Do we need smartphones with 4K displays?

by: Robert TriggsFebruary 19, 2014

How far we've come, a 110" 4K HDTV

The trend towards higher resolution smartphone displays is well underway. HTC, LG, Samsung, and Sony are all looking to up the pixel count with their next generation handsets, with many of the big names expected to aim for QHD (2560×1440) this coming generation.

According to statements made a few months ago at a South Korean Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy analyst event, Samsung is even planning to release an Ultra-HDTV smartphone sometime in 2015, that’s 3840 pixels wide by 2160 pixels tall, also known as 4K. The South Korean press outlet Media Daum has also reported that Samsung has smartphones under development that would take the current 440ppi 5-inch HD displays and increase the pixel density to QHD (560ppi), followed by UHD (860ppi). A 5 inch handset with 860ppi would give the device a near 4K display resolution of 3748×2108.

This isn’t just speculation coming from the hardware rumor mill, research and market analysis firms are also predicting a swift leap up the resolution ladder. NFD Group has recently released a report which forecasts that global shipments of 4K displays will reach 23 million units in 2015, with smartphones accounting for just over 5 percent of these shipments in North America and Japan, and just under 5 percent in Western Europe. That works out at roughly 1.15 million smartphones, which seems like a pitiful number compared with the one billion smartphones shipped last year, but considering that we’re not even at QHD yet, some market penetration as early as 2015 means that 4K isn’t too far away.

The big question is, does this higher resolution even make sense for smartphones?

Image Quality

Image quality will take an obvious bump when we reach 4K. For a little test, take a look at the picture below. It features the same image resized to different resolutions, in an attempt to imitate differences between larger PPI screen sizes. This is not an accurate representation of 4K image quality, more of a ballpark comparison in quality between 4K, 1080p, and 720p resolutions. At a distance it may be harder to tell the difference, but zoom into full size and you might be able to see the pixels.

Resolution Comparison

Resolution Comparison Screen Zoomed In

This leads us to the crux of the issue regarding mobile devices. On smaller, pixel dense displays, can we really notice this change in quality?

Viewing Distance

I’m sure many of you won’t complain about the quality of your high-end 1080p smartphone display, but if you’re close enough to your handset you can probably still make out the individual pixels. Using the Human Visual System Limitation equation we can understand why this is and estimate at what distance the viewer can pick out individual pixel details on a display.

Roughly speaking, you will probably struggle to notice individual pixels on a 5 inch 1080p display at a distance of around 8 inches, which is quite a typical viewing distance, but on a 4K display you’d have to be around 4 inches away to notice them, which is rather close. For 10 inch tablets, UHD pixels can be noticed at around 7.5 inches away, which is probably as close as you’re likely to hold your tablet to your face, whilst pixels on a 10 inch 1080p display would be visible within 15.5 inches. The chart below should demonstrate this concept a little better.

Human Visual Detail Recognition Distances

For smartphones then, the jump to 4K is likely to provide an improvement in image quality compared with 1080p, but the difference between QHD (sub 6 inch viewing distance) and UHD (4 inch viewing distance) may not be noticeable in most situations. Larger tablets would see a greater benefit from ultra-high resolution displays, simply because of the larger screen size. There are also other contributing factors to making out individual details, such as image sharpness and contrast, which need to be addresses as well as just display resolution.

Even so, this isn’t to say that a 4K smartphone isn’t desirable. Eventually, when the costs come down, there’s no reason not to push for even higher quality displays, even if the generational leap may be diminishing. Not to mention that being able to display future UHD TV content on our mobile devices is probably a good enough reason on its own to want 4K smartphones.

We’re moving ever closer to the limit where the human eye can no longer make out individual pixels on a display, but we’re not quite there yet.

[poll id=”468″]

  • Tomatot

    Do many people look at their phones from 3,9 inches ? Come on…

    • SSDROiD

      Are you telling me people DON’T measure the exact length between their phones and their eyes!? WHAT!?!?!? MY LIFE IS A LIE!

  • wezi427

    They are making it, so I guess. (That was supposed to be sarcasm)

    • SSDROiD

      That’s exactly what they want you think…

      • wezi427

        Like I said sarcasm. Just because they can do it, doesn’t mean that it’s needed. I would rather see these companies take the time and effort in to making a better battery.

        • SSDROiD

          You edited in “sarcasm” way after writing the actual post, and the actual post really didn’t seem like sarcasm, hence my reply :) Simple misunderstanding! :)

          • Wezi427

            Haha, I should’ve done it in the first place. While I was typing it felt sarcastic.


