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.
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a couple of years ago it was a very common resolution both in cellphones and media players, but that resolution has been replaced by 320×240 as the most common “low resolution” screen these days.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.