Smartphone displays continue to get sharper- how much resolution do we really need?

Last week DisplaySearch put out a new report on the current trend towards ever higher display resolutions. High resolution displays now make up most of the market for handhelds and 300+ ppi “retina-class” resolutions are coming on strong:

Smartphones and handheld devices are moving rapidly to high resolution. 200+ ppi will account for 54% of unit share in in 2013, with 24% of unit share to be 300+ ppi. Even higher resolution panels in the FHD class will emerge. 400-500 ppi FPDs are expected to hit the market with fast shipment growth in 2013. (source: DisplaySearch)

Not exactly earth shattering news. The display industry began rapidly moving towards higher resolutions the moment Apple first unveiled the retina display with it’s iPhone 4 in 2009. What is interesting here is that the trend shows no signs of abating, even as resolutions approach or surpass the acuity of the average human eye.

Highest resolution smartphone from 2009 to 2013 as a percentage of what the human eye can detect

Best performing smartphones in terms of display resolution from 2009 to 2013. Shown as a percentage of what the average human eye can detect.

The HTC One is leading the charge this year at 468 ppi. According to Dr. Ray Soneira of DisplayMate, that’s already equivalent to Apple’s retina display for eyes with 20/20 vision at a distance of just 7.4 inches from the eye- much closer than an average user will typically hold the device.

The question is- just how noticeable are additional increases in resolution beyond 400-500 ppi going to be for consumers? In my view, resolutions above 530 ppi will be wasted on the vast majority of users. Unless you have near perfect vision and hold your phone excessively close to your eye, you just won’t be able to see the difference. Still, device makers seem intent on pushing resolution as far as they can- some manufacturers I spoke with at DisplayWeek 2013 even talked about 4K smartphones!

It’s a shame because there are many other display performance characteristics that would benefit users. They may sound like less exciting specs but color performance, sunlight readability (a combination of reflectance, brightness and color saturation), and efficiency would all improve usability much more than another 50 or 100 ppi in resolution.

AMOLED TV’s cost 10x more than LCDs to make

A new report from DisplaySearch today shows that TV-sized OLED panels remain prohibitively expensive to manufacture. According to their data, AMOLED price premiums over LCDs range from 30% for smartphone-sized panels to an order of magnitude greater for a 55” TV-sized display.

AMOLED TVs make great tradeshow demos but the data continues to prove the technology is more vaporware than a viable consumer product in the TV space. With major quality improvements coming for LCDs like 8K resolution, higher dynamic range and wide color gamut, AMOLED faces an uphill battle in the race to become the display technology of the future.

OLED TV’s: bullish or bearish?

A recent DisplaySearch report reveals that manufacturing issues continue to plague OLED TV production.  The analyst firm writes:

Coming into July, mass production of OLED panels is not ready, and 3Q panel production means completed OLED TV set starting timing will be Q4’12 at best.

This information has lead DisplaySearch to revise down its OLED forecast from 50k units to just 20k produced in 2012.

Since the market is determined by supply in the short term, the lack of timely supply means that the potential market of 50K units in 2012 is not possible.

Even this lower projection may prove too bullish. If complete sets do not start rolling off assembly lines until Q4 ’12, OLED makers have very little room for error to move a significant volume of units by the end of the year.

An even bigger problem for OLED technology might be that LCDs are continuing to provide stiff competition. In the same report, DisplaySearch highlights the “dynamic, extremely competitive” nature of LCDs:

The other factor, of course, is that the incumbent technology is dynamic and extremely competitive in terms of value and price. 60” LED-backlit LCD TVs are expected to fall to $999 for Black Friday, while 70” and larger sizes will likely be available at aggressive pricing as well. LCD TVs using oxide TFTs may be available in 4K x 2K format could also have a big impact on 55” OLED TVs when they are launched. Just as in smartphones, where Apple has used high resolution LCD to compete with Samsung’s AMOLED phones, consumers could see contrast ratio and high resolution as offering greater benefit.

CES 2013 should be an especially interesting indicator for the future of TV panel technology, as we will have a clearer picture of what OLED makers can deliver, while LCD makers drive down price and introduce new sets with higher resolution, deeper blacks and wide color gamut.