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.

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.

The case for wide-gamut in your photography workflow, even if you are exporting to sRGB

This is a great, exhaustive tutorial on managing color gamut for photographers by color expert Andrew Rodney. He does a great job making the case for working in wide gamut color spaces like Pro Photo, especially when capturing in RAW. Using smaller gamuts like sRGB throws away useful color data that printers and more and more displays can recreate.

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.