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Display wars: Surface RT beats the iPad in some respects

The quality of tablet screens has been a matter foremost in many minds of late. After Apple released its iPad mini without a Retina display, everyone wanted to know if the screen was still decent. As it turns out, the iPad mini is fine, and even comes up looking quite good in aspects other than resolution. What about the big boys of the tablet world, though?

Dr. Raymond M. Soneira at DisplayMate has run the tests and crunched the numbers to see how the displays in the iPad (3rd generation) and Microsoft Surface RT hold up, also comparing the older Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 alongside them. All three of these slates have different resolutions and aspect ratios, but they’re all around 10in models. The iPad is undoubtedly the winner as far as pixel density goes. Its 264 pixels-per-inch (ppi) display compares really well to the Surface and Galaxy Tab screens, which are at 148 and 149 ppi, respectively.

Soneira’s testing determined that for the “Retina” experience (not being able to see individual pixels with the naked eye) the 10in iPad needs to be 13 inches away while the other two need to be held 23 inches away. That’s not the only aspect that makes for a high quality display, though.

A perfect example of a feature that makes for better screen quality is sub-pixel rendering. The Surface supports this for both text and images, so text and images look sharper than if that feature wasn’t enabled. The other two tablets don’t support this at all. That really is a shame because it’s a subtle, but noticeable improvement in quality. Both the Surface and iPad did well with small text, but the Galaxy Tab suffers from blurring. The real shortcoming of the Galaxy Tab is that it has neither a Retina-class display nor sub-pixel rendering. It’s only a matter of time until we get a tablet with both of these features, and it becomes the high water mark.

When it comes to reflectivity, the Surface is hands-down the best. The Galaxy Tab isn’t so hot in comparison, but the iPad really needs to catch up in this area as well. Dr. Soneira highlighted the difference in screen reflections very well with this image showing the iPad 2, iPad 3, and iPhone 4. When the iPad’s screen uses the same manufacturing process as the iPhone’s screen, we’ll likely see a big improvement.

Brightness and contrast is very good across the board, but the Surface is better. Specifically, it has the best readability in well-lit environments. Since the iPad launched, and kicked off the success of the tablet market, people have been complaining about reading in the sunlight. Microsoft has taken that to heart, and hopefully it will drive the other tablet makers to work harder.

Besides pixel density, the iPad’s screen is seemingly the best at colour accuracy. Colour gamut and gamma are pretty much perfect with the iPad. The Galaxy Tab really doesn’t hold up well here, but the Surface did very well. Its gamma is slightly too low and the colour gamut is too small, but it’s no slouch. As far as viewing angles are concerned, all three of the screens performed at roughly the same level, so that isn’t really a factor in the comparison. The difference in colour accuracy is much more important.

When it comes to how much power the screen draws, the Surface is the winner. The Surface, using only 2.3 Watts, ran for 8.1 hours on maximum brightness. The iPad 3, using 7 Watts, lasted for 5.8 hours. Sadly, the Galaxy Tab performed the worst. At 4.7 Watts, it only lasted 4.8 hours. It wasn’t even close. Far and away, the Surface wins in terms of power consumption.

As it stands right now, the iPad and Surface beat each other in different areas. They’re both superb screens, but it’s not easy to say that one is better than the other. The Galaxy Tab performed consistently worse than the others but it wasn’t embarrassing – especially when you consider how old the device is.

As all of the companies keep trying to leap-frog each other, these displays are only going to get harder to distinguish from each other. As an iPad user, I’m thrilled to see Microsoft pushing the envelope on screen quality. When there is substantial competition, we all benefit.