By Stephen Schenck | December 11, 2012 7:06 AM
1080p smartphone screens have been on the horizon for months, and we knew that it was just a matter of time before they got here. All along, our anticipation at seeing just how incredibly detailed they’d look was mixed with a good deal of uncertainty. Would hardware struggle to keep up with that many pixels? Would they be even remotely affordable? And perhaps most importantly: would they really look that much better than 720p? Well, HTC has brought us the future, and in spite of our apprehension, everything seems pretty great. The Droid DNA doesn’t demand a premium price, isn’t choking on all those pixels, and the picture quality is just fantastic.
Now that those floodgates are open, it looks like everyone and their cousin is rushing to get their own 1080p devices to market. While I can’t wait to see what impressive designs they all manage to come up with, I also can’t help but wonder if we just crossed a point of no return. Now that 1080p is here, is anything less going to be good enough?
It’s almost easy to forget that 720p hasn’t been that long on the scene itself. It wasn’t that long ago when top-tier smartphones were still rocking WVGA screens; the LG Optimus LTE with its 720p display was just seeing global availability this time a year ago. Now 720p is everywhere, to the point where anything else just seems sub-standard. I certainly know when I’m first digging up specs on some rumored handset, the second I realize it only has a qHD, WVGA, or god forbid HVGA display, I can feel my interest in the hardware burst like a popped balloon.
That’s not to say that there’s necessarily anything wrong with phones employing lower-res screens, but the absence of 720p carries so much weight to it. From the resolution alone, you can make some not-totally-inaccurate snap judgements about a handset’s fate: will it be a well-promoted, high-profile device, or will it quickly become the free-on-contract model of the month? Obviously, there are exceptions to that – the HTC One S has done quite well for itself in qHD, and Windows Phone is still a year behind everyone else in what we expect from the hardware – but I’d be lying if I said that 720p hadn’t become a quick-and-dirty touchstone of smartphone quality.
So far, it looks like all the 1080p devices waiting for us will have screens measuring five inches or larger. I’d wager fabrication limitations are at play here, and pushing pixel density as high as it would need to go to bring 1080p to much smaller displays would just make them untenably expensive. But what I’m wondering is what the arrival of 1080p is going to mean for the future of “phablets” that live in this space.
Once all the major manufacturers have their own 1080p devices out, 720p in phones above five inches could simply be dead. Larger devices already demand high prices, and consumers aren’t going to want to pay $300 on-contract for a 720p phablet when there are 1080p competitors. The difference in display quality may not be huge, but once that option is out there, 720p’s not going to have a leg to stand on. Unless manufacturers manage to make a line of “budget priced” models this size (and I can’t imagine any would), I think we’re about to witness a sea change in expectations for this kind of form factor.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing; like I said, 1080p has ended up being a lot more pleasant than we were expecting. Still, we’ve had only a tiny sample set to work with so far, and it can’t be long before one OEM or another manages to screw things up in a pretty fantastic way; I’m already nervous about what looks like a dual-core SoC on Pantech’s rumored 1080p model.
Progress happens whether you’re ready for it or not, and I think that 1080p has firmly placed its flag at the top of Phablet Mountain. Soon, there could be no looking back, but with how super-high-res and clear things are from up here, who needs anything else?