Look closely, you don't want to miss out on all of those pixels!

Opinion: You don't want a high-resolution phone

You won’t get far into a conversation about one of the new flagship phones without quickly hearing about screen resolution. A couple of years ago, 1080p was the holy grail. Today, 1080p is the minimum expectation in a high-end smartphone. The LG G3 is being praised for its enormous, Quad HD display. That, by the way, is 1440p. It’s called Quad HD because it has four times as many pixels as a 720p display. It’s also a waste.

Let’s do a little experiment. You’re reading GeekSided, so I’m going to assume that you have a cell phone in your pocket or on your desk. Grab it. Read your latest text message or check your recent calls. How far from your face is the phone? 18 inches? 2 feet? further?

When you hold it at a normal length from your face, you’re missing out on half of what you paid for!
Dr. Raymond Soneira, who owns and operates a firm called DisplayMate, says that once the phone is 15 inches away from your face, you can no longer discern anything more precise than around 230 pixels per inch (ppi). In the abstract, this probably doesn’t mean much to you unless you are really into the spec wars. The new LG G3’s QHD display boasts 538 ppi. When you hold it at a normal length from your face, you’re missing out on half of what you paid for!
Let’s look at another comparison. Fledgling smartphone maker Oppo has created the same phone with two different display options: 1080p or QHD. Check out how close you have to get to start telling a difference. On the right is 1080p and on the left is the QHD (ignore the color differences as these devices had not been color calibrated):


Can you see the difference? There’s a little one if you look just right. The phone is no more than 2-4 inches from the devices here and the difference is still negligible. Here’s a comparison where you can finally really see a difference, kind of:



Is it worth it?

Of course, it is more than just the QHD display of the G3 that is overkill. Here’s a rundown of very-high ppi devices that are popular today:

  • iPhones 4, 4S, 5, 5C, 5S – 326 ppi
  • HTC One M7 – 469 ppi
  • HTC One m8 – 441 ppi
  • Google Nexus 5 – 445 ppi
  • Samsung Galaxy S4 – 441 ppi
  • Samsung Galaxy S5 – 432 ppi

That’s just a sampling. Now, in the abstract once again, who cares, right? Better too much than too little! Not exactly.

Every pixel comes at a cost. Think of it this way: with the way the cell phone industry works today, there are fairly hard upper limits on the price of a device. If the phone costs more than $200 with a 2-year contract, it becomes a niche device. The non-contract price of flagship smartphones range from $650-$750 at the entry level of internal storage.

Smartphone makers are basically faced with a budget and have to cram as many features as they can before the phone gets too expensive. When I say every pixel comes at a cost, it comes at a cost to everything else the manufacturer could have invested into the device. As a consumer, you need to vote with your dollar and make the industry know that you cannot be fooled with inflated resolution specifications; no, you need things that truly benefit the user experience.

For instance, each pixel draws power. Adding all the pixels that boost a phone from 720p to Quad HD theoretically quadruples the power draw of the display. This is even worse on LCD displays, where inactive pixels continue to draw power. At least a cleverly designed phone with an AMOLED high-resolution display can try to minimize the battery impact, like the Moto X did; of course, the Moto X didn’t have an over-killed display resolution. There are not many power saving features implemented in the software of Samsung’s AMOLED devices, but they’re starting to work on it (HTC, LG, and Apple use LCD).

They had to pack a 3000 mAh battery and add features to throttle the CPU speed and lower the screen’s refresh rate to do that.
When Computer World asked LG about the G3’s display’s effect on battery life, they assured CW that the G3’s battery life would be on par with its competitors. That misses the point. They had to pack a 3000 mAh battery and add features to throttle the CPU speed and lower the screen’s refresh rate to do that.

So to get a QHD display on a device with serviceable battery life, you have to also have a huge battery, software to compromise the processing performance, and a setting that affects the refresh rate, which is an aspect of the display users can actually see.

Now, the LG G3 is going to have great battery life. This is what LG has been all about since they released the G2. Nevertheless, it should be better. There shouldn’t be a QHD screen. 1080p would even likely constitute a waste. That the device jumps through hoops like lowering processor performance to compensate is ridiculous and makes me wonder how good battery life could be if that was as valued by consumers as resolution.

I will concede that it would be a shame if the industry gave up on improving displays. There are some purposes for a tiny, extremely high-resolution display beyond just having something better than your neighbor. If you insist upon having the phone very close to your face, for instance, you might want to look into it. If you are closely inspecting high-res images, this might be necessary for you. Of course, I would still question why this needs to be done on a phone.

