iPad (2012)

Jeff Atwood

iPad 3 reviews that complain “all they did was improve the display” are clueless bordering on stupidity. Tablets are pretty much by definition all display; nothing is more fundamental to the tablet experience than the quality of the display.

The display is the most important component on a tablet. The display is the tablet and the tablet is the display. The new iPad, which I’ll call iPad 3, packs a 4:3 9.7-inch 2048×1536 TFT LCD with a resolution of 264 ppi. Samsung is the sole supplier of the 9.7-inch Retina display, but my sources tell me LG Display will soon follow, as well as Sharp at a later date. Samsung’s ‘IPS’-like technology is called PLS short for Plane-to-Line Switching with the underlying technology licensed from Hydis called FFS or Fringe Field Switching.

Here are some display specifications as measured by AnandTech:

  • Brightness (white): 394 nits
  • Brightness (black): 0.45 nits
  • Contrast Ratio: 877:1
  • Color Gamut: 65% Adobe RGB, 94.4% sRGB

White brightness is higher than the iPad 2’s 380 nits, but fall short of the 683-nit ASUS Eee Pad Transformer Prime with S-IPS+, the 645-nit BlackBerry PlayBook, and the 492-nit Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 among others. Black brightness is the same as the 0.45-nit Amazon Kindle Fire, but not as good as the 0.37-nit Transformer Prime or the 0.4-nit original iPad. When it comes to contrast the Transformer Prime takes the top spot for contrast with a ratio of 1193:1 followed by the 1167-nit S-IPS+ version. The iPad 3 falls between the 934:1 original iPad and the 861:1 iPad 2. The iPad 3 has decent brightness and contrast numbers but not the best in the industry. Color gamut however is a different story: The iPad 3 has one of the most accurate colors.

Speaking of brightness, packing four times the number of pixels into a 4:3 9.7 inch LCD involves significant challenges surrounding brightness. The TFT portion of the LCD blocks light and with quadruple the number of TFTs there is a significant negative impact on light transmission. To counter the effect the TFTs were moved to a different plane, which probably offset some of the impact, but not all.

Then there’s the color filter that normally absorbs about 70% of the light coming out of the backlight. Apple states a 44% improvement in color saturation, which is probably the result of some advancements in the color filter pigments. More vivid color filter pigments also have a negative impact on brightness. One part of the solution is to make the backlight unit (BLU) more powerful and you do that by using more powerful LEDs, more LEDs, or both.

According to Raymond Soneira, the iPad 3’s Retina display uses twice the number of LEDs in the BLU. And those LEDs draw 2.5x more power than those used in the iPad 2. I’m assuming light output compared to the iPad 2 is a fivefold increase, which should compensate for the lower aperture due to the quadrupling of pixels, and the better but more light-absorbing color filter pigments.

There is no doubt the 9.7-inch Retina display is good. How good? Raymond Soneira took it for a spin and here’s what he found:

[…]the new iPad has a virtually perfect 99 percent of the Standard Color Gamut.

Colors are dead on. No overblown ‘vibrant’ colors like you see on OLEDs or washed-out colors on typical LCDs. Just pure, accurate colors.

Screen Reflectance on the new iPad is 7.7 percent, in the middle of the range that we have seen for Tablets and Smartphones. The best we have ever measured in our lab tests are the Samsung Galaxy S and the Nokia Lumia 900 with its ClearBlack display, with about half of the Reflectance of the new iPad […]

Nokia uses both polarizer and retardation layers on the phone surface and the display to reduce reflections. I don’t know how Samsung did it on the Galaxy S, but it is obvious: These two companies found a way to manufacturer clearer displays with much lower reflectance. Apple display engineers still have some work cut out for them to further improve the iPad display.

Apple has taken the very good display on the iPad 2 and dramatically improved two of its major weak points: sharpness and color saturation – they are now state-of-the-art. Our lab tests and visual tests agree with Apple’s claim that the new iPad has “the best display ever on a mobile device” […] But there’s more… the new iPad’s picture quality, color accuracy, and gray scale are not only much better than any other Tablet or Smartphone, it’s also much better than most HDTVs, laptops, and monitors.

That you can hold one of the best displays ever made in your hands, with a starting price of US$499, is simply amazing. Color professionals from all walks of life will find ways to incorporate this affordable reference-caliber mobile display.

Next up, I look at iPad 3 reviews written by some of the big names online and add my own comments.

