I Dream of Tablet, Part One: Display Technology

by Josh Rubenoff Dec 03, 2009

Devices like the Kindle and the upcoming Nook have made a point of using e-ink displays, and if Apple's making a tablet-style device it's going to be thinking long and hard about which display technology will most effectively translate print media to the digital screen. Below are a few examples of what kind of displays we might see on devices of this form factor—not just from Apple, but from its potential competitors in this space as well.

Let's first focus on e-ink displays, because the number of reading devices utilizing this technology is growing fast: to accompany the Sony Reader and Amazon Kindle, there's new entrants into the field from companies like Plastic Logic and Barnes & Noble. The main advantages of these displays are their very low power consumption—they only require power to generate a new image—and various factors that make them easier to read, like a larger viewing angle than conventional LCDs. However, color e-ink displays are a long way off, with even Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is telling shareholders that current color e-ink prototypes are "not ready for prime time." E-ink displays are also incapable of rendering smooth animation or video without drawing large amounts of power disproportionate to the capabilities of today's mobile batteries. If Apple used one of these displays, the company would probably have to create a new interface from scratch—iPhone apps in their current, slick, full-color incarnation would be essentially useless.

But then there's a company named Pixel Qi, which is manufacturing a kind of dual LCD/e-ink display—with the flick of a switch it can seamlessly transition between a transmissive color display and a monochrome display that, like e-ink, reflects ambient light. The result is a high-resolution screen that's perfectly readable in direct sunlight, and its website states it's marketing the device for manufacturers to incorporate within netbooks and e-readers. It's not completely infeasible Apple might take an interest in this idea—Pixel Qi's even been able to create a touchscreen display with their technology, which it'll possibly be incorporating into an upcoming iteration of the OLPC.

Perhaps even more promising in the realm of electronic paper are Qualcomm's mirasol displays, which produce text with a similar level of clarity as e-ink, but with drastically reduced power consumption. In fact, as opposed to e-ink, mirasol displays can support full-color images and  video playback with battery performance that exceeds even a traditional LCD display, as seen in this photo taken by SlashGear:


Mirasol display tech


Qualcomm's working with LG, along with various manufacturers whose names it won't disclose (Apple, anyone?) to get these displays out in mass production by the end of 2010.

But the safest bet is still to assume that Apple's just not going to be taking any risks. It could just go with a full-color screen like the iPhone's LCD. Or, more likely, an OLED screen like the Zune HD's, which not only draws less power but looks astoundingly better. The iPhone OS would have no issues rendering graphics on this screen, and even though LCDs often have a lower resolution than e-ink displays, why would Apple care? Third-party e-reader apps like Stanza and Classics have already established the iPhone and iPod touch as a legitimate e-reader/e-book platform. I have no doubt that if Apple introduces a sufficiently excellent device, it could swoop in from nowhere to dominate the e-reader market as it did the smartphone market, even if the device has an LCD screen.

Whatever display Apple chooses, I'm sure it'll choose the best one for the job. That is, assuming it's making this tablet at all.


[NOTE: This is the first in a series of articles which constitute baseless speculation on a hypothetical Apple tablet computer. Everything below assumes that Apple is, in fact, working on a touchscreen device with a larger form factor than the iPhone, to be used as a platform for digital books/magazines/newspapers, as well as, perhaps, a better way to view HD video.]


  • They are not going to launch this thing until it it is a competition killer.  This means, device, software, apps, and content.

    WetcoastBob had this to say on Dec 14, 2009 Posts: 29
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