Color at CES 2013

I’m just wrapping up my visit to CES and it’s been interesting year for display technologies. Amid all the noise about 4K, OLED and 4K-OLED, color performance seems to have quietly worked its way into the conversation. I can’t recall ever having so many relatively technical conversations about color with booth reps from major consumer electronics manufacturers at a CES. It nearly started feeling like a visit to DisplayWeek, that is until I ran into some of the weird, only-at-CES iPhone cases

Color Your World CES 2013

I bet we’ll see more color talk next year, especially as 4K content delivery mechanisms and standards begin to mature. In the meantime, these are some of the color-related display stories that caught my eye this week:

Wide gamut content delivery

Sony’s 4K content delivery plans have been one of the most talked about topics here at CES. Less mentioned was Sony’s inclusion of wider color gamut in their standard. Sony reps that I talked to said that both the 1080P Blu-ray disc-based “mastered in 4K” and pure 4K delivery methods would include a wider color gamut. They were not ready to release specifics on gamut size or whether it would meet existing standards like DCI-P3. Still, bringing “expanded color showcasing more of the wide range of rich color contained in the original source” is a move in the right direction for wide gamut.

Color accuracy

Technicolor showed off a color certification program that they hope will incentivize display makers to improve the color accuracy of their panels. Displays that meet or exceed Technicolor’s color specs will get a badge and a copy of partner Portrait Display’s Chroma Tune software, which dynamically controls color gamut to match the application you are using. This means if you open Photoshop on a device with an Adobe RGB 1998 capable display, you’ll get the full, wide gamut. But, if you switch over to watch a YouTube video in your browser, the software will limit the display to rec.709 for the most accurate experience. The advantage was well demonstrated by their e-commerce demo, where a pair of shoes were more accurately depicted on a certified display:

Technicolor's ecommerce Color Certification demo at CES 2013. The color certified laptop in the middle of the frame more accurately shows the color of the shoes.

Technicolor’s ecommerce Color Certification demo at CES 2013. The color certified laptop in the middle of the frame more accurately shows the color of the shoes.

Like Sony’s upscaling effort, this kind of technology could help drive wide color gamut adoption by making today’s content compatible with newer displays.

Huge tablets

Panasonic 4K Tablet with sRGB color gamut at CES 2013

Panasonic’s 20 inch 4K/sRGB tablet

Several companies at the show introduced devices in a new class- the 20-plus inch tablet. While there were a lot of hokey multi touch gaming demos (are you really going to play poker with 4 smartphones and a 27″ screen instead of a deck of cards?), the content creation stuff Panasonic showed actually made me think the new form factor shows real promise as a professional tool.

Their tablet, which measures 20 inches on the diagonal, features a 4K IPS panel that covers 100% of the sRGB color gamut standard. Having such a a large canvas with high resolution, accurate color and multi-touch could be great for creative pros like photographers and architects.

Shopping for a tablet this holiday season? Don’t forget to look at color performance

If you have been researching the perfect tablet to give to a loved one this holiday season, you’ve probably read a lot about display quality. Tablet display size, resolution and aspect ratio have been discussed at length this year, which is really no surprise, since the quality of the display has the biggest impact on how we enjoy content on these devices.

What is surprising though is that color performance, one of the biggest differentiators among the current crop of tablet displays, has been largely glossed over by the mainstream gadget press.

The Verge’s tablet comparison tool, for example, gives great info about pixel density, aspect ratio and touch capabilities, but color performance is nowhere to be found:

Color is being ignored in spite of the fact that there are tremendous differences in the color performance of each of these devices that directly impact the consumer experience on each.

So why are we overlooking a feature that, unlike many of the features we focus on these days, presents a real difference between devices?  I see a couple reasons. First and foremost, thanks to Apple’s marketing of the Retina display, pixels-per-inch has become the spec du jour in today’s device wars.  Device makers are focusing their marketing efforts on pixel count above anything else.

Aside from current trends, I believe there’s also a macro reason to why color has been left out: color performance is just hard to compare. There is no universally accepted spec that can sum up color performance across devices.

Take the three popular tablets above. We could add a “color gamut” row to the chart, measuring against sRGB, which would look like this:

From this information, a shopper could gather that the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HD have about the same color performance and both outdo the iPad mini. That is an accurate assessment, but it’s not the whole story. If we look at those color gamuts plotted in CIE 1976, some important nuances become apparent.

By measuring the percent of sRGB, we know how much of that overall color standard the device can reproduce.  However, displays usually produce more of one color than another and that information is completely lost with this measurement.  The Nexus and Kindle have significantly deeper blue than the iPad mini, most likely due to a narrower blue color filter like the one found in the third and fourth generation iPad. This accounts for most of the difference in sRGB coverage between the iPad mini and the other two devices.

