Opinion

Display calibration in phones, and why it matters

Display calibration in phones, and why it matters

A few years ago I wouldn’t be having this conversation. Back then, it simply didn’t matter. I mean it did, but not in the way it does now. But we have reached a point where simply having a feature is not enough, the degree to which it is executed is also important. How many pixels does the camera have, how many speakers are there, how many bands does the LTE support, how many pixels are there on the screen, and now, how accurately does it display the colors.

Color calibration is a process of adjusting the various parameters of the display, such as the saturation, gamma, contrast, sharpness, gamut, luminance, temperature, etc., using a colorimeter to ensure the display output matches the input signal as closely as possible. A perfectly calibrated display will output the exact same color values as the input signal.

In practice, it is difficult to get a perfectly calibrated display. The color output of a display depends upon a few factors, mostly the quality and the type of the panel used. A cheaper TN panel, for example, won’t have the color accuracy and gamut of an expensive IPS panel. Within IPS panels you will find various types and quality levels.

With rising competitions, manufacturers are forced to up their game on every front, which means not only do they now have to pack in an obscene number of pixels on screen but they have to ensure that the color accuracy is good enough.

However, while some manufacturers do carefully calibrate their displays, others either don’t bother or purposefully mess it up. 

Accurate colors are like accurate sound; most people have never experienced them and thus have no frame of reference. When they see something that is improperly calibrated they don’t know how good or bad it is. On top of that, people are conditioned to see oversaturated colors with pumped up contrast, just the way they are used to hearing sound with extra bass. Now for most people, that is good image quality. They have no idea how far away from the actual image that is.

To be honest, you can’t really blame them. Just like accurate sound, accurate image colors aren’t for everyone. I remember the Nexus 5 launched last year was blamed by pseudo reviewers from Verge for having a washed out display. In reality, Nexus 5 has one of the best calibrated displays on the market today. The problem is (if you can call it that), accurate colors do look quite washed out to our eyes that are now used to seeing saturated colors. Even the white, normally at 6500K (daylight), is a bit yellowish but the bright blueish white of most screens seems more natural to us even though it isn’t.

Manufacturers are aware of that, which is why most of them are careful with calibration. Some, like Apple or LG, choose something very close to accurate calibration but with slight tuning to keep the display looking a bit lively. Some like Sony and Samsung go overboard with saturation and white balance to get a more appealing look. Fortunately, both also offer a choice. Samsung lets you set the display to a properly calibrated mode, which I’ll admit looks boring as fuck to the point where I switch back to the oversaturated blue tinted modes after a while as that looks a lot better. Not accurate, but just better. Sony also lets you alter the white balance for a more warmer temperature.

In the end, though, it’s important how your display is set up. Even though some companies may offer the option to adjust it afterwards, these are very basic controls and don’t provide a full range of adjustments. As such, it is important to have a display that is properly calibrated out of the box.

The display is your window to everything you do on your phone or tablet. Imagine looking at the world through tinted glasses, coloring everything you see. It’s not ideal; you’d want to see everything the way it is. So why settle for a poorly calibrated display that distorts the colors to make it look like some psychedelic vision of a person on LSD? You’d want your videos to look like the way they were shot. You’d want your photos to look like the way you remember seeing it when you took them (the camera’s inadequacies notwithstanding). It’s especially important while editing photos on the phone, something a lot of us do these days. If your phone’s display has messed up colors, it will affect the way you edit the photos and the changes you make would look odd to someone looking at the images on a properly calibrated display.

In the recent times, there has been some stress on manufacturers from a small portion of the informed buyers to have proper color calibration on their phones. AnandTech’s rigorous testing especially names and shames these companies in their display tests, where it becomes clear as day how good or bad the calibration is, with some performing well and others hopelessly bad. Apple, for example, has consistently been good with its display calibration, which is why iPhone displays are some of the best in the business. LG (which also supplies displays to Apple) usually also has good color calibration. Samsung has improved tremendously over the years and although the default mode out of the box is still designed to be saturated and appealing at least there are modes that allow you to dial it back and go for a more natural look. HTC is usually good too. Others like Motorola and Sony are not quite there. The Nexus 5 display, for example, was properly calibrated by LG but the Nexus 6 display by Motorola is a bit of a mess.

We see this regression occasionally but otherwise there is good progress on this front. Hopefully, in a year or two, most displays sold on the market will be properly calibrated and we wouldn’t have to look at horribly saturated colors anymore.