Motorola Xoom Review by Andy Ihnatko

Andy Ihnatko:

The big problem with the XOOM’s display is its color. The screen looks fine when using apps and games. But photos and videos are a different story: the colors look a little washed-out and cheap. Rich golds become dingy browns. Blue skies become slightly overcast. While watching Pixar’s “Up,” scenes that should have looked nearly as rich and crisp and thrilling and vibrant as they do on my TV looked like they would have on the seatback video of a commercial airliner.

The display’s lack of color intensity isn’t dealbreakingly noticeable, but when you set the XOOM next to an iPad displaying the same content, it’s a complete slaughter. That’s a real shame on a device that’s genetically predisposed towards being a fantastic media player. I hope this is something that Motorola can fix with an update to the XOOM’s display driver.

The 9.7-inch 4:3 IPS LCD on the iPad is top-notch. I would have assumed Motorola would have wanted to at least match the iPad’s display in terms of performance. I guess not.

The Apple Discount

We’ve all heard of the Apple Tax, the premium you have to pay to get a Mac. Presumably for the nice design and for the brand itself. There are have been many smart analyses that argue back and forth about whether or not there really is an Apple Tax. But I think the iPad makes it pretty clear that there isn’t an Apple Tax. Instead I put forth that there is an Apple Discount.

Brian Chen at Wired wrote an excellent article titled, “Why Nobody Can Match the iPad’s Price:”

That’s what it all boils down to: ecosystems and control. Competitors are struggling to match the $500 price point because they aren’t as fully integrated as Apple, in terms of retail strategy, a digital content market, hardware and software engineering — everything.

When Apple introduced the iPad in 2010 the general expectation was that it would be priced between $699 and $999. I don’t think many, if at all, expected the revolutionary tablet and netbook killer from Apple to start at $499. And to this day no other major brand has been able to match the kind of performance you get on an iPad with that price. One thing that works like clockwork is the drop in cost of high-tech components, in the long run. And it has been almost a year, yet there is no iPad-like tablet with an iPad-like price from anyone available for purchase anywhere. An Apple Tax? That’s nonsense. What we’ve got here is a major Apple Discount.

Motorola Atrix 4G Teardown

iFixit took the Motorola Atrix 4G and tore it down. And what did the good folks at iFixit find? Naturally, I’m mostly interested in the display. Once iFixit got to the LCD it was easy to take out. The 4-inch TFT LCD was not optically bonded to the cover glass. Which could mean you’ll eventually be dealing with dust that get in between the LCD and the cover glass. The LCD and cover glass are easier to replace, but it might not really be: few have access to a clean room.

Also, I just found out yesterday, thanks to Joel Pollack, Executive VP at Nouvoyance Inc., that the TFT LCD in the Atrix 4G makes use of the company’s PenTile RGBW sub-pixel technology. PenTile RGBW is unique in that the Red, Green, Blue, and White sub-pixels are structured in a 2×2 matrix.

There are many benefits to a RGBW sub-pixel structure. In 3M + Acer = All Day Computing And Then Some I detailed how scarce light is: only 3% of the light from the backlight comes out of the front of the display. There are many culprits that absorb light. One is the RGB color filter that absorbs 70% of light that passes through it. The PenTile RGBW structure adds a white sub-pixel that is clear and with no color filter material. This improves light transmittance, about twice that of a typical RGB LCD, leading to a brighter display. I would assume it could also lead to significant power savings, an important consideration when it comes to power-hungry smartphones like the Motorola Atrix 4G.

There are other differences, too. A typical LCD uses a RGB stripe sub-pixel structure and counts the trio as a pixel. On the PenTile RGBW, each pixel is composed of two sub-pixels. According to Nouvoyance:

Images on a PenTile RGBW panel are subpixel rendered, meaning they are drawn at the subpixel level (the individual points of light), rather than to the whole pixels of an RGB stripe display. In fact “pixels” in the traditional sense have been eliminated in PenTile RGBW displays; individual subpixels are not restricted to use in one pixel group, but instead participate in multiple “logical” pixels in their surrounding vicinity.

The Motorola Atrix 4G is stated as having a pixel format of 960×540 based on the definition of a single pixel having two sub-pixels. Now there is definitely some magic going on in the background that probably makes the PenTile RGBW LCD in the Motorola Atrix 4G look as good as a RGB stripe-based LCD with 960×540. A 4-inch RGB LCD with a 960×540 pixel format doesn’t exist, so an apples-to-apples comparison is not possible, but my gut feeling is that if there was a 4-inch RGB LCD with 960×540 pixels that it would be a bit sharper. In Motorola Atrix 4G Review I mention that the 4-inch LCD has a resolution of 275PPI, but now I need to add that the calculation is based on Nouvoyance’s definition of a pixel for the PenTile RGBW.

