There's Finally a Good Color E Ink Tablet for Comic Books

Photo: Andrew Liszewski - Gizmodo

Just six months after the first e-readers featuring E Ink’s color electronic paper technology arrived, the next generation of devices is already here with upgraded color screens. The improvements E Ink has made are minor, but the new PocketBook InkPad Color has a larger screen that offers a much improved reading experience over the original PocketBook Color.

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When E Ink announced the next-generation Kaleido 2 color electronic paper displays just months after the first version of the product became available to consumers, we weren’t expecting it to solve all of the issues we had with color E Ink devices like the original PocketBook Color—and it doesn’t.

E Ink has improved the color filter array, which is an extra layer that sits atop the company’s black-and-white Carta HD displays to produce color images. Kaleido 2 promises better color saturation with screen-lighting, but color mode still offers just a third of the resolution of black-and-white mode—300 PPI compared to 100 PPI, which is even lower resolution than what entry-level Kindles offer. That limitation will continue to make color E Ink devices like this a tough sell, particularly as they grow in size and become more expensive than tablets.

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E Ink still manages to outperform display technologies like LCD and OLED when devices are used outside in bright sunlight, and that’s once again where color electronic paper really looks its best.

E Ink’s color electronic paper screens still look their best in bright sunlight, but version two does fare better under the InkPad Color’s LED sidelighting.
Photo: Andrew Liszewski/Gizmodo

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Colors on the Kaleido 2 display appear beautifully saturated with the sun’s rays bouncing off the InkPad Color’s reflective screen, and contrast levels mean that if you’re headed to the beach, these are still the types of devices you’ll want to bring with you for reading. Indoors, however, even if you’re seated directly beneath a light source, you’ll be relying on the InkPad Color’s 24 LED sidelights to adequately see its screen.

You have to really look close to see the differences in color performance between the original E Ink Kaleido color screen (right) and the new version (left), but it’s there.
Photo: Andrew Liszewski/Gizmodo

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The extra layers needed to make the current implementation of color E Ink possible necessitate the use of a front-lit screen. E Ink now acknowledges that with improvements made to Kaleido 2 to specifically address that use case, but the improvements aren’t night and day. Sitting side-by-side with the original PocketBook (with screen lighting turned all the way up on both devices), colors on the the InkPad Color do look slightly more saturated and accurate (or as accurate as they can with just 4,096 colors), but you really have to be looking for a difference.

Viewing angles with the Kaleido 2 E Ink screen (foreground PocketBook) are much improved over the first generation (background PocketBook).
Photo: Andrew Liszewski/Gizmodo

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Looking directly at each device on its own, I probably couldn’t tell which one was using the original Kaleido screen, and which the newer one. But the difference gets more obvious when viewing each screen from the side. The viewing angles on the Kaleido 2 color e-paper are vastly improved, with colors staying mostly accurate even as you rotate the device from side to side. It’s a baby step, but a baby step in the right direction.

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The biggest drawback to color E Ink screens is the extra color display layer that darkens the whole screen in the process, making it look less like it’s simulating actual printed paper, even in black-and-white mode.
Photo: Andrew Liszewski/Gizmodo

But there remains one big downside to E Ink’s Kaleido color screens that will be especially obvious to those using black and white-only e-readers like the Kindle and Kobo. While the InkPad Color’s black and white Carta HD panel displays plain text at 300 PPI (1872 x 1404 pixels at 7.8-inches) so it looks crisp and sharp, the color filter array darkens the background quite a bit and reduces contrast, making it hard to read regular ebooks without a bright light over your shoulder or the screen’s lighting turned on.

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By comparison, the Carta HD panel on its own in the Kindle and Kobo looks considerably brighter and closer to the appearance of printed text on a page. I’m not necessarily against turning on the InkPad Color’s screen lighting—the battery life can still lasts a few weeks with it on—but it does make the device appear more like it’s using an LCD than a screen technology that was originally developed to simulate the appearance of printed paper so it’s easier on the eyes. That, and the fact that the lighting used with color E Ink screens doesn’t allow for color temperature adjustments late at night when cooler shades can keep you awake, are some of the bigger trade-offs of E Ink going color.

The inclusion of physical buttons on both PocketBook color devices is a welcome feature that devices like the Kindle have abandoned, but ironically, on the larger PocketBook InkPad Color, they’ve actually gotten smaller and harder to find by touch alone.
Bonus points to PocketBook for still including microSD slots for expanding the device’s storage capabilities, and now USB-C for charging.

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That being said, the bump in size from the six-inch PocketBook Color to the 7.8-inch PocketBook InkPad Color really does make a big difference in usability and the types of media you can read on it.

The Kaleido 2 color e-paper screen still being limited to just 100 PPI is disappointing, but the larger screen size means you no longer have to zoom graphic novels to read the text.
Photo: Andrew Liszewski - Gizmodo

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Even with a reduced screen resolution in color mode, the text in most graphic novels is now easy to read without any zooming required, which is still a stuttery process on a device running a dual-core 1 GHz processor, just 1GB of RAM, and a screen with a slow refresh rate. Magazines, on the other hand, which often feature finer print than comic books, are still a challenge to read in color mode on the InkPad Color. If that’s what you tend to read the most, you might want to wait for the even larger 10.3-inch color e-paper screens that E Ink has promised are arriving later this year.

Even with advantages like low-power usage and excellent visibility in sunlight, the Kaleido 2 color e-paper screens still don’t even come close to the color reproduction capabilities of an LCD or OLED display.
Photo: Andrew Liszewski/Gizmodo

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Even with a larger and upgraded color e-paper display, the PocketBook InkPad Color still feels like it’s a few upgrades away from really giving tablets some a run for their money. The newest $399 iPad Mini, which now supports the original Apple Pencil for note-taking, is just $70 more than the InkPad Color. The iPad Mini runs more apps, can access more media, and features a user interface that rarely has you tapping and waiting for something to happen. And then there’s the screen. Sitting side by side, a backlit LCD screen that can display 16 million+ colors makes a side-lit screen that can muster just 4,096 look like an antique, not a next-generation product.

If you’re really excited to try out a color e-reader, or are just an early adopter in general, the PocketBook InkPad Color is now the best device using the latest and greatest version of E Ink’s color electronic paper. It’s more expensive than the original PocketBook Color by about $100, but the larger screen size is better suited for color documents like graphic novels or illustrated children’s books. But if you can wait, E Ink’s already got newer versions of its color e-paper technology en route that will further address the problems with the new display technology. There’s a reason the company is iterating so quickly, and hopefully it won’t take long for it to resolve all these problematic trade-offs.

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