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A look at the evolving laptop display - Continued
Conclusion

For the longest time, Apple laptop displays ruled the roost around here. With very few exceptions, going back to the days of the PowerBook G4, portable Macs were considerably more colour accurate than any of the dozens and dozens of PC laptops we'd profiled during workshops and on-site training. The difference between Apple gear and everybody else's was stark. Thanks to Lenovo, however, and Apple's decision to standardize on the glossiest of glossy screens (only the soon-to-be-shipping MacBook Pro 17 inch will be available in what Apple calls an "antiglare" version), Macs are no longer at the top of the laptop display heap in our minds.

The late-2008 MacBook Pro 15 inch doesn't top the rankings in this test, that much is obvious. But, which computer's display rates the best, and where the other three fall, is dependent on how comfortable you are with getting your head into the display's best viewing position each time you want to make colour critical decisions.

We would choose a colour accurate display with a more restricted viewing position over one that showed some colour errors but allowed more viewing position flexibility. You, on the other hand, may favour a more forgiving viewing angle and can live with a few shades that are not right. Neither approach is the better one, but you do have to have an opinion about this for these rankings to hold much meaning, since you can have a really wide viewing angle or really good colour accuracy, but not both in the same laptop screen in this test.

Ordering the displays with an emphasis on colour accuracy, the list looks like this:
  1. Lenovo ThinkPad W700
  2. IBM/Lenovo ThinkPad T60
  3. Dell Inspiron Mini 9
  4. Apple late-2008 MacBook Pro 15 inch
Ordering the displays with an emphasis on viewing angle flexibility, the list becomes:
  1. IBM/Lenovo ThinkPad T60
  2. Lenovo ThinkPad W700
  3. Apple late-2008 MacBook Pro 15 inch
  4. Dell Inspiron Mini 9
It's important to remember that, even though the late-2008 MacBook Pro 15 inch doesn't keep up in either colour accuracy or viewing angle with laptops from IBM/Lenovo, its display is still quite good and still falls on the right side of the line of acceptable display quality for field use by a working photographer, at least in ambient light that discourages reflections.

When we wrote about this in July 2007, we said that evaluating laptop displays "means not worrying too much about subtle colour errors and instead looking out for display weaknesses that could cause mistakes like selecting a less-than-optimum white balance during RAW conversion, making a tonal adjustment in Photoshop that renders the picture lighter or darker than it ought to be or correcting for an apparent hue problem that doesn't actual exist in the picture, only in how the screen displays the picture."

In other words, when we do these types of evaluations, a laptop screen with a small handful of display quality limitations is acceptable. And as it happens, all four of the screens in this test fall into that category. Well, with the same dim-lighting proviso mentioned several times already. In ambient light environments which induce screen reflections, the late-2008 MacBook Pro 15 inch's glossy screen moves deep into the not acceptable category.

If you yearn for a laptop display that rises above acceptable, one whose colour accuracy matches a good desktop display, there's only one in this test: the ThinkPad W700. In fact, for us, it could just about replace a desktop display for colour critical work and even soft proofing for print in Photoshop (a task that lays bare any weirdnesses in a screen and its monitor profile).

Just about, but not quite: Practically any good 24 inch desktop monitor (that is, one with the same 1920 x 1200 pixel resolution) will eclipse the W700 in screen evenness and viewing angle flexibility, including the Eizo ColorEdge CE240W used as the reference monitor for this article. So, given the budget, a separate external monitor will still be desirable.

The fact that the W700's screen can even be discussed as a possible desktop screen replacement, though, is a testament to what Lenovo has achieved. On balance, it's the best laptop display we've ever seen, rivaled only by the ThinkPad T60 and its 1400 x 1050 pixel FlexView display from a couple of years ago.

Coming up the middle is the Dell Inspiron Mini 9, the laptop whose price tag should mean it can't compete on screen quality, but somehow does. For those who can accept that its usable viewing angle is quite narrow, it rewards with surprisingly good colour accuracy.

These four computers represent only a small fraction of the many laptop models that are on the market at any given time; there are of course others out there with screens that will provide an acceptable level of colour accuracy too. We hope this look at four fairly disparate models has given you the same sense that we have about the direction of laptop displays: they're truly getting better. In turn, this is improving the lot of photographers who want a colour-accurate screen in a computer they can easily take with them.

The Lenovo W700 is the only laptop that has a built-in screen calibrator, and as noted, its screen is the most colour accurate of its type we've seen to date. It's also the only laptop we know of that has been created specifically to address the needs of working photographers. It's not the only one, though, that promises a great display. Other models include the Dell Precision M6400 with RGB LED Edge to Edge Back-Lit Display, HP EliteBook 8730w Mobile Workstation with DreamColor Display and Sony Vaio AW with XBRITE-FullHD LCD. On our to-do list is to evaluate one or more of these laptops and their screens; that will be the subject of a future article.

Testing notes

Two of the computers in this article are ones we own, the other two are on extended loan, which means we've had time to profile most with a full range of monitor profiling tools as well as use all four of them at home, on the road and in the air.

