E Ink, Marvell Create a Chip for Cheaper E-Book Devices

11/2/09Follow @wroush

If you thought the e-reader market was already confusing—with Sony, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble all offering their own unique versions of e-book devices based on the same underlying electronic paper display technology from Cambridge, MA-based E Ink—get ready for a new level of chaos. Companies like Interead in England and Irex in the Netherlands also make e-book gadgets with E Ink displays, and thanks to a collaboration between E Ink and Santa Clara, CA-based Marvell Semiconductor, the hurdles for other companies experimenting with e-reader technology are about to get a lot lower.

In fact, at least three new e-book devices containing a new chip jointly designed by E Ink and Marvell are expected to come to market this winter: the Que proReader from Mountain View, CA-based Plastic Logic, the enTourage Edge from McLean, VA-based enTourage Systems, and the Alex Reader from Fremont, CA-based Spring Design.

Inside all three devices will be the Armada 166E, a so-called “system-on-a-chip” that combines a display controller designed by E Ink with other key components needed in any portable e-book reader today, such as a microprocessor, memory, wireless modems (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and 3G) and power management devices. The existence of the Armada chip was revealed today in a joint announcement from Marvell and E Ink. The companies said they have already begun shipping it to their customers, the e-book device makers.

The fruit of a three-year collaboration, the Armada chip is reportedly smaller, thinner, and—crucially—cheaper than the electronics built into previous generations of e-book devices. A Marvell executive quoted by Dow Jones speculates that Asian manufacturers might eventually be able to use the Marvell chip to build readers for one-fourth the cost of the current generation of products (the Kindle and the Nook both retail for $259, and Sony sells its readers for $199 and $299).

Such massive price reductions are probably needed before e-book reading devices can break past the early adopters willing to pay a premium for new technologies, and reach the general consumer market. But these extreme price drops may still be a ways off: for now, putting the display controller on the same piece of silicon with a microprocessor, memory, and other components will probably yield an equipment cost savings of 15 to 20 percent overall, says Sriram Peruvemba, E Ink’s vice president of marketing.

The Armada chip is also built to rapidly render high-resolution documents such as PDF files, and to speed up operations such as turning a page in an e-book. All current e-book devices that use E Ink’s electronic paper displays, Peruvemba explains, include E Ink’s own controllers, branded Metronome and Apollo. Not only do these controllers use outdated … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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