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.

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.