Dynamic Backlighting

Apple is supposedly looking into advanced backlighting for their alleged upcoming TV.

In this case, as usual, Apple is late to the party but probably the first person to do it right. Although I work mostly on Cinema Displays, I do have some high end Dell displays I use for everything else. They advertise 1000000:1 contrast because of a “dynamic contrast” feature that essentially dims or turns off the backlight in areas with black pixels. While obviously a good idea, I noticed it has some delay. Going from the dim space desktop pictures Apple includes to a white Safari window would cause the backlight levels to come up for example. The problem is that this was noticeable. It takes about a third of a second for the animation of a Safari window to open and be white. It then takes about an entire second for the backlight to adjust. Maybe this is OK for browsing but for gaming it’s a disaster.

Based on the report, it looks like Apple is only looking into letterbox situations. While with early LCDs “black” areas in front of a full backlight were often a very bright “black”, today’s IPS panels are getting pretty good at it. As a simple test, I fed black to an LED Cinema Display at full brightness and turned off the light. While it was detectably on, the light was insignificant.

I’m not saying Apple shouldn’t do this. Obviously completely invisible black bars would be ideal. This is why I only watch my movies using a projector. (This also makes for a superior experience dealing with 4:3 content – I hope Apple doesn’t ignore this use case if they do implement this, a lot of SD iTunes content is 4:3.) DLP is a lot better at blocking blacks and I often have no idea what ratio my movies are at because I don’t have the reference of bars against 16:9 to compare. After watching mostly 16:9 content I pulled up a much wider movie. Being that it was a bright winter day (you know that time of day where the sun is directly in your eyes no matter which direction you face) I used my 16:9 Dell display to watch and was horrified at how noticeable the letter boxing was, not because of the panel but because of the bezel.

If I had to describe a “perfect” solution it would probably still be a projector, but one that can shutter the letterbox so it’s literally black. Of course this is all in the context of movies and entertainment in general as projectors less than 10 grand have pretty lousy color and thus aren’t suitable for work. Maybe future laser projectors will be better at that.

I hope Apple realizes that they need to service people with 60″ sets, projectors, and other complicated setups and never discontinues the AppleTV brick. It obviously won’t need FaceTime support but should always run the same version of the software as the “real” Apple TV (kind of like updating your camera less iPad 1 to iOS 5). Either way, I’m probably going to buy an Apple Television for development purposes and maybe my alternative daytime viewing method. Regardless, it will be on my desk and not front and center in the living room. Apple won’t unseat my projector until they make one themselves.

*** Update ***
The rest of the article talks about running the whole movie through a auto-levels filter. First: this is kind of like Sound Check in iTunes, it kinda works, but the real problem is that there are these discrepancies to begin with. While there are shows that are dim for no reason (Glee needs a solid 2x to get to normal) most of the time the movie’s director / colorist chose to make it dark and adjustments are better left done manually so the user is aware that they are degrading picture quality. In my view, this is a very annoying trend in Hollywood and “too dark” is a perfectly justifiable 1-Star review. Darkness never does a good job of setting the mood it’s supposed to because a dark movie screen is often polluted by exit sign lights, and until Apple makes this television, households have similar problems. The best way to make people aware that the scene is “dark” but still have it be bright is to use a cool color temperature and keep the background reasonably dark, but never the subjects.