Tablet Displays: Is it also a matter of build quality and design?
Recently, The Verge reviewed the iPad Mini and gave it a glowing review. For those who only read as far as the score, they gave it a 9.0 -- one of the higher point values in recent review history on the Verge. They cheered the "fantastic design and build quality," but remarked at a screen that "is lower resolution than the competition." Joshua Topolsky said, "It's a really good looking display in general terms. Apple is using the same treatment here as it does on the iPhone 5 and iPad," presumably, implying the lamination and technology that allows for the display to be thinner than previous applications. Joshua used terms like, "Crystal clear," "colors are vibrant and blacks are deep... videos look terrific." The iPad Mini, according to Topolsky, makes all other 7" offerings look like "toys."
So, who are those other 7" offerings? Namely, they are the Kindle Fire HD and the Nexus 7. There's no argument that Amazon did a stellar job with the display on the Kindle Fire HD. The Verge's review said that it "blows away the Nexus in terms of color richness, black levels and general brightness," and that "it definitely looks more like an Apple-quality display." However, they did have their gripes, saying, "It can still be plenty shiny when viewing content in a decently lit room," speaking of its anti-glare coating.
What am I getting at? There's two things: 1) I think that it's evident that the display is one of the major input and output elements of a device like a tablet. Almost 100% of how someone interacts with a device like a tablet is done through the display. 2) It is even more critical than ever to consider that a display is a part of a device's overall design and build. A device should be rewarded for a great display and given demerits for a poor one. Unfortunately, most of these reviews rely too heavily on subjective opinions about the display. Case in point:
In the Nexus 7 review, and in subsequent Vergecasts and other comments, the Verge staff has consistently called out the Nexus 7 display as having colors that "looked a bit washed out." While in the review, the context is against Super AMOLED displays like the Galaxy Nexus, but the "verdict" on the display lives on, particularly when talking about the iPad Mini and other tablets. So, what's the reality?
The reality is that there are those who are using verifiable metrics to quantify and qualify what makes a good tablet display. Thankfully, the folks at DisplayMate pitted the three tablets against each other. Instead of biased and completely subjective opinions on displays, like color saturation and what "appears to be accurate," there's actual data, and here's what they found:
First, the iPad Mini's display is passable. It does the job well enough. Using their comprehensive series of tests, they measure actual screen reflection, colors and intensities, viewing angles, backlight power consumption and running time on battery. In terms of:
- Resolution: It's lower. We know that. But Apple skimped. The DisplayMate folks have made, on numerous occasions, encouragements to improve visual sharpness. Here, it is no different. They call for Apple to implement sub-pixel rendering to improve text sharpness.
- Aspect Ratio: Many have decried the 16:9/16:10 AR because of how awkward it is to hold in portrait mode. However, as a consumption device, while great for reading, these tablets are also used for viewing video content. The iPad Mini letterboxes its content to 1024x576 (just above qHD, but closer to SD than HD).
- Screen Reflectance: The Verge threw other 7" tablets under the bus for poor screen reflectance, but here's the fact: the iPad Mini simply has the highest screen reflectance of any other tablet in the 7" category. It reflects 53% more ambient light than the Nexus 7 and 41% more than the Fire HD. DM called it a "poor choice and...significant competitive shortfall."
- Color Gamut: Color gamut in addition to other factors lets us know what is an accurate display. In terms of color gamut, in fact, Apple's other recent products are exceptional in that they reproduce 100% of the standard color gamuts. The iPad Mini, though, arrived at just 62% of the color gamut, compared to 86% for the Fire HD and the Nexus 7.
- Contrast: Remember those deep blacks? Contrast ratio is that specification that gets the most attention; even more important than that is contrast rating, which is a display's relation to high ambient lighting (where ratio is low ambient lighting). The real-world definition is: "how easy is it to read the screen in high light?" Of the three discussed tablets, the Nexus 7 scores near 1000:1 and it's contrast rating is 63:1 (the Kindle Fire HD is a similar 68:1). The iPad Mini is a relatively low 43:1. Black levels across all three devices are the same, at maximum brightness.
This is getting into the TL;DR territory, but I am saying all of this to make a point. There may have very well been some constraints that led to the iPad Mini's display, but, as DM said, it ultimately is "due to a number of poor choices and compromises." So here's the point:
This might seem like a "I hate the iPad Mini" post, but what I am really hoping for is an evolution in the way these reviews grade and opine about these products. There was a time when benchmarks of a device's CPU/GPU were not even included in reviews. Now, they're commonplace and almost obligatory, even if they don't make a whole lot of real-world impact. Every techblog on the interweb has their form of a battery drain test (though very few standardize for display brightness, e.g. displays set at 200 nits; it's always the manufacturer's 65% mark -- obviously not a industry standard). Yet, those specs are believable and again, demanded. So, now, here we have observable year over year increases in shipped tablets and sold tablets -- a device where nearly 100% of the user's interaction happens through its display and what's the metric?
"It looks washed out." "Colors look really saturated and blacks are really deep." The tests prove this out to be not true. Subjectivity is flawed. These are the days of OEMs setting their HDTVs to the "vivid" setting and Best Buy putting their displays ablaze to make eyes "ooh" and "aah". These are the days when consumer eyes have been conditioned to believe over-saturation is a good thing. And here's the worse part: these are the days when the OEM "kool-aid" is so strong, it's making us see things that are not really there. The iPad Mini's display is passable at best. It is a disservice, again in an age where we have metrics for everything else, to be resigned to subjectivity on an aspect of a device that requires so much more attention to detail. For a tablet, it does deserve a display score, but that display is integral to its design and build quality.