Are tablets up to the task of accurate color testing?

Finally getting around to posting a follow-up to a follow-up to John The Math Guy’s recent series on color gamut size, colorblindness and tablet displays. I thought I might be able to at least shed a little more light on his question about the differences in color accuracy between some of these devices.

In his testing, John found no statistically significant difference in scores among different people taking the EnChroma colorblindness test on different devices. I found this somewhat surprising since, in my experience, even tablets with similar color gamuts tend to show colors with very different levels of accuracy.

iPad mini color gamut and Gretag Macbeth colors against sRGB in CIE1976

To show what I mean by that, I measured how two different tablets show the colors found in the Gretag Macbeth color checker chart.Nexus 7 color gamut and Gretag Macbeth colors against sRGB in CIE1976

As you can see, the iPad mini and Nexus 7 each produce very different colors, even for those colors that are actually inside their gamuts.

For example, even though the iPad mini has enough gamut coverage to accurately display the Gretag chart’s deepest blue, it cannot do so without distorting the image in another way. This is because of data in the underlying image standard- most content today is encoded in the sRGB standard. If the iPad were to show that Gretag blue correctly, it would not have enough color saturation headroom left over to show you a different color if a deeper blue, say right at the bottom of the sRGB triangle, were called for.

A good real world example of this can be found in the picture below of my bloodhound, Louisa, racing down the beach at Carmel, CA. The middle of the sky in this image is right on the edge of the iPad’s color gamut, very similar to the Gretag blue in the charts above, while the deepest blues found in the ocean fall outside the iPad’s gamut.

Out of gamut colors at beach

If the iPad were striving for accuracy at all costs, it might map both colors right on top of each other at the edge of the gamut. There’d be no visible difference between the two in this case and the quality of the image would suffer but at least the sky would be accurate. In order to avoid this scenario, the designers of these devices have decided to compromise on accuracy so they can show a full range of color differences to the user.

They do this by remapping colors inward, away from the edges of the gamut, effectively compressing the gamut even further so that otherwise out-of-gamut colors can be seen. This is a good solution given the gamut limitations of the device since it results in more pleasing, if less accurate images.

As newer devices trend towards wider color gamuts this kind of compromise should become a thing of the past. In fact, tablet designers may be working on the reverse issue- how to avoid oversaturating images that were encoded for smaller gamuts.

Great, how does this relate to colorblindness again?

iPad mini vs Nexus 7 color accuracy comparison in CIE 1976

iPad mini vs Nexus 7 color accuracy comparison in CIE 1976

Taking another look at the Gretag results from the two devices plotted on top of each other, there clearly are major differences. But, in the reds and greens, two colors associated with a common form of color blindness, the devices are relatively close. So, the simple answer may just be that colorblindness tests do not require pinpoint accuracy to be effective, at least as basic screening tools.

Color of the year for 2013 falls outside sRGB gamut

Pantone Emerald 17-5641

Pantone recently announced their color of the year for 2013, a deep shade of emerald green that they call “Emerald 17-5641.” It’s a great color but there’s a catch- most displays cannot accurately show it.

Based on data from Pantone’s website, I was able to plot the color in CIE 1931 (xy). As you can see in the chart below, Pantone’s color is well outside the sRGB/rec.709 color gamut standard used by most HDTVs, the new iPad/iPhone and many desktop monitors. These devices will be stuck showing a version of Pantone’s emerald green that’s less saturated and probably a bit more yellow than the real thing.

Pantone Emerald 17-5641 vs sRGB, Adobe RGB 1998 and DCI-P3 color gamuts in CIE 1931

This is a perfect example of a popular real-world color that falls outside of the sRGB/rec.709 gamut. Unless you have a monitor that’s able to show wider color gamuts, like the DCI-P3 or Adobe RGB standards, you are missing out on a great color.

Updated: How does the iPhone 5’s color saturation measure up against Apple’s claims?

Commenter William thankfully double checked our math and we’ve corrected a small error in our % NTSC calculation.

We finally got our hands on an iPhone 5 yesterday. I tried asking Siri if she really has 44% more color saturation but she wouldn’t give up the goods, so I went with plan B and aimed our PR-655 spectroradiometer at the phone to find out just how impressive the screen really is. A lot has already been written about this display, but not much empirical evidence has been published about the color performance. How does the screen actually stack up to the marketing claims?

In short, Apple did an exceptional job improving color saturation and display quality in general, but the unit we measured just missed the 44% more color saturation claim.

Measuring Up

The iPhone 5 has significantly more color saturation than the 4S.

