The Resolution Revolution

resolution 520x292 The Resolution Revolution

2 years ago I wrote an article explaining some basic differences between various video (and screen) resolutions that were common back then. In just two years, we have seen a massive increase in what is considered “normal” resolution for a mobile device, as well as a decrease in screen size. We’ve gone from 800×480 4.8″ media players to 960×640 3.5″ devices at half the price, and the resolution war is just beginning. The question we have to ask though is whether there’s really any point to it.

Making sense of all these “new” resolutions can give you a massive headache. The only way to make sense of them is to see them compared directly, both in terms of relative size and actual pixel count. The two pictures below do just that, and compare some of the most common resolutions.

resolution 520x292 The Resolution Revolution

reschart The Resolution Revolution

The charts here go from 220×176 to 1920×1080. 220×176 is not used much anymore, but you still find it in a couple of MP3 players such as the non-plus Sansa Fuze. Just a couple of years ago it was a very common resolution both in cellphones and media players, but that resolution has been replaced by 320×240 as the most common “low resolution” screen these days.

1920×1080 or 1080p as it’s most commonly called is set as the max resolution in these charts. While there are higher resolution screens out there (such as 1920×1200) it’s the most common “max” resolution in both TVs and computer monitors. The difference in number of pixels from 220×176 to 1920×1080 is a staggering ~5000%, in other words a 1080p monitor has about 50 times as many pixels as a Sansa Fuze.

480×272 used to be the standard 4″ display resolution, found in such devices as the PSP and many of the older 4″ Archos and Cowon models. These days it’s mostly found in 3″ devices like the Cowon J3. 480×320 is a very close resolution and was first introduced by the iPhone and iPod touch and later used by the Palm Pre.

640×480 and 720×480 are the standard definition resolutions, 4:3 and widescreen respectively. These were the resolutions you found in old CRT TVs and 720×480 is also the resolution used for DVDs.

800×480 and 848×480 are mostly used in Android phones and larger media players these days, as well as Android based tablets. 848×480 is the most useful resolution of the two because it’s a perfect 16:9 aspect ratio which means it’s ideal for video players (and media centric smartphones, obviously).

960×640 is the resolution for the new iPhone and iPod touch, as well as some other devices that are coming out. Apple calls these screens “retina displays”, which is purely a marketing ploy to make it sound cooler than it is. While the amount of pixels is in fact more than 50% higher than on a 848×480 screen, the real reason they chose that exact resolution is that every pixel on the old iPhone can now be doubled in both direcions (2×2 pixels) and in turn make it a perfect upscale, keeping the old aspect ratio and ensuring that only the graphics need to be different on the old and new version, not the layout of anything on screen.

1024×600 is the resolution used in most >10″ netbooks as well as some UMPCs and tablets. While that resolution is high for a mobile device, it creates some issues for the user when used on a device that runs a computer operating system like Windows because it’s below the “minimum” normal resolution for a computer, which is 1024×768. 1024×768 is also used on the iPad, but not on many other portable devices because of the 4:3 aspect ratio that isn’t really used much these days.

The last three resolutions are mostly used for computer and TV screens, with some tablets on the list for the two lowest ones. While 1280×720 is technically the real 720p resolution, many 720p screens are in fact 1366×768 pixels.

There are a few interesting observations to be made from this, and especially when it comes to the difference between screen resolution and screen size. The top chart shows the difference between the resolutions given that each pixel is the same size, but in reality most Android phones have larger screens than the iPhone which has a higher resolution. What many people don’t think about is what this means for using the device. On something controlled by a touchscreen, you need to take into consideration that a finger doesn’t change size with a higher resolution screen, and so you need to dedicate a specific physical part of the screen for controls rather than a specific resolution.You also can’t make the text too small because it will make it hard to read, so all you can do is make it look better.

