E-Ink technology shows up on cell phone

Alias-2 The revolutionary display technology that has been used to make eBooks as easy to read as the printed page, is now showing up in other devices.

Samsung's new Alias 2 (SCH-u750), which is currently only available in the U.S. on the Verizon network, is a follow-up to the SCH-u740 known in Canada as the double-flip for its dual-hinged design.

The newer and older models are very similar except for the Alias 2's intriguing keyboard design.

On the older model, the phone flips open either vertically or horizontally (depending on whether you're in the mood for a voice call or texting) to reveal a fairly typical QWERTY layout keyboard that doubles as a numeric keypad for regular dialing.

Critics of the design felt it was too cramped and the dual-use keys were poorly arranged.

This time around, Samsung has made very creative use of E-Ink technology to give the keyboard a split-personality of sorts.

Open the phone vertically to place or receive a call, and the individual squares arrange themselves into a calling pattern, with the numbers arranged as you'd expect on regular keypad, including cursor controls in a grid above.

Open the phone horizontally for text, email etc. and the squares rearrange themselves into their QWERTY configuration. Better still, extra characters can be revealed by pressing a toggle button, which refreshes the squares again. In theory there's no limit to how many cycles could be built into this design.

While we haven't had a chance to play with the phone ourselves, so we can't comment on things like the tactile feel of the keys, it's an innovation that makes a lot of sense – for both consumer and manufacturer alike. Samsung could easily offer this phone to a variety of markets and never have to change the hardware – a simple firmware change could offer any alphabet that was needed.

It's not the first time a customized keyboard has been tried. Last year, the company Art Lebedev debuted a keyboard called the Optimus Maximuswhich came equipped with OLED keys. They could display any 42×42 icon in a wide array of colours thanks to the OLED technology. But there were two major drawbacks to the Optimus Maximus. First, it is prohibitively expensive. At nearly $1,700 USD, only the most dedicated geek is going to be convinced to buy. Second, many critics have pointed out that the trade-off for having such flexible OLED keys is that they are not very easy or comfortable to type with.

All this leads me to wonder if we won't soon be seeing a new breed of Optimus keyboards based on E-Ink rather than OLED displays. If it makes them cheaper and more comfortable, I doubt many folks will mind being limited to 8 levels of gray instead of having a rainbow of colour.

No word on when the Alias 2 will come to Canada, but seeing as it's a CDMA handset, odds are good that it will be Telus or Bell Mobility that will carry it.

Thanks to CNET for the review of the Alias 2.