CES: Mirasol e-readers still several months away

There's a lot of buzz about Mirasol's reflective color display technology. But the company has yet to announce an actual product and some say we might not see one until next year.

David Carnoy Executive Editor / Reviews
Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable reviewer of mobile accessories and portable audio products, including headphones and speakers. He's also an e-reader and e-publishing expert as well as the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks, Kobo e-books and audiobooks.
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David Carnoy
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One of the Mirasol prototypes on the show floor at CES in Las Vegas. David Carnoy/CNET

LAS VEGAS--The e-reader may have been one of the hottest holiday gifts, with Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, Sony, and others selling millions of devices, but it was decidedly absent at this year's CES--unless, of course, you count all the Android tablets floating around.

The company a lot of people were watching was Qualcomm-backed Mirasol, which made a splash a year ago with its new, reflective color display technology that's energy-efficient, runs full-motion video, and can be viewed in direct sunlight. Alas, Mirasol had no product to announce, only that it was working with vendors such as Pocketbook, which sells primarily into Europe, to bring out an e-reader later this year. How much that e-reader will cost and when it will hit the market are very much up in the air.

Mirasol didn't have its own booth, but a small showcase was set up in Qualcomm's booth, and the technology--intriguing as ever--was definitely getting a lot of attention. The prototypes Qualcomm was showing seem improved from earlier models the company had been teasing reporters with at previous events, and PR reps were careful to note that the video loop on the prototype's screen was indeed running at a smooth 30 fps (some reports speculated that the company was having trouble getting the frame rates up to promised full-motion speeds).

A Mirasol prototype with a 5.7-inch screen running full-motion video. David Carnoy/CNET

What was a little surprising, however, was that the company hadn't made more progress in a year. Also, the only screen size it was showing was 5.7 inches (the Kindle has a 6-inch screen, measured diagonally) and a PR rep said that the company would not be developing any larger screen sizes this year.

Mirasol, the rep said, was focused on the 5.7-inch size for e-readers and was also making a big push with smaller screens for smartphones. That's obviously a much bigger market than e-readers and Qualcomm is in the process of building a $975 million factory in Taiwan to make these screens in mass quantities. Apparently, a different factory in Taiwan will make screens until the new factory goes online early next year.

Iriver was one of the few manufacturers to announce a new e-reader at the show--the Story HD--and it wasn't even on the convention floor but at a hotel suite in the Wynn hotel. Iriver is using a monochrome electronic paper display made by LG (the two companies have formed a joint venture named L&I Electronic Technology) and Owen Kwon from Iriver said that Mirasol currently couldn't make larger screens and his company doesn't have any plans to use the technology this year because it was unclear whether Mirasol would be ready for mass production. Kwon said Iriver would ship the Story HD in the middle of the year and that it would be competitively priced with the Kindle. But the software we saw on the prototype still seemed to be in early stage development.

Much-hyped Pixel Qi (pronounced chi) was also around and showing off some notebooks and tablets that use its non-captive LCD design, which helps you view the screen in direct sunlight and is also more energy-efficient than a traditional LCD. The Pixel Qi screen is currently available as an option on the Notion Ink Adam tablet, but seeing the technology in action for the first time, I wasn't as impressed as I thought I'd be--at least in terms of readability outdoors (just as important as the screen itself is the layer that goes on top of the screen, since anything reflective will create glare issues).

The long and short of it is, as far as display technology goes, I don't think we'll get anything drastically new this year. With consumers seemingly attracted to lower-priced standalone e-readers like the Kindle at $139, there isn't much room for new technology--which usually adds a significant premium--to make its way into the market. In that sense, Mirasol may be similar to OLED, which is prohibitively expensive at larger sizes, but has steadily made inroads in the smartphone market, where it regularly appears in Samsung devices.

Meanwhile, in the next few months, Apple will most likely introduce the next-generation iPad, and there's speculation that it will do something to reduce glare and make the screen more viewable outdoors. That flaw is something Amazon likes to point out when comparing the reading experience on the Kindle's e-ink screen, which is highly readable in direct sunlight, and the iPad's LCD, which gets washed out. (Barnes & Noble put a special coating on the Nook Color's glass, which helps cut down the glare and improve readability outdoors, but e-ink is still far superior for outdoor reading.)

What Apple comes up with may end up either hurting or helping Mirasol's chances. Either way, Qualcomm better hurry up, because as Canon and Toshiba found out with SED technology in TVs, the longer you wait, the more existing, cheaper technology improves, making your product less viable.

Cheryl Goodman, director of marketing for Qualcomm's MEMS technology division, gets surrounded by the press. David Carnoy/CNET