Just as a mental exercise, if we define a pixel as having three sub-pixels then the 4-inch PenTile RGBW Motorola Atrix 4G would result in a pixel format of just 640×360. The resolution, based on this definition of pixel and the new pixel format, would also be a bit less at about 184PPI. Still very high, but far from 275PPI.

It’s not easy to do a 1:1 pixel comparison since the very definition of pixel is different. The typical method of using RGB sub-pixels is being challenged: Nouvoyance is pioneering a vastly different way to show texts and images on displays with many benefits. An accurate comparison between normal and new might not be possible and it may not even be meaningful. What will be meaningful is how users respond to the 4-inch PenTile RGBW LCD used in the Motorola Atrix 4G, especially when they compare it to its arch-competitor: the 3.5-inch Retina Display with 960×640 RGB pixels in the iPhone 4.

Thunderbolt: High-speed I/O

Thunderbolt. Sounds like Thor’s sidekick. Remember Light Peak? (read Apple + Light Peak = Early 2011) An official-looking spec sheet for the new low-end 13.3-inch MacBook Pro has been leaked by fscklog. I’m not sure if this is entirely legit because the LCD is stuck with a lowly 1280×800 pixel format. The 13.3-inch MacBook Air was bumped up to 1440×900. I mean this baby has the Pro moniker tattooed on it. Anyway, there’s probably higher-end models that do have 1440×900. But back to Thunderbolt: if the leak is true, Thunderbolt is identical to a Mini DisplayPort connection. And that’s very interesting.

DisplayPort was developed to replace all external display connectivity options like VGA, DVI, HDMI and LVDS, an internal interconnect. Will Thunderbolt replace Mini DisplayPort as the standard external display connection? Or for that matter all external connections? That would adhere quite well to Apple’s design ethos: simplification. If you look at the side of your MacBook Pro all those ports with different heights and widths look messy. A row of three or four Thunderbolt ports would look much nicer. The only problem is that the leaked image shows all the other ports intact.

Since Steve Jobs’ return to Apple, when the company decides to go to next-generation technology it doesn’t keep old tech around. A prime example would be the original iMac. Jobs & Co decided that 3.5-inch floppy drives were toast and went 100% CD-ROM. Since then there have been zero systems with 3.5-inch floppy drives. Same thing with the ADB connections for keyboards, mice, and other things. Apple decided USB was it and ADB became extinct. Apple has done a similar thing with external display connections. First it was VGA, then DVI, and now DisplayPort, the Mini version. And now comes Thunderbolt that is identical in physical looks to Mini DisplayPort.

I think Apple’s grand plan is to slowly do away with all the other ports, starting with DisplayPort, moving toward other high-speed connections like FireWire 800/400, and eventually completely annihilating all other connections. In the long run and from a design perspective this sounds simple, minimal, elegant. And for anyone tangled up with cables of different sizes, shapes, and formats Thunderbolt sounds oh so good. Maybe Thunderbolt will replace the 30-pin connector on iOS devices, too.

Update: Anand Lai Shimpi, AnandTech:

Intel is the sole owner of the Thunderbolt spec. Building Thunderbolt devices requires a license to use the spec but no royalties need to be paid to Intel. Intel is also the only supplier of Thunderbolt controllers. Without Intel’s permission, no other company can make a Thunderbolt controller.

This last point is extremely important. The chances of Intel building a Thunderbolt controller for an ARM platform are very slim. Intel could eventually allow Apple and other companies to make their own Thunderbolt controllers, but that decision is Intel’s alone to make.

If Intel does not allow Apple to make its own Thunderbolt controller for iOS and if Apple eventually abandons Thunderbolt altogether then it’s effective dead.

Samsung Super AMOLED Plus: Dumps PenTile Matrix, Goes Real-Stripe (RGB)

OLED-Info: On the left is an “Ordinary AMOLED Display” and on the right is a “Super AMOLED Plus”. It’s funny that Samsung is hating on its own. Not long ago the very best that Samsung had to offer was the Super AMOLED display (on the left) that went into all the different variations of its bestseller the Galaxy S smartphone. Super AMOLED marketing was everywhere. Now, it’s been relegated to just an ordinary AMOLED display.

The ordinary AMOLED display that Samsung is referring to isn’t ordinary at all. It used a smart sub-pixel structure and software algorithm to overcome some of OLED’s limitations while allowing for very good resolution, comparable to high-end LCDs.

If you look closely you can see the PenTile Matrix sub-pixel structure had large reds and blues. I don’t know about the reds, but the blues were big for a very important reason. Blue OLEDs are not as efficient as the red or green. What that means is that the blue OLEDs need to be driven harder to generate enough blue light. The problem with that is that OLEDs experience accelerated aging, or brightness declines.

