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A look at the evolving laptop display
Monday, January 26, 2009 | by Rob Galbraith
In July 2007, we wrote an assessment of the matte display in the MacBook Pro 15 inch. At the time, Apple was beginning the transition to LED backlights in its laptop line, and what we found was the display was incrementally better than the company's previous offerings in this size and offered a decent platform for assessing and doing basic adjusting of pictures in the field. In short, the screen was good and it responded well to hardware profiling but overall accuracy was a couple of notches below a good desktop display. Still, we concluded that Apple was making one of the finest laptop screens we'd seen for use in a pro digital photography workflow.

Eighteen months have elapsed since then, and the laptop display landscape has changed plenty. Apple has switched to a glossy-only display design for most of its portable lineup, Lenovo has released a laptop with a screen calibrator built into the palmrest while netbooks have evolved into surprisingly useful tools for some types of photography. To that end, we've gathered and tested the displays in three current laptops: the late-2008 MacBook Pro 15 inch, Lenovo ThinkPad W700 and Dell Inspiron Mini 9.

Well, make that four laptops. Rounding out the testing is the IBM/Lenovo ThinkPad T60, whose 1400 x 1050 pixel FlexView display has nearly a cult following among laptop afficionados. While discontinued - and not always readily available when it was still officially an option - this laptop's display is so well regarded by those outside the world of photography that when we needed to replace a Windows laptop in the fall of 2007, we opted for this computer with this screen. If only to see what all the fuss was about.

Screen Envy: From left to right, the late-2008 Apple MacBook Pro 15 inch, Lenovo ThinkPad W700, Dell Inspiron Mini 9 and IBM/Lenovo ThinkPad T60 (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

What follows is an assessment of the screens in these four road machines, done in a manner similar to our July 2007 report. We looked at a total of 81 pictures, gathered over time to evaluate computer displays, both desktop and laptop. The photos themselves are a mix of black and white and colour, some with muted shades and some that are richly saturated, some that are moody and some that are high key. Several of the photos are in three different colour spaces - sRGB, Adobe RGB and ProPhoto RGB.

In all cases the displays were profiled with a monitor profiling package consisting of a colorimeter or spectrophotometer for screen measurements and software to create the profile. The profiling tools we used are described at the end of the article. The key point to remember for now is that we did all evaluations with a profile loaded that produced the best result, so that each display was putting its best foot forward.

Our reference monitor was an Eizo ColorEdge CE240W, a colour-accurate desktop monitor that has been an essential part of our photo viewing, editing and printing workflow for some time.

Apple MacBook Pro 15 inch

Released in the fourth quarter of 2008, this computer's display incorporates an all-glass front designed to minimize flex in the lid. And that it does, as the lid is both impressively thin and impressively rigid. The rest of this portable computer is typical of the current Apple: it's sleek, skinny and beautiful to behold.

Weight Watcher: A side view of the late-2008 Apple MacBook Pro 15 inch (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

Unfortunately, at least from a photographer's perspective, a few things were lost in the transition to the sleek new design, including a FireWire 400 port, one USB 2.0 port and a matte display option. Aperture and Photoshop CS4 users will appreciate the beefier graphics subsystem, while the keyboard and trackpad are nice. Outside of that, there's little in the way of real innovation in this model that specifically targets or benefits the field shooter.

But it's still a Mac. This means it's well put together and it runs the Mac OS plus various Mac-only applications, which for some - including us - is a benefit. This also means we needed to see if its glossy screen was both tolerable to use, profilable and at least on par with the quality of the previous generation MacBook Pro 15 inch. The result is a mix of good news and bad news.

Starting on a positive note, the display quality is comparable to what we've seen before in earlier editions of the LED-backlit MacBook Pro 15 inch. Screen brightness is impressively even, as is black and white photo rendering, while overall colour accuracy is decent. Deep shadow posterization, a common laptop screen problem, is present but kept to a minimum. The only significant colour error is in reds and oranges, which are considerably skewed in both hue and saturation and really don't look right on this display. Secondarily, and far less noticeable, are slight yellow and blue shifts in open shadows.

The above assumes a fixed, head-on viewing position. Gazing at the screen from a higher or lower angle produces a noticeable skin tone colour and brightness shift, while a yellow cast intrudes when looking in from the left or right.

