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Screens test, Part 2: Galaxy Note 2 vs. Apple iPhone 5

CNET tests the screens of the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 and Apple iPhone 5, and after adjustment the Note 2 almost evens the race.

CNET's phone screen measurement setup involves a high-end spectroradiometer and industry-standard software.
The mondo Samsung Galaxy Note 2 now provides another reason for Android geeks and image quality purists to let their phablet phanboy phreak phlags phly.

The Note 2 is capable of color accuracy that, when combined with the superior contrast of the OLED screen technology, puts it on the same picture quality plane as the Apple iPhone 5.

In the first test I praised the screen of the iPhone 5 as superior to that of the Note 2's too-red-headed stepchild, the Galaxy S3. The iPhone's biggest advantage over the S3 was in color accuracy, but according to my measurements its lead in that area over the Note 2 has been nearly erased.

Unfortunately, the Note 2's accurate color isn't available by default. You have to go into the Settings menu and find "Screen mode," select "Movie," save, back out, deselect "Auto adjust screen tone," and prepare to overcome your initial impression that colors look worse. My recommendation: check out a photo of a loved one in Movie and then again in the default Standard mode, and notice how much more realistic his or her face looks.

As I said the first time around, accurate color isn't for everyone. But unlike on the U.S. version of the Galaxy S3, at least it's an option on the Note 2.

By the numbers

Test Galaxy Note 2 (default) Galaxy Note 2 (adjusted) iPhone 5
Full brightness
100% (white) 141.62 222.61 540.77
0% (black) 0.0109 0.0107 0.4917
Contrast ratio 12,999:1 20,805:1 1,100:1
Grayscale error 7.78 6.36 4.43
Average color error 12.39 4.49 2.27
Red error 18.92 0.84 1.64
Green error 14.47 5.02 1.4

On the chart above, higher numbers are better for 100% white and contrast ratio. Lower numbers are better for 0% black, grayscale and color errors. The light output (white and black) numbers are in nits, the contrast ratio calculated from those, and the error figures are Delta E 2000 per the Calman 4 software I used for this evaluation.

Movie mode provides the most accurate color on the Samsung Galaxy Note 2.

You'll notice I listed the Note 2 twice in the chart above. The iPhone doesn't allow you to make adjustments to the screen quality beyond disabling the room lighting sensor and tweaking brightness. In contrast (ha!), the Note 2 offers four Screen Modes: Standard (the default), Natural, Dynamic and Movie. I measured them all, and Movie delivers the most-accurate color.

There's another adjustment on the Note 2 to that significantly affects picture quality. Samsung applied the cryptic moniker "Auto adjust screen tone" (AAST) to a check box at the bottom of the Display menu. Uncheck it and the phone's full light output capabilities are unshackled, nearly doubling its contrast ratio and improving its ability to compete with ambient light. Turning off AAST also improves color accuracy slightly.

For the "default" column I left the Note 2 in its out-of-the-box settings, aside from disabling auto-brightness and cranking the brightness sliders to max (I did the same for the iPhone). For the Note's "adjusted" column I made those two changes: engaging Movie and unchecking AAST.

Brightness, black level, and contrast
If the Note 2's adjusted screen has a comparative weakness, it's still limited light output. The iPhone can get more than twice as bright, which means it will produce better picture quality and be more legible than the Note 2 in very bright lighting like sunlight or direct indoor light.

On the other hand, at full brightness the Note 2 can get nearly 50 times darker than the iPhone 5. In a completely dark room, like the one in which I measured the phones, a black (0 percent stimulus) test pattern filling the screen of the Note was barely visible; the same pattern on the iPhone was much brighter. The difference was less obvious, although still visible, under normal lighting.

Contrast ratio is the difference between the brightest image a display can create and the darkest. According to my measurements in a completely dark room, the Note 2 offers roughly 20 times as much contrast as the iPhone.

In a dark environment, the better contrast of the Samsung's screen will cause its image to look punchier, especially with high-contrast material like dark scenes in a movie or a nighttime photo. Under normal room lighting or brighter, particularly a daytime sky, that advantage will dwindle and the brighter screen of the iPhone will shine through, overcoming ambient light to provide a more legible, clearer image for all types of material.