Measure Up: From left to right, the Datacolor Spyder 3, X-Rite ColorMunki, X-Rite Eye-One Pro and X-Rite DTP-94 (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

Profiling The sensor + software combinations we employed to profile the late-2008 MacBook Pro 15 inch, Dell Inspiron Mini 9 and IBM/Lenovo ThinkPad T60 are (white point, gamma and white luminance is in parentheses):
  • Datacolor Spyder3 colorimeter and Spyder3ELITE (6000K, 2.2, max. luminance and 120cd/m2)

  • X-Rite DTP-94 colorimeter and ColorEyes Display Pro (6000K, L*, max. luminance and 120cd/m2, both 16 bit and matrix profiles)

  • X-Rite Eye-One Pro spectrophotometer and ColorEyes Display Pro (6000K, L*, max. luminance and 120cd/m2, both 16 bit and matrix profiles)

  • X-Rite Eye-One Pro spectrophotometer and Eye-One Match (6000K, 2.2, max. luminance and 120cd/m2, Laptop mode)

  • X-Rite ColorMunki spectrophotometer and ColorMunki Photo (6500K, 2.2, max. luminance)
And for the ThinkPad W700:
  • Built-in calibrator with included hueyPro (6500K, 2.2, max.luminance)

  • X-Rite Eye-One Pro spectrophotometer and Eye-One Match (6500K, 2.2, max. luminance and 120cd/m2, LCD and Laptop modes)
The best profile for the late-2008 MacBook Pro 15 inch was generated with the X-Rite Eye-One Pro spectrophotometer and Eye-One Match, followed closely by the same instrument with ColorEyes Display Pro. Strangely, the Eye-One Pro wouldn't work with this computer - it would lose the connection to the Mac after the instrument's calibration step - unless we connected it through a USB hub.

The best profile for the ThinkPad T60 was generated with the X-Rite Eye-One Pro spectrophotometer and ColorEyes Display Pro software, followed closely by the same instrument with Eye-One Match.

The best profile for the Dell Inspiron Mini 9 was generated with the X-Rite Eye-One Pro spectrophotometer and Eye-One Match software.

We don't want to turn this into a monitor profiler review. It's worth noting, though, that while monitor profiling hardware and software has improved immensely over the years, there are still differences between the packages. If we were forced to choose only one combination to use on all desktop displays, it would be the X-Rite Eye-One Pro spectrophotometer and ColorEyes Display Pro. For most laptops it would be the X-Rite Eye-One Pro spectrophotometer and Eye-One Match, because this program's laptop mode conjures up a decent profile even from so-so laptop screens.

But for the W700, the optional built-in calibrator is extremely easy to use, makes a first-class profile, and on an otherwise pricey machine it's a mere US$70 option in the U.S. It's a testament to how well a low-cost sensor can be made to work when its designers have the opportunity to tweak it for a specific display.

Improving a good thing That said, in the name of ease of use the W700's hueyPro software has forsaken a key feature: calibrating the display to a specific white luminance value. The software forces screen brightness to maximum luminance before profiling (you see the computer's brightness indicator appear on screen briefly when this happens), and thereafter doesn't provide a way to target a white luminance value. Assuming typical office lighting, leaving the screen at full brightness means photos will appear noticeably lighter and more contrasty than they actually are; bringing down white luminance is a must to achieve the level of colour accuracy this display can deliver. This means some manual intervention is necessary after the profile has been created if you want to run the display at, for example, a more realistic white luminance of 120cd/m2.

Turning the screen brightness down isn't difficult to do, but how much to dim it will be a wild guess if you don't have an alternate sensor and software you can use to measure white luminance with. To do this, we started up Eye-One Match on another computer, placed the Eye-One Pro on the W700's display and then proceeded to figure out that three presses of the brightness down function key gets white luminance in the ballpark at about 130cd/m2. As the backlights fade over time, though, so too will the amount of screen brightness adjustment needed, so this is only a temporary guideline (and one that may not be correct for your W700, depending on the age of its backlights).

Alternatively, you could gradually turn down the brightness while comparing the same photo on the W700's display with a display connected to some other computer (obviously, this works only if that display is colour accurate and has been properly set to the white luminance value you're aiming for).

Both are clunky workarounds to replace a feature that should be in the software, but isn't.

Gamuts Three dimensional gamut renderings for each display are below. Roll your cursor over each one to see a comparison with the sRGB colour space.

Turn up the Volume: Three dimensional gamut renderings of the four displays discussed in this article

A display's gamut volume is one piece of information about its capabilities, one that can easily be misinterpreted or overinterpreted. The W700's gamut is the largest of the four, which fits with Lenovo's claim that its twin CCFL backlights offer a wider gamut than most laptop displays. In fact, this is the first laptop we've seen whose gamut nearly matches sRGB - most are much smaller. So, the W700's comparatively wide gamut is one of the explanations for its stellar colour accuracy, and the gamut rendering backs that up.

On the other hand, the late-2008 MacBook Pro's gamut volume exceeds that of the Mini 9, but in reality it's the latter computer's display that is more colour accurate. How the display responds to profiling, and where the display places the colours within its available gamut, has a greater impact on how true its colours appear.

The gamut renderings are included here by popular request. Beware of placing too much emphasis on them, as they are not a reliable indicator of a screen's ability to present colours accurately. They simply show its gamut.

Final caution Similarly, you'll want to not put too much emphasis on how the quarterback portrait looks in the photos of the laptop displays in this article. That is, you won't be able to match up our comments about the display characteristics with what you see in the pictures, because shooting angles, lighting and the vagaries of trying to make a picture of a picture on a computer screen all prevent that.

The real photo is below, so you can see what the colours in it actually look like. As long as you have a good monitor and good profile for it of course!

The Real Thing: Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II + EF 16-35mm f/2.8L at 24mm, ISO 100, 1/15, f/13, gelled Elinchrom Style 600 S strobes, converted from RAW in Apple Aperture 2.1.2. Click photo to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)
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