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Display expert calls Microsoft's bluff on Surface claims

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October 20, 2012

A closer look may reveal more about Surface's display (original: Shutterstock)

A closer look may reveal more about Surface's display (original: Shutterstock)

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Much is unknown about Microsoft Surface. Though the tablet has been announced, hyped, and put on sale (for pre-orders), few outside of Microsoft have spent any time with it. So, though we can look at pretty pictures and read its list of specs, the device is still a mystery.

Take, for example, Surface's display. On paper, the 1,366 x 768 resolution is subpar for a 2012 high-end tablet. According to CNET, though, Microsoft says that it will look sharper than Apple's Retina Display iPad.

How can there be such a discrepancy? Is Microsoft blowing a bunch of hot air, or is there really some secret sauce that makes resolution irrelevant?

Ask the Expert

Screen expert Raymond Soneira of DisplayMate Technologies says the answer may lie somewhere in the middle. He hasn't yet seen a Surface tablet in person, but he does know the ClearType technology (Microsoft's marketing term) that supposedly makes it sharper than the iPad's market-leading display. Known in the field as sub-pixel rendering, Soneira acknowledges that the technology can indeed boost a display's perceived resolution.

Making a mediocre display look better is one thing, but can it make it look better than a display with three times the pixels? Soneira doesn't buy it. He examined the display in an Asus netbook, which is nearly identical to the one in Surface. When compared to the 1,024 x 768 iPad 2 and 2,048 x 1,536 third-gen iPad, the expert found the Asus display to lie somewhere in between:

    "The Windows ClearType 768p display on the Asus Netbook was significantly sharper than the iPad 2 768p display but also significantly less sharp than the new iPad 3 1536p display. It is certainly possible that the Microsoft Surface RT Tablet will perform better than the Asus Netbook, but it is very unlikely that it will turn out to be visually sharper than the new iPad 3."

The netbook's screen isn't necessarily the same as Surface's, but – with identical resolution and sub-pixel rendering – it's probably in the same ballpark. So expect Surface's display to look much sharper than that of the iPad 2, but it probably won't hold a candle to the new iPad's Retina Display.

Surface Pro could deliver

The display in the Windows 8 Pro version of Surface could be a different story
The display in the Windows 8 Pro version of Surface could be a different story

Soneira says the real treat may lie with the Windows Pro version of Surface (due in 2013). When the same sub-pixel rendering is applied to its 1,920 x 1,080 display, the expert believes that it could outdo the iPad's display. By the time Surface Pro launches, though, Apple could have released a fourth-gen iPad with an even better display.

It's natural for execs to hype their products – especially one as critical to its maker as Surface is to Microsoft – but overblown claims can also backfire. We'll give Microsoft some leeway here, as we haven't yet seen Surface, but we'd also take its claims with grains of salt.

Source: DisplayMate, via iDownloadBlog

About the Author
Will Shanklin Will Shanklin is Gizmag's Mobile Tech Editor, and has been part of the team since 2012. Will has a Master's degree from U.C. Irvine and a Bachelor's from West Virginia University. He currently lives in New Mexico with his wife, Jessica.
  All articles by Will Shanklin
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5 Comments

I've been a windows user since I my first computer. But I dislike Microsoft so incredibly I would go out of my way not to buy their products. I've long await an OS that could compete with windows so I could change over. They enter every market they can get their grimy hands on. I hope this product fails for them.

Ross Jenkins
20th October, 2012 @ 03:12 am PDT

Let me start by saying I am an Apple investor. I never had a bit of interest in any Apple product until the launch of the iPad in 2010. I immediately bought 2, one for me and one for my software developer. As a sales tool, it was clearly a transformational product. But I was very content with my Thinkpad T61p with its very high res XVGA screen (~1900x1200) driving a professional Dell 27" monitor. For a 3-week vacation, I operated the T61p remotely from Italy with LogMeIn Ignition, and kept connected with my clients - even Skyping with its wi-fi connection from every B&B.

When the iPhone 4 came to Verizon, I added it - hated my Blackberry.

Finally, just before the end of 2010, with a capital equipment credit for tax season burning a hole in my pocket, I bought a fully tricked out 15-inch MacBook Pro with what Apple calls its highest-res screen. Disappointed - precisely in the pixel rendition discussed in this article. The display of the T61p - both native and running into the Dell monitor - is very superior to that of the MacBook Pro 2010 era.

I gave away my 2010 iPad 1 and bought an iPad 3 the day it was announced. I also added a ZaggFolio bluetooth keyboard, with which I am typing this comment. The resulting combination has been my most frequently used computer in the past year. With Dropbox as my hard drive in the cloud, the word processor in DocsToGo, the DTP function in Pages, and CloudOn as my PowerPoint reader (can't figure out how to save in it), the iPad is a dream.

The iPad 3's retina display is much more than a resolution story, as Microsoft would have you believe. It is a color depth, contrast range and palette story. Those of you old enough to know what an 8x10 Kodachrome transparency shot on a view camera and seen on a proper lightbox can visualize what a color photo looks like on the iPad 3. There is simply nothing I have seen to compete with it.

Microsoft can make all the excuses and explanations for its Surface, but believe me - if it was truly competitive with the iPad, they would have had units scattered into the anti-Apple blogosphere. They haven't - instead, they have concentrated in trying to get as many pre-orders as possible before anyone outside Microsoft gets a good look at it.

That speaks volumes about what's coming. They're likely gambling that, after praising a machine virtually no one has seen and/or even touched, writing angry anti-Apple comments on every tech and investor site, those who buy them sight and spec unseen will hang onto them while Microsoft works out the inevitable bugs and driver issues that plague every Windows generation launch.

Screen resolution is but a small issue Microsoft is likely to face in iPad comparison once the Surface launches. My guess is, the sweat pouring through the shirt of the screaming Steve Ballmer at the Surface launch had to do more with the "you bet your company and job" basis of the Surface than its screen. If demand for Windows laptops don't spike in the last quarter, the Surface and its resolution will be the least of MSFT's concerns.

Mel Snyder
20th October, 2012 @ 07:52 am PDT

Something else not mentioned here is that ClearType does not work if a display gets rotated. That explains why the Surface is purely a landscape device. Turn it to portrait and picture quality will suffer. This, of course, means that reading e-books on the Surface will be much more of a chore. Pages will be either have to be squat and wide to fit the screen or you have to read partial pages at a time with scrolling needed just to read a single page.

Gadgeteer
20th October, 2012 @ 08:30 am PDT

There is one thing the expert forgot to mention. The Microsoft Eng. besides clear type technology also mentioned the optical bounded display, that is an expensive technology that makes that reduces glare and improves contrast on the screen! They claim that not only pixels make the difference and you know what they are right! I have a Asus UX31E with a 13.3" 16:9 HD+ (1600x900) LED Backlight and I was amazed by the quality of the screen when I watched it from some angles, it shamed me I didn't noticed that when I bought it! When I noticed the new model with the black keyboard and the IPS display in the store then I saw an improvement, and not because of the pixels or the higher resolution, but because of the contrast and viewing angles! So go figure what experts say! It's best for you to check it out!

Carla Moreira
20th October, 2012 @ 08:40 am PDT

If you are old enough to remember Kodachrome 25, you probably remember when they took slides shot with the film and enlarged them to fill the wall of Grand Central Station.

That was high resolution.

Resolution is a matter of grains or pixels, other "methods" increase apparent resolution, but are not true resolution.

James Ayers
22nd October, 2012 @ 04:41 pm PDT
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