The Jetbook Color 2 Shows Why Color E-ink Screens Are a Dead End

jetbook color 2When Ectaco announced last Fall that they were releasing a new Jetbook Color 2 ereader this Spring, I was excited to read that it would have a new and improved screen, the Triton 2.

Sadly, my Jetbook Color 2 arrived yesterday and the new screen for the most part is not visibly different from the screen on the original Jetbook Color.

Sure, the blacks are darker, and the colors are a little brighter, but unfortunately E-ink's second-gen color E-ink screen has the same gray base color as the previous screen. It is a gray that is so dark that the original Kindle actually has a whiter screen.

To put it simply, E-ink has once again made a color screen that can show you any color except white. I find that incredibly disappointing.

Here is the old and new Jetbook Color side by side. Guess which is the new screen:

jetbook color new 2

Just to be clear, one of the ereaders above is indeed the Jetbook Color and the other is the Jetbook Color 2.

But if I didn't tell you that the new screen was on the left, would you have been able to tell? I couldn't, and I had to confirm by email that I had a Jetbook Color 2.

Take a good look, folks, because the above photo explains why no major ereader maker, not Amazon, B&N, Kobo, or anyone else, bought E-ink's screen and released a color ereader. It's a pretty simple explanation: the screen is too gray.

In spite of all the hype, and in spite of however we might wish it weren't the case, E-ink simply cannot yet make a color screen that doesn't look gray. This company has now released 2 different screens and sold them to device makers, and both screens are an unacceptable gray.

110215-color-eink2[1]It's my belief that the problem is the color filter that is on top the E-ink screen. I think it turns an otherwise white screen into a gray screen.

The image at right shows a basic diagram of the filter and the underlying E-ink screen. The red, green, blue, and white squares represents the filter, and the bubbles beneath the squares represent the E-ink screen.

The E-ink screen that is under the color filter is the same basic screen as on pretty much any ereader (except the newer HD screens). It works exactly the same as the E-ink screen on any other ereader, only thanks to the color filter you see RGBW instead of black and white.

Only it cannot show you white.

As I understand it, the problem is that when the screen tries to show the color white, it still has to work through red, green, and blue filters. The reason you cannot see the white color is that your eye mixes the tiny, tiny RGB filters into a single color:

Gray.

Let this post stand as my formal notice that I am giving up on color E-ink. Unless someone comes up with an amazing breakthrough, I don't see how an E-ink screen will ever come close to replicating the quality of color we expect  to see on a screen, much less paper.

40 thoughts on “The Jetbook Color 2 Shows Why Color E-ink Screens Are a Dead End

  1. The one on the left seems noticeably sharper, at least. Like the difference between the iPad 2 and the iPad 4.

    Still, I think you’re right. It’s not overly discernable.

    What I’m curious about–and maybe you’ll know–is what seems like a manufacturer-determined limit of screen size. Besides the Kindle DX, all e-ink seems to be the same six inches. Which is a shame, because a paper-slim Kindle the size of an iPad mini with an e-ink screen would be very attractive. Though probably way expensive.

    1. Sharper? I’m not sure I can see that by eyeball. But the black is stronger, I will admit.

      There’s no real limitation on the dimensions other than development and manufacturing cost, so E-ink screens could have a different proportion than the current 4:3 6″ screen. Some devices do have a screen with a different proportion; the Sony Reader 900 for example. But they are rare.

      The original 6″ screen was first used on the Sony Librie. That particular screen size was chosen because it is about the same size as a Japanese paperback. And ever since that screen was developed, everyone has copied it.

      I think Sony used that screen size in the Sony Reader (their second ereader) because they could buy the component for less than it would cost to develop a new screen size, and after Amazon had stellar success with the Kindle everyone just followed in Amazon’s footsteps.

      E-ink even offers to make other screen sizes, and with a little work you can find ereaders with a 5″ screen (I have 3). But the smaller size is rare, and I don’t think anyone makes an ereader with anything other than a 9.7″ or 6″ screen anymore.

      And I don’t know why the Kindle DX launched with a 9.7″ screen, but it seems likely that the Jetbook Color used the established size rather than investing something new.

      BTW, the 4.3″ ereader that I have posted about a couple months ago does not have an E-ink screen. It has a similar screen

      1. I hate 6″ screens. Way too small for immersive reading. 7″ would be my minimum, 8″ even better.

        I currently have the Kindle DXG and will keep it, warts and all, until something decent comes out.

