Are Larger Screens Driving Higher Resolutions, Or Vice Versa?


The way things are looking, we’ll see the launch of the first smartphone with a 1080p display before the year’s out. LG has already announced its intent to release just such a product, and we’ve heard rumors that HTC could have a phone of its own with a 1794 x 1080 resolution. Both phones would supposedly have displays in the five-inch range, pushing the limits of what’s acceptable for a hand-held device. That got me wondering, is the desire for higher resolution screens causing manufacturers to develop them with such large sizes, or is the demand for larger and larger displays what’s pushing manufacturers to achieve higher and higher resolutions?

Obviously, there’s a close relationship between display size and resolution. Although there’s a bit of wiggle room, knowing one gives us an idea of what to expect from the other; you won’t hear of 1080p 3.7-inch screens any sooner than you will a 10.1-inch tablet with a WVGA resolution.

Part of the reason those two are tied together is because there’s an optimal resolution for any given display size. It’s not a hard-and-fast-rule, but the size of the screen has implications towards how close you’ll hold it to your eyes, and knowing that you can figure out the natural limit for just how small pixels can be before you can’t discern one from the next.

There are also some relevant technical limitations. Any time you make components smaller, that’s going to pose the potential for problems during fabrication. Past a certain pixel density, quality displays could end up just too expensive to manufacture reliably. The kind of numbers we’re talking about for 1080p screens are already a bit mind-blowing, with LG’s five-inch component measuring-in above 440ppi.

Plenty of arguments have been made for why 1080p is just a bit excessive for smartphones. I’ll grant that 720p displays are perfectly high-resolution enough for smartphone-sized screens. Even on the 5.3-inch note, with a 1280 x 800 display, individual pixels are far from readily apparent. On tablets, this is a bit less true. We’re already starting to see some bigger-than-ten-inch models arrive, and from that point upwards, 1080p makes a lot of sense.

So, really, my initial question isn’t so straightforward. We’re actually looking at two very different movements. One is bringing the sort of pixel densities we currently enjoy on smartphones to the larger screens of tablets; the Acer A700, with its 10.1-inch 1080p screen, has just about the same density as the 4.27-inch, WVGA Galaxy S II. With devices like this, I’d say it’s pretty clear that the larger screen sizes some users want from their tablets are what’s motivating manufacturers to come out with higher-res screens.

On the other hand, we have these 1080p smartphones, where things are slightly more complicated. There’s already a bit of a backlash against phones in the five-inch range (I refuse to use the phab-word) as being so large as to be unwieldy, so I find it hard to believe manufacturers are creating such screens due to heavy demand for phones this size. There’s some call for components like that, sure, but not the sort that feels capable of driving a need for such very high resolutions.

Honestly, I wonder if the desire to produce 1080p phones in the first place is more about marketing than meeting any consumer need. Thanks to Blu-ray, shoppers are more aware than ever of the benefits of high resolutions, and being able to say that a phone has as many pixels as your home TV is bound to be a valuable promotional tool, regardless of just how visible all those tiny pixels end up. In this case, then, it seems like the allure of 1080p, maybe more than a real need for it, is what’s pushing manufacturers to deliver displays in the five-inch range; they’d probably do it on even four-inch-range components if the fabrication was feasible.

All this has me thinking about the middle ground; where’s the talk about 1080p 7-to-9-inch tablets? Probably the closest thing we have is the iPad 3, but I want to get a 1080p seven-incher. Such a tablet would have a pixel density very close to what you see now from the Retina display on an iPhone 4. So far, I’ve yet to hear of any companies planning such a device, but I think that’s exactly where they need to be looking to catch the public’s eye.

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About The Author
Stephen Schenck
Stephen has been writing about electronics since 2008, which only serves to frustrate him that he waited so long to combine his love of gadgets and his degree in writing. In his spare time, he collects console and arcade game hardware, is a motorcycle enthusiast, and enjoys trapping blue crabs. Stephen's first mobile device was a 624 MHz Dell Axim X30, which he's convinced is still a viable platform. Stephen longs for a market where phones are sold independently of service, and bandwidth is cheap and plentiful; he's not holding his breath. In the meantime, he devours smartphone news and tries to sort out the juicy bits Read more about Stephen Schenck!