Forget the Resolution Race; Give Us A Battery-Capacity Race

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1080p displays. On smartphones. I never thought I’d see the day, but it’s here. Call the front desk; I’m checking out.

No but, for real: around these parts, the notion of full-HD resolution -1920 x 1080- on a smartphone screen has for months prompted a range of reactions, from skepticism to disbelief to glee. Listeners of the Pocketnow Weekly podcast can sometimes hear that entire range in one sitting: pixel-density enthusiast Brandon Miniman is keen on the absurdly high-density panels, while I often profess not to be able to tell the difference. Anton D. Nagy, Joe Levi, or Jaime Rivera are usually left taking a stance somewhere in the middle, just to keep everyone sane.

At least, that’s how it was until recently. Soon after writing a piece explaining why I found 1080p smartphone screens useless, I was given the opportunity to review the HTC Droid DNA. It was thanks to this extended, up-close interaction that I finally saw the beauty of 1080p on a five-inch panel; like Lincoln is said to have been adept at doing, I changed my mind. Full HD on a smartphone does indeed make a visible difference (at least on the SLCD3 of the Droid DNA) and it’s striking.

This is the look I give people when they call me a flip-flopper.

The full-HD story doesn’t end with the Droid DNA, though. Over the past few weeks, we’ve gotten wind of a whole host of 1080p-capable devices coming down the pipe. Some of it is conjecture or rumor, but from the LG Optimus G2 to the Samsung Galaxy S IV, it looks like “1080p” is the new hotness in the spec race. 2013 looks to be the year of ultra-high handheld pixel density.

And that’s fine. Competition is good, and when every OEM out there scrambles to match or best the high bar set by a trailblazer -HTC in this case- it pushes the industry forward. That’s a great thing, especially considering how beautiful these new displays are likely to be.

Here’s the thing, though: I don’t think that’s where the industry’s focus should be. 1080p displays might be gorgeous, but they’re all the same shade of dark glass if they don’t have power to run on. And power is a serious problem on modern smartphones, which we rate as “very good” if they can last through even a day of heavy use. Fighting about display quality in an era where we routinely write about how to maximize battery life is like fighting over who’s gonna get more dessert before the appetizer’s even arrived.

I’m not great at analogies.

You might say I’m singling out resolution for no reason, and you’d be right. The same argument applies to any phone feature, really: why should manufacturers be trying to best each other in clock speed, or in LTE compatibility, both power-hungry attributes, without solving the underlying battery-life problem first? Well, solid point, hypothetical counterpoint-offeror! Why, indeed? Taking it a step further, let’s ask: why aren’t manufacturers competing to deliver the best battery life with the same zeal that they’re competing to deliver the sharpest screen or the fastest CPU?

Part of the answer undoubtedly lies in the “focus group,” that strange subset of reality where ordinary folks are paid to sit in a room and share their opinions for a few hours. (If you haven’t participated in one, allow me to recommend it; it’s a fun time, once or twice.) The most relevant example, for our purposes, is HTC’s use of 2011 data -either from focus groups or surveys or both- to justify its elimination of higher-capacity devices in favor of thinner ones. Customers want sleeker devices, the research told HTC, more than bigger batteries. As a direct result of this data, HTC nixed planned higher-capacity models from its lineup, and gave us thin slabs like the One X and the Droid DNA.

HTC’s decision is understandable given the data they received and given the sluggish pace of battery-technology development. But as we noted even way back in April, the technology exists to provide excellent smartphone endurance today. One need look only as far as Motorola’s Droid RAZR MAXX and RAZR MAXX HD to see that. These Android smartphones boast respectable spec sheets, offer great feature sets, and the latter delivers up to 32 hours of “average” use on a charge. All in a package less than 10mm thick.

It may not be the prettiest package around, but with endurance like that, ask me if I give a damn.

Motorola’s approach to delivering that excellent performance is perhaps lacking in subtlety -the “MAXXed” RAZRs incorporate massive batteries in a brute-force approach to the endurance issue- but who really cares? The results are beyond admirable; they’re fantastic. Only Motorola’s sales numbers can tell whether they’re worth the extra cost of manufacturing and supporting two separate models for each supersized/standard pair, but the devices are doing one job very well in addition to delivering excellent battery life: they’re putting Motorola’s brand in the spotlight time and time again every time someone writes a news story, editorial, forum post, or comment about smartphone endurance. That word of mouth is worth something very concrete.

It’s time for another arms race in the smartphone space, and that race should be about milliamp-hours. Maybe the miniaturization technology Motorola uses for its batteries isn’t widely available; maybe similarly-steroidal smartphones from other OEMs would come in a few millimeters thicker. But (though I don’t have the focus-group data to back it up) I think a fair number of folks would tolerate a little more skin on their smartphones’ bones in exchange for being able to use them without fear of them dying before the afternoon Bob Ross re-runs come on. Because high-definition displays are only beautiful as long as they’re powered on, LTE radios are only blazing-fast when they’ve got juice to drive them, and keeping your phone tethered to a power outlet all day long kind of defeats the idea of a “wireless” device.

In brief, manufacturers: more milliamp-hours. Give me them.

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Title image source: pandaapp

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About The Author
Michael Fisher
Michael Fisher has followed the world of mobile technology for over ten years as hobbyist, retailer, and reviewer. A lengthy stint as a Sprint Nextel employee and a long-time devotion to webOS have cemented his love for the underdog platforms of the world. In addition to serving as Pocketnow's Reviews Editor, Michael is a stage, screen, and voice actor, as well as co-founder of a profitable YouTube-based business. He lives in Boston, MA.Read more about Michael Fisher!