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Who Needs LG's Quad HD Smartphone Screen?

An LG Optimus G smartphone

Photograph by SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

An LG Optimus G smartphone

Great news if you’re addicted to pixels: LG (066570:KS) has developed what it calls the world’s first Quad HD display for smartphones. The new 5.5-inch screen boasts a 2560 x 1440 resolution, which works out to a whopping 538 pixels per inch. By comparison, Apple’s first retina display handset, the iPhone 4, made its debut with 326 pixels per inch. Congratulations are in order for LG’s achievement, but does the market need a small screen with so many pixels?

LG seems to think so. In its press release, it says this about the display: “LG Display’s Quad HD panel for smartphones realizes clearer images with 4 times more pixels than HD at 1,280X720, thereby reproducing more delicate colors as well as improving contrast and vividness when compared to current mobile displays. This advancement will enable consumers to fully enjoy more life-like and crisp images, and even Blu-ray equivalent video, on their smartphones. The panel also features the highest ppi among current mobile device displays.

“In addition, the new Quad HD panel will enable users to enjoy a full view of PC-version web pages at a single glance without image distortion; a contrast to current Full HD displays which only realize 3/4th of a full screen. Also, even when enlarging the screen, users will be able to enjoy undistorted and sharper text.”

That all sounds good on paper, but color me skeptical. Here’s why.

To push all those pixels, a smartphone or small tablet is going to use up quite a bit of power, both from the battery and a high performance GPU. Meaning: Don’t expect a device with LG’s new Quad HD panel to get better battery life than a similar device with a lower resolution screen. Notice that power consumption isn’t mentioned in the press release.

“Wait,” you say. “I’m willing to sacrifice some potential battery life for a better viewing experience!” Perhaps that’s true, but how much of an improvement will you gain with this 5.5-inch panel? Less than the cost of the battery life is what I suspect.

If you hold a mobile device around 10 inches to 12 inches from the eye, it needs only to have a pixel density of around 320 pixels per inch for the individual pixels to “disappear” for those with average eyesight. I’ll grant that a 5.5-inch screen may be held a little farther from the eye than a 4-inch screen—I experienced that behavior with my 5.5-inch Galaxy Note 2—but this screen just seems like overkill. And this is why I’m not concerned that the Moto X I’ll be buying has a 720p display, not a 1080p screen: The visual improvements of a full HD screen on that device are marginal at best to my eyes.

With regard to LG’s second quoted paragraph—viewing a full PC-version Web page on the screen—this is interesting, particularly for those that have a new Nexus 4 tablet. The 7-inch display is a 1920 x 1200 screen and yes, you can view a full Web page on it. And if I squint really hard, I can read the very small—but crisp—text.

It’s not optimal on most Web pages, though. There’s still a need to zoom in for a comfortable reading experience in most cases, which renders the benefit of a Quad HD panel a bit moot.

I’ll stay open-minded until I see the new display panel in a product. Until then, this seems like technology for its own sake—and bragging rights—not a push toward a better mobile device experience.

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Darrow writes for Gigaom.

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