Sum it up, and what you have is a very good 15.4 inch (diagonal), 1440 x 900 pixel screen. Good, that is, for a laptop. Its characteristics are very similar to the MacBook Pro 15 inch we wrote about in July 2007, and others we've set up since. The display has some colour quirks that put it one or two steps below a good desktop display, and it's important to maintain a consistent, front-and-centre viewing angle, but as with the previous generation of this Apple laptop, display quality is absolutely acceptable and usable for image assessment and simple Photoshop edits in the field, as long as you're aware of the display's particular blend of strengths and weaknesses.

And as long as the ambient light is subdued. The glass sheet in front of the screen is about as reflective as it could be, which means that in a coffee shop, on an airplane or even a typical office, the glossiness is either a minor irritant or a major distraction, depending on the surroundings and your tolerance for screen reflections. During testing we used the late-2008 MacBook Pro 15 inch in all three environments, and that was enough to conclude that it's not for us. This is not the first glossy laptop display of this size we've used, but it's by far the most reflective.

If you roll your cursor over the photo below, you'll see an example of this in an environment that rates as only mildly reflective, and the resulting reflections are at the minor irritant level. In an airplane with a mix of window shades open and closed, for example, the reflections become much worse, obscuring sections of not just darker photos but all photos, as well as the Photoshop panels and other interface elements around the periphery. It's a major distraction.

Glossed Over: The display in the late-2008 Apple MacBook Pro 15 inch. Roll your cursor over the photo to see a comparison taken in moderately reflective surroundings (Photos by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

All in all, the late-2008 MacBook Pro 15 inch has a decent, profilable display, much like the previous generation of this model, but is marred by an omnipresent glare from its mirror-like front.

Note: Some online sleuthing turns up the fact that Apple may be sourcing display panels for this Mac from more than one manufacturer. The panel in the unit we tested is model "9C84" (as described in the metadata of its default monitor profile), while there are apparently units of the same Mac with "9C85" panels. Do these two different panels also differ in display quality and profilability? We don't know.

If you must have this computer, or you've already taken the plunge and find that you can't get comfortable with its ultraglossy display, you may wish to investigate TechRestore's matte screen alternative. The U.S.-based computer repair outfit's US$199 service sees the glass front removed and the glossy panel underneath replaced with a matte panel and bezel surround. We saw the result, nicknamed the MatteBook Pro by the company, earlier this month at the Macworld Expo trade show in San Francisco, and it looks really well done. A representative said that the matte panel they swap in is the same as the one they take out, except for the glossy finish (though this doesn't necessarily guarantee that the display's characteristics will be an exact match or that it will respond the same way to profiling). A lower-tech option is a matte screen protector, such as Anti-Glare Film from Power Support.

Dell Inspiron Mini 9

We ordered this netbook a couple of months ago because it was the right size, weight and price to tote along on remote camera installations, where a laptop can be an invaluable tool in confirming that the wireless link is a-ok, that the camera is positioned and configured correctly and so on. But it can be a pain, if not downright impractical on occasion, to drag along a full-size laptop for this.

When the Inspiron Mini 9 arrived, it quickly became clear it was going to be useful for a lot more than setting up remotes. This pint-sized wonder has sufficient oomph for a variety of tasks, and once we got it outfitted with 2GB RAM and a 32GB SSD it has become a constant companion that we've used to import, select and transmit JPEGs, edit short video clips plus the usual netbook stuff like email, web browsing and even video chats using the built-in camera.

Its 1.6GHz Intel Atom-series processor chokes on RAW conversions - it'll do them, if you're really patient - but for photo browsing and basic image editing steps the performance is okay. Rounding out this featherweight computer are three USB ports (which are fast for USB in our testing), 802.11g Wi-Fi, 10/100 Ethernet, VGA monitor out and Bluetooth. The only truly bothersome feature of the Mini 9 that's brought about by its small size has been the cramped keyboard, and that's mostly because of the odd placement of the right Shift key.

To have a computer this capable, that is also small enough and light enough to slip into pretty much any camera bag, it has been a workflow-altering experience. Thanks in part to the Mini 9, I've personally switched to using the Think Tank Photo Streetwalker Pro for light duty gear carrying. As you can see in the photo below, the diminutive Dell slips easily into this compact, narrow photo backpack and leaves plenty of room for a carry-about camera kit (the Mini 9 is on the left side of the bag in the photo on the right).

