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'Pantone Validated' on that new laptop probably doesn't mean what you think

Laptop marketers may generalize "Pantone Validated" to seem more broadly color-accurate than it is.

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Pantone

Over the past year or so we've seen a flurry of creative-focused laptops launched with "Pantone Validated" screens. AsusZenBook Pro and more recently Acer's Concept D lines, for instance. But much of the marketing seemed to imply that a color-credible Pantone sticker meant a laptop had a general-purpose color-accurate display.

How did this come about? The number of people who care about how accurately a display renders the colors of the Pantone Matching System (PMS) is far, far smaller than the number of people who'll just be impressed by the logo because they've heard of Pantone. 

And in an increasingly competitive field characterized by confusing specifications and certifications (I'm looking at you, DisplayHDR) complicated by a horribly complex subject that's poorly understood, a trusted logo can be a beacon of hope.

What it is

Pantone, owned by colorimeter company X-Rite, checks the accuracy of roughly 1,900 color swatches from the PMS. It grades a display's certifiable performance as 1, 2 or "pass" and shares a complete report of the results with the licensee. Whether or not Pantone provides a calibration profile as well is up to the manufacturer. Testing is done for a D65 white point and for specific color spaces, depending on the capabilities of the display and the requests of the licensee.

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PMS is intended to make a desired color look identical across print and digital displays. It's widely used for brand-specific colors (think Coca-Cola red, for example). The system consists of printed swatches along with the primaries used to generate that color for a particular output device.

Pantone certifications have actually been around for a long time for devices like printers, and it's only relatively recently that the company rolled out a logofied Pantone Validated program for laptop screens and standalone monitors. Probably because, until prices for good displays dropped and 2019 became the year of the buzzword "creative," there wasn't much mainstream need.

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This is why Pantone Validation can't be generalized beyond the PMS.

Pantone

The system is rooted in print, though it's expanded beyond the original CMYK reproduction space to extended-gamut CMYKOGV (which adds orange, green and violet to cyan, yellow, magenta and black to print more colors). However, it's fundamentally a reflective color model, and any reflected color gamut will be smaller than that of most emissive (i.e., monitor) displays. Remember: All those color space diagrams you see are actually a cross section of a color volume, so even if it looks pretty close in 2D it's not as big a volume. 

So the bottom line is, if you do a lot of publishing or design work using PMS, a Pantone validated display will probably come in handy.

What it isn't

Pantone Validation says little about color accuracy outside of the colors that fall within the gamut defined by the PMS swatches, except possibly that the display has tighter accuracy tolerances for low-saturation colors in general than a run-of-the-mill display. 

PMS doesn't fully cover the old sRGB color space and only covers a fraction of a digital-first space such as P3, which means it's effectively useless for color-accurate video editing unless you've got scenes where it's most important to get the spot colors right, such as commercials. And it can't capture the tonal range of HDR, because print reflects far less light than the 1,000 nits you can get out of some monitors.

Furthermore, unless explicitly claimed by a manufacturer, you can't assume that a Pantone Validated display is factory calibrated. It's characterized, which tells you how close it gets to the ideal white point, how close to neutral the grays are, how much the measured brightness levels deviate from ideal and so on, for a limited set of conditions. 

Calibration uses the characterization information to map what your software wants to render to the capabilities of the display. Without a software calibration profile to map load or the ability to store profiles in hardware (a capability of professional monitors), it may be capable of hitting the right colors, but Windows essentially doesn't know how to make it happen. It will treat it like a generic display, which may or not look correct depending on what you're doing.

And unless the manufacturer advertises its grade (which I've yet to see), you don't know whether a display passed with flying colors or got the bare minimum correct. Nor do you know whether it did remarkably well in sRGB but not as well in Adobe RGB.