Microsoft Surface Pro 3 Has One of the Best Displays Yet

The key element for a great tablet has always been a truly innovative and top performing display, and the best leading edge tablets have always flaunted their beautiful high tech displays.

With its third-generation Surface Pro 3, Microsoft has produced an excellent professional-grade high-performance display for Windows. In fact, based on our extensive lab tests and measurements, the Surface Pro 3 has one of the very best and most accurate displays available on any mobile platform and OS. It joins near the top of a small set of tablets that have excellent top tier displays —for professionals that need a very accurate and high performance display for their work, and for consumers that want and appreciate a really nice and beautiful display. We'll cover these issues and much more, with in-depth comprehensive display tests, measurements and analysis that you will find nowhere else.

Microsoft provided DisplayMate Technologies with a production unit of the Surface Pro 3 so that we could perform our well known objective and comprehensive display Lab tests, measurements, and analysis, explaining the in-depth display performance results for consumers, reviewers, and journalists.

The display shoot-out

To examine the performance of the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 Display we ran our in-depth series of Mobile Display Technology Shoot-Out Lab tests and measurements in order to determine how it performs compared to other leading tablets. We take display quality very seriously and provide in-depth objective analysis based on detailed laboratory tests and measurements and extensive viewing tests with both test patterns, test images and test photos. To see how far LCD and OLED mobile displays have progressed in just four years see our 2010 Smartphone Display Shoot-Out, and for a real history lesson see our original 2006 Smartphone Display Shoot-Out.

Results highlights

In this Results section we provide Highlights of the comprehensive DisplayMate Lab tests and measurements and extensive visual comparisons using test photos, test images, and test patterns that are covered in the advanced sections. The Display Shoot-Out Comparison Table summarizes the lab measurements in the following categories: Screen Reflections, Brightness and Contrast, Colors and Intensities, Viewing Angles, LCD Spectra, Display Power. You can also skip these highlights and go directly to the Conclusions.

12-inch display with 3:2 aspect ratio

The Surface Pro 3 is unusual in that it is designed to perform both as a large tablet and a small laptop. With a 12-inch screen diagonal it is considerably larger most tablets, with a screen area that is 87 percent larger than the Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9, 47 percent larger than the Apple iPad Air, and 34 percent larger than the Samsung Galaxy Tab S 10.5. With its adjustable kickstand, the angle of the display can be adjusted in the same way as a laptop, an important viewing and working advantage.

The Screen's 3:2 (1.50) aspect ratio is an excellent compromise between the 4:3 (1.33) aspect ratio for most documents (the same as 8.5x11 inch paper with 0.5 inch borders, and also the iPad's 4:3 (1.33) aspect ratio) and 16:9 (1.78) aspect ratio for widescreen video content (and similar to Android tablets that have a 16:10 (1.60) aspect ratio).

Display sharpness and sub-pixel rendering

The display's 2160x1440 pixel resolution has 3.1 megapixels, 50 percent more than an HDTV, but on a 12-inch screen. The screen's 216 pixels per inch (ppi) is very good but somewhat lower than on other full size tablets, like the Apple iPad Air with 264 ppi and the Samsung Galaxy Tab S 10.5 with 287 ppi. However, because its 12-inch screen is larger it is also typically held further away. At typical viewing distances of 16 inches or more the pixels are not resolved with normal 20/20 vision, so the display appears perfectly sharp. In addition, the Surface Pro 3 uses sub-pixel rendering (called ClearType in Microsoft's implementation) that significantly improves the visual sharpness of text over standard pixel rendering that is used in most mobile displays. For black and white and gray images with sub-pixel rendering, there is up to a factor of three improvement in image sharpness.

Color gamut and absolute color accuracy

The Surface Pro 3 also has the most accurate on-screen colors of any tablet or smartphone display that we have ever measured for the sRGB/Rec.709 standard that is used in virtually all current consumer content for digital cameras, HDTVs, the internet, and computers, including photos, videos, and movies. Its Color Gamut is 97 percent, very close to the standard gamut as shown in this figure. The Absolute Color Accuracy for the Surface Pro 3 is an excellent 2.1 JNCD, the most color accurate display that we have ever measured for a tablet or smartphone. See this figure for an explanation and visual definition of JNCD and the Color Accuracy Figures showing the measured Color Errors. See the Color Accuracy section, the Color Gamut Figure, and the Color Accuracy figures for measurements and details.

