E Ink Android Phone Lasts a Week, Weighs Next to Nothing

Who would want a smartphone with a grayscale E Ink screen?  Anyone who want days of  battery life, superior outdoor readability and low cost should be interested in using the technology in a phone. At Mobile World Congress this week, we got our hands on a prototype Android smartphone with an e-Ink screen and were blown away by just how light it was about how sharp text looked on its screen and how long it could last.

Not keen on giving up your full-color, full HD display on your phone? E Ink technology should be coming soon to back covers for phones, supplying info at a glance without draining your battery.

The device we used has no official name, because it’s one of only a handful of prototypes made by eInk, the company behind the grayscale screens that power so many popular devices like the Kindle and Nook. Our demo came courtesy of Nicholas Charbonnier, the proprietor of ARMdevices.net who has reported extensively about the evolution of  E Ink technology. The device is designed to last at least a week on a charge and cost cost as little as 150 euros unsubsidized, he said.

eInk Apps Menu

Charbonnier told us that E Ink  is working with hardware partners not only to bring full-fledged E Ink smartphones to market, but also to develop E Ink back panels for popular phones with removable backs. The end products, which could cost as little as $50, would be replace users’ existing battery covers with ones that had E Ink screens.

These E Ink accessories would use Bluetooth to communicate to the phone and an app would allow users to put their favorite content on the back of the phone where it could be viewed even when the phone is asleep. Because E Ink screens don’t use any power when not actively changing pictures, these second screens would help increase battery life by helping you avoid activating the front display as often.

The Russian Yota Phone, which we saw at CES, will come with an E Ink screen on its backside when it launches later this year. These upgrade panels would allow users of popular phones to get the same functionality. However, no partnerships have been announced as of yet for either a back panel E Ink replacement or standalone E Ink phone.

Perhaps because it can use a smaller battery or because it has an older ARM processor — Charbonnier said it has a Qualcomm A5 chip — the reference design weighed a mere 80 grams and felt as light as paper in our hand. 

The device was running a very stripped down, ancient version of Android with a home screen that had a set of tiles for Messages, Phone, e-Reader, Contacts, Applications and Settings. The applications menu had just a handful of apps, including a voice recorder, web browser and a Chinese app. The contacts list, settings and dialer were all standard Android 2.3 apps. The e-Reader had a list of Chinese-language books and, when we opened them, text was sharp.

Unfortunately, it was too dark out at the time of our hands-on to do a direct sunlight test, but Charbonnier captured images of the device outdoors for an article on the E Ink phone and they show a Samsung phone with a screen that’s completely unreadable in the sun right next to the very-sharp E Ink phone. That said,we noticed a lot of bugs in the way the screen drew and redrew it self; there were often artifacts on the screen, which Charbonnier cleared away by shaking the device.

eInk Android Phone

Navigating between menus was painfully slow, and though the device supports multitouch gestures such as pinch-to-zoom, it wasn’t always responsive. There was also significant lag when redrawing the screen, which is always a problem on E Ink screens but was particularly sluggish on this device. That said, it’s important to note this is very much a reference design and proof of concept. When final E Ink phones come out, Charbonnier says they will undoubtedly have an Android skin that uses fewer animations and non-scrolling menus so that the slow draw times are not a problem.

The low power, sharp and images, light weight and low price of dedicated E Ink phones make them particularly compelling for developing markets where cost is important and power is scarce. However, having a second E Ink screen like the Yota Phone is truly compelling in any environment. We can’t wait to see how this initiative turns out.

AUTHOR BIO
Avram Piltch
Avram Piltch
The official Geeks Geek, as his weekly column is titled, Avram Piltch has guided the editorial and production of Laptopmag.com since 2007. With his technical knowledge and passion for testing, Avram programmed several of LAPTOP's real-world benchmarks, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. He holds a master’s degree in English from NYU.
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  1. Joseph Says:

    >. That said,we noticed a lot of bugs in the way the screen drew and redrew it self as there were often artifacts on the screen which
    >Charbonnier cleared away by shaking the device.

    Is that an etch-a-sketch joke?

  2. John Wilson Says:

    Wow. That looks absolutely horrible. If you need battery life that bad, walk around with a charger. This is nonsense.

  3. tangomilonga Says:

    You have a audacity to show jerky, focus hunting video.
    Sad part is that you presumably get for it.
    It is appalling that you usurp a right to show high tech devices without grasping basics of operating one.

  4. Sean Lumly Says:

    This is a very impressive prototype, and it will be very interesting if the technology can be improved, as mobile screens generally require the most power of any component. A better screen technology could yield devices that last for weeks rather than days on a single charge.