The best example here is the iPad vs the iPod touch: the difference in resolution isn’t very big, but the iPad has a much larger screen with it’s 9.7″ vs the touch’s 3.5″. This means that even though you can fit more or less the same amount of data on the screen, the iPad won’t have to sacrifice as many pixels for buttons meaning that there will be more room for the actual content. It’s much easier to play games because you don’t block half the screen with your fingers using the touch screen controls. You can use things like columns for email which isn’t really possible on the touch/iPhone because everythign would be too small to see. It’s the same thing with Android, but as I said there are Android phones out there with a lot bigger screens than what you find on an iPhone. The HTC EVO for instance has a 4.3″ screen, which means that even though the resolution is “only” 480×800 pixels (62.5% of the iPhone 4 resolution) it will be a lot better suited for tasks like games, media playback, ebooks and magazines etc because it has a bigger screen.

With computers, it’s different. Going from a 720p screen to a 1080p screen is “only” a 2x difference in pixels, but since the icons and buttons aren’t upscaled you get a lot more space to work with. Anyone who’s ever used Photoshop knows how much more you can do with 1080p rather than 720p. When going from an iPhone 3GS to an iPhone 4, you increase the resolution 4 times but you can’t really do anything more with it because the icons scale as well in order to fit your fingers, the text is crisper but still the same size to make it readable and so on. Basically, everything looks better, especially photos and video, but it doesn’t really change what you can do with the phone like it would on a computer. That is why you have to ask yourself if the resolution is really as important as some make it out to be, or if it’s really just about eye candy.


roj on October 25, 2010 9:50 PM

There really isn’t a point to it. It’s empty hype bragging rights. No real substance whatsoever. So you have a 3.5″ screen with high resolution – big whup. I’m sorry but only a moron watches hi-def at that size. I love the new Apple commercials about the iCrap 4 screen: it’s the classic case of the emperor wearing new clothes.

Of course, millions of lemmings will decry what I just said. They’re also the idiots who would likely shell out for “molecularly aligned audio cables”.

Utter rubbish.

Luk on October 25, 2010 11:17 PM

Don’t get me wrong, I love me some resolution, but at a certain point, I’d prefer the saved battery power or nicer screen display for a similar price. Take a very high LCD display, and compare it to a decent OLED or even AMOLED display. I’d rather have the added battery life of the OLED or AMOLED over the “crispness” of the higher resolution LCD any day.

BTW, roj, iCrap. iLike that. :)

Binks on October 26, 2010 9:57 AM

@roj “molecularly aligned audio cables”- do they exist?!!! I’ve been waiting all my life for a pair of those! Haha, good one

Porio on October 26, 2010 12:30 PM

In the list I miss the 640×360 resolution used by Symbian S60v5 (now called Symbian^1) devices. It’s also a perfect 16:9 ratio.

Emmanuel on October 26, 2010 10:41 PM

I’ve found Wikipedia’s svg of screen resolutions to be useful when comparing one to another.

codewhiz on October 27, 2010 2:23 PM

No wonder the album covers on my Sansa Fuze look like crap.

Jaigoda on October 27, 2010 4:31 PM

One thing that you failed to mention is that resolution is still important to some degree, no matter how you look at it. If you had a massive screen with a 220×176 resolution, not only would it look like crap, but it’d be a lot less practical, too, because you wouldn’t be able to provide any detail whatsoever, especially for text.

In a lot of ways, the resolution on stuff like the iPhone is mostly for eye candy, yes, but it does serve practical purposes too. A major one is that you can often read websites without having to zoom in (it’s a little tough, but a lot easier than on lower res phones). Of course, any higher resolution than on the iPhone 4, without a matching increase in screen size, would definitely be overkill. From what I’ve seen, the iPhone 4′s resolution is the optimal resolution for that size screen, but that’s just my opinion.

Plus, eye candy is a pretty major part of buying electronics anyway. It’s the reason why people want 1080p TV’s. Sure, it doesn’t help much on the practical aspect of watching TV (well, you might be able to better pick out the wrinkles on Couric’s face), but it makes the ‘experience’ better.