Color Accuracy is especially important for professional imaging applications when you must be sure of the on-screen image colors, when viewing photos from family and friends (because you often know exactly what they actually should look like), for some TV shows, movies, and sporting events with image content and colors that you are familiar with, and also for viewing online merchandise, so you have a very good idea of exactly what colors you are buying and are less likely to return them.

Intensity scale and accurate image contrast

The intensity scale (sometimes called the gray scale) not only controls the contrast within all displayed images but it also controls how the red, green, and blue primary colors mix to produce all of the on-screen colors. So if the intensity scale doesn't follow the standard that is used to produce virtually all consumer content then the colors and intensities will be wrong everywhere in all images. Unfortunately, many manufacturers are quite sloppy with the intensity scale on their displays because it has to be set and measured logarithmically (to a precise mathematical power-law). Fortunately, the intensity scale on Surface Pro 3 is very good, although somewhat variable at low signal levels under 25 percent. See this figure for a plot of the measured intensity scale and the colors and intensities section for measurements and details.

Display brightness

The Surface Pro 3 has a peak brightness of 371 cd/m2 (nits), which is very good, but somewhat lower than other tablets like the Apple iPad Air with 449 nits and the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 with 527 nits. High screen brightness is only needed when working in high ambient light, but since the Surface Pro 3 is larger it is less likely to be opened outdoors in unshielded high ambient light environments like smartphones and smaller tablets, so its somewhat lower (but still very good) peak brightness should not be an issue for most users and applications. See the brightness and contrast section for measurements and details.

Screen reflectance and performance in ambient lighting

Displays are seldom used in absolute darkness, so their screen reflectance and performance in ambient lighting is very important. For the Surface Pro 3 it's not as critical as with smartphones and smaller Tablets because its larger 12-inch screen is less likely to be opened outdoors in unshielded high ambient light environments. The adjustable kickstand is particularly useful for adjusting the display angle in order to minimize reflections.

The screen reflectance for the Surface Pro 3 is 5.9 percent, which is very good and much better than most tablets and smartphones. It is in between the 6.5 percent for the iPad Air and 5.0 percent for the Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9, but 26 percent higher than the record low 4.7 percent for the Samsung Galaxy Tab S 10.5. The display's contrast rating for high ambient light measures the screen's readability in ambient light and depends on both the screen reflectance and maximum brightness. For the Surface Pro 3 it is 63, which is again very good and better than most tablets and smartphones. It is again in between the 61 for the iPad Air and 78 for the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9, but significantly lower than a number of Tablets that have values over 100. Again, this is less critical for the Surface Pro 3 because its larger 12 inch screen it is less likely to be opened outdoors in unshielded high ambient light environments. See the screen reflections and brightness and contrast sections for measurements and details.

Viewing angle performance

While tablets are primarily single viewer devices, the variation in display performance with viewing angle is still very important because single viewers frequently hold the display at a variety of viewing angles, plus they are large enough for sharing the screen with others. The viewing angle can be very large if the display is lying flat on a table or desk. One important advantage of the Surface Pro 3 is its adjustable kickstand, which makes it possible to adjust the viewing angle of the display in the same way as a laptop. That is not only convenient but also reduces any viewing angle effects.

The Surface Pro 3 has a high performance IPS/PLS LCD display, so we expected it to show very small color shifts with viewing angle, and our lab measurements confirmed its excellent viewing angle performance, with no visually noticeable color shifts. However, all LCDs, do have a strong decrease in brightness (luminance) with viewing angle, and the Surface Pro 3 showed (as expected) slightly more than a 50 percent decrease in brightness at a modest 30 degree viewing angle. See the viewing angles section for measurements and details.

Viewing tests

With its relatively accurate intensity scale and very accurate colors the Surface Pro 3 provides very nice, pleasing and accurate colors, and picture quality. The very challenging set of DisplayMate test and calibration photos that we use to evaluate picture quality looked beautiful, even to my experienced hyper-critical eyes. However, viewers that like vivid or exaggerated colors and image contrast may find the accurate Surface Pro 3 images to appear somewhat subdued.