I originally wrote the above for the Galaxy S3 comparison, and it's basically the same here. Yes, the Note 2 can get brighter when it's adjusted properly...but so can the S3. The smaller Galaxy also has an AAST control that bumps its light output to about 233 nits -- roughly the same as the Note 2.

Lori Grunin/CNET

That's great, but the trade-off supposedly comes in battery life. AAST is described as a power saver in the menu, and although I didn't test its effects, I'd be shocked if disabling it didn't severely cut into these phones' run times, especially if you display a lot of images with white backgrounds. The upshot for Note 2 owners is that its honkin' frame has a very large battery, so it's better able to handle the hit of nixing AAST. Anecdotally, I've been using the Note 2 with light output pegged at max and AAST disabled and its battery holds up very well.

Which phone looks better overall in terms of contrast depends on ambient lighting, what material you're looking at, and the brightness you have the screen set to (at half brightness, for example, the contrast ratio of the Galaxies drops roughly in half, while the iPhone's remains about the same). Given the fact that phone screens are often viewed in variable lighting or outdoors, the light output advantage of the iPhone is more important in my opinion than the contrast/black-level advantage of the Galaxy phones. That said, by disabling AAST the Note 2 and Galaxy S3 can inch closer to the iPhone in bright-light visibility.

Color accuracy
Here's where it gets more interesting. When you engage the different screen modes, colors go from garish (Standard) to exceedingly accurate (Movie). If you're wondering, Dynamic was even worse than Standard and Natural roughly split the difference between Movie and Standard.

When I turned to my trusty photo montage (thanks to Lori Grunin) the improvement was significant. A shot of various skin tones looked much more natural in Movie than Standard, which punched up reds and made flesh look too flush. Bright flowers and fruit also looked realistic in Movie as opposed to candy-coated in Standard.

Comparing Movie on the Note 2 to the colors on the iPhone, the iPhone still looked a bit better, with a touch more saturation and vitality. One visible difference between the two was in their grayscales; the iPhone tended toward a bluish cast while Movie on the Note was more green, differences that became more visible in more black-and-white images. I also think Movie might make gamma a bit shallower and washed-out than the iPhone's ideal 2.2, but I didn't measure gamma for this comparison.

Lori Grunin


As always it comes down to personal preference. Some viewers might like the over-saturated look of Standard or even Dynamic, while some might stray toward Natural or Movie. I think it's great that the Note 2 provides a choice, especially since different material can call for different modes.

As someone who's been using a Note 2 for the last week or so, I find myself switching to Standard for games but using Movie for most everything else. I admit I do like Standard better when looking at the home screen icons, but not enough to bother with switching back and forth for that. Maybe there's an app for that, or maybe Samsung could automatically enable Movie when showing movies or photos where it matters most. I'd also love to see Samsung update the US version of the Galaxy S3 to get screen modes, but for now that phone goes without. (Full disclosure: I've been using an Android phone since my G1 in 2008, and I intend to use a Note 2 as my main phone for reasons that have little to do with its screen quality.)

So in terms of the characteristics I measured, is the iPhone 5 better than the adjusted Note 2? Yes, but only slightly. The Note 2's overwhelming contrast advantage, especially in dimmer lighting, is trumped in my book by the iPhone's overwhelming light output advantage, making the iPhone 5 the more versatile screen (the ability to effectively combat ambient light is more important in a phone than in a TV, for example). Color is much closer than before, but the iPhone still gets a slight edge.

Finally, it bears repeating that I consider screen quality less important than numerous other factors, like handset design, size, brand, carrier, software, and ecosystem. It's still important enough to test, however, especially in expensive devices we increasingly use to consume images of all kinds.

For details on methodology, check out the original Screens Test. The main difference this time around is that I only measured one Note 2 review sample. I did measure the Note 2's modes at half brightness as well, but didn't include them in the table at the top of this article. See the charts above for the raw measurements.