Closing The Pixel Gap: Android’s Got 1080p, So Who’s Next?

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It’s been about a year since we first started seeing smartphones with 720p displays hit the scene. Since then, they’ve rapidly become the gold standard for smartphone screens, such that it’s hard to accept even a qHD display on an upper-tier handset. Now, 1080p displays are about to arrive, with the first-such Android models already announced. Will we be seeing these super-high-res screens migrate to the other major platforms, or is 1080p going to end up like 3D displays, and quickly fizzle out?

The Rise Of 720p

LG premiered its Optimus LTE last fall, with a 4.5-inch 720p display. That may have gotten the ball rolling, but Google really helped move things along with the announcement of the Galaxy Nexus and its 4.65-inch 720p screen. Seeing Google embrace the technology like that signaled to OEMs that this was more than just a fad.

Now, we’re about to see the first 720p screens come to Windows Phone devices, and RIM will be introducing 720p models for the full-touch offerings in its BlackBerry 10 lineup next year. Even Apple’s sort of gotten on board, with the iPhone 5’s 1136 x 640 screen inching-up closer to 720p (though it’s still got 20-some-percent fewer pixels).

1080p Comes To Android

We recently saw the announcement of the HTC J Butterfly for Japan, featuring the company’s first five-inch 1080p display. It’s looking likely that we’ll be seeing the same hardware come to the States (with the most recent leak suggesting the phone could arrive on Verizon as the Droid DNA), and there are plenty of rumors that other Android manufacturers will follow with similarly-equipped models. We know that LG has been working on phones with 1080p screens, and have seen rumors that manufacturers like Samsung and Pantech could also be getting ready to join the party.

Already, 1080p sounds like it’s going to make a bigger splash than 3D displays ever did; if what we’re hearing is true, there appears to be some strong support from major manufacturers (Samsung never jumped on the 3D craze), and 1080p could, like 720p before it, quickly become something consumers look for in their high-end smartphones.

It Doesn’t Matter That 1080p Won’t Look Better

Our Michael Fisher recently wrote a scathing editorial on 1080p displays, pointing out all the reason why we just don’t need them. The thing is, he’s right on the money, and at the sizes we’re talking about for smartphone screens, 1080p isn’t going to look a heck of a lot different from 720p. Sure, as we move into tablets that’s not so true anymore, but for the moment I’m just concerned with 1080p on phones.

The problem is, as I see it, that 1080p displays are simply going to look awesome. Even if they’re battery hogs, and even if we can’t even see the difference between one pixel and the next, they’re going to look just as good as 720p screens, if not slightly better.

The idea of 1080p being superior to 720p is firmly ingrained in the minds of consumers by this point. Anyone who’s shopped for an HDTV in recent years, or just wandered around a Best Buy showroom on a lazy afternoon, has seen how great 1080p can look on a big screen, where the difference between 720p and 1080p is more easily appreciated. This isn’t like 3D, where no one knew quite what to make of it; the superiority of 1080p has already been well established.

So, whether it’s a significant improvement or not, 1080p on smartphones is already set up to succeed. The only thing I can see standing in its way is if some of those other problems Michael mentioned, like power consumption, end up substantially detracting from the user experience; in essence, smartphone manufacturers would have to really botch things – and in a big enough way that the public takes notice – in order to convince customers that 1080p isn’t something they should desire from a new phone.

Ultimately, I expect to see 1080p screens on Android devices start claiming a substantial share of the market for new, high-end phones by next summer.

Once Android Embraces 1080p, Who’s Next?

Apple has the potential to be the wild card here. It loves “wow”ing its fans, and its Retina Displays have really drawn attention to what’s possible with screens featuring very high pixel densities. That said, it hates to be seen playing catch-up, and has a history of dismissing otherwise-accepted technology (like NFC) when that just doesn’t suit its own vision for its platform. If anyone’s going to be able to stand up and say “you guys don’t really want 1080p; here, let us show you what you’ll actually like”, it’s going to be Apple. Combined with its distaste for jumbo-sized smartphones, making the small improvements 1080p offers even less apparent, I’d say we can probably count Apple out of the 1080p race.

Microsoft’s attitude towards new technology has shades of Apple’s, but I think that’s less a matter of wanting to dance to its own tune, and more about taking a slow, methodical approach to introducing change. If Microsoft sees Android users flocking to 1080p phones, it’s going to have to consider giving its own users the same option. Considering the pace it moves at, though, it might not even get around to evaluating such a thing until well into next year. Maybe we’d see some Windows Phone 9 handsets arrive with 1080p screens in 2014, but I can’t see it bringing 1080p to its platform anytime soon.

As for RIM, it clearly wants to be seen as a manufacturer with current, desirable hardware, but 1080p might be biting off more than it can chew. For one, it’s still too early to say whether or not BlackBerry 10 will be a hit, let alone the new BlackBerry hardware that runs it. Follow that road long enough, and I’m left wondering if RIM will even still be making smartphones by the time it has to seriously think about 1080p. On the other hand, if it gets the sense early-on that 1080p is here to stay, it might want to take the initiative and beat Microsoft to the punch. If it can squeeze ahead of its competition in even that one area, that could go a long way towards making BlackBerry still seem relevant.

In the end, I’d have to put my money on Microsoft. Of all the companies running major platforms, I don’t see it having a fundamental issue with 1080p (like Apple might), and regardless of how Windows Phone 8 fares, it’s still going to be around and kicking a couple years from now.

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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 bitsRead more about Stephen Schenck!