Acer Iconia Tab A500 Review

Sean Hollister at Engadget:

And thanks to the fairly stellar viewing angles of Acer’s 10.1-inch, 1280 x 800 TFT LCD display, sharing such multimedia might actually make sense. It’s no IPS screen, to be sure, and we won’t make any excuses for the incredible amount of glare and raw fingerprint grease attracted to its mirror-like finish, but for a plain-jane LCD panel, it’s surprisingly good. Text is crisp, colors pop, whites get blindingly bright and blacks fairly dim, and those features only wash out marginally when viewed at oblique angles. Acer’s capacitive digitizer is also blissfully responsive — Honeycomb struggles to keep up — and tracks ten full points of contact simultaneously (we checked) for whatever multi-finger gestures app developers might eventually roll out. Weaknesses include pixels visible with the naked eye and the near-uncertainty of being able to see anything on the screen outdoors, but we’ve seen plenty of sub-$1,000 laptops that wish they had the screen Acer brings to the table here.

The 10.1-inch TFT LCD used in the Acer Iconia Tab A500 Honeycomb tablet seems to have a relatively good display. The 1280×800 pixel format in a 10.1-inch display results in a resolution of 149 ppi, which isn’t in Retina Display territory unless you hold it 23 inches from you. At normal viewing distances of around 18 inches you’ll be able to distinguish individual pixels given you have 20/20 vision. To be fair the iPad 2 is even further from giving you the Retina Experience with a resolution of only 132 ppi.

The one point I can’t quite understand is how a digitizer can be responsive while the OS isn’t. Don’t the two go hand in hand?

K.T. Bradford at Laptop:

The A500’s 10.1-inch, 1280 x 800 WXGA screen has an aspect ratio of 16:10 and good color depth. Brightness and clarity matched that of the Motorola Xoom, but the 8.9-inch T-Mobile G-Slate’s display seemed a bit crisper when we compared the two side by side, and the iPad 2’s display was far brighter. In some cases, too, the A500’s screen was a little washed out. Among 10-inch Android tablets, some may prefer the IPS panel on the Eee Pad Transformer which promises wider viewing angles.

The 10.1-inch LCD is a 6-bit panel good for 256,000 color combinations. I wouldn’t consider that good at all. What is good is an 8-bit LCD with millions of colors, something you find in the iPads.

The T-Mobile G-Slate has an 8.9-inch LCD with a 1280×768 pixel format good for a resolution of 168 ppi, which is probably why it looked crispier than the Motorola Xoom (10.1-inch, 1280×800, 149 ppi). And why would anyone not prefer an IPS LCD?

Toshiba Mobile Display (TMD) Develops 7-inch LTPS TFT LCD with In-Cell Touch

TMD:

Toshiba Mobile Display Co., Ltd. has developed a 7.0-inch low-temperature poly-silicon (LTPS) thin-film transistor (TFT) liquid crystal display (LCD) for vehicle-mounted and industrial uses that enables multi-touch input on the display screen without the need for additional installation of a touch panel as a demonstration of its new touch panel technology.

Thickness is reduced by 57% to about 1 mm. Weight is also reduced by 10%. Apple invested a large sum of money in Toshiba to secure displays. Naturally I wonder if TMD’s in-cell touch technology will be applied to a future iPad. The iPad 2 is already quite thin, but looking at this I don’t think it unreasonable to expect a thinner and lighter iPad 3 is in the works.

Pixel Doubling: Why it Works on iOS, Why it Won’t on OS X

Apple doubled the horizontal and vertical pixels from 480×320 in the iPhone 3GS to 960×640 in the iPhone 4. This worked because there was a single 3.5-inch display with 480×320 in landscape. From a manufacturing point of view doubling the pixels on a small 3.5-inch LCD was difficult but not impossible. Pixel doubling won’t work for OS X precisely because there is more than one display on the Mac side, probably impossible to volume manufacture at affordable costs with current technologies, and more than what Apple is trying to achieve.

In The Resolution Gap I focused on MacBooks and listed their respective resolution, or pixel density:

  • 11.6-inch 1366×768: 135 ppi
  • 13.3-inch 1280×800: 113 ppi
  • 13.3-inch 1440×900: 125 ppi
  • 15.4-inch 1440×900: 108 ppi
  • 15.4-inch 1680×1050: 129 ppi
  • 17.0-inch 1920×1200: 133 ppi

I also noted that the 13.3-inch 1280×800 and 15.4-inch 1440×900 would be dropped from the lineup in the near future, leaving the MacBook line with four different display sizes, pixel formats, and resolutions. What I am most interested in is resolution, which determines the visual experience of OS X.