The 44% more color claim for the iPhone 5 is the same claim Apple made for the new iPad. As with the iPad, increasing the color performance of the iPhone 4S by 44% of NTSC 1953 gamut, measured using the CIE 1931 color space, would result in color saturation matching the sRGB color standard.  Using these standards as the goal posts, we measured the iPhone 5 at 70% of NTSC 1953 in CIE 1931, a 39% increase from the iPhone 4S, which measured at 50%. That’s 5% less of an improvement than Apple’s 44% claim and just 99% of sRGB (measured against the sRGB primaries).

While 5% less might seem like a big deal, getting to 99% of sRGB is a major feat and will result in tremendously noticeable color improvement in the phone. Additionally, color filters are notoriously difficult to manufacture. Slight variances in performance like this are common and most likely outside the range of a just noticeable difference for the average person.

If you want to know more about NTSC, CIE and sRGB, and why we are using standards from the 1930s, I have written extensively about this issue in the past.

How did they do it?

Much like they did with the new iPad, Apple significantly improved the color filter performance of the iPhone 5. Based on our experience, this type of improvement typically means that the display requires 20-30% more power to operate at the same brightness. Considering that the display is already a major source battery drain on the phone, this further underscores the engineering effort Apple made to keep battery life about the same as the 4S.

Let’s take a quick look at the changes in each of the red, green and blue color filters, starting with white, which is all three filters turned on:

Looking at the white spectrum of the iPhone 5, we see that the new color filters are very similar to those of the new iPad. Compared to the 4S, the peaks are slightly narrower, which improves color purity. In order to meet sRGB, they also moved to deeper reds and blues.

As with the new iPad, the biggest difference between the 4S and the 5 is in blue. Apple moved the peak to a deeper blue but, more importantly, they narrowed the filter so less green light leaks through. The green leakage causes blue to look a bit “aqua” on the 4S.

Retinal neuroscientist Bryan Jones looked at both displays under his stereo microscope earlier this week. His close-up shots really show off the difference in blue filters.

Apple again chose a slightly deeper wavelength of green which is less yellow and eliminated some of the blue leakage that had been muddying the green on the 4S.

The change here is subtle but as with the other filters, the peak is narrower, deeper in the red and leakage is reduced. One difference worth noting is that, while we are seeing less peak leakage in the red filter, there had been relatively broadband leakage across yellow, green and into blue that has been largely eliminated.

Conclusion

In all, it’s an exceptionally well-calibrated and accurate display for any kind of device, especially a smartphone. Apple has gone to great lengths to design a screen that brings the vibrancy of sRGB to the palm of your hand.
If you are not familiar with color filters or the inner-workings of LCDs in general this great live teardown by Bill Hammack is well worth watching: http://youtu.be/jiejNAUwcQ8

iPhone 5 color saturation claims

Display improvements were once again featured at yesterday’s Apple keynote event. The most obvious improvements may have been the larger display and thinner form factor but most interesting to dot-color are the color claims.

Just like the new iPad, Apple claims that the iPhone 5 can display “44% more color saturation.”

Apple SVP of Worldwide Marketing Phil Schiller talks color saturation at the iPhone 5 keynote

Let’s do some simple math to see how the iPhone 5 stacks up against older iPhones and last week’s color performance claim from Motorola.

  • iPhone 4S IPS LCD: 50% NTSC color gamut (CIE 1931)
  • iPhone 5 IPS LCD: 50% * 144% = 72% NTSC color gamut (CIE 1931)
  • Motorola Droid Razr Maxx HD AMOLED: iPhone 4S (50%) * 185% = 92.5% NTSC (CIE 1931)

So Motorola is still king of the fall 2012 smartphone color saturation, based solely on marketing claims. That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if they updated their marketing to say that the Droid Razr Maxx HD offers 28% more color saturation than the iPhone 5 once it hits store shelves in a couple weeks. I plan to measure all of the announced devices to verify these marketing claims, but for now, this is all we have to go with.

Apple also claimed to be able to match the sRGB standard used in TV and movies. With the addition of the iPhone 5, nearly all of Apple’s flagship products (with the exception of the MacBook Air) now meet this standard. This means content should look very consistent across all Apple devices and may open up the possibility for serious content creation apps in iOS.

It also means we’re only just now catching up to an average CRT display from circa 1990, as the sRGB standard is based on the capabilities of phosphor materials used in CRTs. And even still, the new displays are only covering about 35% of the range of colors a human eye can see. There’s still plenty of room for improvement in display color performance (as well as updated content delivery standards, but that is a whole different post).  Hopefully if we keep on this kind of pace with display enhancements, next year we’ll start to see a push beyond the limits of last century’s color standards.

We’re using the long outdated CIE 1931 color space and NTSC 1953 gamut standards here since this is clearly Apple’s reference when they claim 44% more saturation and sRGB coverage. 50% * 1.44 = 72% and 72% of NTSC 1953 gamut in the CIE 1931 color space is also called the sRGB color gamut.

