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.

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One thought on “Smartphone displays continue to get sharper- how much resolution do we really need?

  1. We need as much resolution as possible. While 600+ dpi is not necessary on a smartphone there are other applications for such a display like the Oculus Rift. The current Rift development kit features as 7″ 1280×800 screen with a pixel density of 215 PPI. While many would consider this display to be high density, just about every review of the Rift contains complaints of the screendoor effect (being able to see the pixel structure). The consumer version is expected to be 1080p which will certainly help but a 4K version would be spectacular.

    The reason why the Rift is so cheap is because they can use off the shelf displays meant for smartphones. The heavy demand for smartphones allow for economies of scale which keeps the prices down. If Oculus had to make these displays themselves the device would be way more expensive.

    Hopefully panel manufacturers will keep pushing pixel density higher and higher. That being said they should definitely be treating color reproduction as a similar spec that should be pushed higher.

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