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TV and movies on new iPad look better, but not by much

The dramatic improvement in resolution in the screen of the new iPad doesn't translate to significantly better-looking videos from iTunes, Netflix, or YouTube.

In a side-by-side comparison of TV and movies, I didn't see much difference between the old and new iPads. Can you?
Sarah Tew/CNET
When I directly compared the screens of old iPad 2 and the new iPad, I immediately noticed the improvement in resolution in text and some graphics, like the Apps icons. Being a TV reviewer, however, I was curious to see if there was any major improvement when watching movies and TV shows.

I spent a few hours this weekend looking at common video sources side-by-side, one on an old iPad 2 (1,024x768-pixel resolution) and one on the new iPad (2,048x1,536 pixels). Despite the massive boost in resolution, and what Apple claims is a 44 percent increase in color saturation, the picture quality improvements when watching moving video ranged, to my eyes, from subtle to nonexistent.

The biggest difference I saw was in color. Watching the highest-quality videos on iTunes, the colors on the new iPad, especially reds and blues, showed slightly better saturation and punch in some scenes and sources. That said, the old iPad 2 was no slouch, and often color on the two looked basically identical.

Ray Soneira at DisplayMate just published measurement results lauding the new iPads's color and gamma as "near-reference." I have no reason to doubt his results, but in the material I saw, the new iPad certainly doesn't blow away the old one at reproducing HD video sources. For what it's worth, and unlike Ray and my CNET reviewing colleagues in San Francisco, I didn't perform any measurements with instruments other than my eyes.

I'm only talking about videos played back on the iPad, not about videos shot by its camera, games, text, or still images. For comments on those sources, check out CNET's official iPad review.

I arranged the iPads next to one another on a desk and propped them up so my eyes were directly on-angle to their screens. They sat about 14 to 16 inches from my face, a distance that's close enough to appreciate fine details but not too close for comfort. It's worth noting that moving farther back from the screen, to about 18 to 20 inches or more, made any resolution differences I did note simply disappear.

It's worth mentioning again that the distance between the eye and the screen plays a pivotal part in the perception of resolution. From very close, about 10 inches or closer, pixel structure on the old iPad was clearly visible in video sources, for example as a fine mesh of grid lines--sort of like a screen door overlaying the image in white areas. I found that distance too close for comfort, however; my eyes had to move too much to keep track of onscreen action. From about 12 inches or more, pixel structure was not visible on the iPad 2 for me, although viewers with extremely good vision (mine is 20/20, but many people have even better vision than that) might notice it.

Differences in resolution are also much easier to see in still images than in moving video, which is another reason I'm not a fan of iPad resolution comparisons that invoke TVs.

For my viewing sessions, I watched in a nearly dark room with both iPads set to the default (middle) point on the brightness slider. I disabled automatic brightness; Apple offers no other controls.

iTunes video
HD movies and TV shows from iTunes represent some of the highest-quality video you can get on the iPad, and they comprised the majority of my viewing time. I started by downloading the high-def version of "Hugo," which looks spectacular on Blu-ray, to each iPad. Note that iTunes automatically supplied the new iPad with a version of the file labeled 1080p, while it gave the iPad 2 a 720p version.

The numbers on this clock from "Hugo" looked just a bit sharper on the new iPad. Paramount Pictures; screenshot by David Katzmaier/CNET

Differences in detail were visible side-by-side in some scenes, but as a rule they were extremely subtle. At the 10:51 mark for example, as Hugo climbs down into a clock above the station, the numbers on the face appeared very slightly sharper on the new iPad. At 20:10 and later, I saw a bit more sharpness in the lines on Hugo's father's shirt and the finest strokes of the drawings in his notebook.

I looked for resolution differences in other fine areas, for example the weave of Hugo's ubiquitous sweater, his hair and hands during close-ups, and the texture of the metal of the automaton, but they were quite rare; when I saw them, they were even more subtle than the two examples above.