Take a look at the other two primaries and it gets more interesting. In the image on the right that zooms in on green, we see that the Kindle Fire has the deepest green of the three, followed by the iPad mini and the Nexus.

For reds, though, it’s different again, with the Nexus having the deepest reds followed by Kindle and then iPad.

If we ever want to make color performance a real differentiator in consumer choice, we need to develop a new universal standard to easily compare color across devices, taking into account all of these nuances.

Color is a complex story to tell, but small differences in color performance are just as noticeable to consumers as pixel density in everyday use. Next time you find yourself at a retailer who carries all three devices, try googling test patterns and look at the differences. You might be surprised.

iPad Content Creation gets more Colorful with FiftyThree’s Paper app

App developer FiftyThree recently updated one of my favorite creativity apps for iOS, Paper, with an impressive new color-related feature. If you are not familiar with Paper, it’s a sketchbook app capable of making the work of even non-artists like me look gallery worthy with an intuitive and responsive interface.

The new feature, which FiftyThree calls “the biggest leap forward in color controls in the past 40 years,” is a color mixer that allows you to create a wide array of colors within the app just as you would in real life. They say they put a lot of time and effort into making the new mixer feel natural. The Paper color mixer works just like finger painting as a kid, mixing yellow and blue in the Paper app mixer produces green.

The new color mixer, shown at the bottom of this screenshot, lets you mix multiple colors to achieve a much wider palette in the new version of Paper.

This is a great feature that expands the content creation capabilities of an already exceptional app. But, as great as this app is, it’s still limited by the color capability of the device it’s installed on. Even the latest iPad, which can produce 100% of the sRGB color gamut, still only shows about 1/3 of the visible color spectrum.

The experience you will have mixing and creating colors on today’s tablets just will not be nearly as dynamic or visceral as making a physical painting. Not until better, wide color gamut technology is adopted in displays will the digital color experience match the stunning world of color we live in.

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

Beyond Retina: holiday releases see device makers move beyond PPI in display marketing efforts

Over the past couple weeks we’ve seen device manufacturers start to gear up for the holiday season, highlighted by big product announcements from Nokia, Motorola and Amazon. It’s been especially interesting for me to follow how these companies market the most important part of the device – the screen. While pixel per inch still seems important, device makers have moved into more nuanced territory, highlighting deeper features like reduced reflectivity, improved touch sensitivity and color saturation.

Here’s a roundup the most interesting new display features in this holiday’s hottest devices:

Nokia was first up this week with a new crop of Lumia handsets, the 920 and 820. They introduced a slightly larger display for the flagship 920 (now 4.5 inches compared to last year’s 4.3” Lumia 900), touted a new level of touch sensitivity that even works with gloves and claimed 25% more brightness than rival phones. Also of note, they switched from AMOLED to IPS LCD. It’s not yet clear if cost/supply issues or performance drove this switch. It may be that they preferred the brightness and power efficiency of LCD.

Right on the heels of Nokia, Motorola and Google announced a group of new smartphones, led by the Droid Razr Maxx HD. The company described the new Super AMOLED display as having “85% more color saturation than the iPhone 4S, so everything is in lifelike detail.” It’s great to hear them talking about the value of color performance. Hopefully they’ve included some color rendering optimization to artfully take advantage of that extra saturation without overdoing it.

Amazon followed up yesterday with several new devices across their entire Kindle line-up and a surprisingly technical presentation that took a deep dive into the LCD film stack. They showed how a reduced air gap between the touch screen and LCD surface can reduce screen glare, suggesting the new Fire HD has reduced glare by 25%. Also, in a move that’s sure to please LCD film manufacturers like 3M, they discussed the value of better polarizing filters for achieving wider viewing angles without color distortion.

Of course, everyone still compared their products to the now year old iPhone 4S, so it will be interesting to see how these features stack up to whatever Apple introduces next week.  We’ll be sure to pick up a few of these devices and run them through their paces to see how the marketing-speak stacks up to real world performance.

Is creativity the next killer mobile app?

Since the debut of the iPad in 2010, tablets have become the ultimate content consumption device, but many still to wonder if they’ll ever be capable of replacing notebooks for portable content creation.

While tablets may never truly replace notebooks for all of our content creation needs, especially typing intensive ones, a new crop of apps for iOS and Android are certainly making a case for it.

