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2K displays in smartphones: What are they & do we need them?

There is no denying the fact that smartphones have become a basic necessity of life for the majority of us out there. Smartphones now outsell ‘feature phones’ or ‘dumb phones’, whichever you want to call it. And practically all of these smartphones come with a large touch screen. Pick up any smartphone, and the most dominating aspect of the hardware will be the display. So it’s no secret why manufacturers are constantly trying to find different ways in which they can make the display better. Over the past few years the display technology has advanced considerably. 2013 was the year of full HD displays, which is also more commonly known as 1080p or 1920 x 1080. 2014 will take it one step further with 2K resolution being the norm.

Lumia-1520-Display

What is 2K resolution?

Like 4K, 2K is a generic name given to displays that have 2000 or more horizontal pixels. So for example if we take the only phone so far that is confirmed to have a 2K screen, the Oppo Find 7, we see that it has a resolution of 2560 x 1440. That’s a little more than 2.5K horizontal pixels, which is why it’s being marketed as a 2K display.

resolution chart

It’s the same case as the 4K displays we’ve come to expect from high end televisions. 4K means 4000 or more horizontal pixels. These are also the most expensive televisions you’ll find in the market today.

Why is 2K a useless metric?

This brings us to the most pressing issue that we will face in the next 12 months. Manufacturers will keep referring to these screens as 2K, and every time they will do that they will be incorrect. I mentioned before how 2K actually refers to the number of horizontal pixels. 2560 x 1440 will be marketed as a 2K display, which isn’t completely incorrect, but it’s just a needless way to somehow associate with the 4K displays that are considered by many to be some sort of resolution benchmark.

resolution chart 2

1920 x 1080 is technically 2K, but it is never marketed as such. In fact it’s called 1080p, which means 1080 lines of vertical resolution in progressive scan. So when manufacturers will tout their phones as having 2K displays, what they will essentially be saying is that their phones now have 80 more lines of horizontal pixels, which is a negligible increment.

So I’m wondering why there’s this sudden shift of terminology? For years we’ve been referring to vertical resolution when we say 1080p or 720p, so why all of a sudden shift to horizontal resolution?

There is a better way to do this

It’s not like there are no other options. In fact there are plenty. For starters instead of calling these resolutions 2K, start referring to their vertical resolution, like we’ve been doing all our lives. 2560 x 1440 isn’t 2K, it should be 1440p. Similarly if an OEM decides to go with 16:10 aspect ratio, call it 1600p.

And if that’s too confusing, call it by their alphabetical names. 2560 x 1440 is also known as QHD. Note that this is different from qHD that we saw on phones a few years back. QHD means quad-HD, which is basically 720p x 4. qHD is quarter-HD.

Calling it 2K is just insulting the intelligence of an average consumer. 2K and 4K are actually resolutions established by the digital cinema industry. According to the Digital Cinema Initiatives the standard 4K resolution is 4096 x 2160 and the standard 2K resolution is 2048 × 1080.

Do we need 2K in a phone?

All of this brings us to the big elephant in the room. Do we really need phones with 2K displays? It’s tough to answer this question since we’re yet to see a phone with this display. Rest assure we will be seeing plenty of them next week during CES. Coming back to whether we need these displays or not. It’s not a simple yes or no scenario.

screen resolution

217 PPI vs 330 PPI

When smartphones made a move from 480 x 800 (WVGA) to 720p, the difference was remarkable. Apple had already set the precedence with the Retina Display on the iPhone 4, and it was only a matter of time when other OEMs follow suite. From WVGA to 720p we’re talking about a shift from a PPI of around 200-250 to around 300-350. As you can see from the closeup above, the difference was tremendous.

screen

330 PPI (top) vs 440 PPI (bottom)

In 2013 we saw another shift. This time it was from 720p to 1080p. A move from 300-350 PPI to well over 400 PPI. We’re almost to the point of diminishing returns. But there were certain advantages of the increased resolution. Phablets, which have screens usually over 5.5-inch diagonally definitely took advantage of 1080p displays. A 6-inch display with 1080p resolution will have a PPI of around 360, which is perfectly acceptable. Some people even claimed to have noticed a difference in smaller screens such as the HTC One. I’m skeptical but i’ll take their word for it.

Moving on to 2560 x 1440 screens, which we will see go official in a few days. On a 5.5-inch screen, a 1440p display will have a PPI of 538. I don’t need to tell you how insane that even sounds. There is simply no way anyone will be able to discern the difference between 1080p and 1440p at this size. At 10-inch, yes, but 5.5-inch? Absolutely not. Moving to 500+ PPI will put additional strain to the already terrible batteries of smartphones. The GPUs will be running overtime. Your full HD movies will need to be scaled up, thereby reducing quality. Games will need to be updated to take any advantage of the increased pixels, otherwise they too will be scaled up. Scaling up is essentially wasting the extra pixels on the screen. Why not instead focus on improving colour reproduction? Improve power consumption? Viewing angles? Sunlight legibility?

The idea of 2K seems quite wasteful at this point in time. I can’t think of a single advantage of having these many pixels. I’m always in favour of innovation and advancement, but only as long as they have a positive impact on the end user experience.

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