Is 1080p the final step for smartphone screen resolutions?

With yesterday’s Samsung Galaxy S4 announcement, Samsung joined the likes of HTC One and Sony Xperia Z with having its own 1920 x 1080 (1080p) smartphone for 2013. That resolution is unique in that for the first time since cellphones became commonplace, the screen resolution actually matches the highest common TV and video resolution out there. Even with the 5-inch screens on these devices, that’s a whopping 440 PPI, and I think it’s safe to say that there’s really no point in increasing the resolution further.

Assuming that manufacturers see it the same way, that begs the question of what exactly will become the next center stage feature on smartphones. Water proofing? Better cameras? More processing power? Battery efficiency?  There are a lot of possibilities, and I for one am glad that we might finally start seeing advances in battery life and processing power be used for other things than just driving larger and higher resolution displays.

Honestly though, I have to wonder about how useful these new displays truly are. I had a chance to test an Xperia Z a couple of days ago, and I was surprised at how unimpressed I was when I saw the screen. Don’t get me wrong, it’s beautiful. It’s ridiculously sharp, everything looks perfect on it, and the sample videos that come with it truly show off what a 1080p 5-inch display is capable of, video-wise.

Despite all of that though, my reaction to it was more one of confirming what I was already expecting than it was one that blew me away. I still remember the first time I saw an iPhone 4; I was amazed at how good it looked. I didn’t get that with the Xperia Z, because I fully expected it to look that way. Yawn.

What’s perhaps more interesting is that I didn’t suddenly feel a need to change out my Galaxy S II when I played with the Xperia Z, despite the fact that the S II’s 480 x 800 resolution would be considered a thumbnail on the Z’s screen. It basically comes down to the fact that I wouldn’t actually use a 1080p-equipped phone any differently from the one I have; it would just look better.

What’s also interesting is Apple’s position in all of this. The iPhone 5‘s screen ratio and resolution bump last fall was very modest, and I highly doubt that Apple is going to try to match 1080p phones any time soon. Truth be told, I actually find the iPhone 5 more pleasing to use than that of the Xperia Z, because both have screens where you can’t see the pixels, and the Xperia Z’s resolution advantage comes at the cost of a less pocket (and one hand operation) friendly design. Some like large phone screens, but I’m less and less convinced the more I play with these large devices.

A casualty of the resolution chase has been the 4-inch form factor, and I’d be really interested to see what would happen if someone put the specs from these new 1080p monsters into a 4-inch device, and switched out the screen for a 720p one. Something tells me I would pay more attention to the resulting device than I had to the current top-of-the-line devices. That’s just my opinion, though.

Either way, I think that we’ve now arrived at what will be the de facto flagship model resolution for a while, and it’s going to be interesting to see how the manufacturers  handle not being able to tout an increased screen resolution as the latest and greatest feature anymore. We’ve sort of already seen possible future strategies, as Sony is going thin and waterproof, HTC is trying to redefine the camera, and Samsung is focusing more and more on software. At the very least, I hope that come next year, there won’t be a Galaxy S5 with a 2550 x 1600 resolution. Enough is enough.

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Andreas Ødegård

Andreas Ødegård is more interested in aftermarket (and user created) software and hardware than chasing the latest gadgets. His day job as a teacher keeps him interested in education tech and takes up most of his time.