If 2013 has been the year of Full HD smartphone screens, where 1920 x 1080 pixels became the standard on top-of-the-line devices, then we have to wonder: what is 2014 going to bring to our screens? From what we’re seeing, the future of phones may mirror what’s going on in the world of televisions, where resolutions even higher than 1080p are becoming common.
To help keep you in the loop and clear up some of the confusion surrounding the most exciting new developments, here’s our official DT guide to all the fancy terminology and technology related to the next generation of super high-res touchscreens.
Beyond Full HD, lies the land of 1440p
If you bought an expensive new phone this year, or a TV in the last five, you’re already familiar with “Full HD,” or 1920 x 1080 pixels, and how great it can look on everything from a Nexus 5 to a flatscreen TV. But there are resolutions far greater than ‘1080p.’ The next pixel evolution is expected to be 1440p, which will provide 2560 x 1440 pixels on your screen. Gamers have known of 1440p’s benefits for a while, but how will it be on our phones?
Depending on the size of the smartphone’s screen, the higher resolution will provide even greater pixel density than we’re currently seeing on top-of-the-range hardware. The Samsung Galaxy S4’s 5-inch, 1080p screen has an impressive 441 pixels per inch (ppi) pixel density, but a 5.4-inch 1440p display would reach a density of 543ppi. It will be almost impossible to see a pixel at resolutions this high without a magnifier of some kind.
Screens with 1440p resolutions aren’t science fiction either. Several manufacturers have already shown off prototypes, but just to confuse us they often disguise them using alternative names. For example, LG unveiled a 1440p screen in August, calling it Quad HD, while a few months later, Japan Display revealed its own panel but using WQHD to denote the resolution. LG’s Quad HD name is often shortened to QHD – a reference to 1440p having four times the pixels of a 720p display – which shouldn’t be confused with the old, but sometimes still used 960 x 540 qHD resolution … yes, our head hurts too.
Qualcomm joins the 1440p party with Mirasol
It’s not only Samsung, LG, and Japan Display working on 1440p screens. In mid-2013, Qualcomm demonstrated a 5.1-inch version of its Mirasol screen with a 2560 x 1440 pixel resolution and pixel density of 577ppi. Mirasol screen tech is also exciting thanks to its considerable power-saving benefits – Qualcomm says it consumes six times less than an equivalent OLED panel – and has recently been seen on the Toq smartwatch.
So when can we expect to have a 1440p phone in our hands? Chinese manufacturer Vivo is widely expected to release the first smartphone using such a screen. The XPlay 3S was teased with an image showing a 2560 x 1440 pixel resolution, and the launch is likely to take place before the end of 2013. Additionally, there are rumors Oppo will add a 1440p screen to its Find 7 (terrible name, we know), although it’s not clear whether this will be a phone or a tablet.
Finally, a set of benchmarking results for an unknown Samsung phone called the SM-G900S appeared at the beginning of December, and showed the screen had a 1440p resolution. There’s a chance this may be the Galaxy S5, the Galaxy F, or some other unknown device. The phone is being rumored for launch at Mobile World Congress, so we should hear some official news in late February 2014.
So, just as it did with LG and the first flexible phone, Samsung looks like it’s in a race with Vivo to be the first to put a 1440p phone on sale.
But wait, what does ‘2K’ mean?
Here’s where things start to get confusing. If you regularly peruse phone rumors, you may have seen references to ‘2K’ recently, perhaps even linked with the Vivo XPlay S3. The thing is, the phrase isn’t really relevant to smartphones; It’s better associated with digital cinema. According to the Digital Cinema Initiatives (or DCI), 2K images have a resolution of 2048 x 1080 pixels, which is almost unnoticeably better than 1080p. Depending on the screen ratio, a 2048 x 1152 pixel resolution is also known as 2K.
So, 2K doesn’t pack the pixels that 1440p does, but a check of Wikipedia shows 1440p is apparently sometimes referred to as 2K HD. There’s no source for this aside from a movie trailer, but according to Phil Holland, moderator of the reduser.net forum and notable visual effects specialist, if you set a Red camera to capture in 2K HD it’ll come out as, um, 1920 x 1080.
We don’t know if the mislabeling of 2K and 1440p is an error, a misunderstanding, or worse, being pushed as a more “sexy” term by overeager marketing teams, much like the acronym ‘4G’ was by wireless carriers. But for now, if we’re going to stick with the definition provided by the pixels, a genuine 2K smartphone screen will be almost identical to one with a 1080p resolution, and is therefore completely irrelevant.
Is a 4K phone coming?
If you want the highest number of pixels on your screen, then 4K is indeed the future. Again, according to the DCI, 4K has a resolution of 4096 x 2160. But because nothing in life is simple, 4K is an umbrella term which covers several different resolutions, and is also known by a few more terms.
