Six Colors
Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

Displays on the edge

I have this feeling that we haven’t explored display technologies enough.

I was thinking this the other day as I tried out the new version of the Kindle Oasis, which (like every Kindle) uses a wacky screen technology called E Ink to create a reflective surface that feels more like ink on paper than the other screens in our lives.

I appreciate that Apple is pushing new advances in display technology like screen refresh rates (the ProMotion display on recent iPads must be seen to be believed, but it’s gloriously smooth when scrolling and I love it). I like how OLED technology is creeping in, and color gamuts are widening, and have some hope that Apple’s time spent developing a product as bananas as the Pro Display XDR will have some follow-on benefits to those of us who don’t need a $6,000 reference display.

Meanwhile on the other side of the ledger, Samsung is experimenting with foldable displays, and it seems like it will finally ship the Galaxy Fold this fall. Foldable designs bring up any number of other design decisions about screens, too, in terms of where they go when folded and what shape, size, and location of screen is appropriate.

A couple of years ago a backed a Kickstarter (which ultimately crashed and burned) that purported to be designing an iPhone case with an E Ink display on its back. I loved the idea, because the back of my iPhone is a featureless slab, and the advantage of E Ink displays is that they’re easily readable in bright light and they only use power when you change what’s on them. What better place for a static set of information—like a to-do list or a calendar—than on the back of my iPhone?

I doubt Apple will be making any device with an E Ink display anytime soon, using my Kindle reminds me that there are plenty of contexts in which the brightest, fastest refreshing, widest color gamut display is not necessarily the right one. Different technologies have different advantages, and that’s often what I’m thinking when I get that nonspecific feeling that our display technologies have gotten a little bit too samey. Sometimes a black-and-white 300dpi screen with a low refresh rate is the right display for the job. What else are we missing in the tech industry’s rush to ever-higher resolutions, refresh rates, and brightness levels?

Maybe the weird technology required to make foldable screens will force a new burst of creativity into the design of tech products. I’m not entirely sure that foldable screens will be mainstream as quickly as Samsung might like, but I’m excited that somewhere inside Apple’s design lab, there are designers considering what happens to product design when the screen isn’t a single, fixed shape. Who knows where those considerations might take the iPhone, or iPad, or even the Mac?

In the meantime, I am not giving up my Kindle, which is still the best screen around for pure reading enjoyment.

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