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To succeed, ultrabooks need displays like the iPad, MacBook

Hey, ultrabook makers, want to compete more effectively with the iPad and MacBook? Then use the same kind of high-quality displays.

The Dell XPS 13 has generally received good reviews though some give the display low marks.
The Dell XPS 13 has generally received good reviews though some give the display low marks. CNET

For ultrabooks to succeed, the display needs to approach an iPad's quality or least match that of a MacBook--which uses higher-end displays.

A lower quality display can be a deal breaker for consumers in the age of the iPad, which boasts a high-quality, high-resolution in-plane switching (IPS) display.

IPS and high-quality TN displays offer viewing angles and contrast typically better than those used on most ultrabooks today.

This shortcoming has become apparent in more than a few reviews of the Dell XPS 13 ultrabook, which in almost every other respect is generally considered an excellent design. (Another review here focuses on the XPS' display.)

The problem? The XPS 13 uses a lower-quality twisted-nematic (TN) display.

IPS (in-plane-switching):

  • Used on iPads and Android tablets
  • Good viewing angles
  • Good contrast

Low-quality TN displays are typically inexpensive but offer inferior viewing angles and poorer contrast.

More broadly, higher-quality displays fall into the category of "wide-viewing angle displays," said Richard Shim, an analyst at NPD DisplaySearch.

"It's safe to say that tablets are influencing notebooks on multiple levels and screen fidelity is one of them," Shim said.

"If the primary device that people spend most their time using -- such as a notebook -- doesn't have the same level of picture quality [as a tablet] then people will notice," Shim added.

There is an exception or two in the current crop of ultrabooks. The Hewlett-Packard Envy 14 Spectre ultrabook, for example, appears to use technology that offers wide viewing angles but it starts at a whopping $1,400 on HP's Web site. HP's less-expensive Folio 13 uses more pedestrian screen technology.

And the tendency not to use wide-viewing-angle displays on most ultrabooks may continue for the foreseeable future. "What's happening in the ultrabook market right now is that brands are struggling with trying to create a premium product at a mainstream price and they have to make some decisions as to where to cut back," said Shim.

This is true. But the ultrabook-making industry would be well advised to attach high-quality displays to those $999 or even less expensive models if they want to fend off market-share erosion from the iPad and MacBook Air.

Correction: The MacBook Air uses a high-quality TN display that offers contrast and viewing angles on par with IPS. Corrections made accordingly.