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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

How-to: install Pixel Qi's 3Qi display on your netbook (and why it's worth it)

It's hard to believe that it's been almost two and a half years since Pixel Qi spun off from OLPC and promised to bring its dual-mode, power efficient display to laptops, tablets, and e-readers. For those who haven't followed our small obsession with the 3Qi screen technology (shame on you!) it promises the best of both worlds: full-color graphics in a normal LCD mode, but also the ability to turn off the backlight to morph into a grayscale, e-paper like display. And while we've seen it demoed at tradeshows (and more tradeshows!), we haven't been able to get our own grubby hands on the much-lauded display. Until now, of course.
No, the 3Qi display still isn't shipping in any commercially available products, but Pixel Qi is at long last offering a $275 10.1-inch screen replacement kit for netbooks through MakerShed. Needless to say, we jumped -- nay, leaped -- at the chance to finally get the display into our laboratories, roll up our sleeves and get to crankin'. That's right, we got out the screwdriver, wrangled up an old Lenovo IdeaPad S10-2 netbook and swapped in the 3Qi display for Lenovo's glossy panel. You're surely sitting on a metric ton of questions. Was it hard to swap out? Has the screen been everything we've ever fantasized about and more? Is it really 80 percent more power efficient than standard LCDs? We've got plenty of answers as well as a step-by-step how-to after the break.
How-to replace your netbook screen with Pixel Qi's 3Qi

Since the Pixel Qi netbook replacement screen is very much a DIY project, we felt it was only right to detail exactly how to, you know, do it yourself. Pixel Qi claims that it shouldn't take more than five minutes to replace your netbook's screen -- that may be the case for experienced laptop screen swappers, but we have no problem admitting that we happen to be a bit slow-moving when it comes to these things. In the end, it took us about thirty minutes from start to finish.
Before diving in there's a few things to remember. First, Pixel Qi has only confirmed the screen to work with Samsung N130 and Lenovo IdeaPad S10-2 netbooks. We used the latter, though a handy chap from MakerShed had no issue getting it to work with his Acer Aspire One 532. Second, no matter how you slice it, removing your netbook's original LCD will void the warranty. So, don't blame us, Pixel Qi, MakerShed, or your mother, when you can't return your laptop. Got that all? Okay -- let's go.
1. Completely power down. Turn off the netbook, unplug it from the wall, and remove the battery. Seriously, do this all if you don't want to risk burning yourself or some part of the netbook.

2. Remove the bezel and original LCD. Find and pull off those rubber screw covers on the bezel. Grab a Philips screwdriver, unscrew the screws (put them in a safe place), and remove the plastic bezel. It helps to carefully slide the screwdriver or a fingernail along the bezel to open it up. We also had to get a bit rough with the S10-2's circular hinge to get the bottom of the bezel to loosen. After removing the bezel, the LCD will be in a metal frame -- carefully tilt it forward a bit.
3. Detach the video connector cable. This next step was the hardest part for us since Lenovo had taped the video connector cable down to the LCD. Carefully cut the plastic tape holding down the connector, and gently tug on the connector cable to unplug it from the back of the LCD. It should just pop out – there was no lock on the S10-2's connector. When the connector is removed, set it down, and start removing the additional screws around the frame holding the LCD in place. After those four (or so) screws have been removed, the original LCD should be free. Slip it out, set it to the side, and get out the Pixel Qi display.

PRO TIP: Famed modder JKKMobile, who talked us through this swap, suggests keeping the protective covering on the new display until the last second. He says you never know when you may drop the screwdriver and damage the screen by accident!
4. Connect and attach the Pixel Qi screen. Place the Pixel Qi screen within the metal frame. Screw the new display in to the frame. Once in, tilt it forward a bit and plug the connector into the back of the Pixel Qi display. The connector should click into place – you have to sort of jiggle it in there.

5. Power up.
Once it's in there, you can test the screen to make sure it works. Just attach the power brick and quickly hit 'Power' to see if the boot sequence appears on the display. If you don't see anything, the cable may not be connected correctly. If you do see some glorious pixels, then... SUCCESS! You can now shut down and get the bezel and screws back on. And drink a cold beverage. Maybe even make some nachos!
Pixel Qi 3Qi how-to

Living with Qi: the results

Not as hard as it looks, eh? Truth is, it's pretty easy to do, and when we were done the 3Qi screen actually looked and worked like it had come factory installed. Adjusting the brightness worked without a hitch, and because the netbook has a function to deactivate the backlight (Fn + F2), we could instantly toggle between the regular, transmissive color setting and the high-contrast reflective mode. (Note: not all netbooks have this hotkey). We've spent the last few days testing the screen in a number of different ways; the following are our impressions and results.
Pixel Qi Lenovo IdeaPad S10-2 indoors and outdoors

General LCD quality, viewing angles

Before we get into the promised benefits of the display, it's worth talking about how it looks in normal usage. When peering at the 1,024 x 600-resolution screen head-on and with brightness at 100 percent, we found it to be sufficiently bright. Colors were quite crisp when watching a standard definition video clip and looking at some preloaded pictures. Frankly, it looks like any other matte display -- there's no reflection while looking at it and all areas of the display appear gloss-free.
However, like we mentioned when we saw the screen at CES, the viewing angles are, well... poor. Though Pixel Qi has made a much-improved "wide-view" version of the screen, which we saw at Computex, the one being sold through MakerShed right now does not have the new viewing angle enhancements. (Pixel Qi CEO Mary Lou Jepsen tells us the wide-view screens will be available for purchase in Q4, though she says some do prefer the standard viewing screens for privacy, etc.) Standing to the left of the display caused all sorts of color saturation and color changes – for example, the bright royal blue on the desktop appeared light blue or white in some areas. Similarly, tilting the screen backwards resulted in color distortion. However, with the backlight turned down or off the viewing angles were better both indoors and out.
Outdoor use

If there's one area that the Pixel Qi display lives up to its hype and then some, it's in outdoor readability. Frankly, it's just awesome, and the video below probably gives you the best look at how crisp the display is in the sunlight. We wrote the second half of this article while sitting outside on a bright sunny day in New York City. There was no glare at all, and everything was just incredibly crisp. We preferred to write and check our e-mail with the brightness set at 20 percent or in the "transflective mode" so we could still make out a bit of the colors on the screen -- even at that setting the entire display looked sharp and clear. When we turned the backlight off entirely, the grayscale setting was perfect for reading a book in the sun. Okay, it's never ideal to read a book on a netbook, but we installed Kindle for PC, downloaded Eee Rotate and did our best to turn it into a decent e-reader. We can't stress enough how awesome this display is for transforming a device into an e-reader of sorts -- it's beautiful to not have to talk of screen delays or "refresh rates." We did snap a couple of side by side shots with an eInk display -- you'll notice the Pixel Qi screen is a bit darker in sunlight, but it's not distracting in any way.

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