Jerome on October 27, 2010 7:03 PM

With high-res displays like the ones on Apple’s new devices, we’re reaching a saturation point for resolution. Seriously, once the pixel density exceeds what the human eye can resolve, it’s pointless to go further. Unless manufacturers are determined to waste huge amounts of processing power, storage, and component cost in order to have bragging rights, I don’t think the resolution wars are going much further.

kage on October 28, 2010 10:42 PM

If though, you want a bigger screen, you need more pixels to fill the gaps if you want to keep the quality the same, which is probably why this war will continue.

Derrick Coetzee on October 31, 2010 4:46 PM

It’s true that there’s no point having a display which is higher resolution than the human eye at normal viewing distances – but we’ve got a long way to go before that happens. Just look at typical laser printers, which print at 600 dpi. For a 3.5 inch diagonal screen, that would be a resolution of about 1800 x 1082. I don’t think the viewing distance of a printed sheet of paper is much different from that of a mobile device screen, or that reflective vs. emissive makes much difference. I don’t know how much I would pay for high resolution, but it’s definitely worth something to have a display as sharp and clear as it can be.

Arashi on November 2, 2010 3:04 AM

Whoever claims that the iPhone 4′s LCD sips more power than AMOLED apparently hasn’t bothered to do any research, and ought to be shot in the balls.

Chef on November 4, 2010 1:42 AM

If you use your PMP for watching videos regularly, (isn’t that the only reason people think about resolution anyway?) doesn’t that make it important?

I’m not sure at what point the human eye can’t tell the difference on a small screen,and frankly I’m pretty curious. I was disappointed to see that your conclusion was about how useful it is regarding icons, than some empirical testing with video.

Right now I use 480/272 on the Cowon (I think that’s what it is?) and it’s pretty satisfying… but one does wonder.

Andreas Ødegård on November 7, 2010 12:32 AM

Chef: The article was actually more aimed at the tablet/cellphoen market rather than the PMP market, because the latter is borderline dead nowadays (as in: they have become tablets). On those devices you don’t necessarily watch videos, in fact you can be entertained for hours on end without ever having to do so through games and apps. Even if you do watch videos, the same principle with screen size vs screen resolution becomes a valid question – with the resolution of the new iPhoen and iPod touch, I can tell you for sure that you can blow up the screen size and getting a smaller pixel density and it will be a lot more pelasant to watch on a bigger screen.

Philippe on November 7, 2010 5:53 PM

Derrick, comparing with laser printers is wrong. Laser ink is black and only black. High density is needed to produce “gray”.

I suggest you to have a look at the kindle: text is very clean, with only 160dpi!

When you made your photographs on argentic paper in standard 10x15cm (4x6in), they are printed at 250dpi. Nobody consider them not to be crisp enough. Just because of the eye capabilities, there is absolutely no reason to build a 600dpi screen.

Best regards.

PowerTorsk on November 8, 2010 12:14 AM

Anyone who’s seen video on an Iphone 4 will agree that HD on such a small screen is worth it. It’s like a scaled down HDTV. You see textures and details AMAZINGLY clearly. Also, it makes text infinitely more pleasurable to read.

I will argue that the so called retina ppi is overkill though. The Samsung Galaxy S appears just as sharp to me, even though it’s bigger and has less pixels.

Rain1 on November 16, 2010 6:52 AM

Resolution is important, but pixel density is as much important (if not more)

Narg on November 17, 2010 12:10 AM

You forgot 1920×1200. The REAL computer resolution of 16×10. Not the over-hyped TV only resolution of 1920×1080.

That extra doesn’t seem like much, but it makes all the difference in the world if you are a video editor. Having the extra screen real estate allows both tools and full video on screen at the same time.

Paul Moth on February 28, 2011 5:22 PM

A small viewing screen is still a small viewing screen. For those with less than acute viewing, then the choice of player may very well end up being the one with the largest print in the interface whatever the resolution. Didn’t anyone commenting on these devices ever use a C=64?

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