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Hands-on: Qualcomm's Snapdragon S4 tablet and Mirasol gen 2

updated 01:30 pm EST, Sun January 15, 2012

We look at Qualcomm hardware at CES 2012

Qualcomm at CES had two core focuses: its Snapdragon S4 processors, and the second-generation of its Mirasol display technology. We had the opportunity to try Qualcomm's S4 development tablet and Mirasol readers from Kyobo and Shanda on the floor. Read ahead for a look at both.

The S4 tablet was running its promised MSM8960, a dual-core 1.5GHz processor. It's not the quad-core we'd hope to try, but it's still a fairly powerful chip. In all cases, the tablet was hooked up to an HDTV and could output fairly intensive 3D without a difference between the two. We tried three titles: Fight Game Heroes, an unnamed first-person shooter, and an augmented reality 3D tech demo.

FGH is a fairly rudimentary but good-looking brawler; while not the most detailed game, it was consistently fast, as you need it to be for a reflex-heavy fighting title. The shooter was more exploratory than action, but had very long drawing distances that didn't bog down. Qualcomm's augmented reality app wasn't as fluid, but was impressive more for how many things it was doing at once: it merged a live camera view with overlaid agumented reality graphics converted to stereoscopic 3D. Our only goal was to shoot explosives to knock barrels off a pier, which was feasible even a full physics engine in place.

As such, the 1.5GHz chip is looking to be a solid, though not spectacular, processor for 2012. We're hoping that shipping phones and tablets are more optimized for longevity than what was on the show floor: we'd heard that the S4 tablets were only lasting for as little as half an hour when they weren't plugged in, which would explain why one we tried was low on charge and why they generally discouraged taking the tablets out of their docks. As it stands, we expect Apple and Samsung to pull ahead in raw terms.

The Kyobo eReader and Shanda Bambook readers, in the meantime, are very similar to each other: it's clear Qualcomm co-created them as a showcase for Mirasol as much as they're real products. The new display technology is dramatically faster than before and is surprisingly fluid: we could perform a pinch-to-zoom virtually as quickly as we could on a regular screen, and even video ran well. It mostly lagged when reading periodicals: the display would be slow to refresh when turning pages or scrolling. We suspect that may have more to do with the graphics hardware or RAM than the display, since it may have been dealing with very large image files.

Both were Android-based and were clearly intended as multi-purpose (if also narrow-purpose) devices. Neither is spectacular in this regard and won't threaten a Nook Tablet or Kindle Fire, but that they were genuinely workable as basic tablets while still having better battery life and outdoor readability is a big step forward. They were certainly easier on the eyes than LCDs.

Mirasol's main obstacle now is more visual quality. Its color is good if you treat it as a bonus to e-paper, but the washed out, narrow-gamut image won't compete with an LCD. More vibrant colors, and more colors as a whole, are definitely needed to lure readers away if Qualcomm can't make Mirasol as cheap to own as a Kindle or Nook.

Snapdragon S4 development tablet

Kyobo eReader and Shanda Bambook

by MacNN Staff



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