Display power efficiency

While the Surface Pro 3 display is considerably larger in area than the other top tier tablets and would normally be expected to require considerably more power, its display is more power efficient and it actually uses less power than many smaller tablets. For example, for an equivalent area and display brightness the Apple iPad Air display uses 66 percent more display power than the Surface Pro 3. This is due in part to its lower pixels per inch, which affects the display's power efficiency, but it is also the result of using higher efficiency white LEDs and optical stack in the Surface Pro 3 display. See the display power section for measurements and details.

Surface Pro 3 conclusions: An excellent top tier display

The primary goal of this Display Technology shoot-out article series has always been to point out which manufactures and display technologies are leading and advancing the state-of-the-art of displays by performing comprehensive and objective lab tests and measurements together with in-depth analysis. We point out who is leading, who is behind, who is improving, and sometimes (unfortunately) who is back pedaling, all based solely on the extensive objective measurements that we also publish, so that everyone can judge the data for themselves as well.

An excellent top tier display

Based on our extensive lab tests and measurements on the display for the Surface Pro 3, Microsoft has produced an excellent professional-grade high-performance display for Windows. In fact, the Surface Pro 3 has one of the very best and most accurate displays available on any mobile platform and OS. It joins near the top of a small set of Tablets that have excellent top tier displays —ideal for professionals that need a very accurate high performance display for their work, and for consumers that want and appreciate a really nice and beautiful display.

The Surface Pro 3 delivers uniformly consistent all around top tier display performance: it is only the second display to ever to get all green (very good to excellent) ratings in all test and measurement categories (except for brightness variation with viewing angle, which is the case for all LCDs) since we started the Display Technology shoot-out article series in 2006, an impressive achievement for a display. See the Shoot-Out comparison table for the detailed test and measurement results. Comparisons with the other leading tablets are examined below.

Most accurate colors

The Surface Pro 3 also has the most accurate on-screen colors of any tablet or smartphone display that we have ever measured for all standard consumer content (sRGB/Rec.709). That is another impressive achievement because everything in the display has to perform just right in order to produce very accurate colors —it is the single most challenging and important performance characteristic for a display. The absolute color accuracy for the Surface Pro 3 is an excellent 2.1 JNCD. See the color accuracy section and color accuracy figures for measurements and details.

Color accuracy is especially important for professional imaging applications when you must be sure of the on-screen image colors, when viewing photos from family and friends (because you often know exactly what they actually should look like), for some TV shows, movies, and sporting events with image content and colors that you are familiar with, and also for viewing online merchandise, so you have a very good idea of exactly what colors you are buying and are less likely to return them.

Comparisons with the Amazon Kindle Fire, Apple iPad Air, and Samsung Galaxy Tab S

First of all, the Surface Pro 3 is considerably larger in screen area than the other tablets: 87 percent larger than the Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9, 47 percent larger than the Apple iPad Air, and 34 percent larger than the Samsung Galaxy Tab S 10.5. The other tablets have somewhat higher peak brightness, but since the Surface Pro 3 is larger it is less likely to be opened outdoors in unshielded high ambient light environments like smartphones and smaller tablets, its somewhat lower (but still very good) peak brightness of 371 cd/m2 (nits) should not be an issue for most users and applications. With its adjustable kickstand, the angle of the display can be adjusted in the same way as a laptop, an important viewing and working advantage.

In 2013 the Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 became the top performing tablet display in our Display Technology Shoot-Out series. It was the very first display to ever to get all green (very good to excellent) ratings in all categories (except for brightness variation with viewing angle, which is the case for all LCDs) since we started the Display Technology shoot-out article series in 2006. The Surface Pro 3 is the only other display to ever accomplish this, an impressive achievement for a display. Both are excellent top tier tablets, however, the Surface Pro 3 is more accurately calibrated than the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9, with the best absolute color accuracy that we have ever measured, so it scores higher in overall display performance.

The Samsung Galaxy Tab S 10.5 remains the top performing mobile display in our Display Technology shoot-out series, however, the Surface Pro 3 is neck-to-neck with the Galaxy Tab S 10.5 in most performance categories. Both are tied for first place with the best absolute color accuracy that we have ever measured, which is the single most challenging and important performance characteristic for a display. Where the Galaxy S leads is in providing color management for differently calibrated screen modes, and for records in several categories for tablet display performance.