The brilliant folks at Nouvoyance (formerly Clairvoyante) solved the problem of differential aging by making the blue OLEDs larger and combining the unique sub-pixel structure with some nifty software algorithms. The PenTile Matrix sub-pixel layout allowed Samsung to boast of its Super AMOLED display and sell a bunch of Galaxy S phones and its derivatives. Now the battle-tested technology is shunned as merely ordinary for the new kid on the block.

There was one little catch though. Compared to the very best, like the IPS LCD in the original Droid, text wasn’t as clear on the PenTile Matrix-based Super AMOLED display. Now Samsung has rectified the situation with its new Super AMOLED Plus. This new OLED display uses the typical RGB (Red Green Blue) sub-pixel structure, called Real-Stripe, that you find in almost all LCDs. As you can see in the image above, Real-Stripe results in a higher resolution, providing better details in both images and texts. That’s nice, and solves the problem of resolution. But then you get back to the original problem of differential aging due to the less efficient blue OLED.

So, did Samsung improve the efficiency of blue OLEDs? Or is Samsung betting that you’ll never get to experience this particular problem since you’ll be upgrading to new versions every year or two? I’ll keep you posted.

ASUS PA246Q: 24.1-inch P-IPS LCD Monitor

Newegg: The ASUS PA246Q sports a 24.1-inch P-IPS (Professional IPS) TFT LCD with a 1920×1200 pixel format for a 16:10 aspect ratio, proper for professionals. P-IPS LCDs feature a 10-bit panel good for over a billion colors (read IPS, In-Plane Switching). Other specs include:

  • Response Time: 6ms
  • Brightness: 400 nits
  • Contrast Ratio: 50,000: 1 (dynamic)
  • Color Gamut: 98% Adobe RGB
  • Viewing Angles: 178/178
  • Adjustability: Tilt, swivel, height, pivot
  • Connectivity: DVI, HDMI, DisplayPort, VGA
  • Other: 7-in-1 card reader, USB (2)

As usual the inflated dynamic contrast ratio figure can be completely ignored, unless a full LED backlight is used. In the case of the PA246Q it is not. ASUS focused on accurate color reproduction and included an internal 12-bit LUT (look-up table), which just means it has more colors to pick from. And six colors can be adjusted on the LCD: red, green, blue, cyan, magenta, and yellow. The rather well-spec’ed ASUS PA246Q has a fairly reasonable price: US$499.99.

Amazon Kindle Ad: The Book Lives On

Amazon has a new Kindle ad titled, “The Book Lives On.” There are five main messages:

  • Over 800,000 Books
  • No Glare
  • Easy to Read in Bright Sunlight
  • Lighter Than a Paperback
  • Battery Life of up to a Month

The Kindle uses an E Ink display, or in technical jargon a reflective electrophoretic display. These types of displays can have glare, but the one used in the Kindle doesn’t. And I applaud Amazon’s focus on people who read: a non-glare display is easy on the eyes. I’m not sure whether or not the 9.7-inch IPS LCD in the iPad has glare, but the overall experience is extreme glare due to the cover glass.

Reflective displays are much easier to read in sunlight than transmissive displays. They don’t have backlights and rely on surrounding light. When the Kindle is in a bright environment it is very easy to read because there is a lot of light to reflect. On the other hand when it gets dark it is impossible to see, just like a real book; you’d better have a book light handy. The lack of a backlight is one of the reason why the battery lasts for up to a month. The other reason is that electrophoretic displays only require energy when changing states, say from black to white. Static texts or images consume zero power. Electrophoretic displays are power misers and are as green as green can get when it comes to power consumption.

On the other hand transmissive displays have backlights, like the iPhone, notebook PC, monitor, or LCD TV. When the device is on the backlight is on and it consumes a lot of power. But the good thing is that with a lot of light being pumped out color is great. The iPad uses one of the very best transmissive LCDs using IPS (In-Plane Switching) technology that display brilliant colors. But because it consumes a lot of power it only lasts about ten hours.

As I was watching the video I thought marketing overreached a bit. Can you think of anyone you know who enjoys reading books in bright sunlight? I’m not talking about underneath a parasol or a big tree. I mean in bright sunlight. Know anyone? I don’t. Amazon marketing wanted to make sure we knew for sure that the Kindle was for sure better than the iPad in the sun. For sure. Instead of bright sunlight, Amazon would have gotten the message across loud and clear with just: Easy to Read Outside. You see, whether in bright sunlight or regular sunlight the iPad, outside, sucks. If reading is your thing, at just US$139 the Kindle is quite a bargain.

