Spending Money Where it Counts: The Display

A blast from the past is the iPad's 1024 x 768 resolution. In a world that's almost fully transitioned to 16:9 or 16:10 panels, leave it to Apple to go back to a 4:3 CRT resolution for its latest product.

The aspect ratio actually works very well. You can comfortably view web pages in both portrait and landscape mode and get a reasonable amount of content on the screen without scrolling. Thanks to the great touchscreen, you almost want to scroll whenever possible.


iPad and iPhone side by side

The problem with using the Nexus One for the past few weeks is that going to Apple's IPS (in-plane switching) LCD in the iPad just isn't that impressive. The colors aren't nearly as vibrant or panel nearly as contrasty as the AMOLED in the Nexus One. For an LCD, it looks great, it just lacks the punch of an OLED (as well as the pricetag such a large OLED display would carry).

You quickly realize why Apple went with an expensive IPS panel for the iPad - viewing angle. When you're typing on the iPad it'll either be resting on a desk or angled slightly towards you. The iPad's display ensures that regardless of viewing angle, the display never looks washed out. In practice, the display performance was stellar for a device of this form factor - the viewing angle really does seem to be close to the advertise 178 degrees. There's little performance falloff or distortion even viewed at the most extreme angles. It's far more critical in an iPad than in a notebook simply because there are valid use cases where the display is totally flat. Apple spent money in the right place here, it usually does.


iPad vs. iPhone 3GS


iPad vs. iPhone 3GS vs. Nexus One

In addition to viewing angle, IPS promises a larger color gamut and better contrast ratio compared to cheaper and more common LCD technologies. Qualitatively, the iPad goes far brighter than you'd need it to, and thankfully very low as well - a welcome feature for when you're reading in bed and don't want to distract. Indoors, the display is everything Apple promises, and it's clear side by side that blacks are far better on the iPad than on the iPhone. Brightness across the display is very uniform, and on the whole everything just looks great - indoors.

Indoors, the black levels between the iPad and iPhone 3GS are like night and day. In fact, several times while taking photos I thought the iPad's display had gone to sleep while displaying my black test image. It's that good. By comparison, the iPhone looks almost blue even when viewed at normal incidence.

Let's take it outside. Here's a bright sunny North Carolina day:

I stood in the sun and tried to use the iPad:

High contrast work scenarios where you're focusing primarily on black text atop a white background, like reading books, checking email, or reading the web, are definitely usable and readable outside. This is a testament to the brightness of the LCD panel. However, if you're using a particularly dark application, it's much harder to see anything comfortably.


Finger prints in direct sunlight

In addition, the iPad's glassy surface doesn't have an oleophobic coating like the iPhone 3GS shipped with; the display is a fingerprint magnet. Just like the older iPhones, it always looks like you just finished eating a bag of cheetos right before you hand your iPad to anyone. Update: Apparently we're wrong and the iPad does have an oleophobic coat on it like the 3GS. Perhaps it's a different coating technique, or more likely that fingerprints are just more visible on the much larger screen.

Its glassy visage is also very reflective, as expected, and that can be distracting at times. Honestly, this is the kind of scenario where an anti-reflective coating can drastically reduce glare. There are really two scenarios to consider outside - under direct illumination from the sun, and shaded performance. Outdoors performance can be either just acceptable or perfectly miserable.


Safari in direct sunlight

After a hours of use (without eating any greasy food, I promise), in direct sunlight the iPad can get very difficult to read from all the fingerprints. However, performance in the shade outside is quite legible.


Safari outside in the shade

Clearly, the usage target Apple had in mind for the iPad was indoors, where its display is almost flawless.

But we weren't satisfied with making nebulous claims about the display performance, so we set out to verify them. After scratching our heads for a while, we settled on a shamelessly intuitive method - remote desktop. Using our X-Rite Eye-One Display 2, ColorEyes Display Pro, and some patience, we were able to measure and characterize the iPad's IPS display like any other.

Clearly, the IPS panel in the iPad offers drastically improved contrast and black levels - it's very obvious even in normal use that it blows away the iPhone.

Display Comparison Black Level (nits) White Level (nits) Contrast Ratio
Apple iPhone 3GS (100% Brightness) 2.5 469.2 187.7
Apple iPad (100% Brightness) 0.4 373.7 934.3
Apple iPad (50% Brightness) 0.2 149.7 748.5

We also measured and were able to get color gamut volumes and uncalibrated Delta-E performance as well. However, we're not entirely convinced that these numbers are sound. The remote desktop software common to the iPad and iPhone 3GS we used offered 24 bit color depth at maximum, and the test results for both the iPhone 3GS and iPad turned out very similar. We're talking down to 0.01 Delta-E in some cases. For that reason, we're excluding the data we've obtained for color tracking until we're positive the numbers are right. Of course, the iPad itself remains 24-bit color, same as in previous versions of iPhone OS.

On the other hand, it's entirely possible that this is just the case, and color performance is the same between the two. In fact, an IPS panel was probably chosen in this context due to the very real viewing angle requirements for a handheld display of this size - anything else would be distracting. We're going to continue to investigate.

