Much is unknown about Microsoft Surface. Though the tablet has been announced, hyped, and put on sale (for pre-orders), few outside of Microsoft have spent any time with it. So, though we can look at pretty pictures and read its list of specs, the device is still a mystery.

Take, for example, Surface's display. On paper, the 1,366 x 768 resolution is subpar for a 2012 high-end tablet. According to CNET, though, Microsoft says that it will look sharper than Apple's Retina Display iPad.

How can there be such a discrepancy? Is Microsoft blowing a bunch of hot air, or is there really some secret sauce that makes resolution irrelevant?

Ask the Expert

Screen expert Raymond Soneira of DisplayMate Technologies says the answer may lie somewhere in the middle. He hasn't yet seen a Surface tablet in person, but he does know the ClearType technology (Microsoft's marketing term) that supposedly makes it sharper than the iPad's market-leading display. Known in the field as sub-pixel rendering, Soneira acknowledges that the technology can indeed boost a display's perceived resolution.

Making a mediocre display look better is one thing, but can it make it look better than a display with three times the pixels? Soneira doesn't buy it. He examined the display in an Asus netbook, which is nearly identical to the one in Surface. When compared to the 1,024 x 768 iPad 2 and 2,048 x 1,536 third-gen iPad, the expert found the Asus display to lie somewhere in between:

    "The Windows ClearType 768p display on the Asus Netbook was significantly sharper than the iPad 2 768p display but also significantly less sharp than the new iPad 3 1536p display. It is certainly possible that the Microsoft Surface RT Tablet will perform better than the Asus Netbook, but it is very unlikely that it will turn out to be visually sharper than the new iPad 3."

The netbook's screen isn't necessarily the same as Surface's, but – with identical resolution and sub-pixel rendering – it's probably in the same ballpark. So expect Surface's display to look much sharper than that of the iPad 2, but it probably won't hold a candle to the new iPad's Retina Display.

Surface Pro could deliver

The display in the Windows 8 Pro version of Surface could be a different story

Soneira says the real treat may lie with the Windows Pro version of Surface (due in 2013). When the same sub-pixel rendering is applied to its 1,920 x 1,080 display, the expert believes that it could outdo the iPad's display. By the time Surface Pro launches, though, Apple could have released a fourth-gen iPad with an even better display.

It's natural for execs to hype their products – especially one as critical to its maker as Surface is to Microsoft – but overblown claims can also backfire. We'll give Microsoft some leeway here, as we haven't yet seen Surface, but we'd also take its claims with grains of salt.

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