What Defines an E-Reader?

Until recently, pretty much all e-readers used E-Ink displays like the ones in Amazon's Kindle and Barnes & Noble's Nook. However, at CES we've seen a number of concept designs and prototypes-from both Asian contract manufacturers and established companies-that are billed as "e-readers", but use LCD screens like the ones in typical notebooks.

MSI's dual-screen e-reader/netbook.
MSI's dual-screen e-reader/netbook
Are these devices truly e-readers? The whole point of electronic paper-based e-readers is that the display, which doesn't use a backlight, mimics the look of physical paper and is easier on the eyes than a bright, backlit LCD. I saw many LCD "e-readers" at the show, but none had those same qualities.

Tech companies are as susceptible to trends as teenage girls and I'd argue that many of the companies making LCD-based e-readers are simply jumping on the craze for these devices. Many of these so-called e-readers are no more than tablet PCs or MID (mobile Internet devices), capable of displaying e-books with e-reader software but not really optimized for that purpose. It's no different, really, than a mobile phone running Amazon's Kindle app, or any other e-reader software for that matter. The only difference between the two categories is the size of the screen.

Much of the hype is just that. After all, this is CES-the place where companies go to put forth ideas and gauge the reception from the media and potential customers.

Which brings me around to the MSI 10-inch dual-screen e-reader concept. The clam-shell prototype device was surprisingly lightweight in my hands, and had a touchscreen that made it easy to navigate around the Windows 7 starter operating system. The screens responded to being reoriented from the vertical position to horizontal; in horizontal mode, the unit has a virtual keyboard with haptic feedback. The prototype is intriguing, to be sure, but, MSI has no plans to bring it to market, and according to a product manager, the product won't be manufactured until at least 2011. Ditto for the company's other concept display, a half-inch-thick (give or take) tablet "e-reader" with touchscreen, running Google Android. Both devices ran e-reader software, had LCD screens, and used full-featured operating systems. They were capable of far more than many traditional e-readers, but will they be optimal if what you really want is a device primarily to read novels on your commute?

Entourage eDge e-reader textbook
Entourage eDge e-reader textbook
Other e-readers, like the Entourage eDge and the Spring Designs Alex Reader, also include multi-purpose LCD screens. But in addition, they have E-Ink displays of equal or greater size that the manufacturers intend for use as the primary reading display.
Spring Designs Alex Reader
Spring Designs Alex Reader

While many of the tablet/MID devices introduced at CES look promising, none appear ready to replace electronic paper for long-form reading. When the sun set in Vegas, they're still just small PCs that let you access electronic books, along with doing a whole lot of other stuff.

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