Electronics often seem to advance in nonlinear ways. The dedicated e-book, or e-reader, is a recent phenomenon in the minds of most consumers but the seeds of the product category were planted far earlier. Now a long-forgotten product, the Softbook from Softbook Press was among the earliest of e-book devices and a subject of our teardown knives way back in 1998. Some eight years down the road, Sony launched its first e-book device in 2006, the the Sony Reader PRS-500, using the new-to-market electrophoretic display (EPD), favored for its low power and high readability and popularized by manufacturer E Ink. Consumer interest in such devices remained limited, but once online book giant Amazon got into the game with their Kindle reader reader in late 2007, e-book uptake started to get serious.
Within the next couple of years, Amazon would come along with a number of upgraded variants to the original Kindle, and in 2009 Amazon’s chief competitor, Barnes & Noble, lobbed in its own e-reader with the release of the Nook. As of mid-2010 the list of e-reader suppliers continues to swell (with some brand names larger than others and variable commitments to move from announcements to shipping product). See TechInsights’ reports on the Sony Reader (report 6253) and Kindle (report 6305) at www.techinsights.com.
We’ll look here at one entrant from Taiwan-based electronics maker BenQ who joins the e-reader party with its K60. The WiFi-only enabled K60 is aimed primarily at Asian markets. Comparisons to the current front-runners are inevitable, as major features of the K60 are seen in various combinations on similar offerings from Amazon, Sony and Barnes & Noble. The now-ubiquitous EPD shows up in the K60 as a 6.1-inch diagonal display with 16-level grayscale capability. Keying off the growing popularity of touch control—whether e-books or any other display-centric device—BenQ mated its EPD to a capacitive touch panel overlay, with several control keys still found along the bottom and one side of the product. Data transfer for book loading is accomplished via USB and 802.11b/g WLAN, with support for user-provided microSD storage.
From the viewpoint of the end-user, the major distinction appears to be a focus on easy download and purchase of Chinese- and Japanese-language publications, along with English titles found on Google Books. On a component level, a very different story unfolds, and component suppliers for the K60 are seen to have little in common with the more established peers.
The hallmark of an e-book reader today is the virtually glare-free “electronic paper” display, using EPD panels produced almost exclusively by E-Ink until recently. The K60 display is an entirely new breed, featuring an 800 x 600 electrophoretic panel from SiPix, a company at least partially under the control of LCD behemoth AUO. The glass capacitive touch panel from Pixcir is bonded directly to the EPD. The AU Optronics-branded module features a pair of Pixcir touch screen controller ICs (Tango S32) with data clocked in through an Atmel 8-bit microcontroller (ATmega 168PA), while the display driver is supplied by Orise (part number unknown).
The applications core of the K60 is a Samsung 32/16-bit ARM9 processor (S3C2416) that coordinates all major functions. The processor resides on the single printed circuit board used in the design, supported by separate packages of DDR2 SDRAM from Hynix (H5MS1G62MFP) and MLC NAND flash memory from Samsung (KLM2G1DEDD), which was also used in the in the Samsung Wave.
WiFi appears as a module (WM-G-MT-03) from Universal Scientific Industrial Corp. (USI) of Taiwan. This drop-in subsystem is powered by the MediaTek single-chip 802.11b/g WLAN (MT5921). This MediaTek component is often found in use in Chinese handsets so its inclusion in a BenQ device is not that surprising to us. This IC is also backed by a WiFi power amplifier (Silicon Storage Technology’s SST12LP14E), a gallium arsenide SPDT switch (NEC uPG2158) and serial EEPROM (Seiko Instruments’ S-93L66A).
The AU Optronics-branded EPD controller (AUO-K1900) was found to contain a low-power FPGA solution from SiliconBlue Technologies, a new player by our observations of the mobile and consumer device space, and indicative of the need for a controller to support a new display without the overhead of a custom ASIC. The display controller is supported by serial flash memory from Macronix (MX25L8005M2C and MX25L4005A) as well as SDRAM (EM686165) from Etron Tech.
Looking at analog content, TI provides the major power-management components, with battery charging over the USB port via their 1.5-A Li-ion battery charger (BQ24075) and the TPS650240 managing major supply rails. A single built-in speaker and stereo headphone jack are driven by Realtek’s audio codec + stereo power amplifier (ALC5624). Given the apparent reach of the BenQ Group, this Taiwan-centric component set comes as little surprise and provides a view into a supply chain with limited overlap to the prominent U.S.- and Japan-based manufacturers.
At our last check, the approximate street price of the K60 is $250 (USD), perhaps a bit steep by Western standards for a unit lacking 3G connectivity but not much more than USB-only models from Sony and others. Of course recent entries by the mainstream brands at lower prices may pressure BenQ, but our estimated hardware-only production costs came in below $100 so there is probably room to move. The SiPix/Pixcir panel is not surprisingly the most expensive piece of hardware; cost reductions in the EPD panel and BenQ’s use of standard parts where possible and programmable parts in lieu of ASICs all should help in the keeping costs down as well.
Whether the world needs another e-book reader is debatable, especially in light of the recent iPad-driven “tablet” phenomenon, but for now BenQ appears to be betting at least on regional success. Overall, the purpose-built nature of e-readers (including easy-on-the-eyes EPD) and an intrinsically lower cost structure (by virtue of the focused, lower-performance nature of the product) keeps the product distinct from tablets. Nonetheless, the e-reader industry as a whole is likely at an important crossroads and it’s an open question on whether targeted devices can defend their niche against the rising tide of more-expensive but more-flexible, tablet alternatives.
Component suppliers for the K60 have little in common with the more established peers.
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Click on image to enlarge.
For more information about all the contents of the BenQ K60 e-reader, please visit here.
About the author
David Carey is vice president of technical intelligence at UBM TechInsights, producer of system teardown, semiconductor device intelligence and related industry research.