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:
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|
|Nokia 6600||208x176||2.1"||130||4Q/2003||Nokia 6680|
|iPhone 1||480x320||3.5"||165||06/2009||All iPhones up to 3GS|
|BlackBerry Bold 9000||480x320||2.6"||222||05/2008|
|Nokia N97||640x360||3.5"||210||06/2009||Nokia N8|
|HTC Diamond||640x480||2.8"||286||05/2008||BB Bold Touch 9900|
|Samsung Galaxy S2 (SGS2)||800x480||4.3"||217||04/2011||Nokia Lumia 900|
|Huawei G300 (Vodafone)||800x480||4.0"||233||04/2012||Samsung Galaxy S/Nexus-S|
|HTC Desire||800x480||3.7"||252||03/2010||Nokia Lumia 800|
|ZTE Blade (Orange SF)||800x480||3.5"||267||Q2/2011||Nokia N900|
|HTC Sensation||960x540||4.3"||256||05/2011||HTC One S (New) Moto RAZR|
|Samsung Galaxy S3 (SGS3)||1280x720||4.8"||306||06/2012|
|HTC One X||1280x720||4.7"||312||05/2012|
|Sony Xperia S||1280x720||4.3"||342||02/2012|
|Samsung Galaxy Note||1280x800||5.3"||285||10/2011|
|KEY: Green highlight incidicates some form of AMOLED display|
So where do we go from here?
[EDIT: Here is an article on the differnet display technologies in use]