It is not clear which color space Motorola is referencing; we are assuming CIE 1931/NTSC 1953 for ease of comparison.

Even on Mars, color matters

One of the most important pieces of equipment on the Curiosity rover is not a spectrometer or a laser but a color calibration chart. Nothing is simple when you’re sending a robot on a 354 million mile journey into space, but NASA and Bill Nye (yes, the “science guy”) came up with an ingenious solution to calibrate the colors of the onboard cameras.

In order for NASA scientists to be sure that we are seeing “The Red Planet“ in the correct shade of red, they attached red, green and blue color chips to a sundial on the surface of the rover. These reference colors will guarantee the amazing photos we are seeing of the Martian landscape are accurate.

Here is an animated gif of the sundial on the surface of Mars and a close-up shot of it before it left Earth:

Color Space Confusion

For many who are new to the world of display measurement, the prevalence of two distinct, but often-interchanged color spaces can be a source of confusion. Since my recent post about the color performance of Apple’s new iPad, a number of people have asked about this topic, so I thought it would be worth a closer look.

In the world of displays and color images, there exists a variety of separate standards for mapping color, CIE 1931 and CIE 1976 being the most popular among them. Despite its age, CIE 1931, named for the year of its adoption, remains a well-worn and familiar shorthand throughout the display industry. As a marketer of high color gamut display components, I can tell you from firsthand experience that CIE 1931 is the primary language of our customers. When a customer tells me that their current display “can do 72% of NTSC,” they implicitly mean 72% of NTSC 1953 color gamut as mapped against CIE 1931.

However, from the SID International Committee for Display Metrology’s (ICDM) recent, authoritative Display Measurement Standard:

“…we strongly encourage people to abandon the use of the 1931 CIE color diagram for determining the color gamut… The 1976 CIE (u’,v’) color diagram should be used instead. Unfortunately, many continue to use the (x,y) chromaticity values and the 1931 diagram for gamut areas.”

So why are there two standards, and why are we trying to declare one of them obsolete? Let me explain.

What is a color space?

First, a little background on color spaces and how they work.

While there are a number of different types of color spaces, we are specifically interested in chromaticity diagrams, which only measure color quality, independent of other factors like luminance. A color space is a uniform representation of visible light. It maps the all of the colors visible to the human eye onto an x-y grid and assigns them measureable values. This allows us to make uniform measurements and comparisons between colors, and offers certainty that images look the same from display to display when used to create color gamut standards.

In 1931, the Commission internationale de l’éclairage or CIE (International Commission on Illumination in English) defined the most commonly used color space. Here’s a look at the anatomy of the CIE 1931 color space:

What makes a good color space?

An effective color space should map with reasonable accuracy and consistancy to the human perception of color. Content creators want to be sure that the color they see on their display is the same color you see on your display.

This is where the CIE 1931 standard falls apart. Based on the work of David MacAdam in the 1940’s, we learn that the variance in percieved color, when mapped in the CIE 1931 color space, is not linear from color to color. In other words, if you show a group of people the same green, then map what they see against the CIE 1931 color space, they will report seeing a wide decprepancy of different hues of green. However, if you show the same group a blue image, there will be much more agreement on what color blue they are seeing.  This uneveness creates problems when trying to make uniform measurements with CIE 1931.

The result of MacAdam’s work is visualized by the MacAdam Elipses.  Each elipse represents the range of colors respondents reported seeing when shown a single color, which was the dot in the center of each elipse:

A better standard

It was not until 1976 that the CIE was able to settle on a significantly more linear color space. If we reproduce MacAdam’s work using the new standard, variations in percieve color are minimalized and the MacAdam’s Elipses mapped on a 1976 CIE diagram appear much more evenly sized and circular, as opposed to oblong. This makes color comparisons using CIE 1976 significantly more meaningful.

The difference of the CIE 1976 color space, particularly in blue and green, is immediately apparent. As an example, lets look at the color gamut measurements of the iPad 2 and new iPad we used in an earlier article. Both charts do a reasonably good job of conveying the new iPad’s increased gamut coverage at all three primaries. But, the 1976 chart captures the dramatic perceptual difference in blue (from aqua to deep blue) that you actually see when looking at the displays side by side:

The increased gamut of the new iPad is worth testing. Next time you find yourself in an Apple store, grab an iPad 2, hold it alongside a new iPad, Google up a color bar image and see the difference for yourself.

So, why do we still use CIE 1931 at all?  The only real answer is that old habits die hard.  The industry has relied on CIE 1931 since its inception, and change is coming slowly.

Fortunately, CIE 1931’s grip is loosening over time. The ICDM’s new measurement standard should eventually force all remaining stragglers to switch over to the more accurate 1976 standard. Until then, you can familiarize yourself with a decent color space conversion calculator, such as the handy converter we built just for this purpose: