A New Kindle-Like Monitor Promises to Soothe Your Tired Eyes
In Microprocessing, columnist Angela Lashbrook aims to improve your relationship with technology every week. Microprocessing goes deep on the little things that define your online life today to give you a better tomorrow.
In all likelihood, your familiarity with E Ink technology begins and ends with the Kindle. The grayscale screen has other uses, though: Digital signs, like those in grocery stores or bus stops, are the most common application besides e-books.
Recently, the computer hardware company Waveshare announced its own E Ink product: a $540 10.3-inch grayscale computer monitor. That’s not cheap for a computer monitor without touchscreen functionality or its own operating system, but the appeal is obvious. If you work at a computer for eight-plus hours a day and are blessed with multiple monitors, springing for a monitor that’s easier to look at for long periods of time and causes less eye strain — as Waveshare promises — seems like a reasonable course of action.
The science on how much better E Ink paper displays are for your eyes, however, isn’t clear-cut, meaning the question of whether you should spend more than $500 on a black-and-white computer monitor depends on how comfortable you are spending that much money on something with uncertain benefits. And while I don’t think it’s the absolute worst purchase in the world, there are several E Ink products that are more worth the heaps of dough required to obtain them.
Let’s get one thing out of the way, though: E Ink isn’t just the name of the technology—it’s the name of the brand. Developed by undergraduates at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, E Ink was a sensation when it debuted on the cover of Nature magazine in 1998. In 2009, the generically named Prime View Int’l Co. Ltd purchased E Ink for $450 million. While the purchase made it possible for E Ink to massively increase production, its ironclad hold on the patented technology makes it difficult for other brands to innovate the product.
“E Ink has a significant patent moat, which is why they are the only company making these types of electrophoretic displays. That’s also why they can charge the prices that they do,” says Adam Leeb, co-founder of Astrohaus, which makes the Freewrite, an E Ink word processor. “There is also very little public information about how to work with E Ink… Even though we have a good relationship with the company and have NDAs in place, it is very difficult to get support as a small customer.”
Hence why E Ink, once hailed as the future of screen technology—in 2008, there was even a special edition of Esquire magazine that used E Ink to display flashing images and text—is now primarily relegated to a few basic products. It’s the only game in town.
E Ink, generically known as e-paper, can be roughly compared to an electric Etch A Sketch. The surface of an E Ink screen is lined with thousands of tiny capsules that are filled with white or black pigments. When one of those capsules receives a negative electric charge, the black pigments are pushed into the capsule, turning it black; a positive charge turns it white.
E Ink displays don’t produce light but instead reflect it the way the pages of a book do. Many E Ink screens, however, do contain their own light source: The Kindle Paperwhite, for example, has four LEDs built into the device so you can read in a dark room or at night. But unlike smartphones and televisions, the Kindle isn’t backlit; the LEDs are positioned around the edge of the screen, and the display is designed to disperse the light across the surface, so the effect is softer than what you’d experience with an iPad or other standard LED display.
The Waveshare EINK-DISP-103 E Ink monitor doesn’t have its own light source, so those who purchase one will require another lighting source nearby to be able to see it. Though this might seem like a nuisance, it’s one of the technology’s token characteristics. Computer monitors and other brightly backlit screens shine a steady stream of supposedly harmful light at your eyes for hours on end, causing eye fatigue, headaches, and sleep disruption. Blue light, which LED screens emit in high amounts, is particularly harmful for your health, or so the theories go.
The truth is a little more complicated. Yes, light, in particular blue light, has been shown to be harmful for healthy sleep. “Using screens in the hours before bedtime can have an impact on your subsequent sleep. Light in the late evening can shift your body clock later in time (equivalent to flying westwards) making it more difficult to fall asleep and wake up,” says Victoria Revell, a lecturer in translational sleep and circadian physiology at the University of Surrey’s Sleep Research Center. “Blue light is highly effective at influencing your body clock and alertness, and so any screens with high blue light content used in the evening hours will have a greater impact on your sleep.”
But contrary to misinformation hawked by companies selling blue light glasses, blue light alone does not cause eye fatigue, headaches, or any other combination of ailments outside of disruption to your sleep schedule. The problem is your computer. When looking at a screen, you blink 66% less frequently than you would normally, which can lead to eye strain and dryness, writes Christine Sindt, an optometrist at the University of Iowa. You’re staring at some kind of screen for 11 hours a day, which is a lot of time spent not blinking enough.
And while blue light does have an effect on your sleep, so does all light, which means turning down the blue light on your screens or wearing blue light–blocking glasses won’t do much. What does help is dimming your screen. You can accomplish that by turning down its brightness or getting a monitor without any light at all, like the Waveshare E Ink monitor.
“Since the E Ink screen is dimmer than LED and other backlit screens, it should be beneficial for people’s sleep patterns,” says Phillip Yuhas, an assistant professor of optometry at Ohio State University. “The other problems associated with screen use, such as eye strain from demands on the ability of the eyes to turn inward and focus and such as eye irritation from a reduced blink rate, are likely to persist with the new screen.”
So, even with an E Ink monitor, you need to take frequent breaks, consciously remember to blink, and use eye drops to keep your eyes healthy, Yuhas says. Following the 20-20-20 rule — every 20 minutes, look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds — will also help keep your eyes healthy.
With all that said, should you spend $540 on an E Ink monitor? If you are frequently required to work on a computer at night, it might be a good idea, though it’s worth noting that E Ink is famous for its slow refresh rate, so if you need to do anything that requires a quick response from your monitor — video streaming, for example — it won’t be up to the task. If you have $500 to burn and spend a lot of time looking at Word documents or black-and-white spreadsheets, by all means. But for everyone else, you’re better off saving your money.
This doesn’t mean you should forsake E Ink entirely. I love my Kindle, not only because the E Ink screen so closely resembles the actual page of a book, but also for a trillion other reasons: I can have any book I want at any time, as long as I’m connected to the internet; I can change the typeface and font size, which is great for someone with vision as bad as mine; and most importantly, because its capabilities are limited and its browser is practically useless, it’s distraction-free.
Other E Ink products might be better worth your money than the monitor, such as the Freewrite, which is essentially a typewriter with a small E Ink screen. It’s excellent for people who need to power through a manuscript and struggle to cope with the distractions on a laptop — such as myself! The ReMarkable tablet is another useful E Ink product for people who want a tablet that resembles paper for writing on (though reviews are mixed).
Some changes coming to E Ink technology in the near future could spell wider adoption. According to Leeb, the Astrohaus co-founder, E Ink has “two different color technologies that they have been working on for some time. I got to see their recent PrintColor demo, and from what I hear, it is coming out this year.” A colorful E Ink screen would maximize its usefulness — it would make it possible to read a full-color graphic novel on a Kindle, for example, or work on a color-coded spreadsheet on the Waveshare monitor — without taking away what really makes it shine: its gentle-on-the-eyes display and resemblance to paper.
Until more companies are able to experiment with e-paper, development will be slow, so it’s difficult to say how much better, and when, the technology will get. So buy an e-book, or a Waveshare monitor, or a ReMarkable tablet. It’s quite possible they will, to varying degrees, change your life for the better. Just don’t expect any miracles.