Whatever the numbers say, the display is beautiful in use and blows away most others. It's brilliant in use as a photo frame, for movies, reading books, and surfing the web. I watched a movie on it, spent a few hours reading online and a copy of HG-Wells' War of the Worlds and didn't experience any eye strain, though I'll admit I don't experience any fatigue with most LCDs. If you have a definite preference for E-Ink displays, you'll probably find reading less comfortable, but the added benefit of being able to browse the web and do everything else makes it a relatively minor trade-off. On the upside, you're reading on something that's backlit, so you don't need a book light for nighttime reading.

It's refreshing to finally see Apple taking mobile computing displays seriously with an IPS panel, instead of opting for far lower quality TN panels. Let's hope this same decision to not sacrifice display quality carries over to iPhone 4G.

Of course, the multitouch aspect of the display will be familiar to anyone who has used an iPhone or recent smartphone. We tested the iPad using all ten fingers, and they all registered properly. Even on the larger screen, using all 10 fingers is as clumsy as it is stupid looking, but clearly the iPad's screen is at least 10 point capacitive multitouch.

Stop and Smell the Roses Computing The Keyboard & Ergonomics
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  • vol7ron - Wednesday, April 7, 2010 - link

    There's been rumors the iPhone 4g will be talked about tomorrow by Apple. Do you have any insight into this?

    vol7ron
    Reply
  • Griswold - Thursday, April 8, 2010 - link

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/4g Reply
  • vol7ron - Thursday, April 8, 2010 - link

    I don't understand the point of this link?
    Perhaps you want to look at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IPhone

    Data Network Technology and iPhone technology are not synonymous.
    Reply
  • A5 - Thursday, April 8, 2010 - link

    Unless AT&T has suddenly deployed a 4G network (or they're going to Sprint), then this new phone isn't going to be called the iPhone 4G. Also, the stuff they're announcing tomorrow are the features of iPhone OS 4.0, not new iPhone hardware. Reply
  • vol7ron - Thursday, April 8, 2010 - link

    I'd rather not hear about the hardware at this point, but it'd be nice to say that Apple would up the clock on the 3GS (what I have). Hearing about the OS 4.0 is nice.

    I thought the "G" has nothing to do do with the wireless technology network. While they both stand for "generation", Apple's iPhone/OS pair will still be called the iPhone 4G, regardless if it runs on 3G Network or CDMA technology, or if the OS is upgraded afterwards; if this is confusing, think about the iPhone 2G - it runs on the 3G network and can be upgraded to OS 3.0, but it is still a iPhone 2G due to the initial hardware/OS release.

    -----

    The developer meeting was actually quite nice. There were a few surprises, but nothing huge - just a bunch of much-needed updates :) There will more-than-likely be a few more OS4.0 goodies come June with the official iPhone 4G release.
    Reply
  • Internet User - Thursday, April 8, 2010 - link

    That's incorrect. The naming conventions that Apple typically uses were thrown out the window. The first generation iPhone runs on the 2G EDGE network. The 3G (second gen) and 3GS (third gen) both run on the 3G network. We don't know what the fourth iteration will be called. It won't run on a 4G network, but it will be the 4G iPhone. Reply
  • vol7ron - Friday, April 9, 2010 - link

    Perhaps you are right, but I thought I remember hearing Jobs talk about the naming that went into the iPhone.

    Technically, I think that what happened supports your argument, but we've all seen companies change their logical naming patterns. The first iPhone, as with any first generation, was called the "iPhone", with no suffixed 1G or 2G. It wasn't until the 3G came out (on OS 2.0), where there was question about its name. I think what was talked about was that the beta versions were considered 1G; the first retail release was considered 2G; and the second was 3G.

    The 3GS is where it really breaks that argument, because the 3GS was released with 3.0, so technically it would be called the iPhone 4G. Instead they stuck with the "3G" and added the "S", which they said stands for "speed". However, those "2G" phones that were upgraded to OS 3.0, still work with the 3G network, but are still considered "iPhone" (w/o the suffix, but still unofficially: iPhone 2G).

    In either case, I'm willing to say that I'm wrong, since a lot of it is vague memory. That, and the fact that this article is about the iPad and not the iPhone :) I was just a little curious about OS 4.0, but I was offered an exclusive direct link on the developers briefing, so I found everything out anyhow.

    vol7ron
    Reply
  • nilepez - Thursday, April 8, 2010 - link

    I don't know about AT&T, but Verizon began testing LTE last year and is deploying LTE in some markets this year. Until Apple announces they're partnering with Verizon (or Sprint) or we see FCC submissions, I'll assume it's vaporware....and frankly, I'm not switching from my Sero plan for a phone. Reply
  • vol7ron - Wednesday, April 7, 2010 - link

    Page 2: Since this isn't the 1980s, the iPad only has three four physical buttons on the device.

    I might be reading it wrong but the "three four" seemed out of place. Maybe that was supposed to be a "three or four", or perhaps you were going to come back to it?

    vol7ron
    Reply
  • vol7ron - Wednesday, April 7, 2010 - link

    Page 5: "Tap it twice while you're playing music and playback controls appear, Also when..."
    Perhaps there should be a period where the comma is and a comma after "Also"?

    BTW, not purposefully checking for errors, just looking out for ya.
    vol7ron
    Reply

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