        An 8″ touch with built-in front light would be perfect.

        1. “An 8? touch with built-in front light would be perfect.”

          PocketBook will have their 8″ colour frontlit screen sometime in June (hopefully). I had high hopes for the JBC2; I have a JBC and I do like it, but I cannot recommend it to anyone. Only if you need a large format reader. My hopes are fading, let’s see if PocketBook can deliver.

  2. The blacks look blacker on the new one, but the “white” is the same color. I agree with you on the prospects of e-ink color. Not only does it have markedly worse contrast than e-ink Pearl, it’s expensive. I don’t think it has a chance.

    It looks like they just can’t improve the contrast ratio of regular b&w e-ink either. It’s been awhile since the Pearl came out, and I haven’t heard any rumors of them making a successor. If there is no display improvement in 2013, US e-ink reader sales will only get worse.

  3. Considering there doesnt seem to be any money in selling color ereaders as of now, I am pleasantly surprised there are any available at all.
    Development costs and lack of early adopters should explain why it’s a rocky road and a slow progress.
    Let’s not forget, lcds have been around for way more than a decade, even lcd tablets have.
    So both do have a time advantage.
    I think you were really having unrealistic hopes.
    I dont have a jetbook personally, merely because it just always seemed too expensive for what it delivers.
    I could live with the screen, but the system, the forced handling with the stylus without the benefits of an active stylus like the Samsung note devices is a drawback.
    As of now it’s neither a great consumer device nor a great education device.
    But i credit its drawbacks really to the early stage of (color) eInk readers.
    Once a touchscreen is integrated and the price drops at least a little (pocketbook might be able to pull that of i guess), color Eink will have its place.
    Go a step further, imagine a Samsung note 10 with a decent eInk screen (to me this one seems ok already), touchscreen and active stylus and an android system for say, 400 to 500 bucks- sold!

    1. “Unrealistic expectations”?

      Since when is wanting to see the color white an unrealistic expectation?

      i credit its drawbacks really to the early stage of (color) eInk readers.

      You are willing to write off the JBC hardware shortcomings because it is the first generation device. Did you ever consider why it was the first?

      This tech has been around since 2006 and yet none of the majors used it. Amazon could have used it any time they wanted, but they declined. That should tell you something about how unappealing the color E-ink screen really is.

      1. Even if I agree with everything else that Nate said, I wanted to remind him that the eInk ancestor (Gyricon by Xerox) has been around since the ’70s! Can you believe that it took more than 30 years to develop something decent? the Triton might be a dead end (i don’t have enough scientifical knowledge to judge it), but I truly believe that technological evolution eventually catches up with our expectancies :) Colours will be ours (one day)!

      2. Here’s the thing – it’s an electronic ink screen that shows colour, but it’s not actually colour electronic ink. Is there no way that they can make the little black beads of ink in actual red, green, blue varieties as well as black?

        1. E-ink showed off a 3 color screen at SID Display Week (a couple months after this article was posted). Unfortunately that screen can only do 3 colors: Red, black, and white. It cannot yet show shades of red and black.

  4. Oh. I thought the new one was on the right side, because the colors seemed brighter to me.

    I think I’m gonna stick with my black-and-white e-reader, then!

  5. Ahh yes, you are right. I remember the 2nd generation of lcds and leds being comparable to the leading existing tech. Great perspective. Totally a dead end and they should stop right now.

  6. For my eyes, when you click on it and see a larger picture, there’s considerably more contrast on the one on the left, but the one on the right has a slightly lighter background. The objects just look more faded because there’s little contrast.

    There’s also more color seen on the one on the left. As one who still uses eInk for many books, I wouldn’t be interested in this though.

  7. Ah yes, black on grey. This reminds me strongly of early dot matrix LCD displays back in the late 80s / early 90s. As we all remember, they could not display white. That’s why LCD was a dead end tech and never went anywhere. Good thing we stuck with good ol’ cathode ray tubes!

    1. If LCDs had had a functional competitor that did a better job (this excludes CRTs), then it would have been good idea to abandon the tech, yes. Right now color E-ink has to compete against LCD and OLED. Even a cheap LCD screen does a better job of color than E-ink, and for the most part battery life isn’t an issue.

      BTW, it might be possible for color E-ink to succeed, but not with the current passive filter used on the Jetbook. And since E-ink hasn’t shown off or talked about a new color filter I don’t see how I am wrong to say that the current tech is dead.

