A Tale of Two Displays

By sheer coincidence, two new computers arrived in my family at almost the same time, and they couldn’t be more different. At first sight, the most striking difference is the quality of their displays, and it says a lot about the state of the computer industry today.

Night and Day

Lenovo Ideapad Z50-75

The first system is a Lenovo Z50-75, a cheap laptop purchased because the OS/2 Museum needed a modern (but not necessarily fast) AMD processor. The CPU is an A10-7300, a low-performance, low-power “APU” with four CPU cores and six GPU cores. In general, the laptop is pretty good for the price, but has one huge downside: The display.

For some reason, PC laptop manufacturers decided that whoever wants a laptop with an AMD processor, or a lower-end Intel processor, must suffer a terrible 1366×768 so-called “HD” display (this is not something specific to Lenovo).

And I mean terrible. The awful resolution is just the beginning. Laptops commonly had 1024×768 displays what, 15 years ago? This is the same, just widescreen, and the extra width helps very little. And this is a 15″ screen, not exactly small. In and age whenΒ most smartphones and tablets have resolutions higher (even much higher) than 1366×768, this is just laughable.

The display is of course glossy (nowadays more accurately called “glare”) but that I could live with. What’s much worse is that the display has rather poor contrast, and as if that weren’t enough, it has noticeably fewer than 8 bits per color channels. For example the Ubuntu default background with very fine gradients looks quite bad on this display.

In short, the display is garbage, probably fine for a cheap little TV but inadequate for a laptop. But the worst thing is that there is simply no other choice. All PC manufacturers are pushing such junk on users and if one wants a better display, it means a very different price range.

I should point out again that I’m quite happy with the laptop overall. It’s remarkably quiet, it doesn’t run too hot, and the performance is very decent for the price. It was very easy to upgrade memory on the unit (it supports up to 16GB). But the display is very much the weakest link. Well, perhaps with some competition from its UEFI implementation, but that’s a tale for another day.

Retina iMac

The second system, which showed up just a week or so after the Z50-75, is the new Retina iMac. Needless to say, the most striking feature of the iMac is the screen. The 27″ inch screen with 5120×2880 resolution (14.7 MP) is, in a word, amazing.

The Z50-75’s display is just over 1 MP. Is the iMac’s display really 14 times better? Well… yes, it is.

Displays with high pixel density are old news (although not in the world of low-end PC laptops!), but there’s a difference between a 15″ and 27″ HiDPI screen. On the iMac, it’s possible to display an A4 or letter-sized page (easily two pages facing each other in fact) at 1:1 scale with a level of detail that rivals print. This is wonderful for reading PDFs.

Needless to say, this display is excellent for image and photo processing. 10+ MP photos look as good as medium-size prints, and it’s very easy to compare sharpness and detail.

Is the iMac expensive? You betcha. But at this point, there’s simply no real competition. In fact it’s rather interesting to reflect at the unwinnable race to the bottom that the PC manufacturers are engaged in, while Apple sells overpriced systems in a market segment it has completely to itself.

Fun times.

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9 Responses to A Tale of Two Displays

  1. Arbee says:

    Given that Dell sells a well-regarded 4K monitor for the same $2500 as the iMac’s base price (and the iMac includes a complete computer) I don’t think it’s clear at all this Apple, at least, is overpriced. Doing a quick bounce around Newegg to assemble a comparable PC to the base iMac’s specs I’m showing around $900.

    You can get cheaper 4K monitors than the Dell, but it probably will suffer from various price-cutting measures just as visibly as your Lenovo (reduced view angle, not true 24-bit color, etc, etc).

  2. Yuhong Bao says:

    For me the most painful thing about it is running VMs which uses a 1024×768 resolution.

  3. Michal Necasek says:

    Good point about the Dell 4K display, I wasn’t aware that it costs as much as the base iMac (now you almost convinced me that the Retina iMac is a great deal!). My point about overpriced Apple hardware was more general though, not specifically about the Retina iMac–in this case, given that there’s no direct competition, it’s hard to say whether something is overpriced or not. If you want a 5K display today, iMac it is…

    The other thing is that even with a Dell 4K monitor in hand, what do you do with it? Windows is just beginning to handle HiDPI displays in a sensible manner, while Apple has been working on the issue for several years. OS X Yosemite works quite well on the iMac display. I suppose the 4K Dell works fine when plugged into a Retina MacBook Pro or something πŸ™‚ Apple definitely benefits here from controlling both the hardware and the software.

  4. Arbee says:

    Yeah, my understanding is a lot of the Dell 4Ks are in fact being sold to Mac users πŸ™‚

    Windows itself handles HiDPI somewhat sanely in the latest versions (8.1 Update 1) but many, many apps don’t.

  5. charles horse says:

    “But at this point, there’s simply no real competition. ”

    Ha ! Got me a T221. Nanner nanner nanner πŸ˜€ $300 plus about a hun for shipping. But they are getting rarer.

