MWC 2008: Hands on with the Readius rollable e-ink phone

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It was at last year’s 3GSM show in Barcelona that we first clapped eyes on Polymer Vision’s Readius e-book display. The show’s name may have changed to Mobile World Congress, but Polymer Vision was still there this year, showing the latest version of the device, which is now a fully-fledged mobile phone, as we recently reported.

Naturally, I nosed around the company’s stand to find out more. According to Pieter van Lieshout, display R&D manager, what was on show this year is an almost-final version of the device, which is due to go on sale in the second half of 2008.

The screen is lovely, I have to say. It’s five inches when unrolled, and QVGA resolution. The photo above gives you a sense of how it displays newspaper pictures and text, but my personal impression is that it’s very comfortable for reading indeed.

The device can also let you read e-books and RSS feeds, using its 3G/HSDPA connection to download the latter at intervals you can set. You choose which feeds and newspapers to subscribe to on a dedicated web portal accessed through your PC – they’re then pushed to the Readius as often as you like.

According to van Lieshout, there’s 16 grey levels per pixel, which is why the image quality looks so good. Meanwhile, the e-ink technology means the device is battery-friendly too. “It doesn’t take any power to retain an image, just to change from one to the other,” he says. “That means you get up to 30 hours of continuous usage, so if you use it for several hours a day, you will get weeks on one single charge.”

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There are downsides to this kind of device though. The screen means you can’t clutch the phone to your face like a normal handset, so you’ll need to use a headset for any calls. meanwhile, there’s no keypad – instead there’s just eight buttons. They’re designed to make it intuitive to navigate and read, but they also mean you can’t just dial a number – contacts have to be synched onto the device from Outlook.

So what’s in store in terms of e-books? “We have the possibility to get e-books onto the device, but we haven’t closed deals yet,” says van Lieshout. This will be a crucial aspect for Readius, and you’d have to assume Polymer Vision will adopt a standard e-book format to ensure a quick and regular supply of new books – rather than expect publishers to support yet another new format (particularly given the recent launch of Amazon’s Kindle).

Polymer Vision is aiming to sell the device through mobile operators, so isn’t talking pricing – although it’s likely to be comparable to a high-end phone.

Readius is an innovative gadget, for sure, but I’d never use it as my main phone. No texting, no full web access, no games… As a phone, it’s just too limited, but perhaps it has a future as a Kindle rival, using that connection to ensure RSS feeds keep beaming in. And yet if it’s sold through mobile operators, that means two monthly contracts.

Still, come the second half of this year, we’ll find out just how popular Readius is, I guess.

Polymer Vision website

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Stuart Dredge

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