6 Signs Your Gadget's Screen Sucks

The screen is as important as any other component on an electronic device when it comes to a good user experience. Yet plenty of devices still have screens that are not so great compared to the best ones currently available. Do your gadgets have terrible screens? Laptop Magazine chief Mark Spoonauer knows exactly how to find out.

As much as I'm a sucker for quad-core processors, slick interfaces and killer apps, none of that matters if the screen on a gadget I'm buying isn't up to snuff. Whether we're shopping for a laptop, smartphone or tablet, all of us should be spending less time pouring over the specs and more time looking at the display.

Is it sharp enough? Do the colours wash out? Can you actually use that gadget outside? These are just some of the questions you need to ask yourself before you buy. Here are six surefire signs that display just won't cut it.

1. Pitifully low resolution

It's truly sad to see $1500 razor-thin ultrabooks hit our labs with the same 1366x768 pixel count as $500 laptops. At least Vizio gets it; the company's new $US899 14-inch Thin + Light offers a 1600x900 panel, which fits more information on the screen. In other words, less scrolling for you. ASUS gives you a full 1920x1080 pixels for its $1399 (Australian RRP) Zenbook Prime. It's time for everyone else to step it up.

For tablets, a minimum of 1280x800 pixels is the new standard for seven inches, thanks to the $250 Nexus 7. (We gave the Kindle Fire‘s 1024x600 a pass at launch because of its low price.) For 10-inch tablets, the iPad‘s retina display (2048x1536 pixels) is the gold standard, and there are now two full HD Android slates in the $499 (Australian RRP) Asus Transformer Pad Infinity and Acer Iconia Tab A700. Yes, you can get the Lenovo IdeaPad S2 for $150 less, but that 1024x768 screen makes the device instantly obsolete.

If you're in the market for a smartphone, shoot for a resolution of at least 960x540 (also called qHD), but 1280x720 pixels is better. Stay away from phones with resolutions of 480x320 pixels. You'll get fuzzy text and images and spend way too much of your time zooming in to see content.

2. Can't be seen in the sun (or way too dim)

I was actually shocked to see that most reviewers of the Samsung Galaxy S III had nothing but praise for its Super AMOLED screen. I guess those folks didn't bother to take the phone outside. While the panel offers excellent contrast and popping colours, it's just too dim to comfortably see content in direct sunlight.

Using our light meter, the Galaxy S III registered only 210 lux, compared with 302 for the category average. Other AMOLED-equipped phones also disappointed, including the Samsung Focus 2 (203 lux) and Nokia Lumia 900 (262 lux). The HTC One X notched a sky-high 525 lux, and the iPhone 4S got 549, making them easy to see outdoors.

We also measure the brightness for tablets and phones in our reviews, so you can easily compare results.

3. Poor viewing angles

If you have to push back a laptop's screen 30 degrees to make out the image, don't buy it. What happens when you get on the plane and the person in front of you jams his seat all the way back? We're forgiving of narrow viewing angles on 15-inch budget laptops that likely won't leave the living room, but not on notebooks that are designed to be used in tight quarters.

With smartphones and tablets, you'd think that limited viewing angles would be less of an issue because we tend to view the device head-on. Wrong. Yesterday I tested the HTC Droid Incredible 4G LTE's GPS feature in the car, and I had trouble reading the directions from my seat to the dashboard. Narrow viewing angles can also spoil an otherwise good tablet; you want the person next to you to see that movie too.

4. Whites aren't white

I don't mean to keep picking on AMOLED screens (sorry, Galaxy S III), but I've noticed that many of them tend to have a blue cast when displaying a white background. Not having a white that's really white doesn't necessarily ruin the user experience, but it's just annoying. A good way to test this out is to open the browser and enter about:blank and compare devices side by side.

5. Glare, glare and more glare

The industry calls them glossy screens, but I call them glare screens. If you're looking at a laptop display and you can see more stuff going on behind you than what's on that web page, that's a problem. That's why it's important to pick a notebook that offers good contrast and black levels but doesn't go overboard with the glossy. The 13-inch MacBook Air is a great example.