      1. E-ink is not competing against LCD or OLED screens. If they were then why would anyone ever buy an e-ink reader? It’s eyestrain and bright light use which sets e-ink appart and leaves lcd etc standing in its wake.
        I don’t want to give up on colour e-ink because I know it would be the ultimate tool for what I want. give it a few years and someone will eventually crack it. Either that or develop an lcd screen that is truelly anti glare and easily seen in daylight.

        1. Devices with LCD screens and E-ink screens compete for the same consumer dollars. That might not matter as much when the price dips below $100, but the Jetbook costs $500. At that price point the market is awfully tight, and the limited functionality of an ereader is a negative that the E-ink screen might not overcome.

  8. I like the one on the left. So much clearer less blurry icons. Sharper/bolder text. Blacker blacks. Very crisp. More saturated colors but that”s not saying much. However, for the price, I wouldn’t buy it.

  9. It is a shame that the Jetbook costs so much. I am only attracted to it by the size and the educational software. Does anyone know of a similar reader with similar educational software? Or better yet would it be possible to upload the Jetbook software to a quality ereader like a kindle paper white or DX or a Nook HD+?
    For now I use the nook HD+ for it’s quality and value for money but would prefer it’s quality in e-ink like with the paper white and Jetbook educational tools and software does not seem possible right now.

  10. Frumentous has a point. Predictions of the type “this is not possible, will not work or who will want/need this” are very often proved wrong, a couple of famous predictions proved wrong include:

    I think there is a world market for maybe five computers. – Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943.
    There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home. – Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977.

    and so on… a quick google will show you a very long (and sometimes very funny) list. Who knows? Maybe ink gets stuck and dies… and 20 years later a very curious engineering/physics student invents nano-ink droplets that change their color depending on the electromagnetic potential in a field and can be suspended in air… and we all end up watching 3-d movies in the cinema using e-ink.

    So e-ink has some issues/problems. Time will if they can be overcome or not. It’s probably a little premature to say this or that is a dead end. In the short term, there is a market, and plenty of researchers out there doing/trying funky stuff and making reality today the unimaginable of yesterday.

    1. And yet this tech has been around for a half dozen years without Amazon, B&N, or Kobo using it to make a color ereader. I would call that a pretty strong indication that the screen wasn’t good enough.

  11. Hey Nate,

    Thank you for the comparison pictures, I just want to say that your Blog is really awesome! Im a regular reader :)

    And now to my question: I am (seriously) considering buying the Jetbook Color 2 only for reading colored .pdfs and not for anything else.

    In which lighting scenarious is the Jetbook Color 2 still readable? Would I always need the best light conditions or is it comparable to the E-Ink Pearl Display? Would it be possible to make a comparison picture with, lets say a Kindle DX or Onyx M92 with dark text?

    I know you don’t really like this thing, which I can fully understand, but due to the nature of my eyes I can’t be reading too much on Tablets even with IPS-LCD. Oh and I would get the Jetbook Color 2 for about 340 Euros with a discount.

    Thank you very much in advance!

  12. Yes, because prohibitively high costs for the limited functionality was not at al the reason for companies not implementing it readily then.
    It would be the same thing as saying back in 2006 that eInk was around for almost a decade and no one really was using it, hence it had no future.

    Amazon has recently acquired Liquiavista, meaning that they are at least toying with the idea of releasing a color ereader. Don’t know if it will be this year, but probably they are going to have one in the next year’s generation. Though, if they do release a basic model this year, I wouldn’t be terribly surprised.
    And other companies are jumping on the wagon already. Take a look at Pocketbook Lux. It uses the same Triton 2 screen, but they also have a frontlight, which really does make the colors stand out rather well. And as companies start treading on a familiar ground and compete with each other to make the crispest colors on the market, that’s when the technology is really going to take off. Once again, early days.

    1. “It would be the same thing as saying back in 2006 that eInk was around for almost a decade and no one really was using it, hence it had no future.”

      Nope. In 2006 there was virtually no market for ereaders, so launching a model with an E-ink screen was a big gamble for Sony (and Amazon, a year later). Now there is an established market for ereaders with epaper screens, and yet Amazon, Kobo, et al are not using color E-ink screens.

