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Do We Need 4k Screens? Huawei Seems To Think We Do But Not Yet

February 2, 2015 - Written By David Steele

Huawei have recently criticised the industry for pushing towards greater and greater resolution displays; originally it slapped down Xiaomi and Meizu for switching to a 1440p resolution display on a smartphone (that is, 2,560 by 1,440 pixels, the resolution of the Nexus 6 and Samsung Galaxy Note 4) and now it’s on the attack again, giving out a rather confusing message that seems to state that for a smartphone there’s no need to the eye between a 4k and a 2k screen. Kevin Ho, President of the Handset Product Line at Huawei, said at a special briefing: “On the large screen 4k is very good but on a smaller smartphone display of five to six inches, maybe our eyes cannot tell the difference between this and 2k. 4k needs a lot of power, so if you use it you have to make compromises. A 4k display on a smartphone may give you half a day of battery life but a 2k display can give you maybe one day or more.” Huawei place usability and battery life higher up in their priorities than wowing customers with on-box specification.

The logic here is that the more pixels the hardware has to shunt around the screen, the harder the processor, graphics chipset and memory has to work. A 4k screen has four times the number of pixels as a 1080p display, which means that the aggregate power consumption of the display is between four to eight times as high. Let me liken it to swimming: in trunks, it requires a certain amount of effort. Now jump into the pool wearing pyjamas; it requires more effort. Then let’s throw on a medieval suit of armor; we have to work much, much harder to remain afloat. Now, this analogy is absolutely fine because as new technologies are developed, so the effort required to power that screen is reduced. Newer generation processors can move around pixels on our display using less energy than before. Batteries are slowly improving. In the swimming analogy, I would liken it to replacing the medieval armour with modern composite materials that are stronger and much, much lighter. And we’ve been to an aquagym too: mobile system-on-chips (or SoCs) are getting more and more capable at powering higher resolution displays.

This ties in with Huawei not ruling out using 4k displays in devices at some point in the future: the technology isn’t there yet, but when it does, they may well use 4k technology in smartphones and tablets. And that’s fine, but you may be asking if this resolution war is really necessary? As pixels get smaller and smaller, so our eyes need to be closer and closer to the display in order to see the difference. At the distance that I usually use a smartphone, for a screen of around the 5.0-inch point, the difference between 720p and 1080p is minor. Instead, I appreciate the differences between color hues, saturation, contrast and the weird ghosting effect that some screens produce.

And then I see how Google and Samsung have built a virtual reality headset, where we mount our smartphone very close to our eyes. As you were. Let’s push towards higher resolution displays, but we may need to wait for the rest of the technology to catch up first. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.