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Mini Might: The Dell Inspiron Mini 9. Click photo to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media) Togetherness: The Mini 9 and a small kit of Nikon gear inside a Think Tank Photo Streetwalker Pro backpack. Click photo to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

Our infatuation with the Mini 9 extends to its 8.9 inch (diagonal), 1024 x 600 pixel, LED-backlit display. For a computer that starts at about US$300 in the U.S. right now, we had modest expectations. As it turns out, the display profiles well, neutrals are reasonably neutral with minimal colour shifting in whites, grays or blacks and overall colour accuracy is very good for a laptop. Overall hue accuracy, in fact, is better than the late-2008 MacBook Pro 15 inch.

The only real colour hangups are oversaturated reds and oranges, including skin tones to some extent, plus there's a slight pink shift in lighter reds. Some shadow posterization is visible too, but it's not significant. All in all, this display is delivering more quality than one could reasonably hope for from a machine in this price class.

You won't see the fairly rosy picture being described above unless you're looking straight at the screen. The Mini 9's optimum viewing position is the only position in which you get the screen's full goodness. Bad things happen when the viewing angle shifts up, down, left or right, with the up/down angles bringing about big brightness and colour shifts. The left/right viewing angles are more forgiving, to a point; exceed a certain angle and image reversal kicks in. There is also some unevenness in brightness top to bottom, though this is mitigated by the fact the screen isn't terribly tall.

Other than the restrictive viewing position, the only other sign the Mini 9 contains an inexpensive panel is the pronounced ghosting when moving windows around. This doesn't, however, impact how photos look on the display (nor does it impair the watching of movies).

Like the late-2008 MacBook Pro 15 inch, the Mini 9's display is glossy, and it's not available in a matte surface. The small size of the screen, and its comparatively duller glossiness, means that reflections are less of a problem. That's understating it: most of the time we're not even aware of its gloss, let alone bothered by it.

The Mini 9 is a low-budget gem for a number of reasons, including its photography-friendly LED-backlit display.

IBM/Lenovo ThinkPad T60

The ThinkPad series from Lenovo is their business laptop line. Trouble is, somebody forgot to mention that to the designers, because both the T60, and the W700 discussed next, incorporate displays geared to pro photography. In its heyday back in 2006-2007, the T60 could be configured with a 14.1 inch, 1400 x 1050 pixel, matte-surface FlexView display featuring in-plane switching (IPS) panel technology.

Why does the panel technology matter? Briefly, there are three broad categories of LCD panel types: twisted nematic (TN), vertical alignment (VA, and variants like PVA and MVA) and IPS. Each has different strengths, with IPS panels generally providing good colour reproduction and the widest viewing angles. We know of no IPS screens in current-model laptops, ThinkPads or otherwise, and it's a shame, because our T60's FlexView display has some killer attributes. They include:
  • Even screen brightness There is slight darkening in the upper corners, otherwise it's about as even from edge to edge as a better quality desktop display.

  • Nearly perfect neutrals Our Eizo ColorEdge 240W is almost entirely free of noticeable colour casts from black to white, and the T60's FlexView display nearly matches the Eizo. It's easily the best laptop screen we've encountered for viewing black-and-white photos.

  • Wide, wide viewing angle Like all laptop displays, this one has a viewing position sweet spot. Move your head a bit away from that sweet spot and photos appear darker and flatter. But only slightly, the shift is quite subtle. Move your head far away from the sweet spot and photos retain their slightly darker and slightly flatter appearance. In fact, looking from the extreme left, extreme right or practically straight down, the onscreen appearance of a picture doesn't really change from being slightly darker and slightly flatter than the straight-on view. Trying placing a print in front your laptop's display, then viewing that from a variety of angles, and you'll have an idea of how wide this display's viewing angle is. It's really cool.
Colour accuracy is also very good, but not quite at the level of the three attributes listed above. That's for one reason: reds are much too saturated, by approximately 20 points or so in some photos. Also, we're not sure how much longer this monitor is going to deliver the goods. That's because maximum screen luminance, which was at about 180 cd/m2 when we got it, has already faded to about 135cd/m2, and once it dips below about 110 cd/m2 it will be getting too dim to be usable for accurate photo viewing in anything other than low ambient light.

Overall, the ThinkPad T60's 1400 x 1050 pixel FlexView display is sweet, and it set a new standard in laptop displays in its time. A purchase of a used T60 equipped with this same display, however, may not be the best idea, unless you can find one with a backlight that hasn't faded much.

Lenovo ThinkPad W700

Last but definitely not least is the ThinkPad W700. The W700 is Lenovo's effort to create a notebook computer that would have the key features photographers told them they wanted, from fast RAW conversions to a built-in CompactFlash reader and everything in-between.

