Are We Looking at the Beginning of a Display Resolution War?

By Kenny Yeo - on 24 Jan 2014, 10:11am

The new Toshiba Tecra W50 has a 4K display.

If you have been following our coverage of CES, we would have noticed that one of the trends to surface this year is ultra-high resolution displays. Ultra high-resolution 4K TV displays have been in the limelight for some time, but this trend looks set to be coming to notebooks too.

At this year’s CES, Toshiba announced two new notebooks with 4K displays - the Tecra W50 and Satellite P50t - that will should hit stores in the middle of this year. This means the same pixel density (262 pixels per inch, if you were wondering) as HP’s new QHD Envy 14 notebook, which we previewed in August last year.

When this race for ever higher pixel count started no one really knows, but one of the first products to begin offering such high resolution displays was Apple’s iPhone 4 back in 2010. Since then, Apple has extended its Retina displays to all of its phones, tablets and even notebooks.

For anyone still skeptical about the benefits of a high resolution display, simply compare the first generation iPad Mini with the latest one. The difference is day and night. The same is true for Apple’s new MacBook Pro with Retina Display and older MacBook Pros with non-Retina displays.

While these ultra-high resolution displays look great, it comes the cost of extra processing power. The first generation 13-inch MacBook Pros with Retina Displays that were powered by Intel’s HD Graphics 4000 GPUs were notorious for their sluggish performance especially whilst browsing, especially on graphics or video intensive websites. This is true for HP’s QHD Envy 14 too.

It's not hard to see why once you do the maths. In the case of the Envy 14, its 3200 x 1800 pixels resolution means a total pixel count of roughly 5.76 million. This is more than double of that of a regular 1080p Full-HD display (2.07 million pixels). This is also why graphics look so much crisper and sharper, and also why so much more processing power and memory resources need to be allocated to driving the display. Consider then that 4K displays have a resolution of 3840 x 2160 pixels, that is nearly 8.3 million pixels - 44% more a QHD display.

Therefore, it is evident that the demands on the system is greatly increased. And in our opinion, integrated graphics solutions, which are found in majority of today’s notebooks, are unfortunately still ill equipped to handle with these demands. Intel's next generations might change that, but that's another story for another day. Hence, what users then end up with is a super sharp display, but with sluggish system performance.

Clearly, ultra-high resolution displays are a double-edged sword. But do we really need them? Or rather, do we really need to push them to 4K?

Apple calls its high resolution screens Retina displays because the pixels are imperceptible to the naked human eye. In the case of notebooks, this is deemed to be around 220 pixels per inch - this is lower than Apple’s iPhones and iPads because of the greater typical viewing distance when using a notebook. If we agree that at this number, the human eye can no longer discern individual pixels, then we have to ask ourselves what is the benefit of going beyond this? What good then is achieving 250 or 300 pixels per inch? Are we just placing additional stress on the system for no benefit?

Consider this old saying: "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?"

For the longest time, camera manufacturers have been embroiled in a megapixel war, but fortunately, this seems to have shown some signs of abating. On one hand, it seems that camera manufacturers have finally grown tired of this pointless war; and on the other, consumers are now becoming more well-informed and are intelligent enough to know that megapixel count alone does not determine the quality of photos a camera takes.

Now, the difficult bit is to get notebook buyers to realize the same - that display resolution alone does not determine how good the display is and neither is it an indication of how powerful or how well a notebook performs. Because if we don’t and this pixels war gets out of hand, then we, as consumers, will all stand to lose.

Kenny Yeo

Kenny Yeo / Associate Editor

Specifications are not everything. It's what you do with what you have that matters.

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