Colors looked quite similar on the two. The main difference I noticed was that near-black areas on the new iPad's screen appeared bluer-tinged than they did on the iPad 2's--visible in the skies and the metal beams in the foreground as Hugo's uncle leads him to the station, for example (22:10). There were other color differences, but they were more subtle and I don't think I'd notice them outside of side-by-side comparison. The similarities in color, especially in skin tones, were much more striking than the differences, and in most scenes I literally couldn't tell the two apart.

During "Hugo" both iPads had basically identical "pop" or perceived contrast. If I had to choose between them, I'd give the slight edge to the new iPad, as its black levels appeared a bit darker, especially in some scenes, but the difference was, again, minimal.

Minor differences in color, especially in reds, showed up in some scenes from "Downton Abbey," for example. BBC; screenshot by David Katzmaier/CNET

Next up after "Hugo" was "Downton Abbey," which is one of the best-looking TV shows I've ever seen. It looked superb on the two iPads, too, and again I had a tough time telling them apart. During the Christmas episode, I didn't see any difference in detail, despite paying special attention to the numerous fin areas like the complex patterns on the carpeting and walls.

A few colors, especially red, did appear slightly richer on the new iPad, for example the carpet and columns and Mary's lips as she talks to Matthew (5:10). The grass around the estate, however, appeared basically the same between the two.

When I watched the animated "Happy Feet 2," resolution and contrast appeared identical, but I saw a few more color differences than in ether of the previous two videos. The sky and the ice appeared noticeably bluer on the new iPad, greener on the old one, while the reddish-orange under one adult penguin's head (6:22) looked a bit richer on the old iPad (go figure).

I also saw a bit of false contouring or solarization, where visible gradations appear instead of smooth progressions from dark to light, on the iPad 2 (but not on the new iPad). The most visible example came in the sky at 9:54. The issue was quite rare in "Happy Feet" and didn't crop up in any other comparisons, so I don't count it as major.

After iTunes, Netflix is one of the most common sources for video on an iPad. HD videos on Netflix look great, albeit not as good as iTunes high-def downloads like "Hugo." One of the best high-quality shows on Netflix is "Lost," but as I expected, I couldn't see any differences in detail between the two iPads when I watched the "Some Like it Hoth" episode. The main difference I noticed on Netflix was between the reds in the backgrounds of the loading screen (a bit deeper on the new iPad, for what it's worth).

Netflix says it will update its app to take advantage of the new screen in the future, but wouldn't say when.

Even the best-quality YouTube videos often look worse than the best of Netflix, so I wasn't surprised to see no difference in detail between the two iPads on the videos I watched: "I Just Had Sex," "Maya [HD]," and the NASA video "Massive Solar Flare gets HD Close Up."

Final thoughts
I didn't think it was worth comparing other sources, such as Hulu Plus, and I doubt any Web-based video showed major differences. I'm also not including home-brewed video files (like Blu-ray rips) in this comparison, since they're less common than the sources above and subject to numerous nonstandard variables (encoding, compression, etc.) that make replication of my observations difficult.

Aside from resolution, contrast, and color, other characteristics of the two iPad screens (off-angle viewing, handling of reflections, etc.) looked basically identical to my eyes. I wouldn't be surprised if instruments could detect more differences than I did, but I would if those differences could be called "major."

In summary, the new iPad's improved screen didn't improve the appearance of video I watched to the extent you might expect from Apple's specs. Yes, the new screen is better, but it doesn't provide nearly the same level of immediate, dramatic improvement for video as it does for text and graphics.

To do so, I think it needs better contrast ratio, which may require a shift in display technology to something like OLED. I'd also like to see a screen that handled reflections better, which would go a long way toward improving the appearance of dark scenes viewed in brighter environments.

Editors' note: This article was updated at 12:15 p.m. March 19, 2012, to specify the resolutions of the iTunes movie downloads.