LiquavistaColor. The neatest thing about these four displays is that they offer the same advantages, but each uses completely different tech to accomplish them. Let’s see what makes each display unique and different.

Pixel Qi
Let’s start with Pixel Qi’s 3qi screen which has successfully caught the media’s attention after this year’s CES. The first tablet to take advantage of Pixel Qi’s display is the Notion Ink Adam. Pixel Qi has taken the hybrid approach — it’s a transflective screen that’s two screens in one! The first screen is a color reflective screen that uses 0.2W of power (compared to the typical 2W). The second screen is a emmisive backlit LCD. You can change between the two with a simple flip of the switch. This allows for a tablet to have more versatility. If you’d like to use your tablet as an eReader, simply flip the screen to reflective. Want to watch a movie? Switch it over to LCD.

SlashGear figures that if a typical 2W screen can last for 16 hours on a 3 cell battery, that the 3qi screen could potentially last 160 hours on the same battery. While we don’t expect to see that type of use in the real world, it certainly settles the energy debate. The 3qi screen found in the Notion Ink Adam is also a capacitive touchscreen capable of recognizing six points of contact and supports multitouch and gesture controls. Another strength of the 3qi screen is that it’s very easy to read in direct sunlight. In fact the brighter or more direct the sunlight the more the colors pop.

Pixel Qi is well on its way to establishing itself as the premier second generation color screen. They’ll be rolling out their display on a handful of more tablets within the next three months. There’s even the potential that it could be used in the long-rumored, much anticipated tablet by that fruit company.

Qualcomm Mirasol
Mirasol displays are a much different bird — or butterfly if you want to be technical. Mirasol has patterned their color tech after how a butterfly’s translucent wings shimmer in sunlight. It’s one of the coolest cases of bioengineering since velcro. We could get real technical here and explain how the IMOD (Infoferometric modulator) uses a simple MEMS (micro-electro-mechanical system) to display colors by modulating the distance between the translucent film and reflective layer but we wouldn’t want to show how good were are at regurgitating content found at other sites (see the full tech here). In layman’s, light bounces through the film, off the reflective layer and back through the film which gives Mirasal its reflective color screen. The screen, which has small IMOD pixels between 400-1,000 per square inch, changes the distance between the reflective layer and the film to change the color of the IMOD pixel.

Once again, to summarize SlashGear, as efficient as the Vizplex E-Ink screen on the Amazon Kindle is, if replaced with a Mirasol screen it would last 20% longer. Another example: if the Kindle had a color E-Ink screen capable of running full video, it would last for around a day. Using the same battery the Mirasol could run video for a week. Again, the Mirasol display is much more power efficient than traditional E-Ink displays. It can run video, has no flicker and is reflective. In fact, rumor currently has it that Amazon may be using it for their first color Kindle coming later this year. After all, Bezos and crew know better — evolve or die.

Bridgestone QR-LPD
Bridgestone announced their QR-LPD screen (which stands for “quick response liquid powder device”) in October. Their approach is very near to E-Ink, including retaining the longer refresh common in ePaper displays, although Bridgestone reduces their refresh to 0.8 seconds. The screen is touch sensitive and bendable. It also can display 4,096 different colors. The main difference is that a “liquid powder” is used to display color on the screen instead of electronic ink. It’s not as technologically advanced as the other second generation displays, but would make a very excellent large-format magazine reader with its color and flexibility.

We don’t expect to see anyone outside of Bridgestone using this tech for a while. It will most likely remain in prototype stage unless a manufacturer sees it, licenses it and decides to use it in their next device.

The newcomer to these 2nd gen color screens is Liquavista. They recently announced their LiquavistaColor screen at CES and titled it as “LCD 2.0.” Liquavista’s approach to display tech is a smart one — they’re not trying to reinvent how people make the wheel, just the wheel itself. The LCD 2.0 screen uses 90% of the parts and manufacturing of traditional LCD screens. That means nearly all the architecture is in place to make these screens fast and cheap.

The screen itself is sunlight readable and in color. It swiftly renders pictures, video and digital magazine pages. Again, no backlit eyestrain. Liquavista also credits itself for rewriting traditional power algorithms that make the LiquavistaColor extremely power efficient. Once again a very viable color alternative to E-Ink that could turn a simple eReader into a wonderful device.

Wrap up
Those are just four of the most identifiable and interesting color display technologies to appear in the last couple of months. You’ll begin seeing these display options in some major devices this year and we expect them to fully take over the eReader and tablet market by 2012. And that’s just the beginning. The more consumers clamor for convergent devices that can do many things well, the more companies will develop display technologies to use in those devices.

Make no mistake, E-Ink is dead — even if it, and others, don’t know it yet. There’s just no more use for it when you have such incredible new technologies at your disposal.

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6 Responses to “A comparison of second generation displays: Why Pixel Qi, Mirasol, QR-LPD and Liquavista are the future of tablet screens.”

  1. One aside, most eyestrain is not the result of the backlighting, it is the result of the flicker caused by the screen refreshing.

    If they make one of these bistable displays backlit, it wont cause much eyestrain as long as you are not displaying video.

  2. Phogg:

    No it’s not. It’s the backlighting. The LCD is updating only when the picture is changed.

    You’re thinking of CRT.

  3. Prime View International bought e-Ink Technologies to become E-Ink Holdings and I believe they are developing their own color ePaper display with color e-Ink technology. Samsung was suppose to be in the fray too but they quit…I guess too competitive for them.

  4. Eyestrain is mainly due to the difference in light intensity of what you are looking at vs the ambient light. Eyes are used to gradually changing intensity. Same reason why glare from reflective surfaces causes eyestrain. Backlight is sited to be the reason in case of LCDs because it’s level is rarely set correctly wrt to the surrounding often changing light. Remember that programmers can stare at screens for 18 hours straight. But they are in an almost contant lighting condition. Portable devices however go through huge variations in light through the day. That’s also the reason most have auto-adjust feature for the backlight, but again doesn’t really work right.

    • Great summarizing article. It gave me a lot of hope that we will soon be able to use a digital display as a true cognition medium. I’m among the people with the opinion that the intermittence of light (even unperceivable by the eyes) is creating a shift to the right hemisphere of the brain (alpha waves), thus making it difficult for the brain to concentrate in abstract, logical thinking. The struggle to stay focused exhausts the nervous system. The eye strain is a separate symptom.

      While reading from paper, it is easy and natural to emerge into deep thinking. Reading from an LCD display with fluorescent or pulse width modulated LED backlight proves itself to be extremely difficult. That’s the reason why e-ink technology was needed and invented in the first place.

      I think Mirasol is the most spectacular improvement and the closest to nature.