iPhone 5 Display vs. iPhone 4 Display

I always raise my eyebrows just a bit when it comes to marketing, but the last time Steve Jobs invoked the Retina Display moniker, the vision scientist in me checked to see if his claims held up and sure enough, they did.  This time I was not so concerned withthe technical details of Apple‘s marketing claims, but was more interested in seeing if the displays, viewed up close could be distinguishable between the new iPhone 5 and my older iPhone 4.

I’ve been looking at the pixels in the new iPhone 5 over the last few days and it really is a higher quality display than the Retina Display in the iPhone 4.  Subjectively, looking at the display there is more contrast, the blacks are blacker and the colors are more intense.  The iPhone 4 display is very, very good.  So, would the iPhone 5 display be appreciably better?  Anyone can subjectively look at photographs and when you do, you can tell that there is more vibrance, but I wanted to get closer by inspecting the pixels in a stereomicroscope.

I took both the new iPhone 5 and the older iPhone 4 and placed their screens on maximum brightness, then imaged them with the same settings with my stereomicroscope and a Canon 1D Mk III camera.  Magnification was held constant in all captures.

The image above gives you some idea for the two displays, but what is more difficult to appreciate from these 2D images is that the pixels in the iPhone 5 are closer to the surface of the glass than in the iPhone 4.  This is because Apple has integrated the touch sensor into the display and not layered it on top of the glass.  Its hard to appreciate the depth of the pixels without a 3D image that you can move around, but the iPhone 4 pixels are appreciably deeper in the display and thus further away from the surface than they are in the iPhone 5.  The iPhone 4 made a huge jump in pixel distance from the glass surface from the iPhone 3, and while this is not such a huge jump in distance as the iPhone 3 to 4, the results can be seen even without benefit of 3D viewing, particularly in the black or dark regions of the display.


However, looking at higher magnification is where you can really see the difference in images.  It turns out that the pixels in the iPhone 5 are *precisely* the same size as the iPhone 4 pixels, but the iPhone 5 pixels have better color saturation with more contrast, seen particularly in the blue pixels.  I did not calculate the difference in color saturation between the two iPhones, but it is pretty clear to the eye which is which.  Apple claims 44% increase in color saturation and from these images, I believe them.

Update: 09/27/12: Jeff Yurek does a really nice analysis of the spectra of the iPhone 4s vs. 5 screen here.

Interestingly, it almost looks like the *shape* of the pixels in the new iPhone 5 are a little crisper as well.  The edges of the subpixels seem more squared in the iPhone 5 than in the iPhone 4.  It would take a more powerful stereo microscope than I have to truly quantify the shape differences.  These sorts of things seem small at the micron level, which is the scale that we are talking about, but they really do end up making a big difference in perception.  And if you are spending huge amounts of time with a device, like you do your phone, that level of detail ends up being a big difference in eye strain and fatigue.



87 Replies to “iPhone 5 Display vs. iPhone 4 Display”

    1. Nerdtastic my friend, nerdtastic… The first photo was taken at an angle so as to try and illustrate the depth of the pixels underneath the glass. Most of the difference is seen when looking at the contrast and the blacks or dark areas around the Safari icon.

      Certainly, the second image shows it best with a straight on view.

          1. Is there really no difference between the 4 and 4S. I know it’s basically the same, but have you checked it as well?

          2. I don’t have a 4S, otherwise I would have looked at it. From my understanding though, there were no changes in the screen from the 4 to the 4S. If that is incorrect, I am sure someone will inform me here…

  1. LOL it’s sad when things are compared at a miniscule level like this and taken in as gold. Apple is a scammmmmmm to those who don’t know anything about technology and they know it.

    1. Funny b/c I own both a 4S and 5 and the difference if display quality is clear to a naked eye – the 5 is way better. Brighter. Better whites and blacks. Etc.

      You, sir, are a hating troll :)

  2. How were able to take a picture of each screen at the exact same placement, pixel for pixel? That would seem almost impossible.

    If I didn’t trust you (and I do), I would assume that the 2nd photo was just the same as the first and just “leveled down” a little in image editing software. Since I believe you, there must be a way that you were able to position the photos so incredibly similar.

    1. Careful placement and close registration of the images in software to accommodate the minor shift. No pixel values were altered between the two images, just a x-y shift and crop.

  3. What I don’t understand is…

    Wouldn’t the monitor I use to view this website influence the interpretation of your results?

    What if my desktop monitor is lower colour quality than either phone, how will I be able to judge a quality difference?

    1. Even if you’re monitor isn’t as good as the phones’ displays (like mine), you should still be able to tell the relative difference between the two.

      Unless of course your monitor is so poor the differences are too small for it to render. But if that’s the case, it’s probably time for a new monitor. :-)

  4. Could you speak to the changes in the iPhone 5 screen vs the human visual system?

    The changes obviously provide higher physical resolution, but what’s the overall effect on *perceived* resolution, factoring in human color & contrast sensitivities?

    1. That is a potentially long and convolved post that I don’t have time to do now, but its very interesting. There is a *LARGE* literature on the psychophysics of perception, acuity and color. Some of the issues with respect to resolution I touched on in this post when the Retina Display was first announced: http://prometheus.med.utah.edu/~bwjones/2010/06/apple-retina-display/ But other issues on color perception and contrast are another set of issues entirely. However, the short answer is that more color saturation and higher contrast will make for a more “pleasing” image… up to a point. These displays show us that we are getting better, and perhaps still have some room to grow.

      The bigger issues now I think will have to do with image display in bright light…

  5. In fact, if you turn up your brightness and look at the iP5 magnification ON an actual iPhone 5 it looks 3D and makes you dizzy.

    The colours look very rich.

  6. From your two comparing pictures at the top, I don’t see any difference.

    To me the iPhone 5 couls also be called iPhone 4sl (the “l” for large screen).

    I am missing nfc and lte for german carriers like vodafone and o2.

    Other than that, the new iphone 4sl is a great phone.

  7. nice report :) is it possible that the iPhone 5 shows warmer colors than the iPhone 4? the whites look more like going into the yellow direction than going in the blues (like on the iPhone 4)…

  8. Pingback: iPhone 5

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