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Retina reviewed: which smartphone screen rates best

By Leigh D. Stark | 5:48 pm 02/05/2013

Ever since Apple decided that mobile phone screens should be sharper when it introduced the “Retina” display concept, mobile manufacturers have been working hard to improve this idea considerably.

When Apple launched the iPhone 4, the screen displayed more resolution in a small space than had been seen on a phone up to that point.

The pixel per inch count was 329ppi on a 3.5 inch display, and when the iPhone 5 rolled around, it dropped marginally to 326ppi, thanks to the extra half inch Apple added to its design.

Apple called this concept “Retina” because it was sharper and better for the eyes, and it totally changed the way smartphone screens were looked at.

But this year – in 2013 – everything is different. Manufacturers aren’t just trying to match Apple’s Retina technology like they were last year when 720p HD screens were trotted out. No, this year manufacturers are attempting to beat it altogether, improving displays to such a level we’ve never seen.

Numbers that go past Apple’s 326 pixels per inch are on offer, as companies throw Full HD panels into smartphones.

All of this results in a level of definition that has to be seen to be believed. It’s like looking at a light-up paper printout – better even – and the quality and clarity available from handsets this year is so impressive, you’ll wonder how you even lived without it.

These screens are so sharp, they go beyond the level that the average human eye can see, can discern the difference between.

To show where we’re coming from with this, Wikipedia suggests that most people can’t work out the difference once you go beyond 300 pixels per inch, a statement by Steve Jobs that has been argued. Regardless of which side you sit on, we’ll always end up being the bottleneck since our eyes are only capable of so much. For many people out there, 300ppi screens will be completely fine, but there are higher quality screens coming out regardless.

Up until this article was published, every flagship phone on the market we looked at featured pixel per inch counts above 300, and with the benchmark from Apple set at 326 in the iPhone 5, we wanted to see what the competition looked like, so we’ve taken out a digital microscope to check it out.

Now it’s worth pointing out that every screen is different and uses individual technologies, but up close, what we’re looking for is the way text looks, which seems to be one of the better tests. When letters feature strong anti-aliasing and you can see the flow of letters as they curve out among the pixels, that’s where you can see the quality of the screen and how many pixels it’s packing in.

More pixels mean the letters look better and clearer from far away, and when a phone is held at arm’s length from your eyes, that distance and those pixels can mean all the different from being able to read tiny text and being forced to zoom in.

We’ve made things a little fun, too, and with our interactive examples in this article, you’ll be able to drag the line in the middle of the frame to see what the pixels look like in between. All tests were made running Google’s Chrome and we’ve done our best to align the examples, but it can be difficult, so forgive us if it doesn’t work perfectly.

At the Retina-class end of the spectrum, we have Apple’s iPhone 5 with 326ppi, as well as the LG Optimus G which features 318ppi.

LG and Apple look closely tied on this one, with similar qualities on each. Neither of them are any match for the Full HD screens of the Sony Xperia Z, HTC One, and Samsung Galaxy S4 though.

While the text quality looks pretty close in both the Sony Xperia Z (left) and the Samsung Galaxy S4 (right), it’s the screen types that show up here, with different types of pixels. Both are very clear from far back, and with both displays packing in 441 pixels per inch, it’s not a surprise. Up close close, though, we think Sony has the edge.

But the Xperia Z doesn’t have the biggest amount of pixels available right now. No, that goes to HTC and it’s new “One.” So which of these will win against each other?

With the Sony on the left and the HTC on the right, we’re inclined to think it’s a draw. There isn’t a whole lot of difference between 441 and 468 pixels per inch, and we’re already well beyond what most people’s eyes will be able to discern.

From our point of view, both of these screens are top notch, with the HTC One better marginally, though there’s a lot more to a phone than just its screen.

We’re not completely done though, because we’ve seen two phablets this year. While the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 and Huawei Ascend Mate are completely different phablets with completely different price tags, their resolutions are the same. That said, the screens are completely different thanks to the overall dimensions.

From what we’re seeing here, the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 (left) stomps all over the Huawei Ascend Mate (right) in resolution quality, though that doesn’t surprise us. That said, because the screens are larger, the text will appear bigger regardless, and you won’t need to pull the phones closer to your eyes.

UPDATE (May 6, 2013):
We’ve added another frame of the Samsung Galaxy S4’s 441ppi screen against the HTC One’s 468ppi so you can see what the differences are, but the images don’t align as well as we’d hoped. It does work, but the HTC image needs more straightening.

However, we should point out that the dividers in between the examples can be moved by you, so you can slide the divider back and forth and see the pixels!

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