surface tablet resolution

One of the major debates in the tech world at the moment pertains to screen resolution and graphics. The question on the table is, “Which device has the best screen resolution: the new iPad (iPad 3) or the Microsoft Surface”? There are two factors that you must keep in mind when answering this question: first, there are two Microsoft Surface tablets (RT and Pro), and each tablet comes with its own unique screen resolution. This means that both Surface tablets cannot be placed in the same category simply because they are both products of Microsoft and both run Windows software. Next, keep in mind that the nature of screen resolution (what constitutes total screen resolution?) is the hot topic that both Apple and Microsoft  want to discuss.

No Two Alike: Microsoft Surface RT and Surface Pro Tablets Distinguished

 First, it should be known that the Surface RT tablet has a screen resolution of 1366 x 768 pixels, while the Surface Pro tablet has a screen resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels. The Surface Pro tablet has a better screen resolution than that of the Surface RT. In addition, both Surface tablets utilize Microsoft’s ClearType technology for their tablet graphics: while the Surface RT tablet has a ClearType HD display, the Surface Pro tablet has a ClearType Full HD display. While Microsoft’s Surface RT tablet sells today in electronics stores across the world, the Surface Pro tablet will not appear in stores until 2013. The tablets, thus, have different features and should be assessed on their own merits when compared to Apple’s iPad 3 or iPad 4 (since both are essentially the same, except for a different processor chip, Lightning connector/none, and front-facing camera).

Defining Terms: The Nature of Screen Resolution

The next factor to consider concerns the nature of screen resolution. Apple considers screen resolution to consist of the number of pixels packed in a given graphic display; the iPad 3 (and iPad 4) has a screen resolution (as defined by Apple) of 2048 x 1536. Since the iPad 3’s pixel height and width (2048 is the height, 1536 is the width) are above that of the Surface RT (1366 x 768), the iPad 3 has a better screen resolution than the Surface RT. The same can be said for the Surface Pro’s comparison to the iPad 3. For Apple, the numbers tell the story. Tech writers and tech lovers, in many instances, agree with Apple when it comes to assessing the screen resolutions of both the iPad 3 and Surface tablets. Microsoft, however, differs from Apple in that it defines screen resolution as not only pixel height and width, but also contrast (what is termed as “modulation transfer function”).

What is Modulation Transfer Function?

Modulation Transfer Function refers to both screen resolution and contrast when referring to visual graphics on a mobile device or computer screen. Apple does not seem to pay attention to contrast, but the Microsoft Surface Team considers contrast to be just as important as screen resolution. In determining which graphics display is best, Microsoft says that one must also take into account the fact that the true brightness or display of an object is not what the human eye perceives from a distance. In other words, one’s perception of an object is not equal to the true perception of the object itself because the object is filtered through our senses when we see it in front of us (Immanuel Kant).

With this understanding of modulation transfer function and the idea of contrast, Microsoft applied ClearType technology to its 1366 x 768 screen display resolution to increase the crisp and bright nature of the screen’s visual outlook and performance. ClearType is a form of subpixel rendering, defined by Wikipedia as “a way to increase the apparent resolution of a computer’s liquid crystal display or an organic light-emitting diode (OLED) display” by using the device screen’s physical appearance. The screen serves as a “filter” by which humans view the object on the screen before them (Kantian thought, as aforementioned). ClearType, thus, uses low screen resolutions; through some form of pixel alteration, it increases screen resolution to such an extent that those who view an image on a screen cannot tell the difference between two screen resolutions (one being greater than the other). In this case, a person could potentially examine the iPad 3’s Retina display and the Surface tablet’s ClearType and view them as equals in terms of their graphic displays.

In subpixel rendering (as mentioned above), Microsoft chose one aspect of its visual display over another. According to Wikipedia:

“Like most other types of subpixel rendering, ClearType actually involves a compromise, sacrificing one aspect of image quality (color or chrominance detail) for another (light and dark or luminance detail). The compromise can improve text appearance when luminance detail is more important than chrominance”.

ClearType requires choosing between color for illumination or vice versa. The irony behind ClearType is that, despite the compromise of one quality over another, the screen appearance “improves” when one stresses illumination (intense darks and lights) over color.

 Is Microsoft Right or Wrong?

If sub-pixel rendering is about prioritizing one aspect of a visual display over another, and such prioritization can improve the overall screen resolution, the question remains: Is Microsoft right or wrong about its claim? The company claim has some merit to it. In the case of the Surface RT tablet, its 1366 x 768 screen resolution (the Surface Pro’s resolution of 1920 x 1080) can appear better than that of the iPad 3 with Retina display. In a ZDNet article titled “Will the iPhone 5 Display Remain Competitive?”, Jason O’Grady affirms Dr. Raymond Soneira’s (DisplayMate) prediction that the new iPhone 5 would have a “1136 x 640 Retina display”. However, the iPhone 5’s screen resolution does not match that of Android devices such as the Samsung Galaxy S3 and the Galaxy Nexus, whose screen resolutions closer to that of a high-definition (HD) display (1280 x 720). According to Jason O’Grady, “HTC, Samsung, and Google will claim that their devices have more resolution but the iPhone 5 will most likely be sharper” (O’Grady, “Will the IPhone 5 Display Remain Competitive?” ZDNet. September 11, 2012). If Apple’s iPhone 5 can have sharper pictures and images than these Android phones despite its lower screen resolution, then it is possible that Microsoft’s Surface tablets have sharper images and pictures than that of the iPad 3 with Retina display.

Last but not least, Apple tech writers in the blogosphere have confirmed the sharper screen resolution of Microsoft’s Surface tablet. Killian Bell of the tech site Cult of Mac confirmed in his article on the Microsoft Surface titled “Why the Microsoft Surface RT Probably Won’t Have a Clearer Display Than The New IPad” that the Surface’s screen projection of images and pictures will appear more vivid to the consumer than Apple’s iPad 3 with Retina (underline mine):

“Microsoft uses a technology called ClearType, which has the ability to make some displays appear to have three times the resolution than that [sic] actually have.”

“Because of ClearType technology, Microsoft’s displays appear clearer and sharper than other displays with the same resolution.”

It is interesting that Apple blogger Killian Bell would admit this about Microsoft’s new Surface tablets; what is even more interesting, however, is the technology itself. Microsoft’s ClearType technology allows screens with lower resolutions to have more illumination and vividness in the screen’s appearance. While there are many tech lovers in the consumer market who pay attention to numbers (and thus, rule Apple’s iPad 3 and iPad 4 as having won the screen war), ClearType technology has a “leveling” effect on consumers. While the numbers may seem clear to tech lovers, the Surface screen will seem clearer than the iPad 3 to consumers.