Microsoft Surface: A look at Screen Resolution

Microsoft have now released pricing and spec for the Surface RT tablet and one thing that some people have already latched onto is that the screen resolution isn’t as high as that on the iPad 3. This OF COURSE means it is much worse right? Because, just like in the camera world, it’s all about the number of pixels right? What’s that? It ISN’T all about the number of pixels with cameras? That’s right…so why would it be different for screens?

The Microsoft Surface team have, quite brilliantly, been doing an AMA (Ask Me Anything) over on Reddit and have almost literally* been droppin’ science about the screen, which we’ll look at now.

Stevie from the Surface team says:

“Screen resolution is one component of perceived detail. The true measure of resolvability of a screen called Modulation Transfer Function (MTF), not Pixels”

Here’s a Wikipedia article on MTF –

“The common practice of defining resolution in terms of pixel count is not meaningful, as it is the overall OTF of the complete system, including lens and anti-aliasing filter as well as other factors, that defines true performance. The optical transfer function is roughly the equivalent of phase and frequency response in an audio system, and can be represented by a 3D graph of light amplitude (brightness, i.e. intensity) versus phase and spatial frequency (cycles per picture width).”

As Wikipedia articles of this ilk often do, and I love it, this quickly turns to what can be known as “crazy maths” – you know, the kind where there are more letters than numbers, to give more detail:


Back to “Surface Stevie”:

“Most folks just focus on one number out of dozens of items that effect perceived detail. Without good contrast resolution decreases”

That last piece is what jumps out at me – “without good contrast, resolution decreases”. Here we have a graph that shows contrast sensitivity of the human eye:


“Basically, as resolution/DPI increases the eye has become less sensitive. So as a result, the amount of light in a room and the reflections off the screen have a huge effect on the contrast of the display. In fact, a small amount of reflection can greatly reduce contrast and thus the perceived resolution of the display”

Stevie goes on to detail Microsoft’s 3-pronged approach to this subject:

  1. Microsoft has the best pixel rendering technology in Cleartype
  2. Microsoft designed a custom 10.6” high-contrast wide-angle LCD screen
  3. The screen was bonded with the thinnest optical stack anywhere on the market

Although they aren’t official, Stevie pulls these numbers out of the bag:

“…the amount of light reflected off the screen is around 5.5%-6.2%, the new IPad has a measurement of 9.9% mirror reflections”


Marketing considerations aside, do you really need all of that “Retina Display” resolution and sharpness? In many cases no, for these five reasons: 

  • Most adults don’t actually have true corrected 20/20 Vision even with glasses or contact lenses.
  • If you view the display further away than the recommended viewing distance your eye can no longer fully resolve the sharpness of the display, so that high resolution is wasted. 
  • Unlike computer graphics images, photographic images (including videos) are inherently fuzzy, with the sharpest image detail spread over multiple pixels. Similarly, you would be hard pressed to visually tell the difference between 640×480 and 2048×1536 photographic images of a (Granny Smith) Apple.
  • Sub-pixel rendering, rather than ordinary pixel rendering, will significantly improve the visual sharpness of any display, especially for computer generated text and graphics, so that is the most efficient approach to improving sharpness.
  • Most people don’t even have 1600×1200 resolution on the much larger 15-19 inch screens on their (Apple or Windows) laptops and desktop monitors and are happy with them (even the tech journalists that I asked).

The AMA post can be found here –

The whole AMA article is here –

Thanks to @CarmenCrincoli for tweeting that post.



*It’s definitely science but they weren’t literally dropping it 🙂

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