Smartphone Display Size: Two Perspectives

Of all the modern mobile devices available to consumers, smartphones surely grab the lion’s share of both headlines and water cooler chatter. Not even the revered new kid on the block, the tablet, can keep as much of our collective attention as its smaller cousin. However, this back pocket technology can be confusing for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, smartphones are such a dynamic and rapidly moving target. You can be a genius regarding the latest smartphone functions and technologies, but two years later you’ll barely be familiar with available models and won’t recognize half the acronyms.

Yes, stalwarts like the iPhone and top Android models like Samsung’s Galaxy, HTC’s One, and LG’s G3 will probably be around for years to come. They’re all great and can easily make you very happy. Most will serve loyally for the duration of a two-year service contract. If treated politely, they will last well into a second life as a hand-me-down for a teen or whoever buys it on Craigslist.

iphoneBut how do you cut through the marketing and product review hype, manifested as a thick fog of new age corporate babble, hipster imagery, and obscure acronyms, to purchase a phone that’s best for you and your lifestyle? How do you escape the primitive and illogical concept of a phone that’s “best” and instead seek out one that’s most appropriate—all while potentially costing you less than many competitors?

Simple. Determine your priorities.

In terms of a mobile gadget like a smartphone, these priorities pertain to digital media. Specifically, images and video. Smartphones are single-handedly crushing the camera and camcorder markets. Consumers are choosing to replace their point-and-shoot and even high-end, bulky DSLR cameras with svelt smartphones. This is a real validation of the fact that some smartphones are very good at capturing data, such as photos and high-definition video (including super-slick panoramic images). Premium models like the iPhone, Google Nexus 5, and Motorola Moto X (as well as many others) all capture high-resolution photos and high-definition video (sometimes with stereo sound). It’s the type of stuff that you can display on a huge 70-inch TV hanging on your wall and say “Wow, that looks really great.”

Smartphones are increasingly good at displaying a variety of media, specifically video and photos. Larger displays (even from traditionally conservative Apple) are allowing smartphones to better accommodate high-definition video sources from Netflix, YouTube, and Hulu Plus. Stereo speakers are helping improve the audio portion of the equation, even though this is still the Achilles heel of mobile device media playback (and one reason headphones are so popular).

Choosing the best phone for your particular needs, and getting the best deal on it, is a matter of determining which function—capture or display—is most important to you.

Samsung-Galaxy-S5-3Personally, I favor capture, not display. However, I’m also the unofficial family archivist, an amateur photographer, and work out of my home office (where, if I want to consume video, I’ll use Chromecast or AirPlay to toss it up on a 60-inch plasma display with subwoofer-enhanced surround sound). I capture tons of video and photos and grab a few on nearly a daily basis. For me, the size of the display (the current obsession of the marketing efforts of so many smartphone companies) isn’t very important. Because most consumers upgrade their smartphones every two years, along with their service contract, a given model will typically provide only a couple years of service. However, the audio, video, and images captured by your smartphone will be archived for (hopefully) hundreds of years. (To learn how to preserve your data for centuries, check out my Understanding Personal Data Security book.)

Because I’m so picky about the quality of the media I capture and the memories of friends, family, and special events that are so precious, I really have little regard for the size of a smartphone screen. In fact, larger phones are more cumbersome and less comfortable stored someplace like the back of my jeans or in a jacket breast pocket. And less comfortable means I’ll be less likely to have the device on me. Meaning fewer Kodak moments.

If you’re a person who travels a lot or, for whatever reason, spends lot of time sitting around sucking down a variety of media, a smartphone with a larger, higher-quality display (OLED technology is a big winner among the Android phones) and a nice set of in-ear headphones might best serve you. If, however, you’re more like me and it’s all about the media you capture and plan to keep forever, a phone with a smaller display—but superlative camera and camcorder functions (like the iPhone 5S and 6 variants)—is the ticket. After all, what you capture amounts to more than mere photos and videos. These are the digital heirlooms that you’ll pass on to your children and grandchildren.

As the PR machines choke and sputter and everyone gets excited about the latest generation of the most popular smartphones in our annual hypefest of product introductions, remember that sometimes smaller is better. All you really care about might come down to capture quality, not video playback. Besides, think of all the money you can save buying last year’s model instead of that fancy new-and-improved toy, ala nothing more than a bigger display that’s helping write all the headlines for lazy journalists and bloggers and eating up your disposable income.

Happy shopping and choose wisely, grasshoppa.

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Curt Robbins


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Goodbye Yellow Brick Plasma

3d1[On October 28, LG announced that it is ending plasma display panel production. As you will learn below, LG was the last major manufacturer of plasma displays. Thus, this announcement effectively kills plasma display tech as we know it. Let’s hope OLED prices fall quickly for those who are in the market for a new TV.]


In early 2014, Panasonic—the Japanese manufacturer of what many reviewers and consumers considered to be the best collection of plasma display panels on the market—announced that it would cease production of these videophile-satisfying models. In official press releases, the company said this move would allow it to focus on 4K (Ultra HD), advanced LED designs, and next-generation OLED. The company cited low demand for plasma models and a need to refocus resources on future standards.

