It takes a lot to stand out at a trade show the size of Mobile World Congress. But here’s one device that caught my eye today: an e-ink smartphone. Unlike Yota Phone, the Russian startup that’s using e-ink as a second screen to augment the back of a powerful high end smartphone in a bid to stand out in the uber crowded Android space, this prototype device has just the one screen. A single e-ink screen on the front of the device — so it’s a true e-ink phone.
It’s also a true smartphone. There were two prototypes on show at Eink‘s stand, both with a 1GHz chip inside and one (the white one) with a 3G chip in it. The other had Edge connectivity. The phones run Android but, as you’d expect, the OS has been simplified with a custom UI that strips back the functionality to focus on the applications that make sense for a fully e-ink smartphone — such as a reader app, a dialer and email. The UI also includes a web browser since certain types of webpages can be viewed on an e-ink screen. It won’t support video of course but text-based sites can still be read.
The black prototype device (pictured below) also includes a backlight for reading in the dark. Both screens are capacitive, but as you’d expect with e-ink the refresh rate can be a little slow. Ghosting on the screen from past renders can be removed by shaking the device. The technology can support both portrait and landscape orientation so the e-ink smartphone could be turned on its side to switch the orientation to more of an e-reader sized width. Both devices felt incredibly lightweight.
Why do you want an only e-ink phone? Price for one thing. Battery life for another. Not to mention visibility in bright sunlight. Put all those factors together and this could be the perfect device for some emerging markets where electricity is at a premium. The prototypes are proof of concept at this point but Giovanni Mancini, director of product management for E-ink — the company which makes the screen — said the Chinese OEM which has made the prototypes, Fndroid, is talking to telcos and could launch a device this year.
So how much would this e-ink smartphone cost? Mancini said the device maker would set the price but in his view it would be comparable with a feature phone price tag. A big theme of this year’s MWC has been smaller mobile players — from open source OSes like Firefox that are seeking to drive openness and accessibility and drive down the cost of devices, to mobile veterans like Nokia focusing afresh on building smarter feature phones to target cost-conscious users in emerging markets. So it’s interesting to see companies toying with the idea of an entirely e-ink smartphone to cut device costs while preserving key smartphone functions such as access to the internet and email.