      “Amazon has recently acquired Liquiavista, meaning that they are at least toying with the idea of releasing a color ereader. ”

      That has absolutely nothing to do with the viability of color E-ink screens. If anything it tends to prove that Amazon doesn’t see color E-ink as a viable option. That’s why they bought Liquavista instead.

      “And as companies start treading on a familiar ground and compete with each other to make the crispest colors on the market, that’s when the technology is really going to take off. Once again, early days.”

      There’s simply no competition. Other screen tech can show white. Color E-ink screens cannot. End of story.

      And finally, I have seen the Pocketbook Lux. It is as gray as the screen on the Jetbook 2.

  13. Are you still by the official statement that color E-ink is not gonna happen? Not even after Amazon bought that company that makes electrowetting screens?

    1. E-ink tech is EPD. Liquavista tech is electrowetting. The 2 are not the same, so I don’t see why I would need to revise my opinion.

      And as I have already pointed out in this comment section, the fact that Amazon bought Liquavista is a strong argument that they didn’t think color E-ink was a viable option.

  14. Assume that Amazon is selling one color kindle in 2014 … What will make the competition? Mirasol?? I imagine they’re thinking something after Amazon purchased Liquavista…

    1. Depending on the qualities of that hypothetical colour Kindle, what would you consider “competition”? There will certainly still be grayscale readers that will compete with colour-capable ones and colour LCD screens will continue to exist in devices. You also have the PocketBook Color Lux that launched this year with E-Ink Triton and frontlight.

      Alternative technologies will continue to exist. The question is, whether they will be used in devices and what these would cost. What I’ve seen from Mirasol is, that it doesn’t look too pretty while the devices are expensive. Pixel Qi devices are even more expensive. What do you want to see and what are you willing to spend for it?

  15. e-ink is dead. for your eye health is only a hype.
    since you can’t choose your pc, laptop, mobile…
    don’t wait up e-ink anymore…
    grab a blue light protection glasses to apply it to all.

  16. The problem whit color e-ink is the use of red, green and bleu for making a colored picture. The combination of this colors make it look grayish. The solution for this problem is:

    The use of the colors Magenta (red), Cyan (bleu), Yellow and Black. This combination of colors is also used when printing on normal paper. Since i know that the use of this colors work also in LED lighting to make rich colors, i know for shure that it also will work with e-ink technology. It will make it much brighter and richer than the use of RGB technology.

    1. I’m not sure a CMYK filter would be much better. It would still have 3 pixels that cause a white overtone and 1 black pixel. I think we would still have a grayed out screen. It wouldn’t be as gray but it would still be off.

  17. i think you have a biased opinion on color e-ink, or maybe you expected too much from the beginning which might be resulting this view.

    it was very easy to tell the left was the newer model, even without looking at the full size photo, if you couldn’t see that perhaps your eyes aren’t as good as you think they are (no offence)

    i for one am very glad and excited to see this tech evolving, been waiting for color e-ink since the day e-ink first came into the market. i’m a graphic designer and love to read design magazines, and without color it means squat. most likely color e-ink will never match or surpass full color displays (which i believe they weren’t designed to) e-ink just has that quality like it’s printed on the screen, and the massive battery life and now color? that’s epic! reading magazines on a tablets these days, won’t even last a full day! and this jetbook color 2 is rated at 30 days right?!

    i recall a friend of mine telling me few years back, “color e-ink just isn’t possible and it wouldn’t work” but from what i can see on your photos, it works fine and quite awesomely tbh for such a new tech, and it’s only the beginning, some ppl (like yourself) may think this won’t get much better but that’s the beauty of tech, we keep creating things beyond our imaginations ^^

    i can’t wait to see how much color e-ink improves in the next 2~3 years, or they might just come up with a whole new tech that surpasses e-ink altogether.

    also the screen really isn’t gray per se, it’s just dark. turn down the brightness on your display (whatever that may be) any white background would appear gray, but that’s such a minor issue, you’re not a pro photographer or a color grader for film industry, all you need to know is that “gray” is the background, i mean smartphones these days even have a setting to turn down all the whites to light gray to save battery!

    anyway, i apologize for the long comment but i’m just so excited and happy to see this, even though your review was quite negative, i see the potential. if it was a bit cheaper i’d buy this ^^ but like all new tech, they need the extra $$ for the r&d costs.

    keep up the good work!

  18. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my 61 years on the planet, it’s that pundits who shout that this or that new technology is a dead end and has no future are almost always wrong.

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