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Sunday, 6 May 2012

Mobile handset displays in 2012 and what was the point of the HTC Sensation?

[Short link to this article if you need it: - or retweet me]

This is an article that may date badly, but what the heck - will be fun to read it back in a year's time? It's about various things - the HTC Sensation's choice of screen resolution, the importance of screen resolution and screen technology in general, and where the mobile industry is heading with the current crop of premium handsets. I think we may have reached a point where there's not much more to give, and if we're lucky we'll see more higher-end handsets appearing at lower prices...

I know a few people who purchased one of the HTC Sensation handsets. I never quite understood why. The only reason appeared I've heard involved an obsession with numbers. I've often heard comments similar to:

"The screen resolution is higher so it must be a superior screen."
And I don't buy it. Do a blind test between a Sensation (or for that matter any iPhone) and any of the WVGA (800x480) AMOLED handsets on the market and I can't imagine there would be much of a contest in terms of which screen most people would choose to have. The Sensation provides an extra 80 pixels in the larger dimension, 60 in the smaller (960x540 "qHD" resolution at @256ppi) and that doesn't compensate for the reduced clarity and contrast of the screen. (For those that don't know, ppi here isn't payment protection insurance despite your spam SMS messgaes, it's "pixels per inch" and tells you how many dots across the screen per inch of screen space - a rough indication of how well a display can reproduce detail). I never quite understood why, for a similar high end price, you wouldn't go for one of the alternatives to the Sensation... The Sensation XL seemed even more pointless at 800x480 and 4.7" - I guess if your eyesight isn't good enough, but would those people really be looking for such a device instead of a "proper" tablet?

A friend of mine who has one such alternative - a Samsung Galaxy S2 (SGS2) - as well as a Sensation in his family. When I was tweeting about screens recently he got in touch and agreed, and that's from someone who has experienced both for longer than most of us. There just isn't any contest - unless you're obsessed with raw numeric data and believing it's all that matters. Apple pushed that to it's logical conclusion - creating a screen for the fourth generation iPhone which was beyond what the limits of the human eye are with their "Retina" display (DISCLAIMER: Depends how far away you view it from) which gives another hike even beyond the Sensation (an extra 100 pixels in the smaller dimension - 960x640 - and the display is smaller thus increasing the dot pitch significantly to @330ppi). Would even the Sensation users really claim the '4 was significantly better for it? To be fair, Apple needed a boost because I always considered the first three iPhone displays (480x320 @ 165ppi) behind the times from the start.

HTC: At "One" with itself

HTC have now launched two new handsets - the One X and One S (quite possibly named from their takeover of "One and Co" in 2008 who were also responsible for the HTC Diamond design. The X boasts a rather large 4.7" screen and 1280x720 @312ppi resolution, and the S with the same resolution and screen size as the original Sensation. I tried both of them recently and if I'm honest I was a bit underwhelmed. The screens were certainly an improvement on previous ones (The S now has an AMOLED display) and they did feel smooth and responsive. But there was a definite lack of "WOW!" factor that there was when I first used an SGS2, and despite using comparable technology the display didn't look quite up to the SGS2, although you can never be sure if that's down to in-store lighting and settings on the display units.

I do wonder where the mobile industry will go in the next couple of years. What will the "next big thing" be? With Android widely regarded as being the most power hungry of the major mobile operating systems, will Samsung's rumoured Windows Phone version of the SGS3 hardware level up the war of operating systems? I'm not yet convinced by the SGS3 if I'm honest - the SGS2 was almost above the size limits I'd like, and the extra size for the 4.8" SGS3 screen just seems a bit too much. The 5" (although physically larger overall, and a lower WVGA resolution) Android-based Dell Streak didn't sell too well a couple of years back after all. So are the One X and SGS3 just going to sell to people who just like playing one-upmanship on the numbers games? Does Apple "master of giving the users just what they need" choosing not to increase the iPhone's screen size from the original 3.5" not give you, and their competitors an idea as to the answer? Although the cynical side of me says it would have been harder to put the "Retina display" marketing in place if they increased the screen size.