    Nobody “needs” 4K. But we don’t “need” smartphones at all. The only things we truly “need” are oxygen, food and water. Do we WANT 4K? I honestly don’t. It’s just a sales gimmick to me. I am more than pleased with Full HD screens on my smartphone, laptop and TV. We can barely get the average TV show in high-definition Blu-ray format, and we’re already talking 4K screens on phones? That’s just lame. Give me faster smartphones on the market. Give me the ability to customize my phone instead of having to opt for the best available phone from money-greedy companies. Give me some goddamn better battery life (I am still waiting for a battery revolution, in which we can charge our phones for 30 seconds and have it work for 3 months). There are so many other things they could do rather than upgrade the pixels on my phone.

    Feel free to disagree with me, though.

    • Replicant Jason Booth

      Agreed on every point

  • Uncle Ruckus

    Would have been nice if a poll also accompanied this article

  • gils001

    We don’t need 4k, but in the end when all the new phones come out, reviewers will somehow claim that 4k displays are noticeably better.

    • K

      Sad but true.

  • Amine Elouakil

    Do we need 4K in smartphones, well absolutly, does it have to be a priority no not at all in comparaison battery like should be on top of the list among others.

    So why do we need 4k? while the increase of resolution is less and less noticeable the higher the resolution is, a high resolution offers better sharpness and arguably better color reproduction and more realistic image (since you’ll have more pixels to represent said colors and the gaps between each pixel are nanometric) that said, other aspect of screen should involve in parallel to resolution increase, but like I said, this shouldn’t the top of the list, the One X 720p is still one of the best screens ever made and arguably beats the One screen in some categories for example

  • AndroidBoss

    We need smartphones with better battery life more way more than smartphones with 4k displays.

    • Andrew White

      Totally agree. But I do want 128 GB of internal storage and 64 bit processors.

      • AndroidBoss

        Also that.

        • kandy830

          My Uncle Isaac just got a nice 12 month old Jeep from only
          workin on a pc at home… Read Full Article F­i­s­c­a­l­P­o­s­t­.­ℂ­o­m

          • AndroidBoss

            Good for him. I don’t give a shit.

          • Shark Bait

            was some ones uncle making lots of money??

      • Shark Bait

        And a beer dispenser

        • Pontiac Trans Am

          And also an Anamorphic Equalizer, Olfactory Sensor, Ultraphonic Chemical Analyzer, Voice (Anharmonic) Synthesizer, and Etymotic Equalizer.

          Oh, and a money dispenser would be great too ;)

    • +10000 this 4K screen feature is just a guinea pig strategy to tweak batteries and make them handle much more mAh. There’s no need for 4K screens, absolutely NOT.

      • There are other factors, e.g., higher res screens everywhere will also drive the proliferation of 4K content we’ll be able to cast to larger screens. And content will be available in a variety of streaming/downloadable resolutions… …with screens maybe also able to auto-sense the content’s own res and dynamically adjust their use of all their capacity accordingly to conserve storage and battery life.

    • On a Clear Day

      It is always easier to focus on appearances than substance and reality.

  • monkey god

    4 k on 5 inch phone is crazy. I have a hard time seeing any pixels in my nexus 5. Once the phone is closer than 4 inches from my face, my eyes start to lose focus and the image becomes too blurry for me to see any pixels. I would say that 4k would be great for something like a 10 inch tablet. Fhd is great for 5 inch phones. And devices in between would be great with 2k.

    • K

      Something to think about. Good point.

  • Shark Bait

    Well I guess no. It seems stupid on such a small display. But I guess seeing will be believing. If I can tell its better than 1080 then yes bring it on!!
    However I suspect you can’t tell, and the money would be better spent else where

    • MasterMuffin

      better batteries!!!111!!!111!!1!

      • Shark Bait

        That be a thing of legend of which you speak! Over the ages we have been promised many things from graphene to oxygen to pomegranate to finally meet our milli amp hour desires.

        The orocal spoke of better batteries, maybe one day they will finally get here !!!11!!11!!11 lol

        • MasterMuffin

          It’s the prophecy! You’re the chosen one! Use the force Harry Potter!

          • Shark Bait

            Use the forks homer Simpson !

        • AsakuraZero

          a legend exist… based on carbon… something like graphite, oh… those legends of the old era

        • thartist

          OROCAL > ORACLE!