    I could see a phone cover (like a typical case flap that protects the screen) having an always-on e-ink display for quick device glances (eg. check the time, check a notification) and quick interactions. It may also prove the better interface for reading without compromising the SAMOLED/LCD of the device.

    My fear is that e-ink has seemingly stagnated as there is still much work to be done for colour screens, and more responsive screens. Even small gains would render this a more viable option

    On a different topic: the amount of ads strewn throughout this article are quite overwhelming.

  5. m. luther Says:

    Totally awesome. I would buy one of these right away.

    Even better will be when / if “hybrid” screens become possible… I would spend most of my time in e-ink mode (90% of what I do is just reading, whatever it is) and only switch to full-color & animation for those rare moments when I play games or watch a video or two.

    This would have the positive side-effects of improving people’s health (studies suggest that staring into a light source, especially in the dark, is bad for you) and encouraging app developers to get rid of the dumb “swiping” interface for page turns. Much more efficient and easier on the mind to just press once to get a new page.

    Very exciting!

  6. Aaron Gilliland Says:

    Notwithstanding the super-light weight and super-long battery life that E Ink affords this device, the display is a showstopper. The talk about using an older processor is a red herring; a faster processor won’t fix fundamental characteristics of the display. The currently available generations of E Ink give you a trade-off between refresh speed and power consumption; crappy refresh rates mean long battery life, fast refreshes are draining. The E Ink screen is great for displays that don’t require rapid refresh, but this prototype demonstrates how inappropriate it is as a smartphone’s primary display. When you buy an Android phone with multitouch, the implication is that you’ll be interacting using finger swipes and taps, and that your interactions produce feedback quickly enough to make the experience seem natural and effortless. What we think of as normal single- and multi-touch functions would lose much of their utility; pinch-to-zoom, for one, would be a noticeable series of zoom-in steps (instead of a fluid growing and shrinking effect), something you could achieve with a zoom-in button and a single finger.

    I’m not trying to bad-mouth E Ink, here – this is just not a viable application until/unless E Ink rolls out a display that gives you imperceptible refresh without massively increasing power consumption, hopefully at a reasonable price.

    It would be cool to have the option of swapping your phone’s display, either physically changing it for another one or flipping one over the other like a book cover. There are times when I wish my display was e-paper, but then I look at my Motorola F3 and all is forgotten :)

  7. Steven Munden Says:

    I can see why many would not be excited about this but I can see big applications for it. I said ages ago when I saw the Kindle e-ink display that a smartphone with this could be great – for a purpose! I am personally very colour blind and I appreciate e-ink and the classic Kindle for reading (it’s intended and best purpose of course!). I also love its simplicity and long battery life. However, all that said I don’t think I could live with an e-ink smartphone. I’d be happy with many business apps, but let’s face it – it wouldn’t be great for any fun stuff (Angry Birds might be interesting lol…). But for hardcore business needs, e-ink is great! Clearly this is a rough prototype. But I think if they produce apps that are aimed at e-ink, embrace its limitations and aim it at the right market it could be a success. I doubt it will ever be the next iPhone though, lol…but it could fill a niche.

  8. Jay Derrett Says:

    I cannot wait for a decent eInk phone to come along, for one specfic, niche application – XCSoar. This app is a very popular flight computer among the gliding fraternity. Soaring cross country is typically in bright sunlight, for several hours per flight. The app is not power hungry, not fast moving, and doesn’t even really need colour (although that helps). There must also be similar outdoor activities (e.g. Geocaching) that would really benefit from such a phone.

  9. max Says:

    GPS or flop

  10. Rete Says:

    I want that phone, i do not care about colors, or movies, but if it can launch a pdf and read it and also alunch some music and also call or text someone, with a phone that is cheap , as in really cheap, with a battery that can last me a week, i want it, for movies and all the rest i have a tv and pc wich i can plug into a soket, but why should i want to watch a movie inside a cabin in the woods especially if my phone will be dead at the end of the movie, on the other hand if i read a book and the phone just goes haahaa, 1000 pages, that is nothing for my battery, go long and call someone, i still have planty of power, now there is something i want. And if it is really cheap why bother protecting it like the queens jewelry , use it enjoy it, and when it breaks just get a new one,
    great sale pich: did your phone break, turn it in and get a new one for like 5 buks

  11. Takabis Says:

    It is gray scale smartphone, but this is very impressive & having interesting technology. I think this smart phone is a classiest smartphone compare than other smartphone.

  12. ggg Says:

    Ideal outdoor phone in case it has gps, accelerometer, magnetic sensor, gyroscope(, barometer, camera ).

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