My favorite tech site here in the Netherlands posted a brilliant article (sorry, Dutch only) on UHD television last week. In it, they theorized that in order to see the difference between normal Full HD and UHD, you’d need to be closer than one meter from your 40″ TV’s screen. I don’t know about you, but that’s not how I watch TV. I like to sit back on my couch, which is a good three to four meters from the TV.
It appears as if UHD is a classic example of “technology push“. There’s no real market need for higher-than-high resolution TVs, but manufacturers are going to introduce them anyway.
While I dislike Apple’s tendency to cover up technical terms with mostly meaningless marketing brands, Steve Jobs was right about the iPhone 4’s “Retina” screen. His pitch was that the phone’s 326 pixels-per-inch screen made it impossible to see the individual pixels. At least at normal viewing distances, and without a microscope. Anyone who’s ever used an iPhone 4 or 5 will probably agree that this is the case.
In print, 300 dpi (ink dots per inch of paper) has long been considered a sufficient resolution for even fancy, glossy prints. I realize that “dots per inch” and “pixels per inch” are not same unit. Paper has different properties than an LCD screen, but it seems that in both cases, 300 little pieces of information on a single inch is the “visibility threshold”.
CDs contain audio in 44KHz, 16 bit format, and the one of the reasons why Super Audio-CD and DVD-Audio never caught on is that the detail in “CD quality” audio is very close to the limit of what our senses can detect. Unless our species evolves better ears, there’s no real need to go beyond 44 KHz. I call formats like these “end formats”. They’re “done”. No need for further improvement.
Full HD phone screens
The two main high-end Android smartphones of the moment, Samsung’s Galaxy S4 and the HTC One both rock Full HD screens. The pixel density on those screens is 441 ppi and 468 ppi respectively. Way beyond “retina”. Interestingly, the recently announced Motorola Moto X, though designed to compete against the former two, “merely” has a 720p display. Its 312 ppi pixel density is very close to the magic number of 300, and Motorola argues that going for a lower-resolution screen saves processing power, and thus battery.
Specifications arms race
Much like current TV sets would not benefit from UHD resolutions, phones really don’t need Full HD screens. A 1080p screen has 2.25 times the pixels of a 720p one, and every one of those pixels requires calculations in order to make it work. Your phone has to work twice as hard to drive the display, and you’re probably not seeing the difference.
Samsung, HTC and other manufacturers seem to be locked in a screen resolution arms race that benefits no one. Instead of focusing on more important things like improving battery life, they keep adding more pixels. I guess it’s only a matter of time before they introduce a UHD phone.