Jim Dalrymple, The Loop:

I struggled after the event to put the right words together to describe the display and a week later I’m still lost for the proper analogy. The only thing I can think of that comes close is comparing it to the first time you ever saw an HDTV. Remember how startling it was to go from one of those giant standard definition projector TVs to an HDTV? That’s what this is like.

Good analogy, but with HDTV everything depends on the quality of content. Highly compressed 1080i signals you get from cable companies look terrible: A good quality DVD viewed on a regular CRT TV looks better than 1080i cable content viewed on a 1920×1080 LCD TV. So depending on what your first HDTV experience was the analogy works or doesn’t work. The better analogy is the experience of seeing the iPhone 4 for the first time. I remember thinking, “Now this is how a screen should be!”

Walt Mossberg:

It has the most spectacular display I have ever seen in a mobile device. The company squeezed four times the pixels into the same physical space as on the iPad 2 and claims the new iPad’s screen has a million more pixels than an HDTV. All I know is that text is much sharper, and photos look richer.

On a mobile device? Have you seen a more spectacular display on a non-mobile device that you can buy—for a reasonable price—today? I’ve seen lots of amazing displays in the last decade and the most amazing ones remain in research laboratories. What Apple has done is remarkable. Developing the 9.7-inch 2048×1536 Retina LCD is one thing. Manufacturing it and integrating it into the iPad is another. But selling the new iPad for $499? That’s incredible.

The same photos I had enjoyed on the older model looked much better on the new one, not only because of the increased resolution, but because Apple claims it increased color saturation by 44%. One thing Apple hasn’t fixed: like all glossy, LCD color displays, this one still does poorly in direct sunlight.

Mossberg brings up an important point, a point Amazon has been making with its E Ink-based Kindles. Any transmissive display like using LCD or OLED technology will suffer in direct sunlight. There are ways to fix some of this: One is to use a transflective (or more accurately a trans-reflective) display, but colors would be washed out. Pixel Chi is another possible solution, but now we’re looking at barely any colors at all. I’m certain the brilliant display engineers working at LG Display, Samsung, Sharp, etc. will eventually figure out a solution, but until then for best results keep the iPad 3 away from direct sunlight.

Joshua Topolsky, The Verge:

Yes, this display is outrageous. It’s stunning. It’s incredible. I’m not being hyperbolic or exaggerative when I say it is easily the most beautiful computer display I have ever looked at. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that you hold this in your hands, or maybe it’s the technology that Apple is utilizing, or maybe it’s the responsiveness of iOS — but there’s something almost bizarre about how good this screen is. After the launch event, I described the screen as “surreal,” and I still think that’s a pretty good fit.

What do you say to that. A digital representation of something real is so real that it becomes surreal. And to think it’ll only get better from here on.

David Pogue:

The new iPad doesn’t introduce anything that we haven’t seen before, either in the iPhone or in rival tablets. There’s no Steve Jobs “one more thing” moment here; Apple just took its white-hot iPad and added the latest screen, battery and cellular technologies.

I wanted to dismiss Pogue as someone who might be jaded by all the products that he gets to see, but he has a point. We’ve already seen a Retina display on the iPhone 4 and the 4S. Though much smaller the 3.5-inch 960×640 LCD packs a resolution of 326 ppi, which is higher than the new iPad 3’s. LTE? That’s a yawner. There’s many smartphones out there with LTE. Great battery life? The iPad 2 can do it just as well. So what’s the big deal? The big freaking deal is that the new iPad brings all of that together in a chassis that’s only 50 grams heavier and six-tenths of a millimeter thicker than the iPad 2.

MG Siegler:

You know when you go in for an eye exam and you’re asked to look at a combination of letters and numbers on a chart against a far wall? You read the first few lines, then realize you actually can’t go any further. Then you get prescribed glasses (or contacts) and you can all of a sudden read every letter and number. And even the ones you could read before are now so much clearer.

That’s what it’s like looking at the new iPad versus the older iPads.

Great analogy. After being exposed to the iPhone 4 I knew I couldn’t buy the iPad or the iPad 2. I’d fiddle with the iPad at Apple Stores, but I just couldn’t get over the pixelations. I’d look at my iPhone 4 and then the iPad 2 and then back again. There was no way I was going to put my eyes through that experience every day. Another way to put it is: The expertly tuned prescription glasses that give you 20/20 or better vision? Take them off. That’s what it was like.

