When did Quad HD+ resolution become a hidden smartphone feature?

OnePlus 8 Pro vs Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus Display

Opinion post by
Robert Triggs

Display tech is one of the key cornerstones of a great smartphone. After all, you interact with it all the time. The display resolution wars may not be raging like they once were, but premium-tier smartphones still occasionally push the envelope. The mouthful that is Wide Quad High Definition (WQHD+) is now the standard-bearer for flagship quality, although Sony goes a step further with its 4K mobile display technology.

Despite the prevalence of very high-resolution display hardware in the market, the majority of high profile smartphones actually default to Full HD+ (~2400 x 1080) resolutions in software. That’s right, you’re probably not fully using the QHD+ (~3200 x 1440) display you paid for unless you trawl for the settings toggle.

Full HD vs Quad HD: What’s the minimum you should get in 2020?

Samsung was one of the first to adopt this approach in its Galaxy S lineup, which continues to this day. The Galaxy S20 Ultra, for example, houses a 3,200 x 1,440 resolution WQHD+ display but is actually set to just FHD+ out of the box for better battery life. This has become a major trend for flagship phones in 2020, with few handsets delivering their maximum resolution out of the box. Some of you probably don’t mind this level of fine control, but there’s probably an equally large group of consumers out there who don’t even know these options exist.

QHD isn’t really a thing in 2020

The reasoning behind such a sneaky maneuver is ultimately battery life. Powering extra pixels and pushing out higher resolutions puts more strain on your processor and eats up more power, especially from the GPU when gaming. There’s also the trend in 90Hz and 120Hz refresh rates to consider. Again these can put extra strain on processing components as well as simply sucking down more juice on their own when compared to traditional 60Hz displays.

All this can leave devices looking a bit underwhelming compared to their promotional marketing. To demonstrate, I’ve compiled just a short list of smartphone spec sheets versus what the phone defaults to out of the box.

  Spec sheet promise Actual default settings
Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus WQHD+ (3200 x 1440)
FHD+ (2400 x 1080)
Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Plus WQHD+ (3040 x 1440)
FHD+ (2280 x 1080)
Huawei P40 Pro QHD+ (2640 x 1200)
"Smart" (2640 x 1200 / 1760 x 800)
Dynamic 90Hz / 60Hz
OnePlus 8 Pro WQHD+ (3168 x 1440)
FHD+ (2376 x 1080)
OnePlus 7T Pro WQHD+ (3120 x 1440)
FHD+ (2340 x 1080)
Dynamic 90Hz / 60Hz
LG V50 ThinQ WQHD+ (3120 x 1440)
FHD+ (2340 x 1080)

While you can technically get everything you’re promised on a spec sheet, you’ll seldom experience this straight out of the box. Instead, customers are left to dive into settings menus themselves, often sacrificing battery life in the process. It’s the same whether you splashed out on the ultra-expensive Galaxy S20 Ultra or the more affordable OnePlus 8 Pro. This is a far cry from first-generation QHD handsets, such as the LG G3 and Oppo Find 7 that offered QHD out of the box all the way back in 2014.

Older devices like the LG G3 were set to QHD out of the box, so what gives?

Furthermore, a lot of seemingly high-end devices are just outright shipping with FHD+ displays. This list includes the LG V60, LG Velvet, Motorola Edge Plus, Xiaomi Mi 10, the standard Samsung Galaxy Note 10, and many others. QHD and QHD+ have definitely fallen out of favor compared with a couple of years ago.

In addition to the obvious reduction in resolution, most if not all phones with high-refresh rates sport variable refresh rates. They’re definitely not 90Hz or 120Hz all of the time, and it’s another compromise made at the alter of prolonged battery life.

Read more: Not all 120Hz smartphone displays are made equally

When did this trend start?

Huawei EMUI Display Resolution Settings

As I mentioned earlier, Samsung quickly decided to stick with FHD out of the box for better battery life during the industry transition to QHD. The company left it up to us whether or not we wanted to take the battery hit for a small increase in visual quality. Other manufacturers followed suit with similar software options in subsequent generations and is now a virtually universal feature. However, it was the move over to wider aspect ratios and the adoption of FHD+ that sealed QHD’s fate.

To understand why, we need to know a little bit about the limits of human vision. To quickly summarise, there’s a point where even those with the best eyesight can’t tell the difference when resolution increases for a given display size and distance. For smartphone sizes and typical viewing distances, this pixel density improvement cut off falls somewhere between FHD (1,920 x 1,080) and QHD (2,560 x 1,440). Enter FHD+ (2,400 x 1,080), which sits nicely between the two in terms of pixel count and density. While discerning consumers may spot the difference between FHD and QHD, it’s virtually impossible to distinguish FHD+ from higher resolutions.

FHD+ has basically replaced the old QHD specification

If you’re interested in some numbers, a typical 6.5-inch smartphone has a resolution density of 339 pixels per inch at FHD and 452 at QHD. For very close viewing distances, around 400 or so pixels per inch is the point of imperceivable difference. A wider aspect ratio FHD+ display sits bang on this middle ground with 397 pixels per inch, making it indistinguishable from higher resolutions.

Balancing refresh rates against resolution is a price worth paying

Motorola Edge Plus display curve

We don’t really need QHD or WQHD+ resolutions — all that required power could be put to better use. Technology continues to move on, with newer devices increasingly boasting battery consuming high refresh rate displays too. A slight reduction in resolution, that’s virtually impossible to notice, seems like a small price to pay for slick-looking 120Hz interfaces. After all, resolution is just a small part of the display experience and most of us would prefer to ensure all-day battery life.

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It’s also worth noting that the majority of video content streamed to mobile devices remains in the 1080p (FHD) format. Scaling this to fit 1440p (QHD) displays can actually make video look worse than playing back at its lower, native resolution while consuming more power. This is because FHD doesn’t factor into QHD by a whole number to keep pixels looking crisp. 1080p still looks sharp on a 4K display because each pixel is scaled up by a factor of 4. With QHD, the scaling factor from FHD is 1.3x, meaning resolution detail is averaged in order to fit. This can lead to a loss of detail and consumes processing power, or you phone may just dynamically switch resolution for playback.

This begs the question, why bother offering WQHD+ as an option anyway? Especially as the vast majority of manufacturers hide this option away in the settings where few will likely bother to venture. We can’t see the difference and driving additional pixels consumers more power even if we lower the software resolution. Why not just drop WQHD+ entirely?

Unfortunately, the fear of a renewed resolution war keeps some brands tied to these overkill specifications. You seemingly can’t charge the highest prices in the market without offering the biggest values on the spec sheet. Even if they’re pointless numbers.

Wouldn't it be better if brands stopped pretending WQHD+ is necessary?

However, plenty of great handsets have already dropped the pretense, including flagship and premium tier smartphones, and it’s a trend that looks set to continue. These phones, like the LG Velvet and OnePlus 8, could turn out to be some of the best buys of 2020, offering comparative real-world display experiences with lower price tags and better battery life.

After all, there’s no point paying for a specification that even manufacturers have realized makes absolutely no difference.

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