The range in resolution is smaller than I first thought: 125 to 135 ppi. Apple has done two things in terms of resolution. First, the company has continued to shift to displays with higher ppi, from around 100 in the early 2000s to 110 a few years ago to an average of about 130 today. The difference in the visual experience among the four higher-resolution MacBooks is quite small, which is a good thing since Apple wants a more unified, controlled, perfected experience for users. For the sake of argument, let’s quantify the difference in visual experience by taking the difference between the lowest ppi (125) and the highest ppi (135). The 125-ppi user will experience a difference of up to 8% and the 135-ppi user 7.4%.

What would happen if you pixel doubled these displays?

First, let’s talk about why Apple might want to pixel double. Pixel doubling is logically simple. The current 15.4-inch 1440×900 MacBook Pro pixel doubled is 2880×1800. All the UI elements remain the same size but clarity is quadrupled. The math is nice and clean. But, this is impractical for a couple of reasons.

Apple has stopped bringing to market products that are too innovative. I give you the Newton as a good example. The Newton, introduced in 1987, was a technological masterpiece, but was too early, by around 10 years. If the Newton had been introduced after Palm kickstarted the PDA craze it would have garnered much more attention and probably some success. Apple was literally a decade ahead of the competition, but also too far ahead everything else. A ubiquitous and affordable cellular infrastructure wasn’t there. Mobile computing was just getting started and the majority of people didn’t yet have a need for or realized they needed a PDA. There were many other reasons for its failure, including a sky-high price, but the main reason for Newton’s failure was that Apple was too early.

Today’s Apple isn’t like that. Apple brings about products that are revolutionary but not only in terms of technology. The iPad is revolutionary because there was nothing like it before, because anyone could use it, and because it was affordable, something the Newton never was. Apple focuses on the complete user experience and makes sure that its products, especially the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad, are eminently usable both physically and visually. Pixel doubling on OS X is like the Newton: way too much for what we need and want today. That’s one reason why I don’t think Apple will pixel double its MacBook line.

Another reason is to figure out what Apple is trying to achieve. What is Apple trying to get at? A visual experience I’ll simply call the Retina Experience where your eyes cannot decipher individual pixels. The icons, text, and graphics will look seamless. Apple will craft its Retina Experience on its MacBooks based on a thorough understanding of our visual system and how we use our MacBooks.

In The Resolution Gap I proposed that the distance between our eyes and the display on a MacBook was 18 to 20 inches. I base my assumption on what Steve Jobs said about the usage distance of the iPhone, which was stated as 12 inches. The iPad is probably around 15 to 18 inches. The MacBooks a bit farther back at about 18-20 inches. At that range here is the list of pixel formats and resolutions to achieve a Retina Experience:

  • 11.6-inch 1920×1080: 190 ppi, 18.1 inches
  • 13.3-inch 2160×1350: 192 ppi, 18.0 inches
  • 15.4-inch 2400×1500: 184 ppi, 18.7 inches
  • 17.0-inch 2560×1600: 177 ppi, 19.4 inches

In my opinion, these displays are manufacturable today using technologies. Compared to pixel doubling these pixel formats are conservative. For three reasons:

One, these pixel formats based on how we use our MacBooks meet Apple’s definition of a Retina Display. Second, Apple is sensitive to our willingness to pay for its products. The pixel doubled displays would be too far out there and prohibitively expensive. Third, a pixel doubled line of MacBooks wouldn’t work toward unifying the visual experience. The disparity in the visual experience of OS X on MacBooks will remain the same. At the Retina level the disparity disappears since we are no longer able to visually see the differences.

To conclude, pixel doubling displays used in today’s MacBooks will be too far ahead of the game, too costly, and beyond what Apple is trying to achieve. Instead Apple will bring us a Retina Experience where visual differences among MacBooks will disappear. There is little gain in moving beyond the point where visual differences evaporate. I’ve focused on MacBooks, but Apple with Retina Displays across its entire line of products will bring us an experience of using OS X that is unified and near visual perfection.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1

Lenovo (PDF): The ThinkPad X1 is a 13.3-inch ultra-thin notebook PC with a thickness of just 21.5 mm (0.85 inches). The LED backlit LCD with a 1366×768 pixel format is covered by Corning’s Gorilla Glass. Comparisons to the Apple MacBook Air and the Samsung Series 9 come naturally since both are ultra-thin and ultra-light 13.3-inch notebooks.

Ranking based on thickness:

  1. Samsung Series 9: 0.64 inches
  2. 13.3-inch MacBook Air: 0.11 – 0.68 inches
  3. Lenovo ThinkPad X1: 0.65 – 0.85 inches

In terms of weight, the ranking is the same:

  1. Samsung Series 9: 2.89 pounds
  2. 13.3-inch MacBook Air: 2.90 pounds
  3. Lenovo ThinkPad X1: 3 – 3.8 pounds

In terms of pixel density, or resolution, the MacBook Air with a pixel format of 1440×900 good for 128 ppi beats the other two’s 118 ppi.

