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! %Gallery-97625%

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. %Gallery-97626%

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.

Power draw

According to Pixel Qi, the 3Qi display uses 80 percent less power than a standard LCD screen, making it greener than any others out there. We're not EPEAT by any standard, but we can say that the 3Qi display sipped less of our home energy than did the original LCD that shipped with the Lenovo S10-2. The IdeaPad S10-2, with its original LCD at full brightness, pulled 11 watts. However, the netbook with the Pixel Qi display at full brightness pulled only 9 watts. When we turned off the backlight, our Kill-A-Watt power meter shot down to 7 watts. It's not going to make much of a difference on your monthly electric bill, but hey, Mother Earth will take whatever she can get these days!

100% brightness

Backlight off

Lenovo IdeaPad S10-2 (regular LCD)

11 watts

9 watts (50% brightness)

Lenovo IdeaPad S10-2 (Pixel Qi 3Qi display)

9 watts

7 watts

Battery life

Obviously, that reduced power is promised to result in improved battery life, and to say we spent a lot of time battery testing the Lenovo IdeaPad S10-2 with and without the Pixel Qi display would an understatement. Though our video rundown test isn't exactly indicative of real world use, we decided to use it as the main benchmark since it provides a decent standard for comparing the different screens and settings.

With the Lenovo IdeaPad S10-2's original glossy, 10.1-inch LCD set at 70 percent brightness, the six-cell 47Wh battery lasted for 4 hours and 21 minutes. Yeah, that's bad for a netbook with a six-cell battery, but keep in mind that the S10-2 was never known for its endurance, and it uses Intel's last generation N280 processor. With Pixel Qi's screen at 70 percent brightness, the system ran for 4:31 minutes – just ten minutes more. That's not really an improvement by any standard, but when we shut the backlight off, the S10-2 ran for 5:45 minutes, which is just about an hour and 15 minutes longer. That's about 25 percent more battery life, and exactly what PixelQi says the power savings should be on current netbooks with the screen.

70% brightness

Backlight off

Lenovo IdeaPad S10-2 (regular LCD)


4:45 (10% brightness)

Lenovo IdeaPad S10-2 (Pixel Qi 3Qi display)



To be honest, we expected a bit more runtime out of the backlight off mode, but regardless, you can see that the reflective mode clearly sips less power than a standard LCD. In fact, when we just had it sit with an e-book on the screen with the backlight off it ran for about eight hours. We're certainly not anywhere near the 40 hour laptop that Pixel Qi has been dreaming of, but even the best displays cannot fix a netbook with already substandard endurance or, you know, the current state of computing hardware.


What a difference a screen can make! It's something we seem to be saying a lot lately, and after spending a few days with the Pixel Qi-equipped netbook there's no doubt that our praise for this screen over the past years has been well-deserved. Sure, the viewing angles on the $275 display are less than stellar and some may just want to wait for the wide-view version, but there's no doubt that it does pull less power and work amazingly outdoors.

So, is it worth the $275? It does seem like quite a bit to add to such a cheap netbook, but if you're looking to use your machine outdoors and to add a bit more juice to it by being able to turn the backlight off, there's nothing quite like it out there. And now with our detailed instructions you should have no problem doing it on your own! But, beyond netbooks, we really believe the real appeal of this screen is truly in its ability to create mobile and multimodal tablets – ones that work in any lighting and that can transform from a fully functional slate with a color display to an e-reader with the flick of a switch. Now let's just hope that sea change doesn't require as much DIY effort on our end.

A major, major thanks to MakerShed for sending us the PixelQi display free of charge and to JKKMobile (@jkkmobile on twitter) for walking us through the screen replacement process.