Three years ago, tech geeks all over the world were awestruck when Apple (AAPL) unveiled its high resolution "Retina” display, boasting of a pixel density of 326 pixels per inch (ppi) for the iPhone 4.
Since then, many other phone companies have come up with models that best that figure. Sony (SNE) and HTC (2498.TW), for example, both have 5-inch, 1080p smartphones with pixel densities of around 440 ppi.
Samsung, however, looks set to up the ante. According to a Digitimes report, Samsung (SSNLF) is looking at eschewing the conventional side-by-side pixel layout and developing hexagon- and diamond-shaped layouts instead for its upcoming small-sized AMOLED display panels. This way, the Korean tech giant will be able to up screen resolutions to above 440 ppi.
The new 440+ ppi display will likely be used in Samsung's upcoming Galaxy S4 smartphone. Expected to be released in the next few month, the S4 could potentially boast of having one of the highest-resolution displays in the competitive smartphone market. In contrast, the Galaxy S3 and the iPhone 5 have pixel resolutions of 306 ppi and 326 ppi respectively.
If you recall, back when Apple co-founder Steve Jobs unleashed the "Retina” display, he claimed that the average eye could not discern individual pixels at a "magic number” of around 300 ppi. Was Jobs right? Can consumers even detect improvements in the ever-sharper smartphone screens offered by the likes of Samsung and HTC?
"It's the same story with TV resolutions. I remember people telling me that if you're buying smaller than a 40-inch TV, a screen resolution of 720p is fine,” quipped Todd Haselton, executive director at tech news website, TechnoBuffalo. Nonetheless, he said that "it's actually really nice and really crisp” reading text and watching movies on high-resolution 1080p displays.
"On the HTC Droid DNA, for example, you don't get any letterboxing around the video, which is a nice little benefit [of the 440 ppi display],” said Haselton.
One potential drawback of the Galaxy S4's rumored pixel-dense, ultra high-resolution display is that there could be compatibility issues with mobile apps. The same problem occurred with the 440 ppi Droid DNA, where apps such as Xbox SmartGlass (MSFT), Angry Birds Star Wars, and Alaska Airlines did not work until they were updated.
"It wasn't even letterboxing problems like you had on the iPhone 5 because of screen size changes. Certain apps just weren't available on the Droid DNA until they were updated,” said Haselton.
Still it's likely that the escalating arms race between Samsung and other smartphone makers to produce ever-higher resolution displays is reminiscent of the digital camera megapixel war a decade ago. The question is: When will it stop?
"Who knows?” Haselton said. "It has got to stop with 1080p screens, right? I mean, are we going to see a smartphone with a 4K display? [The race] has to stop eventually. Maybe phone companies should work on the battery life of their devices instead.”