A little doodle made with the glorious new #Paper app for the iPad from @FiftyThree

(via Brian Taylor from CandyKiller: A little doodle made with the glorious new #Paper app)

Recent creative apps like Paper by fiftythree, Adobe’s Photoshop Touch and Apple’s iPhoto for iOS have just started to scratch the surface of the creative capabilities of powerful mobile devices. These apps show us that mobile creativity, when done right, can harness the unique properties of a touchscreen handheld device to offer new capabilities that a laptop cannot duplicate. Drawing with a stylus in Paper, for example, feels remarkably precise and expressive because of a neat gesture trick- the speed of your pen controls the thickness of the line. Similarly, in Photoshop Touch and iPhoto, editing your photos by actually putting your hands on them, while less precise than a keyboard and mouse, can be a revelation for broad stroke tasks like blending two images.

Tablets clearly have the processing power, the battery life and display resolution necessary to become serious creative tools, but there’s one thing missing: color. Creative professionals normally work on displays capable of showing a range of colors that is as much as 60% wider than even the latest “high color saturation” iPad. Artists need to see the content they are creating in the same vibrant colors they see in the real world.  Improving the color performance on mobile devices will make tablets truly worthy of a place in any creative professional’s regular workflow.

Apple’s new iPad boasts better colors – how did they do it?

Back to share more of our display measurement results from the new iPad. Side note before we jump in: this is a somewhat technical post, if you aren’t familiar with the general workings of an LCD, this great live teardown by Bill Hammack is worth watching: http://youtu.be/jiejNAUwcQ8

There are two ways to improve the color gamut performance of an LCD display: you can either make the backlight better or the color filters better. In both approaches, the goal is the same: to make red, green and blue light as pure as possible. The LCD display mixes these three primary colors to make all the other colors you see on screen, thus, the more pure the individual pimary colors are, the better all colors on screen are.  Based on our measurements, it looks like Apple focused on the color filters for this new display, let’s take a closer look.

In the color spectrum chart below, you can see the result of some of the color filter changes that Apple made. Notice how the red peak (on the right, in the 600 nm range) has moved to a longer wavelength. This change in wavelength means reds on the new iPad will have a deeper hue, will be less orange and more distinctly red.

Another interesting thing to look at here is the blue peak at about 450 nanometers. In our last post, we noted that blue got the biggest boost with the new display. However, the blue peak did not change in wavelength or in shape, only amplitude (or brightness), which does not affect color. So what explains the dramatic improvement in blue seen on the new display?

The above spectrum isn’t telling the whole story. It was measured from a white screen, in other words a screen with all three primary colors turned on. We see very different results when looking at a screen with a blue image, where only the blue sub pixel filters are open.

This chart shows us only the light that is allowed to pass through the blue color filters. We can see the same blue peaks that we know from the white spectrum, but there’s also some extra light getting through – notice the two small tails to the right of the blue peak? That’s green light from the backlight leaking through the blue filter.

This means that when the iPad display needs blue light to make an image, some of that green comes along with the blue whether you want it or not. You will notice that the green blip is smaller on the new iPad, meaning less green is leaking through and a purer blue is displayed.  Take a look at the comparison shot here and you can see how just a hint of that green leakage is making the iPad 2’s blue (on left) appear slightly aqua by comparison.

Blue color filter comparison: iPad 2 on left, new iPad on right

Leakage like this happens because its very difficult to make a truly perfect color filter and even harder to make one that is efficient enough for a mobile display. The reason is basic physics – a better color filter is narrower, allowing only the desired color through.  However, the narrower you make the filter, the less light it lets through, and less light through means the display has to be driven harder to maintain brightness. This directly affects battery life, partially explaining the new iPad’s need for a larger battery.  Based on our experience, we estimate that the color improvements alone in the new display probably cause it to consume about 20-30% more power than the iPad 2′s screen.

Perfecting the color performance of a display is a critical engineering challenge and worth highlighting because its one of those tiny details that Apple is so great at. Just making this small improvement in light leakage from iPad 2 to the new iPad accounts for a stunning amount of improvement in color performance and, most importantly, it makes for a richer user experience.

Apple’s new iPad display; what does 44% more color get you?

Last Friday Apple released an updated version of one of their hottest products, called simply “the new iPad.” Central to the update is a brand new display featuring significantly more resolution and color saturation. Since the resolution bit has been covered to death by others and we’re interested in color here we thought we’d take a closer look at Apple’s color saturation claims.

Our new iPad arrived on Friday and since then we’ve submitted it to several tests using our Photo Research PR 655 Spectroradiometer.

Using the new iPad, particularly next to an “iPad 2,” the reds and greens are noticeably better, but the blues in particular are quite striking. It actually makes the blue on the iPad 2 seem more ‘aqua’ than pure blue. The color data bears this out.  According to our measurements, Apple has significantly increased the saturation in all three primaries, most notably in blue:

The key color claim that Apple made on stage at the iPad announcement was that the new iPad has 44% more color saturation.  What they mean by that of course depends on the context.  There are a couple of different color measurement standards that Apple could be gauging the performance of the new iPad against such as CIE 1931 or CIE 1976.