And Lenovo has delivered: the W700 is a powerful photo processing machine that, when tricked out with all the options, includes a 2.53GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Extreme processor, 8GB RAM, NVIDIA Quadro FX 3700M graphics, 17 inch (diagonal), 1920 x 1200 pixel, matte-surface display with dual fluorescent (CCFL) backlights, twin RAID-configured hard drives, three video out ports (VGA, Dual-Link DVI and DisplayPort), CompactFlash slot, ExpressCard 34 slot, a miniature Wacom tablet and a custom HueyPro calibrator in the palmrest. The W700ds variant adds a 10.6 inch, 768 x 1280 pixel LED-backlit second display that slides out from behind the main one.

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Accessorize: The optional CompactFlash slot. Click photo to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media) Hands On: The W700's trackpad, optional built-in calibrator and Wacom tablet. Click photo to see a larger view of the built-in calibrator (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

It sounds like a photographer's dream come true. But be careful what you wish for: by giving photographers almost everything on their wish list, Lenovo has created a PC that is so darned big it seriously stretches the definition of a portable computer. Some wide angle perspective distortion in the photo leading off this article underplays its size. A truer photo of the ThinkPad W700 is below, with a Mini 9 for scale.

David and Goliath: The Dell Inspiron Mini 9 on top of the Lenovo ThinkPad W700 (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

This is a computer to enjoy in the office, hotel room or at the event, but is too unwieldy for use on most planes, trains and automobiles that you might take to travel to these places. The ThinkPad W700 is the antithesis of the Mini 9.

So yes, we're not crazy about the size. Whatever criticisms we have about that, however, melt away when the computer is switched on and a photo is opened across its 17 inch display. Unlike every other laptop we've ever looked at, the W700 shows no significant colour accuracy errors at all, is only a touch less neutral through white, grey and black than the T60 FlexView and reveals just a hint of deep shadow posterization. Overall colour accuracy is on par with a fine desktop display.

Coaxing the display to give this level of accuracy is simple, thanks to the built-in Pantone calibrator (which is an embedded version of a Huey colorimeter utilizing a custom filter set tuned to the W700 display). Profiling is as easy as launching the included hueyPro application, closing the lid, waiting 70 seconds for three short beeps to signal the end of the measurement process, opening the lid, choosing a colour temperature and gamma and that's it. From the time you think of profiling the display to the time you're done is three minutes, tops.

As you'll read in the testing notes section ahead, we worked through a handful of monitor profiling packages with each computer. We set out to do the same with the W700, but once we saw how good the results were from the built-in Huey we couldn't think of a compelling enough reason to continue. The calibrator is a US$70 option. It's worth all of that and more.

The screen is also exceptionally sharp. This is explained partly by its 1920 x 1200 pixel resolution; that's a lot of pixels to stuff into a 17 inch (diagonal) display, which means each pixel is particularly small. Its contrastiness is also a contributing factor. But there's something else good going on in this display that makes sharp pictures and text look especially edgy. The Mini 9 and ThinkPad T60 also have sharp displays, while the late-2008 MacBook Pro 15 inch's display is slightly softer. All three, however, don't look as superbly crisp as the W700.

The W700's display is really, really good, but it's not perfect. We've not been able to find out what kind of panel it uses, but Wes Williams, Worldwide ThinkPad Product Marketing Manager at Lenovo, was able to tell us what it's not: IPS. This probably partly explains the areas in which it trails the T60's FlexView display, including:
  • Screen unevenness The W700's display darkens noticeably in the upper corners, and has an overly light strip that runs almost the full width of the lower edge. For evenness, this display is average at best.

  • Colour shifts with viewing angle Changing your head position up or down brings about an obvious change in skin tones (and anything else in the red/yellow/orange range), while a yellowy-red cast intrudes when looking at the screen from the extreme left or right. That said, the colour shifts in this screen brought on by a change in viewing angle we'd rank as being less than most, even if the T60's FlexView display is better.
The W700 has many fine features for photographers, but the standout feature is the combination of its display and easy-to-use embedded calibrator (we say more about the calibrator and its software in the testing notes section on the next page).

Note: the W700 is available with either a standard 17 inch display (called 17" WXGA+ LCD 200 NIT on Lenovo's order pages) or the twin-backlight premium one we tested (which goes by 17" WUXGA 400NIT TFT). Also note that we haven't tested the slide-out second screen of the W700ds.

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