If you want to avoid glare altogether, look for notebooks with matte screens, such as the 15-inch Samsung Series 9. Business notebooks from Lenovo, HP and others also come with matte panels.

All tablets and phones suffer from at least some glare. I simply haven't seen a viable colour matte option for mobile devices. But a bright screen can help minimise distracting reflections.

Still, if you want to a glare-free experience I recommend an e-ink ereader, such as the Barnes & Noble Nook Touch with GlowLight.

6. You can see gridlines on the touch screen

I was shocked to discover that Toshiba is charging a lot more than the iPad for its Excite 10 LE (AT300) tablet. And that shock turned to horror when we got this device in the lab. What good is it to have the world's thinnest tablet when the display is marred by criss-crossing gridlines? This proved very distracting when watching video or reading. The same weakness plagued the $US179 Archos 70b. Being cheaper is no excuse. We'd much rather pay a bit more for the Kindle Fire than suffer with this poorly made screen.

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    WOW - just admit this is an AD for Apple! Half of the issues make no sense as they do not cause eyestrain at all and I would rather have the choice - you can't get a top screen if you can't afford it but it's nice to know there are options that will still work.

      I don't really see how this is an ad for Apple, but free to interpret it as you feel your wallet should.

      I've noticed that, for whatever reason, on a sunny day (and when the sun isn't shining directly on the screen), the iPad/IPhone screen looks really quite amazing. I suspect that it is because the IPS. However in direct sunlight, as in hot day when you can see the reflection of the sun in your screen, the iPhone screen is kind of difficult to read and the iPad screen is almost impossible. But when the sun is setting and you turn the brightness down a bit, they just look amazing. I wish they looked like that all of the time.

    High resolution screens aren't always tnat practical, yes you may see more of what's being displayed, but at the cost of very small print; something that can be a right pain for those with less than perfect eyesight. Lower native resolution is often much better for many reading activities, especially navigation. Not everyone in this world has the 20/20 eyesight of a teenager that these devices seem to be aimed towards.

      Actually, I'm a teenager and my eyes are far from 20/20. Also, not every teenager can afford these kind of gadgets.

        I agree and the device manufacturers seem to forget/ignore the fact that these high resolution screens can be a significant impediment for many people, young (yes, not all teenagers have 20/20 eyesight) and old. High resolution may be great for video, images and the like, but when it comes to anything text based and similar, it's quite the opposite.

        I'll bet none of these devices have ever been tested using people with not so perfect vision. I guess in the eyes of Apple etc, they don't constitute a significant portion of the potential market. My teenager analogy was merely to represent the design philosophy that seems to pervade the latest gadgets, not who can afford them.

          That's what scaling options are for. You can tell Windows to make the UI elements and text bigger. People with 1080p 15.6" laptop screens often shoot for 125% or 150% scaling.

          I'm a resolution fanatic. My current screen is a 27" 2560x1440 IPS screen and it's just incredible. I don't think I have any complaints.

          I love both real estate and pixel density, so for me, a higher res is always better.

      Like many people, you are missing the point. Higher resolution is for fitting more stuff to a point. Once it gets to that point, any increase in resolution is for the sake of sharpness of text. that's the entire point of retina displays. Apple think (whether rightly or wrongly) that their screen size has the ideal amount of content on it, so they use the retina display tech to make everything clearer and easier to read/look at rather than increasing the "real estate" of the screen.
      Of course a side benefit of this is the scenario you mentioned when you load webpages formatted for desktop on something like an iphone, or indeed any recent android phone with HD display, there is less zooming needed because the screen is able to display most of the content natively, as you are able to do with that resolution. I don't think this is the intended usage scenario though, the first one makes life much easier.

    Eyestrain comes from the fixed focus distance. The muscle is contracted at anything under 10 meters and screens are usually a lot closer than that. Changing the resolution, etc. on the screen is not going to fix that.
    The SORE EYES picture is not relevant to the issues here.

    I have a question - why are viewing angles any kind of issue when we all sit directly in front of our screens? It makes sense for a TV, which is a social activity but the requirements of computer are quite different.

