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.


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

Seeing red: can color change your spending habits?

Color can have a powerful physiological effect on us. This should come as no surprise to anyone who’s ever been wowed by a Monet or a Rothko. But color can affect us in ways you never imagined. Recent studies suggest that that the color of a uniform can affect the outcome of an Olympic wrestling match and onscreen colors can influence how much you pay for something on eBay.

In one study, researchers found that Olympic wrestlers wearing red won as much as 60% of the time, even against evenly matched opponents (who wore a different color).

US Wrestler Jake Varner (red) on his way to defeating Valerie Andriisteve of Ukraine in the 96-kg freestyle wrestling gold match in London. Credit: The ASSOCIATED PRESS

Similarly, in a Journal of Consumer Research study on the impact of color on consumers who buy items on auction sites like eBay, authors Rajesh Bagchi and Amar Cheema found that “red background color induces aggression through a feeling of arousal and it increases aggression relative to blue or gray backgrounds. This causes individuals to make higher bids in auctions but lower offers in negotiations.”

Why? The exact mechanism remains a mystery but researchers see some evidence that aggressive colors like red may actually cause a spike in testosterone levels.

I find it particularly fascinating that color choice did not specifically correlate to the price someone paid for an item. Instead, the colors drove more or less aggressive behavior, which lead participants to either seek the best deal possible against a salesperson or to beat out competing bids in an auction.

It got me wondering how retailers might be using color to influence purchasing. A quick survey of some popular online shopping destinations yielded potentially interesting results. Since product background is not always in the control of the retailer, I looked at the “add to cart” areas of three popular online retailers: Apple, Amazon and eBay.

All three employ a lot of blue, a calming color, in their ‘add to cart’ areas. Apple uses a shade of green, another calming color, for the “add to cart” button. Amazon lists the price in a dark red, while Apple uses a lighter shade to accentuate free shipping.

Next time you find yourself shopping either online or brick and mortar, take note of the colors around you – you may be surprised by how far your environment is being manipulated to get you to pay more.

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:

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.