The New iPad’s (Too?) Yellow Display

While much of the press has focused on whether the new iPad is “too hot to handle,” I have been tracking another temperature matter: whether the colors of the new iPad’s display are too warm.

My pre-ordered iPad arrived on launch day, March 16. After setting it up, I was immediately struck by how yellow the display appeared. It was especially noticeable with white backgrounds, which had a faded yellow parchment-like look. Even photographs seemed to be lacking the eye-popping saturation I had expected.

I next compared the new iPad to my iPad 2. The difference was clear and obvious. The iPad 2 had a cool white balance, resulting in stark bright white backgrounds. In contrast, the third-generation iPad was shifted to a significantly warmer end of the spectrum.

New iPad

The yellow shift on the right was artifically added to the image.

A search of the web revealed that I was far from the only one to notice this difference. As one example, Macworld’s Jason Snell reported:

“I found the color temperature on the new iPad to be warmer and more yellow than that on the iPad 2. In isolation, both screens seemed perfectly normal. Only when I placed old and new iPads together did I notice that one is slightly warmer than the other.”

A difference between Jason’s experience and mine is that I immediately detected the change in the new iPad. I didn’t have to wait for a side-by-side comparison. While my preference was for the look of my iPad 2, that didn’t mean anything was wrong with my new iPad. Figuring out exactly what was going on would require more investigation.

The three theories

I eventually determined at least three possible explanations for the yellower iPad display:

It’s deliberate and it’s good. According to this theory, Apple intentionally shifted the color balance of third-generation iPads. Speculation is that Apple did so because they believe that, with the new Retina display, the shift results in a more pleasing look. 

The colors on the new display may also be more accurate. The dot color site claims that the new iPad shows a “stunning amount of improvement in color performance.” The displayMate site found “the new iPad has a virtually perfect 99 percent of the Standard Color Gamut (a 38 percent improvement over the iPad 2).”

In any case, if this theory is correct, it implies that all new iPads should look the same as mine. Given my negative reaction to my new iPad’s display, I was hoping such was not the case.

It’s deliberate but it’s bad. A slight variation on the first theory begins with the same assumption that the display shift is intentional and thus affects all new iPads. However, according to this view, the shift is a problem because the colors are significantly less accurate. TMO’s Jeff Gamet writes: 

“Despite all my raving about the iPad’s Retina Display, I found one glaring problem that may be enough to keep some people from upgrading to the new model: The promised deeper color saturation comes at a price in that hues are shifted noticeably towards yellow. The shift makes colors seem warmer, but for any work that involves having a reasonable idea what your colors really look like this display comes up short.”

To prove his point, Jeff showed how the colors of a photograph of oranges is less accurate when viewed on an new iPad compared to an iPad 2. How does this reconcile with the previous reports of increased color accuracy of the new iPad? I don’t know. However, Jeff informs me that he is doing further quantitative testing — with results to be reported soon.

In any event, confirming that his own iPad was not a rogue bad apple, Jeff went to an Apple Store and found that the iPads on display all “showed the same heavy shift towards yellow.” Still, Jeff concedes that “the average consumer…probably won’t be bothered by the iPad’s yellow shift.” Apparently, I am not average.

It’s not deliberate. The third and final theory is that the yellow shift is not intentional. It represents an error that affects only a subset of new iPads. There are two variations to this theory.

The first is that the shift is the result of a defect in a bad batch of displays. If true, and if you have one of these iPads, your probable best course of action is to exchange it for a different one.

The second variation (noted by several postings in a lengthy Apple Support Communities thread that also explores other possible theories) is that the color shift is temporary and will correct itself over time.

According to this view, the culprit is the glue that seals the display to the iPad case. If an iPad ships before the glue has sufficient time to dry and cure, the color shift is apparent. When completely cured, typically after a week or so, the yellow effect should vanish. People advocating for this theory point to similar problems that surfaced with prior iPad and iPhone models — and that cleared up over time.

So I waited a week. Unfortunately, my iPad’s display did not change. It remained as yellow as ever. My vote was going for the bad batch theory.

More than one explanation?

At this point, I suspect that there are two separate issues in play. It seems that all new iPads have at least a slight shift toward yellow. This is likely intentional on Apple’s part. This small shift may result in more accurate color. In addition, a subset of iPads show a significantly greater shift. There is no chance of viewing this larger shift as an intended improvement. Supporting this interpretation, a photograph posted to MacRumors shows an iPad 2, a “good” new iPad and a “bad” new iPad. Note the much more yellow look of the “bad” one.  My iPad clearly fell into this last group.

A visit to the Apple Store

I was now convinced that I should replace my iPad. I took it to my local Apple Store. Confirming the wisdom of my decision, I noted (unlike what Jeff Gamet found) that my iPad’s display was significantly more yellow than the iPads out on the tables.

True to the great reputation of Apple Stores, I had zero problem returning my iPad. As I was still within the two week return window, this was not a big surprise. Still, I was very pleased with the customer service. The Store had the model I wanted in stock, so I made an immediate exchange. The Apple Specialist made an offhand comment that I was not the first person returning an iPad for this complaint.

My new new iPad

The final result? My second new iPad still shows a distinct yellow shift compared to my iPad 2. But it is a substantially lesser shift, more like the “good” iPad in the cited photo. The display also seems a bit brighter and sharper than the iPad I returned, but that may be an artifact of the different color shift. In any case, this is all consistent with my theory that there are two separate yellow shifts among the new iPads.

For now, I am a happy camper, content to stick with my new new iPad. Whites are white enough. Photos pop off the screen as expected. Text looks so crisp that the letters seem stamped on the display. It’s time to stop fretting about my new iPad and start enjoying it.