We can thank the Consumer Electronics Association for this. At the end of 2012, it declared that 4K screens could also be labeled Ultra HD or Ultra High Definition, provided they met a minimum pixel specification. This spec requires eight million active pixels, with a minimum of 3,840 horizontal pixels, and 2,160 vertical pixels. The aspect ratio must be 16:9 or greater, which means a 16:10 aspect ratio and 4096 x 2560 pixels would also be 4K. Mathletes, you’re probably having a ball right now.
Getting back to mobile, Samsung is already working on a 4K phone, and at a recent closed-door analyst-only event, it showed a slide with projected dates for introducing higher resolution smartphone screens. In 2014, it plans to introduce 1440p resolutions and in 2015, screens with 3840 x 2160 pixels will be released. Samsung called these UHD, or Ultra HD, displays which as we’ve just seen, qualifies as 4K … barely.
Behind the next Gen. of processors that will power these screens
These new super high resolution displays will need stronger processors to drive them, particularly when we reach 4K resolutions. Qualcomm’s recently announced Snapdragon 805, with its new Adreno 420 GPU, will be the first to support 3840 x 2160 pixels (or 4K, or Ultra HD) screens.
The current Snapdragon 800 is already on top phones like the Galaxy Note 3 and LG G2, and it’s no slouch either. It can handle 2560 x 2048 pixel displays, meaning it’ll take on1440p screens without a problem. Even the slightly more modest Snapdragon 600 is built to take on 1440p, but at a maximum of 2048 x 1536, it’s barely eking out the minimum resolution needed. Nvidia’s Tegra 4 isn’t up to handling 4K, but its maximum of 3200 x 2000 is close, and more than enough for 1440p.
The flexible screen revolution has already begun
Even before we reach 2014, there are two smartphones with flexible screens on sale: the Samsung Galaxy Round and the LG G Flex. Neither have made it far outside Korea yet, though the G Flex will eventually spread its wings to the United States, we think. These two phones are just the start of a growing trend, and it’s one that offers interesting design possibilities, and crucial improvements in screen durability.
Producing a display flexible enough to fold up is only half the battle. Everything else, including the battery, needs to bend too.
During the same analyst presentation we mentioned earlier, Samsung confirmed its plans to follow up the curved Galaxy Round in mid-2014, but this time the phone will have a bendable screen. The technology will continue to evolve throughout the year, with fully flexible displays emerging in early 2015. Perhaps, like the Round, we’ll see the first of these right at the end of next year.
Samsung and its competitors face a big challenge. Producing a display flexible enough to fold up is only half the battle. It also has to be covered in a film which must not only exhibit the same bendy qualities, but also be completely clear – and resistant to heat, stress, and scratches. On top of that, the bendy phone won’t be bending without flexible batteries, and other components. Everything needs to bend.
A compromise may have to be reached, and in a report by the Wall Street Journal, a representative for Kolon Industries, which produces glass and plastic display coverings, says it may have the solution. Two glass panels could be joined together using sheets of super tough plastic film, allowing it to bend in two. It’s said this technology could be less than a year away from arriving.
In the same article, a Finnish tech firm says it has developed a carbon-based film suitable for touch sensors; it can be folded and flexed to a higher degree than current screens. Apparently, depending on demand, it could be producing two million per month by the end of 2014.
LG has a similar outlook on the growing popularity of flexible smartphones to Samsung. The company’s head of mobile planning recently estimated by 2015, curved or partially flexible phones will account for 12 percent of the smartphone market, a figure which could jump to 40 percent by 2018. However, to give an idea of how complex phones such as the G Flex really are, LG revealed it took three years to develop, so don’t be surprised if complications force these timelines to be revised.
Dual-screen phones will become more common
At the beginning of 2013, Russian firm Yota demonstrated the Yotaphone at both CES and MWC. It received attention at both shows due to its unusual dual-screen configuration. On the front is a regular 720p display, while on the rear is an always-on E Ink screen. The phone has since been put on sale in selected markets, and could be the start of a new trend.
Qualcomm’s aforementioned Mirasol demo smartphone also had dual screens, with a small always-on 1.5-inch display sitting on the back. Others have experimented with making dual screen phones in the past, with Kyocera’s Echo and Sony’s Tablet P being two of the most notable examples, but Yota’s approach is the most intriguing, so far.
2014 will be a fun year for pixels
While phones with flexible displays could take off towards the end of the year, and dual-screen devices may become a lucrative niche for manufacturers like Yota, 2014 is almost certainly going to be remembered as the year when 1440p takes over as the high-end smartphone screen standard. We can’t help get excited over a screen on our smartphone with a higher resolution than the TV in our living room, but the big question is, will we be able to see the difference?