There is a unique feature on the X1 called RapidCharge, a battery technology that recharges the non-removeable battery to 80% in just 30 minutes. That’s mighty impressive.

But at the end the ThinkPad X1 outclasses itself with a price of ₣2585 (about US$2919). The Samsung Series 9 looks comparatively cheap at just $1650. Interestingly the MacBook Air from Apple, often criticized for being overpriced, is the cheapest among the three, by a good margin: the base model starts at $1299.

The Resolution Gap

Mark Fihn in High Resolution, Veritas et Visus:

With the exception of the prodigious marketing power that Apple brings to the market, there really is no difference between the need for high resolution displays and what faced the market a decade ago. Quite simply, so long as the display in front of us fails to match the visual imagery created by our visual system, there will be a need for improvement. Resolution is perhaps the single biggest performance parameter that today leaves us with a gap when it comes to our eye’s ability to perceive visual images. So long as that gap exists, it’s easy to predict that displays will improve in terms of pixel density.

Resolution, or pixel density, was Apple’s focus on the iPhone 4 with the 3.5-inch IPS LCD Retina Display. There has been recent rumblings suggesting that Apple is working to apply the Retina Display brand on its other offerings like the MacBooks and iMacs. There were HiDPI display modes that were found in a version of OS X Lion. Eric Rucker, a DisplayBlog reader, developed a neat Retina Display calculator that gives you the minimum viewing distance and pixel density.

The most recent iPod touch also sports a Retina Display with the same pixels per inch as the one in the iPhone 4 but everything else was sub-par: poor viewing angles, dramatic color and brightness shifts, etc. Unfortunately the definition of Retina Display in Apple’s case depends on only two things: pixel density and the distance at which you’ll be viewing the display. There isn’t a quality requirement. Let’s hope Apple fixes this and put a proper Retina Display in the iPod touch.

Fihn’s prediction that display pixel density will continue to improve as long as a resolution gap exists between the display and our eyes will no doubt turn out to be true.

The reason why it has taken so long for high pixel density displays are many. From having worked at LG Display it is much more difficult to manufacture a high resolution display than one with less. High resolution also means high price. There is also the fault of Microsoft, Apple and any other company that develops operating systems. There hasn’t been an OS that took advantage of higher resolutions to improve clarity, instead higher resolutions meant larger screen real estate in terms of pixels, but also tiny icons and text. Without proper support from OSes there was a limit to how many pixels you could cram into a LCD: it was the simple problem of users not being able to comfortably view stuff on high-resolution displays.

iOS was the first OS to properly make use of high resolution displays. But it took a company that had complete control over hardware and the operating system. There was a single display: 3.5 inches with 480×320 pixels in landscape. The resolution was 163 ppi. Apple doubled the pixels both horizontally and vertically to 960×640, doubling the resolution to 326 ppi. Apps that ran on the iPhone 4 weren’t a quarter of the size, which is would have happened on other OSes, but instead were four times as clear.

I believe this is what will happen with the next version of the iPad. Let’s call it iPad 3. As far as I know a 9.7-inch LCD with 2048×1536 pixels has been under development for quite some time. It isn’t easy to cram so many pixels and make the display perform well. Remember Big Bertha by IBM? The model name was T210 and the 22.2-inch LCD monitor sported a pixel format of 3840×2400. The resolution was a world-leading 204 ppi. The specs looked great, but because the underlying thin-film transistors (TFT) didn’t work fast enough Big Bertha had flicker, which made it less-than-usable.

Another notable display was the 30-inch Cinema HD Display with a 2560×1600 pixel format. The pixel count was high, but the resolution was just under 101 ppi. Still pushing electrons fast enough on such a big display was an engineering challenge. Apple worked with LG Display and the South Korea-based LCD manufacturer developed TFTs made of copper, which allows for faster electron mobility. As a result there was no flicker on the massive 30-inch Cinema Display, which was quite usable but the high price made it a tool for only those well funded.

Apple is again working with LG Display for an iPad Retina Display. Samsung, Toshiba, and Sharp might become additional suppliers of the display. The TFT will most likely be made of copper or some other material that will allow for electrons to move about rapidly so that all 3.1 million pixels (2048×1536) on the 9.7-inch IPS LCD update flicker-free in response to our multitouch gestures. No doubt this Retina Display will be expensive but I believe Apple will be able to bring down the overall bill of materials so that we’ll see a starting price of US$499 for the iPad 3. Just as important as the hardware developments is the fact that iOS will take 4x the pixels and make text and everything else more clear, instead of small.