My historic views on mobile phone screens

A bit of personal history in my choices and feelings (feel free to skip this paragraph) there was a time when screen resolution was absolutely critical to me, but that was before we were at current levels - I had a Nokia N80 with an incredible (for it's time) 416x352 259ppi display six years ago. (For comparison my current handset is actually slightly lower at 251ppi, and both are a similar density to the Sensation), and that was a decision I made on the basis of it's screen resolution and physical size. The pixel density was about on the limit of what I considered sensible and useful, and even at the time I decided that I was never likely to need something higher than that 259ppi. That resolution just about made web pages readable - it made a real difference. It's worth pointing out here that the first three iPhones - introduced three years later - only had just under 5% more screen pixels than my N80. I believe that by WVGA you've reached a stage of, frankly, "adequate" and you start getting to the stage where that does not seem adequate, the app/web page designer probably needs a slap. It's also worth noting at this point that one of the reasons I defected from Nokia (this blog entry has more details of the other reasons) was because they couldn't supply a handset to replace the N80 with a resolution even the same, let alone higher. It's also notable that with the N80 Nokia had done what Apple subsequently did with the '4 - doubled both dimensions compared to the earlier 6600/6680 while retaining the same size. The natural successor was the N95 which had 320x240 @154ppi (I believe that was due to Symbian dropping support for the N80's 416x352 resoolution more than anything else) it took them til the Nokia 5800/N97 to put a 640x360 screen in (229ppi on the 5800, 210ppi on the larger N97 panel (A serious case of Nokia misjudging where the industry was heading as far as I'm concerned. At that point they were heavily on the back foot playing catch up. Worryingly the flagship Nokia camera phones (The N8 and 808 PureView) are still both stuck with 640x360 displays (210ppi/184ppi respectively) presumably still due to restrictions even in the latest Symbian revisions.

So that last paragraph was mostly to indicate that screen resolution has been very important to me, but now we're at a stage where other things make more of a difference. If you're happy to carry around a near-5" 720p device with you then be my guest, it's just not for me. And I'm yet to be convinced that it's for the mass market. I was personally a bit disappointed when Nokia announced that the Lumia900 handset which would resolve the two issues I had with the Lumia800 - lack of reverse camera and NFC - would be a larger unit with a 4.3" screen instead of 3.7"

A summary of popular devices

I've included most of the latest ones from the popular manufacturers, including the ones mentioned in this article, and some entries from smartphone history to provide comparison points. The Huawei G300 (from Vodafone) and the Orange San Francisco are both budget (<£100) WVGA Android handsets - and worth a consider if you're on a budget or don't need a contract (and if that's the case, consider using my GiffGaff referral link to get a free SIM). How do the ones you've owned compare?

List of most referenced smart handsets by increasing pixel count, then PPI. All data from Gsmarena
Handset ResolutionSizeppiReleasedComparable screens
Nokia 6600 208x176 2.1"1304Q/2003Nokia 6680
Nokia N95 320x240 2.6"15403/2007
Nokia N80 416x352 2.1"25906/2006
iPhone 1 480x320 3.5"16506/2009All iPhones up to 3GS
BlackBerry Bold 9000480x3202.6"22205/2008
Nokia 808 640x360 4.0"18405/2012
Nokia N97 640x360 3.5"21006/2009Nokia N8
Nokia 5800 640x360 3.2"22911/2008
HTC Diamond 640x480 2.8"28605/2008BB Bold Touch 9900
Dell Streak 800x480 5.0"18706/2010
Samsung Galaxy S2 (SGS2)800x480 4.3"21704/2011Nokia Lumia 900
Huawei G300 (Vodafone)800x480 4.0"23304/2012Samsung Galaxy S/Nexus-S
HTC Desire 800x480 3.7"25203/2010Nokia Lumia 800
ZTE Blade (Orange SF)800x480 3.5"267Q2/2011Nokia N900
Nokia N9 854x480 3.9"25109/2011
HTC Sensation960x540 4.3"25605/2011HTC One S (New) Moto RAZR
iPhone 4 960x640 3.5"33006/2010
Samsung Galaxy S3 (SGS3)1280x7204.8"30606/2012
HTC One X 1280x7204.7"31205/2012
Sony Xperia S1280x7204.3"34202/2012
Samsung Galaxy Note 1280x8005.3"28510/2011
KEY: Green highlight incidicates some form of AMOLED display

So where do we go from here?

So I've given the "cons" of where the phone industry is (and this blog came out of a multi-part rant of twitter where I came to this, possibly harsh, conclusion) but how about some "pros"? Where would I like to see the industry go? Nokia reckon it's a 41MP camera sensor in the 808, but even ignoring the resolution limitations already mentioned that's got no chance of really taking off properly until they put it in a Windows Phone handset (please, for once Nokia, don't let another manufacturer get the jump on you after getting the technology out there first!!!) The only thing I'd still personally like on my next handset is an integrated pico projector or a laser projection keyboard. Integrating them has been thrown around as ideas for a while but it hasn't taken off yet. I had one of the keyboards (bluetooth connected) for my earlier Symbian devices and it was really convenient to type on ... unless you were outside in daylight. And had a definite "Wow!" factor. Not much else is doing it for me at the moment. The SGS3 detection of whether you're "reading" and avoiding dimming/locking the display is the only cool innovation I've seen recently, although none of the reviews seem to have pointed out how it works in the dark since I believe it just makes use of the handset's reverse camera ...

Do you have any other sensible ideas? Are you salivating at the thought of the One X or SGS3? Did you buy an HTC Sensation, and if so was it fundamentally because of the bigger resolution numbers, brand loyalty, non-screen related features, or something else that made it beat the AMOLED SGS2 for you? I'm genuinely interested...

[EDIT: Here is an article on the differnet display technologies in use]