        • It’s been a slog, but Elon Musk (among others) seems to be devoting some of his innovative thinking and $$ to the problem.

          ‘Our goal is to drop the cost per kWh by 30 percent to 40 percent.'”

  • toboev

    “no reason not to push for even higher quality displays…”
    How do you define ‘quality’, when you can no longer see the difference? I thought quality was fitness for purpose. One the demands of the purpose are exceeded, can quality be further improved?

    By the way, please align your text and your graph – one speaks in terms of 1080 and 4K, the other in various prefixes on HD.

  • adiya upadhyay

    The normal nearest distance at which human eye see easily is 25 cm/9.84 inches and therefor the FHD on a 5 inch device is great we don’t need just numbers we want phones that can perform well they will be pushing 4k displays in smartphone and then there will be again lag in games etc the graphic card requirement will go high etc etc

  • joseph carmine nero

    Without proper SOC no

  • Dynamite

    What about the GPU ?
    Like we will need Radeon R9 290X to have smooth animations and transitions and play angry birds on a 4K phone ?

    • K

      Very good point. The gpu needs to be powerful too in a phone with 4K displays.

  • richtd

    We need a 40k mah battery.

  • Reginald Spence II

    Until there is a major breakthrough in battery development that will become standard issue sometime in the near future, I don’t want to hear any manufacturers talk about stuffing that many pixels into a phone.

    • K

      I agree.

  • goldenblls

    I remember when Apple tried to convince us that display quality above its 320ppi retina display wasn’t required. Then you go and look at the displays on phones like the Xperia Z Ultra, which are only slightly higher and they just blow you away.

    So yes, bring it on. There are some unbelievable displays out right now and if they can improve on them then I’m looking forward to them on my future phones.

  • Ben Jowett

    Hmmm, fhd is fine, so let’s make it QHD, OR 4K.
    Unneeded on Samsung’s part

  • Stefan

    I wonder if storage will increase given that 4k recording will become a standard.

  • apianist16

    I want a real retina screen, not Apple’s take. :)

  • zamir yusof

    Give me battery life that can last more than a day on very heavy usage and phone that run fast no matter how hard I push it, until then stop talking about bringing more than needed pixel density into smartphone.

  • ichuck7

    No, no, no, no, no. Better battery life and processing speed. That’s one of the reasons I went with Motorola. They realize what really matters. Their battery life is incredible.

  • Groud Frank

    1080p is good enough for me but I wouldn’t mind if having a 4K battery on my phone.

    • K


  • While many laptops are still at 1366×768… Well this is awkward

    • monkey god

      Mostly the cheapy 500 and under laptops.

      • I agree.. which is most laptops being sold these days

        • Justin Jordan

          That’s all I could afford when I bought mine originally. Looking forward to 2k or 4k screens being standard.

      • Unfortunately there are still lots of $800+ laptops with this res, and the MacBook Airs have been stuck at 1400×900 for a couple years.

        • monkey god

          That’s a little different since those are only 13 inch laptops which is not all that bad at 1400×900. What I’m referring to are the 14-15.6 inch laptops with 1366×768 which is atrocious

          • Oops my bad. I forgot that the 15″ MacBook Pros easily spec out at $3K+ (fugeddaboudit) and so was only looking at the 13’s…

  • Dimitar Gospodinov

    If somebody doesn’t want a 4K display just don’t buy it…The market will “say” if we need it…

  • Nian

    Instead of 4k, can we go to 120Hz please?

    • S-Hacker

      It would be a little harder to clock the refresh rate past 60hz on a small screen. You see TVs internally refreshed at 240hz, 480hz and maybe 600 but your monitor never get’s better than 120hz.

  • monkey god

    We don’t need 4k in smartphones anymore than we do 1000 horsepower street cars. At some point, you will get more than what is usable in the real world. Unless, we all have eye implants in the future with builtin microscopes, having 4k in a smartphone is pointless. That is unless smartphones in the future have 10 inch screens. Even so, 4k is not such a great idea on a portable device given the computing power and ram required to drive all those pixels. I have a beefy mid-range PC gaming system right now which runs almost any game beautifully at 1080p. But if I were to game with the same system on a 4k HDTV at full resolution, it would bring my computer to its knees. And my computer has the benefit of being plugged into the wall where battery life is not a factor.

  • José Martins Neto

    1080p is OK. 4K is too much. We need faster microprocessors, cameras with higher quality, long duration batteries and unbreakable screens/phones.

