Most tablets and e-readers today use LCD or e-ink technology, but a new challenger that promises sharp color and reduced screen power consumption could be used in devices in a matter of months.
Qualcomm's Mirasol display technology, which has been under development for years, will be in full production and in devices by the middle of next year, said Paul Jacobs, CEO of Qualcomm, during a webast investor meeting earlier this week.
The company is primarily focusing the screen technology on e-readers, but Mirasol displays have also been shown on tablets.
"We have partners who are really excited about the kind of capabilities that Mirasol brings -- the ultra low power, sunlight visibility, the fact that we can do video on these things. So the devices are coming out, we're feeling good about where we're headed," Jacobs said.
Displays are the biggest power hog on devices and Mirasol's low-power attribute is its biggest advantage, Jacobs said.
"If you have an Android phone ... you'll generally see it's the display that's using most of the battery. We have just got to deal with the issue," Jacobs said.
Tablets use backlit LCD screens, which can burn a lot of power, especially when displaying video. Qualcomm has said that a Mirasol display can provide more multimedia playback in a day on a single battery charge than an LCD.
An iPad 2 can provide up to 10 hours of surfing the Web on Wi-Fi, watching video, or listening to music. According to a study published by Pike Research last year, a device with a 5.7-inch Mirasol display can provide 9.9 hours of battery compared to 4.3 hours on a 6.1-inch fully backlit LCD screen.
LCD screens are used in some color e-readers such as Barnes & Noble's Nook Color, which also has some tablet features. But most e-readers such as Amazon's Kindle use grayscale e-ink screens, which are highly power efficient. Color e-paper is also under development for e-readers, and one screen that can display 4,096 colors is being used in an e-reader from Hanvon.
Mirasol is built around bouncing light of mirrors to display colors on the screen. Ambient light striking the surface is modulated and sent back to the screen to show effects in color and black and white. The screens absorb sunlight, unlike like LCD screens, which create glare in sunlight.
Qualcomm declined to provide further details on the color depth and resolution rate of the initial Mirasol screens. A Mirasol device playing video in color was demonstrated at the Consumer Electronics Show early this year, but the refresh rate seemed to lag.
But after years of display and a long wait, the screens are almost ready to roll out of a factory in Taiwan.
"We know you guys are waiting for devices, and devices are coming," Jacobs said.