Edward Baig, USA Today:

Examine the new screen side-by-side with one of its near-10-inch predecessors, and you’ll swear you just had Lasik surgery. Text on Web pages or in books is so crisp and sharp that you don’t want to go back to reading on an older iPad.

Another good one.

Vincent Nguyen, SlashGear:

Showing a gallery of images in iPhoto, the slate sometimes looks like a mock-up with a printed, high-res image rather than an actual display, it really is that good. Viewing angles are as broad as we’ve come to expect from IPS panels, no matter which direction you’re looking from, and colors are as rich and saturated as AMOLED.

That last part is not true. OLED displays have over-saturated colors. The iPad 3 has rich, saturated, accurate colors.

Jason Snell, Macworld:

Of course, the display on previous iPads was no slouch. But the moment you pick up a third-generation iPad, you can tell the difference. All the slight jagginess and oddly misshappen characters we take for granted on lower-resolution displays just vanish on the Retina display, and you’re left with the same sort of typographic excellence you’d expect in a printed book.

The printed book, newspaper, or magazine has experienced no greater challenge than from the iPad 3. I have expressed my preference for hardback books, but the iPad 3 might be the moment I start thinking e-books could be a viable alternative. I doubt it since my eyes are sensitive to prolonged exposure to light directly hitting them. But, for reading magazines, newspapers, and short articles the iPad 3 might win me over.

Seth Weintraub, 9to5Mac:

The Retina display is by far the biggest new feature and certainly impressive. However, it isn’t a life changing experience that some have called it and isn’t a big enough differentiator to warrant an almost double-sized battery in my opinion. The new Retina Apps are great, but the extra weight is noticeable. The thickness doesn’t bother me but the heat generated by the new processor on the left side is, and it is annoying.

50% more battery, double-sized, triple-sized. No one cares about that. But when that leads to a heavier iPad, well, then it matters. I would have waited, waited until battery technology caught up just a bit more so the new iPad didn’t have to weigh more. I’m thinking the extra batteries made it slightly thicker too.

The extra heat might not be such a big deal but it’s extra heat compared to the iPad 2. Some say it’s not a big deal because the absolute temperature on the new iPad isn’t really all that hot. I say it is a big deal because it’s hotter than the older iPad 2. Just how much hotter does the new iPad run? About 10 degrees Fahrenheit hotter. And why is the new iPad hotter? Raymond Soneira has some answers: twice the number of LEDs, which are themselves 2.5x more powerful, and more batteries pumping out more power.

Maybe Apple should have waited for Sharp. When Sharp gets on board as a supplier of the new iPad’s 9.7-inch LCD with its IGZO technology the battery should last quite a bit more and operate at lower temperatures. Or Apple might not have had to incorporate so much battery, kept it as thin and light as the iPad 2 with the same operating temperatures.

Higher operating temperatures on the new iPad is disappointing to me. Not because it is so hot; it’s not all that hot, but because Apple thought it wasn’t important enough to get perfectly right, and perfectly right to me means operating temperatures equivalent to those on the iPad 2. Apple responded to Jim Dalrymple about the extra heat:

The new iPad delivers a stunning Retina display, A5X chip, support for 4G LTE plus 10 hours of battery life, all while operating well within our thermal specifications. If customers have any concerns they should contact AppleCare.

In my opinion Apple’s thermal specifications for the iPad 3 should have been the same as the iPad 2. I get there are more power-hungry components inside the iPad 3, but I’m also assuming there were ways to make the iPad 3 with a more effective heat management system if Apple decided to wait a little.

I expect innovation or advancements to mean things get better not some things get better and other things go the other way. The extra thickness and the extra heat is something that concerns me, not about the iPad 3, but about Apple. Is Apple still foolish and hungry? I’m only 90% sure.

As for whether or not the iPad 3 is an amazing piece of technology, well that’s a no brainer. I would have much preferred if Apple had waited to ship an iPad 3 that had the same thickness, weight, and operating temperature as the iPad 2, but that didn’t happen so there’s no use grumbling. I do relish the fact that for just $499 you can hold in your hands one of the best displays in the industry.

Update 2012.04.02: AnandTech has updated information about the displays specs on the new iPad. In particular Delta E numbers that show the iPad 3 as having the most accurate colors; the ASUS Transformer Prime though bests the iPad 3 when it comes to grayscale Delta E.