  • Jayfeather787

    i would like to see better battery life. With less pixels comes higher frame rates as well and it is less work for the GPU. Honestly, I am more than happy with 720p, and 1080p is absolutely fantastic. But 4k is a bit too much. That was the practical side of me. The other crazy part says “4k hell ya bring it on!!!!!”

  • S-Hacker

    4K shouldn’t be in smartphones for several years. The difference on such a small display will not be too much different. How about they focus more on 4K for computers and TVs? I still even see a few people that STILL use 1280×1024 PC monitors.

  • Replicant Jason Booth

    At 468ppi, I cannot see a single ounce of pixelation… My eyes hurt just trying. 1080p is more than enough

  • kstagg

    Do we need a Corvette that goes 190 mph and 0-60 in 3.9 seconds? No. But damn if you don’t have some serious bragging rights.

  • ddd

    If android phone has 4 times resolution from full hd resolution, then pixel density has better and highest ppi like watching movie or look at the photos. All andriod phones should make 4k uhd except shity apple iphone. Apple is farrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr behind any other companies in the market.

    • Christopher Moore

      Apple just can’t ramp up various resolutions at will like Adroid can. Thats why I’m expecting a resolution of 2272×1280 for iPhone 6 which is double the current retina display. Sounds pretty nuts but I see that resolution lasting at least 2 to 4 years for Apple. App scaling on iOS sucks/nonexistent which will be painful for developers at first but the long term outlook is very good.

  • Even with current FHD screens we need better batteries, with QHD they will drain even faster. Better and much more efficient battery technology is what we need when it comes to mobiles – laptops/tablets/smartphones/etc.

  • Greg

    There is no point in 4K smartphones. 1080p is more than enough on a 5” screen, actually, one needs a very good vision to notice a difference between 720p and 1080p with that screen size. It’s a bit maddening this push toward useless features, “hey, you know what?! Let’s just add some pixels and those idiots will buy it!” Especially when there is so many improvements that would be very useful in so many use cases:
    – much better cameras. Camera technology has improved so much in the last few years, yet even the basics (color faithfulness, good hdr, good OIS, low light conditions shots) are far from perfect. Hopefully, HTC with the One 2 or whatever it will be called, is doing well with its dual camera, that will push the OEMs toward interesting features, from multi-focused pictures to real-time 3D mapping. What about an extra rear camera (yes, a third one!), a FHD infrared camera? For most of the users that would just be a gimmick, (but a fun one!, everyone just loves IR imagery), and for many people it could be used for work.
    – screens. almost unbreakable, thin, really low power comsumption and flexible. Those are the musts, and they are long coming.
    – LTE. On this front, chipset makers are doing good, even though no worldwide LTE capable chip so far… hopefully Qualcomm RF360 will change that. More generally, a lot of work is done on the SoC (architecture, instruction set, transistor size) and that’s great! But not enough is done on efficient power amplification and antennas.
    – and of course batteries. Now that’s ridiculous! Reading the latest reviews on smartphones, with the typical “and blabla phonemakers put a huge 3000 mAh in this phone, which makes it last almost 2 days!” Wow! Youpi! almost 2 days, but that’s too much to fathom, me who use to plug my phone every 10 hours or so, now I can do it every 36 hours. I will have to rethink my entire life… Smartphone should last 5 days to a week on a single charge. Like feature phone did back then.

    So OEMs: stop trying to cram more pixel onto the screen, stop spending money on gimmicky softwares, rather spend money on hardware improvements and the algorithms that go with them!


  • Pedro

    Higher resolution means worse battery life… Yeah we really need that for sure.

  • Brian Dong Min Kim

    2K would be enough. We only need to maintain about 350-450ppi, no more.

  • OJ Edwards

    All I really need is a 720p screen on a phone. Anything more than that would just kill the battery faster, and the battery life is EVERYTHING.

  • Even with 720p, I nearly cannot see the pixels edge. So, I assumed that with 4K, my eyes cannot differentiate it with 720p. As long as I can surf google clearly, it’s ok :)

  • modgodx

    2 week long battery life after an hour of chargtime, that’s what we want.

    • Sean Karpa

      Hell, 1 week with 3 hour charge time is cool by me

  • Full HD on Smartphones is more than enough. Give me better hardware, battery life and camera.

  • Bryan Kwong

    No we dont need it, in fact a lot of things we have in smartphones today we dont “need”. It’s just great to have them but 4K screens on a phone is pushing even the factor of I “want” it.

