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CES 2012: Mirasol Heading Towards a Bright Future in 2013

By Wesley Fenlon

Qualcomm's e-ink alternative will enter full production in late 2012. Until then, Mirasol will only be available in devices launching in Korea and China.

In the United States, e-ink and e-readers are joined at the hip. Content published in Amazon's Kindle ecosystem can be read via app on any number of devices, but the Kindle and all of its competitors use the same ePaper technology. That's not how it is in the rest of the world: countries like Korea don't have ecosystems dedicated to e-ink. That's partially why Qualcomm picked China and Korea to launch Mirasol, its-long-in-development full color display technology that uses interferometric modulation (say that five times fast!).

Without the United States' strict divide between e-readers and tablets, the first Mirasol devices launching in Asia mix Android and digital publishing into an unusual technology cocktail. From the perspective of an American user, it's a weird not-quite-a-tablet flavor, which leaves us with one overriding thought: the US needs a dedicated Mirasol e-reader stat.

Mirasol represents an unusual investment for Qualcomm, a company primarily known for its Snapdragon processors and wireless chipsets. If the company designs a new chipset and suddenly faces unexpected demand, there are factories out there they can turn to for production. No one else is working on interferometric modulation. To compete with e-ink, Qualcomm has to produce enough Mirasol panels to meet its partners volume demands.

Qualcomm's building a factory for just that purpose and will have it completed by the end of 2012. Currently every Mirasol display is coming out of a tiny factory built for R&D and small-scale production. Time is not on Mirasol's side: E-Ink is developing its own color technology using reflective electrophoretics. If that technology becomes affordable and performs as well as current e-ink, devices like the Kindle will make the natural transition.

The Mirasol is perfect for an e-reader. A front light and ambient light sensor make the display readable in the dark and save battery power in sunlight. Colors aren't as vivid as LCD, but look good enough for digital magazines. It's every bit as good as e-ink, but in color. And here's where an interesting divide appears between Mirasol technology and application: the three devices Qualcomm had at CES couldn't back up the screen's potential with performance.

Mirasol's launching in a trio of Android-based tablets/e-readers in China and Korea that focus on pushing specialized content libraries (think Kindle Fire rather than Transformer Prime). They don't match up against the performance of good dual-core Android tablets and aren't very appealing to the kinds of tech geeks that actually like tablets. Here's what they excelled at: demonstrating how awesome Mirasol could be in 2013.

As Qualcomm explained, Mirasol's performance is limited by the tablet hardware more than its own. Interferometric modulation works in tens of microseconds, meaning it can easily perform at faster speeds than its current ~20 frames per seconds. Mirasol screens are on a path towards higher brightness and better battery life, but the devices can already last for about three weeks of average reading with the front light on at 25 percent. That's much closer to e-reader longevity than tablet longevity, which is a very good thing for Mirasol.

Placed in a device as snappy as the latest Kindle, Mirasol could be every bit as revolutionary as e-ink was in 2007. But Qualcomm hasn't looked at the American market yet because it doesn't have the production capacity to handle the orders of a company like Amazon or Barnes & Noble. When the factory is completed in the second half of 2012, keep an eye out for Mirasol. CES 2013 may hold big, big things for the e-reader market.