Why Higher-Resolution Displays in Phones are a Marketing Gimmick, Not a Functional Feature

Why Higher-Resolution Displays in Phones are a Marketing Gimmick, Not a Functional Feature

Jan 31, 2014

So, the rumor has it that the Galaxy S5 will have a 2560×1440 screen. Frankly, this is absolutely ridiculous. There’s no good reason for this to exist, because there’s such diminishing returns from a high-resolution screen. It’s time for Android manufacturers’ obsession with resolution to stop.

Now, getting up to 1080p was an acceptable idea, if not perhaps excessive in and of itself. After all, 1080p is a very standardized resolution in monitors, TVs, and entertainment, especially video content. Exceeding requires a particularly good reason. Monitors can make do of extra pixels in order to put more items on screen, and the “retina” movement hasn’t hit in a widespread way yet. As well, tablets going for “retina” resolutions often need to exceed 1080p.

But see, there’s a certain point where this all these extra pixels get to be too much. The push for 4K TVs are one example: for most people, even 1080p TVs are unnecessary because the eye can’t resolve detail beyond a certain point. Only in very, very large rooms will 4K TVs make a difference. For the average person or family, the TV they have right now is of high enough resolution. Doubling the vertical resolution won’t cause a noticeable quality bump. It’s all just a marketing push to sell new TVs because there was a successful push to get people to buy new TVs about 10–15 years ago. Of course, that worked out of necessity. 4K won’t because there won’t be any good reason for it.

This is a very similar situation with smartphones. Apple calls it a “Retina Display” because it’s said that the screen is at a pixel density where the human eye can’t resolve anything more detailed than that – at least for the expected use case of the device. For example, the iPhone, which is held closer than an iPad, has a higher pixel density than the tablet.

The iPhone 4's pixel doubling made sense - anything beyond that would likely be imperceptible.

The iPhone 4’s pixel doubling made sense – anything beyond that would likely be imperceptible.

What’s happened is that others have started making higher-resolution screens to match the Retina Display, but much like TVs, they’ve started making higher and higher resolution displays because hey, that’s a sexy bullet point. Now, stopping at 1080p makes sense. Again, 1080p is a very standard resolution. Advancing to 2560×1440 on a phone makes no sense. The human eye will only perceive a slight difference if any at all from 1080p at a 5" screen size.

As well, this will require even higher-resolution art assets from developers, which will bloat up app sizes and spend more data, which isn’t necessarily getting increased limits. Video content will now be upscaled on smartphones for no good reason. And games will particularly suffer: instead of being able to take full advantage of any power boost, now the games must also deal with pushing extra pixels. This can make a big difference, as anyone who plays PC games can tell you. Even small jumps can cause big performance hits.

And this is all isn’t for any good reason, either – it’s basically to get a sexy bullet point. OR to say that “we have twice the resolution fo the iPhone.”

While perhaps the march of false progress will continue unabated, consumers can make smart decisions. They can look beyond useless features for actual value, and realize that resolution isn’t everything. Just as a camera’s megapixels alone don’t determine quality, but the quality of the sensors plays a bigger role, consumers need to be smart and realize which numbers are important, and which are just there to seem more important.

Carter Dotson
Carter Dotson, editor of Android Rundown, has been covering Android since late 2010, and the mobile industry as a whole since 2009. Originally from Texas, he has recently moved to Chicago. He loves both iOS and Android for what they are - we can all get along!
Connect with Carter Dotson // email // www
  • Very well presented article you have there.
    Couldn’t agree more.

  • 1966CAH

    Yet another thing these extra pixels cost is battery power, both in the display and the amount of juice it takes for a GPU to do the extra work required (especially if the aspect ratios need translating). 1080p is the sweet spot for today’s displays, and 720p for anything less than 5 inches is probably more than adequate. These specs actually hurt the user experience because they don’t give a better visible display while simultaneously shortening the battery life.