An easy way to think about these standards is a bit like the temperature measures that we are all familiar with, Celsius and Fahrenheit, in that they are different ways communicating the same information. Saying, “it’s 5 degrees warmer today” means something very different to users of each system and its much the same way with color spaces, only we’re talking about measuring how the eye perceives color, not how warm it is outside.

We should also note that when people in the display industry talk about color saturation as a percentage, it is common practice to refer to a color gamut standard within a CIE color space. There are many color gamut standards in use today including: NTSC, sRGB, Adobe RGB 1998, DCI-P3, and rec 709. Each of these standards is a subset of a CIE color space. They are typically used by content creators to ensure the compatibility of their work from device to device. For example, if I create an image in Adobe RGB, I would like to display it on a screen that can show all of the colors in Adobe RGB in order to make sure it accurately reproduces all the colors in my original shot.

Based on our measurements it looks like Apple is referring to the NTSC gamut within a color space. But which color space do they mean?

A 44% improvement within the CIE 1931 color space would give the new iPad the equivalent of the sRGB standard used by HDTV broadcasts, Blu-Ray and much of the web. Given the significance of achieving that standard, some thought Apple must have been trying to say “sRGB” without confusing consumers by describing the meaning of various color standards.

According to our data, this is not the case. The new iPad only manages about 26% more saturation over the iPad 2 when measured against the CIE 1931 NTSC color space. However, the unit we measured showed a 48% increase in saturation when measured in the CIE 1976 color space, so that must be Apples frame of reference.

Measurements and standards aside, the new display looks great. The improvement in color performance will greatly enhance the user experience, and as we discussed yesterday, show’s what Apple is betting on for the functionality of future devices.

In our next post we will explain exactly how Apple achieved this improved color performance and look at ways they can improve the next generation.

John Gruber on new iPad design compromises

Apple made the display a priority with its latest iPad release, breaking an unwritten rule that their products should get thinner and lighter with each release, not the other way around. John Gruber of daringfireball.net hit the nail on the head in his review of the new iPad:

Which brings us to an immovable object meeting an irresistible force. Apple doesn’t make new devices which get worse battery life than the version they’re replacing, but they also don’t make new devices that are thicker and heavier. LTE networking — and, I strongly suspect, the retina display3 — consume more power than do the 3G networking and non-retina display of the iPad 2. A three-way tug-of-war: 4G/LTE networking, battery life, thinness/weight. Something had to give. Thinness and weight lost: the iPad 3 gets 4G/LTE, battery life remains unchanged, and to achieve both of these Apple included a physically bigger battery, which in turn results in a new iPad that is slightly thicker (0.6 mm) and heavier (roughly 0.1 pound/50 grams, depending on the model).

50 grams and six-tenths of a millimeter are minor compromises, but compromises they are, and they betray Apple’s priorities: better to make the iPad slightly thicker and heavier than have battery life suffer slightly.

This point can’t be understated. For Apple, the quality of the display, both in terms of resolution and color gamut, is so critical to the experience of using an iPad that they were willing to make some major tradeoffs. In this case they not only ended up with a slightly thicker, heavier device, they also used a significantly more expensive part. The end result is a stunning display that amplifies everything that was already great about the iPad 2 so it looks like a tradeoff worth making.

We took some color performance measurements of our new iPad this morning and we’ll be posting more details shortly.

CES 2012: more colorful displays on the horizon

If there is one thing we can take away from CES this year, it’s that displays with better color performance are on the horizon. Two of the largest attention getters at CES this year were new displays by Sony and LG.  LG unveiled a 55″ OLED and Sony displayed a new “Crystal LED” technology.  While both of these displays exhibited impressive performance, including a wider color gamut, the Sony TV was a prototype only, and the LG display is expected to be available later in the year at a hefty price.

As Hubert of Ubergizmo points out, these technologies offer great promise, however, cost will be their determining factor.  OLED, which has been on the horizon for what seems like forever, still looks like it will not be available to the masses for quite a while, certainly not in large formats and not at a manageable price point for the consumer.

By contrast, QDEF, offers an affordable, consumer ready solution today. Display designers who are looking for the next new thing will find that they can have a screen with high brightness, deep color, high-DPI resolution and deep blacks in a display that’s as big as they want using QDEF with no increase in cost. This is because QDEF has been designed as a drop-in diffuser sheet replacement to leverage the billions of dollars of existing installed manufacturing capacity and two-plus decades of improvements to LCD performance.  With QDEF, manufacturers can easily replace the diffuser sheet in their displays with a sheet of QDEF and gain over 100% of NTSC color performance.