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Smartphone display resolution is just one side of the story

By Dushyant Shrikhande May 20, 2015, 12:37 am

Ever since the world has been using touchscreen based smart devices, the world has also been caring about smart device displays. Being the primary mode of interacting with your smartphone or tablets, it’s one of the factors that goes into choosing what devices we would like to buy, or think of buying, or argue about. When we talk about smartphone displays these days however, we tend to focus on one thing in particular- the resolution.

Indeed, display resolution on a smart device we have to use or put up with on a minute by minute basis of our daily lives is quite important, and we all have our preferences about aspect ratios, form factors and how pixel packed we want the screens on our devices to be. Of late, discussion about smartphone displays have been whittled down to just a few things- resolution, screen size and pixel density. I believe that we need to have a look at some of the other factors that make these displays what they are, and then see where we are, what can be done and where we should be in terms of smartphone display technology.

No, I'm not talking about the whole "3D Smartphone Display" fad that fortunately ended a long time ago.
No, I’m not talking about the whole “3D Smartphone Display” fad that fortunately ended a long time ago.

Of course, there have been tremendous advancements in terms of how these displays look, in terms of the sheer amount of pixels that manufacturers have been able to pack into these relatively small displays, and basics like touch responsiveness and input lag that have to do with the day to day usage of our devices have all been tweaked to a general level of acceptance by everyday users and tech enthusiasts alike. It’s safe to say that the displays found on most smartphones today have reached a level of sufficiency of resolution, sharpness and viewing angles. Then, software optimizations come into play. Most major OEMs these days have their own spin on the idea of using software tweaks to change the way the display outputs colors, in order to make them “pop”, or stand out or make them look cinematic, and so on. One of the more useful tricks I’ve seen OEMs come up with is the “smart light” mode on the Xiaomi MI smartphones that boosts the brightness of only the darker areas of the image on screen, to improve sunlight visibility as opposed to making the display brighter.


However, the more OEMs these days seem to push the boundaries of display technology in terms of resolution or sharpness, there’s one thing that’s being overlooked almost entirely, and that’s refresh rate. Now before all of you accuse me of nitpicking and looking at “Display Metrics” on Wikipedia, allow me to explain why refresh rate is quite important and should be the next area where we see improvements. Expressed in Hertz, the refresh rate is the number of times an image is sent to the display, every second. Currently, major platforms like iOS, Android and Windows Phone support 60Hz refresh rates, and Windows Phone allows apps to run at either 30 or 60 Hz. By contrast, refresh rates on PCs can go as high as 120 or even 144Hz.

“But that’s useful for competitive gaming on PC, how does it affect the average smartphone user?” I hear you asking. Well, it may not seem very useful now, but in the very near future and indeed the present, there’s a little something called Virtual Reality that may change how we experience technology in our daily lives. One of the things that’s needed for VR systems to be more compelling, and indeed one of the things that’s holding them back today, is, well, you guessed it, the refresh rate. Just take a look at the Oculus Rift for example. As some of you might know, they use Samsung panels for their head mounted displays. They run natively at 60Hz, and they can go up to 75Hz through software tweaks. Although that’s good, a higher refresh rate would make things that much better and more lifelike, for a better VR experience. But, for a more contemporary example, I need not look so much further into the future.

A few days ago, an open source project called “Dart on Android” was announced. One of the many goals of this project is to allow apps that run more smoothly, at 120Hz, to be precise.  Their aim is to make Android apps run “jank-free”. However, at this moment, Android apps run at a maximum of 60 Hz because Android is limited to 60Hz by design. This throws a spanner into the works. How are we to discuss display refresh rates for smartphones, and tie it neatly into a bow saying that perhaps OEMs should improve on that aspect of displays, when the platform itself limits the frame rate in such a way?

Android and indeed the other contemporary operating systems have this 60Hz boundary because of the limitations of current mobile graphics processors. This makes it a flexible boundary, as technology continues to develop, and we get more powerful technology to drive these new displays. But if there’s no push for a higher refresh rate, the OEMs will remain content with simply bumping the resolution of these displays, and we may see little or no improvement on the other such often ignored aspects of smartphone display technology.

I think there should be more discussion about this than is happening currently. If we want to focus on keeping up the focus on smartphone display resolution, that’s what we will get. But, if we want even smoother experiences on our mobile devices in the coming future, we should perhaps push OEMs to improve refresh rates and the technology behind them, so that the 60Hz boundary gets removed altogether. So what do you all of you think about it? Should we allow OEMs to continue on the path of iteratively improving upon their display technology year after year? Is there any point in improving factors related to display refresh rates on smartphones? What are the possibilities? Let us know in the comments!

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