Smaller iPhone

It all started on Valentine’s Day. Yukari Iwatani Kane and Ethan Smith at The Wall Street Journal reported a Smaller iPhone sighting:

One of the people, who saw a prototype of the phone late last year, said it is intended for sale alongside Apple’s existing line. The new device would be about half the size of the iPhone 4, which is the current model.

Then Miguel Helft and Nick Bilton at The New York Times weighed in:

But contrary to published reports, Apple is not currently developing a smaller iPhone, according to people briefed on Apple’s plans who requested anonymity because the plans are confidential.

But then here’s something that got my head scratching:

More important, a phone with a smaller screen would force many developers to rewrite their apps, which Apple wants to avoid, the person said.

And John Gruber at Daring Fireball agrees with the NYT:

Anyway, a smaller iPhone would be stupid, if by “smaller” you mean a screen that measures less than 3.5 or so inches. The physical size of the UI matters more than anything else.

Picture this: a kid in elementary school wielding an iPhone 4. Kinda big if you ask me. If Apple is building a smaller iPhone, it would be for guys and gals with smaller hands. The physical size matters, which is exactly the reason Apple would build a smaller iPhone. A smaller screen would force app rewrites? No. What if the smaller iPhone had a pixel format of 480×320? The same as the iPhone 3GS, 3G and the original? No rewriting required at all. And guess what? Apple would classify it as a Retina Display. Pure genius.

But is Apple really working on a smaller iPhone? Who knows.

Sparrow: ★, for Bit Barfing

Sparrow is heralded as “The New Mail for Mac.” John Gruber on Sparrow 1.0:

Sparrow, the most interesting new Mac email client in at least a decade, hits 1.0. Get it on the App Store for $10. Not quite there for me, yet, but it’s close. The Gmail-specific features are very clever.

That’s some high praise. Sparrow is a Gmail email client that looks like Twitter on the Mac. The UI is sleek, simple, and lightweight at just 9.5MB. Affordable, too at US$9.99. Sparrow has almost all of the things I look for and would be joining my favorites: DropBox-syncing text editor Notational Velocity (5.2MB) and my default image editor Seashore (6.6MB). One or both of these apps had their digital fat liposuctioned by Xslimmer resulting in smaller file sizes.

Apple Mail is horrifyingly obese, which is why I’ve switched to Gmail on the web. It leaves only a few bread crumbs on my system, is simple, and works. Until it randomly decides to take an inordinate amount of time loading. I like Gmail, but it is void of any sexiness. So I decided to take a serious look at this interesting new Mac email client, Sparrow. I did download a beta version a little while ago, but for some reason I didn’t like it. I was willing to give it another go. Well, it didn’t take long to find out Sparrow won’t cut it for me. And here’s why, described by the very first customer review I read:

Great first impression, but some ongoing concerns… ★★★

by Jundan Tresko
Original 1.0 – I really like what Sparrow has done with my email — on the surface. There is great potential here. Digging a bit deeper, however, I am quite concerned about its footprint in the filesystem.

Frankly, it is a complete mess. What do I mean by that? I mean that while only 130MB in total size there were over 30,000 files (yes, over thirty thousand) in Sparrow’s cache for my Gmail account, which itself only has 3400 messages in it (my Inbox has maybe a dozen). Every support file from every other application I have added together isn’t even as many as Sparrow just dumped in my Application Support folder. Even deleting the account and re-adding it after checking the ‘Download Messages on Demand’ option resulted in a cache of nearly 9,000 files (33MB this time). Either way this creates an absolute mess for maintenance tools and routines such as backups, among other things. It also stands out like a sore pimple in an otherwise tidy filesystem.

Is this sort of file clutter considered acceptable application behavior by other users? I am too obsessive to not be bothered by such things. Anyways, while I won’t hold my breath for the developers to change this, I do hope that it isn’t how Sparrow will always be.

Bit barfing. That’s what I’ll call it. Sparrow seems to be good at barfing massive amounts of bits: 30,000 cache files?!? Sparrow might be sexy on the outside, but looks like its damn fugly on the inside. It isn’t just Sparrow though.

I think most Mac applications, except for a few including the two mentioned above, are fugly inside: bloated, inefficient code, that lead to an explosion of files. Have you looked at the files that iPhoto, iTunes, or Mail use? There are many and they consume a huge chunk of your drive. I don’t use iPhoto anymore, instead I use Image Capture (1.1MB) to neatly file my photos and videos. This saves a ton of gigabytes. iTunes? I use it only for syncing Contacts, Apps, and the occasional massive iOS update. I’ll stick to Gmail on the web until Sparrow figures out a way to get its pretty face running without having to blow up 30,000 files everywhere.

What we need is a Steve Wozniak for software. Woz, a circuit minimalist, designed only what was necessary. We need his expertise for bit barfing software. My rating for Sparrow? Just one ★ for looking sexy.