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Mirasol displays: running late, worth the wait?

After delays, Qualcomm's power-efficient color display technology is edging closer to market.

Two years ago, at the 2010 edition of CES, I got all excited about a technology from Qualcomm called Mirasol--a new type of color screen that ran for weeks on one battery charge, was fast enough to permit fluid user interfaces and video playback, and which didn't wash out in direct sunlight.

Hanvon e-reader
Hanvon's Mirasol-based e-reader for the Chinese market, as seen at CES. Harry McCracken/CNET

Mirasol looked like a good fit for Kindle-style e-readers, and Qualcomm said that it expected an e-reader with a Mirasol screen to arrive by the third quarter of the year. It didn't. A whole lot of other stuff did happen, though. Monochrome E-Ink screens got more snappy and legible. And a lot of e-reading began to be done on devices with color LCD displays, such as the iPad and the Kindle Fire.

Flash forward to CES 2012. Mirasol devices still haven't shipped in the U.S., but they're starting to pop up in Asia. Korea got one in November, a similar model will be shipping in China next month, and Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs showed off another model for the Chinese market from Hanvon at his CES keynote on Tuesday.

Mirasol devices have taken so long to show up, Qualcomm says, because it decided that the technology needed more work before it was ready for prime time. Today, the company is still producing them only in limited volume, which is why it hasn't brought them to the U.S. yet--it's not ready to make them in the mass quantities that a major e-reader from a big-name company would demand.

At CES, Clarence Chui, general manager of QMT for Qualcomm, told me that the company plans to begin larger-scale production of Mirasol screens later this year. Availability of e-readers in the U.S. should follow soon thereafter. Eventually, he said, Qualcomm also intends to make the screens available for phones and other devices.

Mirasol will enter a market that's far different from the one it would have joined in 2010. But the basic idea--E-Ink-like marathon battery life and outdoor legibility, but with color--still sounds appealing. When Chui let me try the aforementioned Asian Mirasol e-readers at the show, I got excited about the technology's potential all over again.

As with E-Ink, the screens were on the drab side compared with color LCD: The background looked gray rather than paper-white, and the color in photos was muted. Refresh time, however, was vastly better than E-Ink, permitting for video playback and a more sophisticated touch interface. And with Mirasol--unlike LCDs--the more light you've got, the better the screen looks.

Botom line: I don't think that the clock has run out on Mirsasol yet. But if CES 2013 rolls around and it's still not here, I'll start to wonder if it was an interesting idea that didn't pan out.