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Pixel promises: here's what to expect from your next mobile display

Pixel promises: here's what to expect from your next mobile display


How many pixels is too many?

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nhk super hi-vision hero
nhk super hi-vision hero

In the same month that Microsoft's Surface team was on Reddit proclaiming that display resolution wasn't that important, other companies pushed smartphone, tablet, and laptop resolutions to new heights. Who's right? Ultimately, we may never find out — Samsung, Apple, HTC, Asus, LG, and others are entrenched in a pixel-density war that shows no signs of abating, and Microsoft will likely join the fray eventually. October saw the resolution oneupmanship reach a new level, as three products were announced with class-leading displays: the 5-inch 1080p HTC J Butterfly, the 10-inch 2560 x 1600 Nexus 10, and the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display.

While Samsung's and Apple's new products set the bar higher, it's HTC's 1080p phone that represents a huge leap forward. Its LG-manufactured display packs in 440 pixels per inch, making it far more dense than Apple's much-lauded Retina displays and even the 4.3-inch 720p displays found in recent Sony and HTC models. Although we’re more than impressed with the quality offered by the latest displays on the market, manufacturers aren’t resting on their laurels: October also saw a new set of ultra-high-resolution panels announced, ready for next year’s smartphones and tablets.


Perhaps the most impressive technological feat was Ortus technology's 9.6-inch 3840 x 2160 display. The company — which demoed a 4.8-inch 1080p panel last year — says the display is the world's smallest capable of displaying Ultra High-Definition (the new name for 4K) content. A 9.6-inch display might seem like perfect fodder for tablets, but Ortus' prototype unit is remarkably thick, and the company is aiming it at medical and video professionals. That's not to say we'll never see such a display in a tablet, but it looks as though it's not going to happen any time soon.

JDI has a 7-inch display with double the Nexus 7's resolution in the works

A 7-inch display from Japan Display (JDI) is far more likely to find its way into your next tablet, though. JDI was set up to channel Sony, Hitachi, and Toshiba's efforts into producing new "small and medium size" displays. The company recently went into production with an LG-matching 5-inch 1080p display, but its plans for 2013 are far more ambitious. It recently displayed the fruit of its collaborative labors at a trade show in Yokohama: a 7-inch, 2560 x 1600 display intended for tablets. For perspective, that's the same resolution offered by both the 10-inch Nexus 10 and the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display over a surface area that's 51 and 71 percent smaller, respectively.

The new panel will also utlize Sony's WhiteMagic technology, first demoed (and immensely appreciated) on Sony's Xperia P. WhiteMagic adds a fourth white pixel to the regular "RGB" layout that allows the backlight to be less bright. Sony says that allows for power savings of up to 40 percent over regular LCDs, or brighter images, depending on your preference. JDI also showed off a 5-inch 1080p display that will feature WhiteMagic tech. DigInfo TV has some footage of the new displays in action, and says that JDI is hoping to enter production shortly. It’s probably not a surprise that the new 7-inch display is the same size as both the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HD's displays, and its resolution is exactly double that of Google and Amazon's tablets.

It’s not just JDI that is close to bringing its next-generation displays to market: Sharp’s new IGZO panels are already showing up in smartphones. The first IGZO panels are low-power alternatives to current-generation 720p displays, but we saw a prototype 6.1-inch 2560 x 1600 display back in May that blew us away.

Do we really need more pixels?

The real question is: do we really need more pixels? Apple would say no. When it first announced the Retina display, it asserted that the human eye could not distinguish pixels at a density of over 300ppi from 12 inches, and made similar claims (based on different viewing distances) for its iPad and Retina MacBook lines. You shouldn't take Apple's PR as scientific evidence; when we saw HTC's J Butterfly up close we thought it had the best-looking display we'd ever seen. While 1080p smartphones are unlikely to suffer performance issues, higher-resolution tablet displays could could be a real concern. As the latest Retina MacBook illustrates perfectly, there's not a lot of point in having a beautiful display if your hardware isn't powerful enough to handle it. For smaller devices, battery life could also be an issue. There's no sure-fire way of predicting which displays will turn up in which tablets or smartphones next year, but we’re almost certain to see manufacturers opting for the highest-resolution displays possible. The pixel-density war is far from over — but are consumers really winning?