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Power, not pixels: why Sony's skipping 2K screens in the Xperia Z3

Firms are falling over themselves to bring out phones with 2K screens. Don’t believe the hype: unless you're buying an enormous device you'll operate with your nose, you won't notice the extra pixels.

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Sony says it thought about 2K screens, but the downsides outweigh any benefit / © Sony Mobile

Imagine if a smartphone manufacturer told you that their handset was best because it was full of ghosts. "Ghosts?" you'd ask, surprised. "Yes," the manufacturer would say with a serious face. "It has ghosts. None of our rivals' phones have ghosts, and that's why this phone is better."

"So, er, what do they do?" you might ask. "Ghost-y things," the manufacturer would reply - and when you asked why you couldn't see them, the manufacturer would tell you that the reason was because ghosts are invisible. 

When firms talk about 2K smartphone screens, they’re talking about ghosts.

In 2K screens, the ghosts are all the extra pixels. The manufacturer says they’re there and that you should care, but you can’t see them. You can only divine their presence by the price tag of your phone and the spooky way your battery keeps draining.

Spooky screens

On anything smaller than a phablet, 2K is a marketing gimmick. Once you go beyond 400ish pixels on a four to six inch screen, you suffer from the law of diminishing returns: more pixels draws more power and costs more to make, but the difference you can see is minimal at best and non-existent at worst. 

The reason for higher pixel densities is to make pixelation, aka the jaggy bits on text and images, disappear. Once something has disappeared it can’t disappear more. You either see it or you don’t - and at a typical viewing distance of eight inches, the 450-ish pixels per inch of the typical Android screen makes pixelation disappear. With a pixel density of 534 ppi, a phone such as the LG G3 may have more pixels than rivals, but you need to be looking really closely to see any difference.

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The L3 G3 has 534 pixels per inch. That's a lot of pixels. / © ANDROIDPIT

Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, LG chief research engineer Lim Min-Ho said: “using their average eyesight and under the assumption that people look into their smartphones from a distance of 20 to 25 centimeters, we concluded that for this group [20 to 30-year-olds with great eyesight], a pixel density of between 500 to 550 pixels per inch, or ppi, was the maximum level of resolution they could recognize.” Even that’s pushing it unless you usually operate your phone with your nose. That's why Sony decided to prioritise battery life over pixels: its Xperia Z3 eschews 2K screens to deliver 2-day battery life instead.

We’ve been here before: pixel density is the smartphone equivalent of camera firms’ obsession with megapixels. It’s just a number, and other things are much more important. Let’s exorcise battery status anxiety first before we start worrying about ghosts.

What do you think? Would you sacrifice battery life for more pixels?


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