It is no secret that Apple is importing features of iOS into the next version of OS X called Lion. The thing that isn’t so clear is when. Will we be seeing HiDPI display modes and therefore Retina Displays on MacBooks and iMacs in Lion?

Integrating a Retina Display into MacBooks, iMacs and Cinema Displays won’t be as simple as putting a Retina Display on iOS devices. Apple has many displays that it needs to work with. Let’s focus on MacBooks: there are currently six display variations and corresponding resolutions are quite dispersed:

  • 11.6-inch 1366×768: 135 ppi
  • 13.3-inch 1280×800: 113 ppi
  • 13.3-inch 1440×900: 125 ppi
  • 15.4-inch 1440×900: 108 ppi
  • 15.4-inch 1680×1050: 129 ppi
  • 17.0-inch 1920×1200: 133 ppi

In a future update Apple will most likely drop the 13.3-inch 1280×800 and 15.4-inch 1440×900 bringing down the variations from six to four, which is more manageable. At a viewing distance of around 18-20 inches, similar to but slightly farther than the iPad, the MacBooks will require a resolution of around 180-190 ppi.

The 17.0-inch MacBook Pro will then need to have a 2560×1600 pixel format, which we saw on Apple’s 30-inch Cinema HD Display, to get to a Retina Display level. Current LCD manufacturing technologies are able to produce this level of pixel density. Here’s the list detailing pixel formats, resolutions, and minimum distances to the display for a retina effect:

  • 11.6-inch 1920×1080: 190 ppi, 18.1 inches
  • 13.3-inch 2160×1350: 192 ppi, 18.0 inches
  • 15.4-inch 2400×1500: 184 ppi, 18.7 inches
  • 17.0-inch 2560×1600: 177 ppi, 19.4 inches

The general tendency is to have larger displays farther back, but I’ve also taken into consideration likely pixel formats that the LCD manufacturers would consider. The bottleneck isn’t technology but price. But someone has to start the process: the cost of manufacturing will not come down until a company like Apple works with a LCD manufacturer like LG Display to make large Retina Displays, eventually producing them in volume leading to lower costs.

When this ball will get rolling is anyone’s guess, but we will eventually get to Retina Displays on MacBooks. And that’s when the resolution gap between displays and our eyes will be closed.

LG Display: “Shuriken Display”

I just heard of this thing called a Shuriken Display by LG Display (LGD). DigiTimes posted up an article stating that Acer will be using a 14-inch Shuriken Display on its up-coming notebook PC. Here’s what I know from the article:

The Shuriken Display will have really thin bezels. A 14-inch Shuriken Display can be integrated into a notebook PC sized to fit a regular 13.3-inch LCD. The bezel is only 8 mm thick, which knocks of 4 mm from a typical bezel thickness of 12 mm. So imagine a 14-inch notebook that is as small as a 13.3-inch one, but with a bigger display. Kudos to Acer for getting ahead of the pack with a narrow-bezel LCD, a feature I’ve been expecting for quite some time. LG Display and others have reduced the bezel thickness on TVs and it was only a matter of time.

Not only that the Shuriken Display is just 4-mm thick. I’m not sure how that compares to the thinnest out there but it sounds pretty thin. Assuming that 4-mm is thinner than what you get on thin notebooks on the market today, I’m dreaming of even thinner notebooks with bigger displays in the same-sized box.

There is one downside though: price. And this is as it should be since I’m all for rewarding innovation. The Shuriken Display reportedly costs 50% more than your regular thick-bezeled LCD. The Acer notebook with a 14-inch Shiruken Display will no doubt be an ultra-thin high-end notebook PC. Can’t wait to take a look.

Samsung Gen 7.5 LCD Fab in China

DigiTimes:

Samsung Electronics reportedly has said it may start construction of its 7.5G panel plant in China as early as in May 2011 with mass production of panels likely to begin in early 2013. If the plan materializes, Samsung will be the first foreign firm to kick off construction of next-generation panel lines in China.

China will soon be the largest market for LCDs, and on the way growth will be rapid. Samsung wants a piece of the action, a big piece.

Chunghwa Picture Tubes Showcases Naked Eye 3D LCDs

DigiTimes:

Taiwan-based TFT-LCD panel maker Chunghwa Picture Tubes (CPT) on April 21 showcased naked eye 3D flat panels of 10.1 inches and below as well as application solutions, with 10.1-inch models targeted for use in tablet PCs and netbooks and 7-inch models in digital photo frames.

Naked eye or glasses-free: the next big thing for 3D.