More importantly, displays can be improved in ways that go beyond screen resolution. Color fidelity is still an evolving science. There is still a great deal of work to be done on making touch screens glare-resistant so you can use them in the sunshine without squinting and turning the brightness to 100%. These are not priorities in this industry, though.

You don’t have to take 230 ppi at 15 inches cue to heart; I think you can and should go higher. The retina displays of the iPhone make a good compromise, I think, between being on the bleeding edge of technology and not being ridiculous overkill. I had an iPhone 3GS and then jumped to the iPhone 4 (the first with a retina display) and there was a real difference.

Personal experience tells me that there is a meaningful difference between 163 ppi (iPhone 3GS) and 326 ppi (iPhone 4 and newer). I later switched to an HTC One M7 (469 ppi) and while the bigger screen was welcome, I didn’t perceive any benefits of the higher ppi. Maybe I would have noticed if I held both of them at 6 inches in front of my face, but that’s not how most of us use our phones. The bigger screens of today’s devices make the need for bringing the phone near our face even less of an issue.

Why bother increasing the resolution into absurdity that is already a ton easier to see by virtue of its size? (Source: Karlis Dambrans, Flickr)

Why bother increasing the resolution into absurdity on a device that is already a ton easier to see by virtue of its size? (Source: Karlis Dambrans, Flickr)

Going slightly over that guideline of 230 ppi at 15 inches of distance makes particular sense for reading text. If you are going to be reading ebooks, that retina-esque pixel density will be well worth your while. It will also be nice for those times when you just want to look closely at something. I’m not advocating always buying the minimum necessary specification. If you’re near-sighted, maybe even more makes sense.

The trick here is that specifications aren’t all that matter. Earlier, I said I wished that consumers valued battery life more. Well, I know that you value battery life. Unfortunately, we don’t have a great way to measure it. Go to an Android forum and watch owners of the HTC One M8 and Samsung Galaxy S5 argue about whose battery life is longer. If we had something other than self-reported talk time, standby time, and web browsing time that we all could agree on, I think there would be an industry-wide race to be the best in that regard instead of screen resolution.

I know that you value battery life. Unfortunately, we don’t have a great way to measure it.

Until then, hold the manufacturers’ feet to the fire. Don’t just buy the highest-resolution screen. If the quality of the screen is important to you, go to your local retail store and look at them. Before you bias yourself with information about the resolution, look at all the choices and figure out which looks best. There isn’t enough pressure on manufacturers to make colors more accurate, for instance, which would obviously be relevant to your experience with the device.

Decide whether you prefer AMOLED or LCD – the former renders better blacks, is more power efficient, but wears out sooner. The latter renders better whites, less saturated colors, uses more power, but lasts longer. If you buy the best looking screen and you find out the battery life is awful, take it back.

Don’t even buy before you know the return policy. As a person who wants better phones for everyone, it is a crying shame that a phone like the Motorola Moto X reportedly failed to sell a million units in Q1 of 2014. This is despite being named the best phone available by publication after publication and generally being regarded as a great device. Motorola took the approach of prioritizing user experience over flashy specs and has on multiple occasions made the phone free on contract and as low as $300 off-contract. The public still voted against it.

There’s one thing Apple does right: while there is a big hype and fashion factor with their products, the fact that they don’t let third parties run their software prevents them from getting caught up in silly spec wars. They can focus on the things that really matter, like software. The money that it costs to build good software is built into the phone, too, and that’s where others are being forced to cut corners.

I’m leaving other screens out of this for now, but I can’t help but mention that it’s of dubious value on TVs. 1080p or the newly-popular 4K resolution is only useful on a television when the thing you are watching was filmed in that resolution. Almost nothing is filmed in 4K at present and 1080p only comes in handy when you are watching Blu-Ray or streaming motion pictures filmed in 1080p. Broadcast television does not broadcast in 1080p; it is either 720p or 1080i, depending on the channel’s preference.

For computer monitors, there are some legitimate applications. A higher resolution monitor can have more full windows displayed at once without anything getting cut out. With that said, high resolution on too small of a computer screen will make everything too small at the native resolution, making high-res computer displays best for large, desktop monitors.

As for your mobile devices, just don’t buy into the hype. You don’t want a screen whose benefits you can only discern if you hold it right next to your face but whose downsides are apparent every second you drain the battery or miss out on features that manufacturers should have invested in.

Featured image by Pabak Sarkar (Flickr).

Tags: Displays Opinion Smartphones Technology

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