The Apple iPad Air, which came in second after the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9, remains a very good tablet display, however, the Surface Pro 3 is more accurately calibrated than the Apple iPad Air, with the best absolute color accuracy that we have ever measured. The iPad Air now moves into fourth place behind the three other top tier tablets.

You can directly compare all of the display performance measurements and results for these and other Tablets by referring to our 2013 Flagship Tablet Display Shoot-Out, our 2014 Galaxy Tab S 10.5 Tablet Display Shoot-Out, and other articles in our Display Technology Shoot-Out article series.

The next generation of mobile displays—better performance in ambient light

What is really impressive is that we are continuing to see visually significant improvements in display performance in periods of under one year. With display technology advancing rapidly on many different fronts this is likely to continue and even accelerate in the near future as the result of multiple improvements that are combined to work together, so expect many more major display improvements in the near future.

The most important developments for the upcoming generations of both LCD and OLED mobile displays will come from improvements in their image and picture quality in real world ambient light, which washes out the on-screen images, resulting in reduced readability, image contrast, and color saturation and accuracy. The key will be in enlarging the native color gamut and then dynamically changing the display's color management and intensity scales with the measured ambient light level in order to automatically compensate for reflected glare and image wash out from Ambient Light as discussed in our 2014 Innovative Displays and Display Technology and SID Display Technology Shoot-Out articles. The displays and technologies that succeed in implementing this new strategy will take the lead in the next generations of mobile displays.

Display shoot-out comparison table

Below we examine in-depth the display on the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 based on objective Lab measurement data and criteria. For comparisons and additional background information see our Flagship Tablet LCD Display Technology Shoot-Out and our OLED Tablet Display Technology Shoot-Out. For comparisons with the other leading Tablet, Smartphone and Smart Watch displays see our Mobile Display Technology Shoot-Out series.

Below is a partial excerpt of the table; you can see the full comparison at DisplayMate.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 Has One of the Best Displays Yet


This article has been republished with permission from DisplayMate.com, where it can be read in its entirety.

About the Author

Dr. Raymond Soneira is President of DisplayMate Technologies Corporation of Amherst, New Hampshire, which produces video calibration, evaluation, and diagnostic products for consumers, technicians, and manufacturers. See www.displaymate.com. He is a research scientist with a career that spans physics, computer science, and television system design. Dr. Soneira obtained his Ph.D. in Theoretical Physics from Princeton University, spent 5 years as a Long-Term Member of the world famous Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, another 5 years as a Principal Investigator in the Computer Systems Research Laboratory at AT&T Bell Laboratories, and has also designed, tested, and installed color television broadcast equipment for the CBS Television Network Engineering and Development Department. He has authored over 35 research articles in scientific journals in physics and computer science, including Scientific American. If you have any comments or questions about the article, you can contact him at dtso.info@displaymate.com.

About DisplayMate Technologies

DisplayMate Technologies specializes in proprietary sophisticated scientific display calibration and mathematical display optimization to deliver unsurpassed objective performance, picture quality and accuracy for all types of displays including video and computer monitors, projectors, HDTVs, mobile displays such as smartphones and tablets, and all display technologies including LCD, OLED, 3D, LED, LCoS, Plasma, DLP and CRT. This article is a lite version of our intensive scientific analysis of all types of displays – before the benefits of our advanced mathematical DisplayMate Display Optimization Technology, which can correct or improve many of the display deficiencies. We offer DisplayMate display calibration software for consumers and advanced DisplayMate display diagnostic and calibration software for technicians and test labs.

For manufacturers we offer Consulting Services that include advanced Lab testing and evaluations, confidential Shoot-Outs with competing products, calibration and optimization for displays, cameras and their User Interface, plus on-site and factory visits. See our world renownDisplay Technology Shoot-Out public article series for an introduction and preview. DisplayMate's advanced scientific optimizations can make lower cost panels look as good or better than more expensive higher performance displays. For more information on our technology see the Summary description of our Adaptive Variable Metric Display Optimizer AVDO. If you are a display or product manufacturer and want to turn your display into a spectacular one to surpass your competition then Contact DisplayMate Technologies to learn more.