  • R_Fact

    There is no point to an HDTV resolution on a 5 inch display, and much less to any higher resolution. Will that stop the marketing spec race – no.

  • Επίκουρος-Ιστιόδωρος

    While 4K could be a useful thing for tablets over 9″, it is completely useless for anything below — is anyone with a device below 5.2″ really in need of anything over 1080p? I will be generous and say that perhaps the mild increase to 2K could be an interesting addition in the future, but only for devices in the 5″ to 8″ range. Below 5″ 1080p is superb and the increase in resolution does not justify the decrease in CPU and GPU performance.


    Below 5″ — 1080p
    5″ – 8″ — 2K
    9″ + — 4K

    • K

      I agree but with a slight modification.

      6-8 — 2K
      9” + —4K

  • Dave Weinstein

    Ummm… I think all the 2K and 4K naysayers are wrong. Shortsighted. The same sort of folks that said that a PC would never need more than 64K of RAM.

    The resolution race is great for consumers. It drives processor and graphics performance and generally pushes overall performance to higher levels.

    Personally, I think the trends are clear, 5″ and smaller are NOT going to be mainstream. Mid-sized screens are creeping up from 5″ to 5.1″ to 5.4″ range, while large screens are getting pushed into the 5.9″ to 6.3″ range. At these sizes 4K will high pixel density, but certainly not useless.

    And lets not forget that OS software often re-scales badly when you “switch” screens to an external monitor. As we’ve seen with Windows and MacOS, windows, icons and desktop items get arbitrarily rearranged when you “dock” your mobile device. As phones and small tablets merge in functionality, they will be used more an more in the same way the traditional PCs have been used, and the same problems will arise. It will surely be easier to dock and un-dock if your internal and external monitor are the same resolution.

    • K

      Maybe not 64K of RAM ,but most PC users are happy with 4-6 GB of RAM, none of those(those who are happy with that much RAM) users are saying they wish their PC’s had more RAM. They talk about things like battery life or other stuff.

      The point IS, every ‘spec race’ reaches its limit after a point.

  • Marco Sobrevilla

    Wouldn’t the battery life suffer greatly with 4K display? Battery needs to get better first. Just like 4K cameras on smartphones, the internal memory needs to go higher since 4K resolutions take up more memory. Most phones now don’t have an External MicroSD card to use.

  • Tyler Hatch

    One thing that I want to see is the death of the pentile matrix. This makes the galaxy note 2 (not pentile) look more pixel dense than the note 3 (pentile), even though it is 720p.

  • Ahmed

    But wat the thought of having so many pixels in a small device. Yet we knows the HD Experience lot matters….. But what is the use of it when our eye cannot differential these things

  • Winston Purnomo

    Yes, I want 4K smartphones, but only if they manage to get the battery up to 2 or 3 days at the least.

  • pops87

    How about they work on battery technology and then focus on ultra-high resolutions? A 4k phone using cuurent battery tech probably wouldn’t last more than 2 hours.

  • Rohit Naik
  • Rohit Naik

    only if we can develop apps for that

  • Anuj Subedi

    its not worth getting a 4k screen in a smartphone ! it would be awesome to see but the chips are not ready to handle 4k display and apps ! probably you will need a processor powerful than intel i7 so as to handle gta sanandreas in that phone ! 860 ppi is extremely heavy to handle ! !!

  • Rob C

    The “need” for that sort of a display, (4K, inches from your eyes), is for the Oculus Rift.

    I knew I did not want a 720P Phone and held out for 1080P, a decision I do not regret.

    I would rather have a 4K Video Camera (on my Phone) with the associated ability to do post-processing (like Stabilize, Zoom, Pan, etc.) or a 1080P Video Camera that could do 120FPS.

    Better Battery life would be great too but that tech has nothing to do with “display technology” except that such a Display will drain the Battery for no purpose whatsoever.

    Bring on tiny 4K Displays, Yeah! (I like new super tech) but please do not put it in out tiny Phones (or Phablets); leave it for at least Tablet size where they might exist some debate about it’s usefullness (and an ability to stuff a somewhat capable Battery within a larger Device). I really do not know how they plan on explaining the need for 4K on a less than 6″ Screen (except for the OR).

  • Yussef mneimneh

    not sure if usefull but definitely don’t want it even qhd is overkill for now… but it has consequences on gaming … i’m for technology of course but this is nonsense.. in 5 years from now it will be what 8k on 5 inches? and then ? the pixel won’t even be visible the naked eye