    Firstly, on "pitifully low resolution", let's get real, shall we? The iPad might have a lot of pixels but it doesn't offer any more screen real estate than the old one, so what does it matter? When the Nexus 7 offers 1280x768, that is exactly what you get but even though an iPad has 2048x1536 pixels, the display resolution is only 1024x768, which makes Retina Display a massive resource hog for no good reason.

    On the subject of "whites aren't white", my Lumia 800's white looks pretty much the same as the white on the shiny cover of my spiral-bound notebook in natural light. Of course, at night the notebook will be blue-er because my LED lights will make it look that way. i.e Colour is subjective. It doesn't matter if white isn't white, as long as its always the same colour. If anyone cares, the Apple Cinema displays at work have a massive yellow caste to their colour, compared to the newer (but smaller) Apple displays (every workstation has one of each). It took me a few days to get used to but now I know what white is supposed to look like, so its OK.

    On "can't be seen in the sun", my Lumia 800 is the easiest to read phone in full sunlight I have ever owned. Of course, the OS is a big help there but that's really just an example of hardware and software working together.

      Viewing angles: for the frequent times when i want to watch something as trivial as a lolcat video with my sisters.

      Low resolution: The iPad and Nexus 7 act relatively similarly. both are capable of displaying content at their native resolutions, but through much research, they have decided not to do that (android does it very differently to the ipad, and i understand that the resolution issue is less visible in android, but it would be having lots of problems if the text was being displayed at the same apparent res of a 420 * 320 screen). the ipad acts like a 1024*768 screen in terms of real estate, but packs 4x as much detail, which means less zzoming with webpages and more accurate and vivid depictions of pictures. people need to get off the screen resolution = real estate wagon. that is becoming dictated by the size of the display now.

      I agree whites are very subjective. there should be a standard of some description for the range of what white can be or something. it would be great to see consistent whites, but doubtful this will happen.

      Glad the nokia does well for you in sunlight! the few i owned way back were great. nokia has always been good at (seemingly) simple things like that.

        What I don't quite understand is the criticism of say the 1024x600 resolution screen. I have a tablet with that resolution and it works extremely well, actually a pleasure to use. Yet I also have a higher resolution (1280x768) 9" notebook and it's a right pain to use at times because everything is rendered so small. I shudder to think what that resolution would look like on a 7" screen.

        These sorts of articles really need to be tempered with more real life examples and practical situations, rather than 'Mo is Better' that some tech heads always espouse. 'Mo' is not always better.

          My Vaio P Series has an 8" screen at 1600x768 but I find it perfectly useful. You might want to try scaling your display - right-click on the desktop, choose "Personalize", then "Display" (bottom-left corner of the window). It does what iOS and OS X have to do to deal with Retina Displays. I'm thinking I'll definitely need to do that when I get my Taichi, as I can't see an 11.6" screen running at 1920x1080 being terribly useful at normal res, at least not on the desktop. The good thing is that I get to choose how much to compromise between screen real-estate and clarity, rather than having the vendor decide for me how I should use my computer.

            MM and Ethan

            I've tried scaling with the notebook and it makes things worse; firstly because the quality drops and, secondly, some applications simply go partly off-screen and you can't access the off-screen parts and with others, eg a browser, you have to move things about far more than at native resolution.

            I can understand having more pixels per inch for better clarity, but having a lower overall resolution can often be an advantage. I'm just suggesting this from the point of view of someone with less than perfect eyesight . The LCDs screens that I've been using for mobile computing don't give me the flexibility that has been indicated is available. That said, I'm not unhappy with the lower resolution of my tablet, as I don't use it for activities where higher resolution might be better.

    Looking at the comments, this article seems to have a lot of problems. Too bad I have one more to add. Their sunlight legibility result contradicts GSMArena's results. The Samsung GS3 actually tops it. http://www.gsmarena.com/samsung_i9300_galaxy_s_iii-review-761p2.php

    The new ipad Res is stupid 1920x1080 should be standard. movies etc dont use the ipad res.

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