Chinese firm builds prototype Android e-ink smartphone

Have been doing a bit of digging on an interesting new handset from Chinese e-reader firm Onyx International – what could be the world’s first Android-based smartphone with an e-ink display.

Frustratingly the only source we have for this is a brief demo of the prototype device on geek site armdevices.net.

What we can see, however, is it’s a pretty fully functioning smartphone, albeit running a slightly old version of Android, with web and email capabilities, a capacitive touchscreen and ARM Cortex-A5 processor.

The benefit of e-ink of course is that the screen is not made of glass and so is thinner and lighter, and not prone to cracking. It also makes the phone really easy to see in direct sunlight – something LCD displays singularly fail to do, especially under the glare of the summer Hong Kong sun.

It also slurps less battery, and so could apparently last on a single charge for around a week, and the lack of a glass display means it can really lighten the whole device – this one is said to be under 100g.

On the minus side, e-ink currently only really works in greyscale and screen refreshes take a lot longer than LCD displays – video is impossible and even basic tasks can take an age compared to what impatient smartphone fans are used to.

So what’s the ideal use case for this kind of smartphone? Well, the elderly perhaps, or emerging markets.

The problem E-ink, and indeed Onyx will have will be the budget Android smartphones from the likes of ZTE, Lenovo and others and indeed scores of lesser-known Chinese handset makers.

These vendors are increasingly targeting that sub-1000 yuan end of the market with LCD display devices which may be unreadable in direct light, but are a hell of a lot more responsive and, unlike e-ink, are the type of device Android is actually designed to work with.

One potential solution would be in re-architecting Android to largely deal with e-ink’s limitations – ie on-screen refreshes – but there is still the colour problem.

I’ve been so far frustrated in my attempts to find out exactly what kind of developer magic this would entail – and if it’s even feasible at all – but will update if I hear back.

My hunch is that it’s still at a very nascent stage development-wise and there’s only a limited amount of people working on it. For now at least, the best chance for e-ink to get onto a smartphone is for secondary displays on the rear of devices.

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