How much color gamut do displays really need?

In my last post, which focused on the trend towards ever higher resolutions in smartphone displays, I suggested that color performance might be a more useful area of focus for display makers. That’s because, in terms of color gamut, we are a long way from reproducing the full range of colors that our eyes can detect.

For context, let’s add the color gamut of one of the most popular smartphones on the market, Apple’s iPhone, to the chart from my last post:

Best performing smartphones in resolution vs iPhone color gamut performance since 2009.

Best performing smartphones in resolution vs iPhone color gamut performance since 2009.

The latest iPhone only covers about 1/3 of the range of colors our eyes can detect so we’re a long way from matching the acuity of the best displays on the market in terms of resolution. But, how much color do we really need for a great experience?

As a display technologist and color blogger that’s probably the question I’m most frequently asked. If I’m advocating for more colorful displays, how much more am I after? There’s got to be a reasonable limit right?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the short answer is that it depends on a lot of things. Different applications, from ecommerce to the TV on your living room wall, all require differing amounts of color performance. The environment matters a lot too, if the display will be used outdoors brightness may be a factor. There are slowly evolving broadcast standards and content delivery infrastructure to consider as well. And, of course, technology limitations– what can be achieved today and at what cost?

These are all valid concerns for anyone designing and marketing a new display product but they don’t really answer the bigger question. To me, what we really ought to be asking here is: what would the ultimate consumer experience be in terms of color? To answer that, I think we first need to take a step back, put some the practical stuff aside for the moment, and define what that experience should look and feel like. Once we understand that we can start to put the technological pieces together to achieve it.

What do we want?

So, let’s first ask: what do we want? In a pie in the sky, ideal display, in terms of color performance?

Well, the engineers among us are probably thinking, first and foremost, it has to be accurate and that’s a great place to start. Our displays need to accurately reproduce colors found in nature for increasingly important ecommerce applications, photos we take of our family should look real, not over saturated and professionally created content should be reproduced so that it conveys the artist’s intent without distortion.

But, maybe the marketing folks among us have another criteria in mind and that is a bit more subjective. We want our displays to be immersive and engaging. We want them to jump off the shelf at retail and we want to deliver a unique and exciting experience to our customers.

Can we have both?

To find out, I’ll be taking a look at how we perceive color in my next post.

 

Smartphone displays continue to get sharper- how much resolution do we really need?

Last week DisplaySearch put out a new report on the current trend towards ever higher display resolutions. High resolution displays now make up most of the market for handhelds and 300+ ppi “retina-class” resolutions are coming on strong:

Smartphones and handheld devices are moving rapidly to high resolution. 200+ ppi will account for 54% of unit share in in 2013, with 24% of unit share to be 300+ ppi. Even higher resolution panels in the FHD class will emerge. 400-500 ppi FPDs are expected to hit the market with fast shipment growth in 2013. (source: DisplaySearch)

Not exactly earth shattering news. The display industry began rapidly moving towards higher resolutions the moment Apple first unveiled the retina display with it’s iPhone 4 in 2009. What is interesting here is that the trend shows no signs of abating, even as resolutions approach or surpass the acuity of the average human eye.

Highest resolution smartphone from 2009 to 2013 as a percentage of what the human eye can detect

Best performing smartphones in terms of display resolution from 2009 to 2013. Shown as a percentage of what the average human eye can detect.

The HTC One is leading the charge this year at 468 ppi. According to Dr. Ray Soneira of DisplayMate, that’s already equivalent to Apple’s retina display for eyes with 20/20 vision at a distance of just 7.4 inches from the eye- much closer than an average user will typically hold the device.

The question is- just how noticeable are additional increases in resolution beyond 400-500 ppi going to be for consumers? In my view, resolutions above 530 ppi will be wasted on the vast majority of users. Unless you have near perfect vision and hold your phone excessively close to your eye, you just won’t be able to see the difference. Still, device makers seem intent on pushing resolution as far as they can- some manufacturers I spoke with at DisplayWeek 2013 even talked about 4K smartphones!

It’s a shame because there are many other display performance characteristics that would benefit users. They may sound like less exciting specs but color performance, sunlight readability (a combination of reflectance, brightness and color saturation), and efficiency would all improve usability much more than another 50 or 100 ppi in resolution.