    Arbee : “Windows itself handles HiDPI somewhat sanely …”

    pffft. 4Dwm. Vector icons. Scalable fonts. OpenGL Multi-Pipe. Apple is just now catching up to where IBM and SGI were ten, fifteen years ago. Windows is still sniffing the other dogs’ rears. And even Apple isn’t really caught up, cuz the T221 is a killer. It will sync and scale to anything. If you come across one, grab it. I hesitated a long time because of all the badmouthing from people who had never seen one but don’t. They are wonderful.

    btw: WHY does everything except Irix assume a single color depth for all applications on the desktop ? In Irix, every window can choose its own color depth. This makes good sense, but no one else seems to recognize that ?

  6. Michal Necasek says:

    I think calling a specialty display that’s been out of production for years “competition” is a bit of an exaggeration πŸ™‚ Yes, the T221 was a very impressive piece of hardware, but it was perhaps too far ahead of its time. Wouldn’t mind having one but not sure my desk is sturdy enough.

    Re window color depth. In a classic GUI system designed around a single framebuffer, single color depth is a sensible technical limitation. Yes, it’s possible to do color conversion, but it’s expensive. In a compositing GUI designed to run on top of a 3D accelerator, it’s natural to allow per-window color formats because the hardware can take care of the conversion easily. Mass-market vs. well defined specialty market. Perhaps there’s a reason why SGI went out of business and Apple and Microsoft did not πŸ™‚

  7. charles horse says:

    I may be dumb, but I’m not dumb enough to dispute graphics with someone who knows this stuff inside-out πŸ˜€

    However, I do have a few dissenting views ….

    “calling a specialty display”

    It’s only ‘specialty’ because it was expensive as heck. But then, the first Winchester drives were expensive as heck, too. I had a rack-mount Shugart that was, what, $3000 or so ?

    As for high-res being a specialty attribute, your Retina Display is proof that’s not so valid. If the Industry had followed the path of hard disks, we’d have had high-res displays ten years ago. Somehow, the public went from intelligent purchasers to sheep.

    As for competition, I’m not a stock broker or a Ziff-Davis shill. If I can buy it, it’s competition πŸ˜›

    “T221 was a very impressive piece of hardware”

    More impressive than you know until you’ve had one. They will sync and scale to just about anything. I’m sure they will do more than I even know – every time I try something, the monitor just happily accepts the signals and gives me a display. Tiled, striped, one input, two inputs, four inputs, it doesn’t care. 12.5 hz to 60 hz. And it has its own frame buffer, so the screen itself is always refreshed at 48 hz. Good ol’ DVI inputs so you don’t need some wackadoodle connector designed specifically to separate you from your wallet. Besides just the resolution, the underlying care taken with the design is extremely impressive. IBM can do really nice work.

    You need one πŸ˜€

    “In a compositing GUI designed to run on top of a 3D accelerator, it’s natural to allow per-window color formats because the hardware can take care of the conversion easily. Mass-market vs. well defined specialty market.”

    Again the market thing … but you remember, I am certain, that 2D in peeceeland really became outdated with the demise of the Matrox Millenium. All the marketers have been pushing 3D ever since the Voodoo. All those guys playing games are not doing it on an SGI. I would not classify 3D as a specialty market for the past twenty years …

    So where’s the advance ? Loonix is not constrained by commercial requirements. A thousand eyes, a thousand hands and at least 500 games players. Where’s the code ? Why should a terminal be using 24 bit color, just because Maya wants it ?

    And why why WHY are people still using PIXELS, fer chrissake ? The web was [i]specifically[/i] designed to be display-agnostic. So now we have el-kewlo “web designers” using googlefonts and googleapis and PIXELS !! I thought that went out with CGA EGA VGA πŸ™

    The Retina Display is really demonstrating that people today are dumber than they were thirty years ago πŸ™

    “Perhaps there’s a reason why SGI went out of business and Apple and Microsoft did not :)”

    SGI went out of business because its management was almost as smart as a troupe of chimpanzees. They took plenty of money away for themselves tho.

    And Apple… if you’ll remember, NeXT [i]did[/i] go out of business while Apple [i]almost[/i] went out of business. It’s as much a matter of luck as skill. That and the need for a CEO who is at least as intelligent as a third-grader.

    Anyway, I came to bury the T221, not to praise it. Retina Display ! Retina Display ! Finest Innovation from the leaders of Our Society since the rubber tire ! no one ever thought of this before the Mighty Jobs πŸ˜›

    If you see a T221 cheap, grab it. Great monitor. And it won’t break your desk, it’s not an FW-900 (had one of those, too. Lived on the sixth floor with no elevator. Lucky to be alive :D)

  8. bob loblaw says:

    In 2009, my father needed a new laptop. Not wanting to plunge into the world of Dell consumer or enterprise anything, I ordered a ThinkPad T500 for my father.

    I have regretted that decision ever since.

    The display was the most washed out thing I’d ever seen. I went to disable all the power saving features only to discover that the screen brightness was already at maximum. The viewing angle was terrible. It looks like a dog’s breakfast.

    As you suggest, the rest of the proper business-class ThinkPads are just fine… so long as you’re blind. Don’t worry–if you’re not a ThinkPad user and you’re blind yet, you will be soon.

    Never again.

  9. Michal Necasek says:

    I’ve seen a few recent T-series and W-series ThinkPads and the displays were fine. That said, they use a lot of different displays based on various technologies so it’s hard to say much without knowing what model exactly it was. I have a W500 and the display is very nice (1920×1200).

    To be honest it sounds like you got a lemon.

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