This was the 2:00 am last call at the home theater hobbyist’s saloon. Hard core videophiles quickly revamped their upgrade plans, examining their budgets and trying to decide if they wanted to purchase one final brand new Panasonic plasma TV before none were left to be had.

Later, in July 2014, Samsung announced that it would also cease production of plasma displays, similarly citing low demand and a desire to focus its resources in other areas. LG, the last man standing and lone producer of plasma panels, at the time said in official statements that it would continue to produce plasma sets “as long as there is a demand.” I see. Well, it just so happens that a couple of months earlier, in May, president of LG Electronics Japan, Lee Gyu-hong, explained in an interview with a Japanese news outlet that the company might stop making plasma TVs altogether if sales continued to slump.

This is the sad reality of the marketplace. Unfortunately, home theater hobbyists and quality-sensitive movie buffs—the type of folks who typically would choose a plasma display over its technically inferior LED cousin—aren’t the majority of the market. Despite their liberal spending habits for items like home theater receivers and widescreen display panels, this demographic was simply too small a slice of the pie to influence the few remaining manufacturers of plasma displays to continue production.

In the spring of 2013, I purchased two Panasonic plasma units, a 50-inch model and a 60-incher. They were 2012 models on which I got a killer end-of-model-year deal at one of Best Buy’s Magnolia stores. I’m extremely happy with these units, whether they’re playing streaming video from Netflix or true 1080 content from a Blu-ray disc. After only a year-and-a-half of ownership, and with a viable catalog of readily available 4K content still more theory than reality, I’m not yet compelled to replace either of these TVs.

plasma display panelWhile I’m sad to see plasma depart retailer showrooms, I also know—from the technology industry and Silicon Valley culture overall—that it’s just a matter of time until something becomes affordable that blows away both LED and plasma. And that technology would be OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode, or Organic LED).

OLED sets can be amazingly thin. We’re talking 4 mm thin, like the spine of a magazine! When it comes to video, OLED models feature better everything. Black levels, refresh rates, color uniformity, off-angle viewing, color saturation…you name it, it’s better on OLED. These models can also produce a nearly infinite contrast ratio (if you want to see this with your own eyes, take a look at one of the OLED-equipped smartphones from LG, HTC, or Samsung). OLED is simply the next step in the evolution of home entertainment display technology. I can’t wait to fill my house with OLEDs. (If you want to learn more about OLED and how it stacks up to other display options, including front projection, check out Home Theater for the Internet Age.)

Of course, nobody in the middle class is going to be filling their homes with OLED display panels until the costs come down. Originally priced at close to $20,000, Samsung and LG are currently selling OLED sets for $10,000 for a 55-incher and $7,000 for a curved 55-inch model, respectively (ironically, LG’s flat 55-inch OLED model is more expensive at $10,000). LG also sells a 65-inch 4K curved (yuck) OLED model for $12,000 retail. This is the first 4K OLED model to break the 55-inch barrier. (It’s been very difficult for manufacturers to produce mass quantities of defect-free, larger-size OLED panels. This explains why the display tech was introduced in devices featuring the smallest, most easily manufactured screens: Smartphones.)

Slowly, but surely—especially as more 4K content becomes available and manufacturing processes improve yields—4K OLED models will come down in price. Just like the chicken and the egg, baby step by baby step, OLED models will become more affordable. For a short period, 1080 OLED models will be offered at very enticing prices. However, I recommend that you forego these killer deals for a true 4K OLED TV that will future-proof you for years to come. It’s going to be a long time before an affordable technology superior to OLED emerges and a resolution greater than 4K becomes standard.

Why no 4K plasma models? Unfortunately, the marriage of Ultra HD and plasma is, from a practical, profit-making manufacturing perspective, very difficult. In a nutshell, it’s cost-prohibitive for companies like Panasonic, Sony, LG, and Samsung to produce plasma sets at the higher resolution of 4K. In fact, 4K is the primary reason that every manufacturer is abandoning plasma production. 4K is their mantra—and plasma doesn’t go there.

Yes, cry a tear for resolution-impaired plasma tech and, if you’re so inclined, sob over the loss of your favorite Panasonic or Samsung model. But don’t fear a lack of innovation among display manufacturers or a slowdown in the evolution of consumer display technology. As long as you have a 1080 plasma (or LED) TV that makes you happy for the next three to five years, hold out for a 4K OLED panel in the size you want. Don’t jump on a 4K LED set, which is really just a half-baked bridge technology intended to help keep display panel manufacturers funded until 4K OLED TVs—the ultimate destination, in my humble opinion—become affordable and go mass market. And when that happens, OLED will make all other display technologies obsolete.

See ya, plasma. It was great knowin’ ya. But don’t fret for me. OLED and I are going to get along great. We just can’t afford to live in the same neighborhood right now.

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Curt Robbins

[Originally published August 23; updated November 9.]

[See also Home Theater Basics, Home Theater: Surround Sound Basics, and Take My Remote, Please.]


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.