5 inch Full HD Android smartphones are coming! Should we be happy?

November 21, 2012
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As any smartphone aficionado already knows, one of the most important aspects of choosing an Android smartphone is its display. But while the technology behind the displays varies from one display manufacturer to the other, a pair of intertwined trends have distinguished themselves as of ultimate importance in the smartphone display market: size and resolution.

Smartphone displays getting bigger and crisper

In the early days of Android smartphones (think back when the Google Nexus One was released), everyone wanted a “bigger” display on their smartphone, for very much the same reasons why everyone wants a “bigger” TV set. And since the displays were getting bigger, resolutions had to be improved as well in order to maintain (or improve) the quality of the images and videos.

The best way to characterize the crispness (a major factor in the overall quality) of a display is the Pixel Per Inch (PPI) ratio. Some of you might think that pixel density is given too much importance in reviews and comparisons, but the reality is that the PPI ratio is a very good indicator when comparing the crispness of displays of various sizes.

For your reference, what follows is a list of all four Google Nexus smartphones released thus far, along with their respective size, resolution, and PPI ratio:

– HTC Google Nexus One – 3.7 inch display – 480 x 800 resolution – 257 PPI
– Samsung Google Nexus S – 4.0 inch display – 480 x 800 resolution – 233 PPI
– Samsung Google Galaxy Nexus – 4.65 inch display – 720 x 1280 resolution – 316 PPI
LG Google Nexus 4 - 4.7 inch display – 768 x 1280 resolution – 318 PPI

(Note: the Galaxy Nexus used the much criticized PenTile pixel arrangement, meaning the total number of sub pixels is 30% lower than in a display that uses an RGB matrix)

Size and resolution have evolved simultaneously to offer larger pictures of better quality. However, a lot of people seem to agree that a smartphone with a 4.7 inch display is a bit difficult to properly wield with just one hand, meaning that smartphones are now getting to the point where the size of the display cannot be increased without unpleasant side effects.

If you think that smartphones are already too big, you better learn to like them, as it appears that the mobile industry is preparing for a new jump in smartphone size and resolution (I may be wrong, but I’m thinking that the huge success Samsung had with its Note series has played a major role in this).

While the fall 2012 lineup of flagship Android smartphones mostly use displays that measure 4.7 inches across the diagonal, it looks like 2013 will bring us an avalanche of Android smartphones with 5-inch displays.

The 5-inch 1080p madness

As it turns out, most smartphone display manufacturers out there are currently planning to begin or have already started mass producing 5-inch displays with a 1920 by 1080 pixel resolution, accounting for an impressive 443 PPI ratio.

Sharp has already begun mass producing its 5 inch 1080p LCD panels, and some of them have already made their way into HTC’s Droid DNA, the Oppo Find 5 or Sharp’s own Aquos SH930W.

Japan Display (a company where Sony, Toshiba and Hitachi are stakeholders) is the other major manufacturer that has already begun shipping 5-inch 1080p LCD panels. Despite showcasing the same size and resolution as the other displays discussed here, JDI’s panels make use of the IPS-NEO technology (for higher contrast ratios and wider viewing angles). Another differentiating factor is the White Magic technology, meaning that besides the red, green and blue subpixels, JDI’s displays also have a white subpixel added, translating into higher brightness levels, especially useful in the outdoors. Some HTC Droid DNA units already use JDI’s 1mm thick panel, while the rumored Sony Odin phablet is likely to use this panel as well, given Sony’s stake in the company.

The largest display manufacturer in Taiwan, Chimei Innolux has also announced a 5 inch 1080p LCD panel of its own, although chances are that its product will not end up in Android flagships, but more likely in entry-level Android devices, and other, more specialized hardware units.

Back in June, LG was the first display manufacturer to reveal its 5 inch 1080p LCD display prototype, although it has yet to announce mass production of such panels. The unique element in LG’s panel is the introduction of the AH-IPS (advanced high-performance in-plane switching) technology, one that should account for extremely wide viewing angles. Among other, LG’s 5 inch 1080p panel will most likely end up in LG’s phablets for 2013 (probably part of LG’s Optimus Vu line of phablets).

Samsung is also rumored to join the 5 inch 1080 club, although the top smartphone manufacturer in the world will use the Super AMOLED technology (Samsung basically owns the SAMOLED market). Previously, it was rumored that Samsung has encountered difficulties in cramming in so many pixels in a 5 inch space, but fortunately, this rumor claims that such issues have been resolved and that these new panels will end up in the Samsung Galaxy S4 (expected to be released in mid 2013). Why do I say fortunately? Because the SAMOLED technology has much better power consumption and enhanced contrast levels. Power consumption is the primary negative side effect of such high resolution panels, as we are about to discuss.

Full HD: the Good and the Bad

The Good

If the HTC Droid DNA is to be taken as an example, 5 inch 1080 panels are a noticeable improvement over 720p ones: text and images are crisper and make up for an overall better picture quality. 5 inches is also a lot of screen real estate, so that watching movies (preferably in 1080p resolution) on such panels should translate into a very pleasant experience.

The Bad

Besides the fact that Android smartphones with a 5 inch display are uncomfortable to use with one hand, not to mention hard to pocket, there are also a couple more drawbacks for these panels, given the current state of the mobile industry.

First, there’s the fact that 1080p panels draw a lot more juice from the battery than 720p panels. There are 3 times as many pixels to power, but improvements in the battery industry are few and negligible in the grand scheme of things. Plenty argue that the quality difference is not worth an even shorter battery life than that of current Android smartphones (which, by itself is mostly regarded as unsatisfying). Add LTE, power-hungry quad-core processors, and some manufacturer’s uninspired decision to equip flagship Android smartphones with a low-power battery (it’s even worse if that battery is unremovable), and mobility is greatly reduced.

Samsung’s SAMOLED panels might be able to reduce the power consumption problem by a certain degree, but we’ll have to wait and see if this will actually make a real-world difference.

Then there’s the fact that since there are three times as many pixels to show (when compared against 720p displays), the GPU has a lot more work to do. This does not only translate into even greater power consumption, but also in reduced frame rates. Given that the Android ecosystem is already known to have problems with maintaining consistent frame rates, this is another major drawback that you should consider.

Conclusion

Like it or not, this is where the Android smartphone industry is heading: large displays with amazing resolutions, but lower frame rates and reduced battery life.

I’m one to argue that 4.5 inches is more than enough on a smartphone, and also one to believe that PPI ratios above 350 are not what the smartphone industry needs right now. Feel free to disagree in the comment section below!

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