Smartphone_scrcomp

The last time my HTC HD2, iPhone 3GS, Nexus One, and Nokia N900 were in a room together, they fired up their web browsers and challenged each other to a website load times race. The Nexus One and its stock Android Browser crossed the finish line first, but will its winning streak continue when the flagship foursome put their best faces forward for a smartphone screen showdown?


Size/Resolution

Without taking anything else into consideration, the HTC HD2 is the obvious winner here because it has the best combination of screen size and resolution. Its massive 4.3-inch display dwarfs the iPhone 3GS and Nokia N900’s 3.5-inch screens and is also bigger than the Nexus One’s 3.7-inch screen, while its WVGA resolution is matched but not bettered by the N900 and Nexus (despite the recent analysis, the latter still has 800 x 480 pixels). So it’s a three-way tie for highest resolution but because of its screen size, the HD2 charges ahead of the pack.

But don’t feel sorry for the 3GS. It manages to do pretty well for itself despite its lowly 480 x 320 resolution by using a few “tricks” in the software that can make the paltry pixels a non-issue (e.g., full page overview and column zoom in Safari, pinch zooming in Photos and elsewhere). It’s also worth noting that although the 3GS is currently the best iPhone available, it’s almost a year old now and it was released when WVGA resolutions weren’t as common as they are now. Damn flagship phones and their staggered releases!

Best screen size/resolution: HTC HD2

Type

The Nexus One is the only device of the foursome that is equipped with an active matrix OLED (AMOLED); the other three use the more common TFT LCDs.

AMOLEDs are considered by many to be superior to LCDs because they’re thinner/lighter, more energy efficient (self-luminous diodes don’t need to be backlit), have faster refresh rates, and offer better color reproduction, higher contrast ratio, and wider viewing angles. Poorer sunlight visibility (more on this below) and a shorter life span are commonly cited disadvantages, but in general I think the good outweighs the bad.

Best screen type: Nexus One

Brightness

When viewed in isolation, all four phone displays look very bright. Put side by side, however, it becomes clear that the iPhone is the brightest and the N900 is the dimmest. You can see that in the photo below, which shows the handsets with their brightness settings cranked to their maximum levels.

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Here's what the same maxed out brightnesses are like in a dark room:

Smartphone_scrcomp_maxbright 

As you can see, the iPhone can become blindingly bright. I usually leave it set at mid-brightness and let the ambient light sensor take care of adjusting to different lighting conditions, which works out well for me. Same goes for the HD2.

I disabled auto brightness on the Nexus because it's too aggressive and like the way the screen looks at 60% to 80% brightness. On the N900, I always keep the backlight maxed out because it's just a little too dim for me otherwise.

Brightest screen: iPhone 3GS

Sunlight Visibility

As mentioned earlier, AMOLEDs are commonly criticized for their poor sunlight visibility.

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While it's true that the Nexus One's screen is a bit weaker in direct sunlight than the 3GS and HD2, I think it holds its own when the screen brightness is maxed out (as shown in this section).

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In fact, at certain angles it's actually more visible in sunlight than the Nokia N900's LCD. None of the screens look great in direct sunlight but I'd say the iPhone's looks the best because it displays the brightest whites.

Sunlight visibility is the least important factor to me personally since I'm rarely standing out in the sun without being in some kind of shade; and if I am, then I'm either not looking at my phone or can easily use something to create shade for the screen (hand, head, whatever).

Best sunlight visibility: iPhone 3GS

Viewing Angles

I'm not sure how important viewing angles are on such small screens, as they're designed for personal head-on use, but I suppose being able to quickly flash your screen to friends without having to adjust the angle for them has its merit.

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While AMOLED screens may not be praised for their sunlight visibility, they are renowned for their excellent viewing angles. The Nexus One has what I would call unlimited viewing angles, meaning that the screen looks like it should regardless of whether you're looking at it from the sides, top, bottom, or front.

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It's tricky to capture viewing angles on camera but if you're looking for a ranking, it goes like this (from best to worst): Nexus One, Nokia N900, HTC HD2, and iPhone 3GS. You can't see this in the photo but when viewed from the left, whites on the HD2 become slightly yellow and colors become too bright.

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The iPhone has the worst viewing angle from the left. As you can see quite plainly above, the screen gets negatived out, with white becoming black, black becoming white, and colors going crazy. This only happens when the screen is viewed from the left.

Widest viewing angles: Nexus One

Color Reproduction

If you've been paying attention to what all four phones are displaying on their screens throughout this post, then you probably noticed how different the blue tones in the Pocketables banner header have been.

If not, I'll save you from scrolling back up:

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I don't know how the site looks on your screen right now, but it's supposed to look like what you see on the Nexus One, not the bright turquoise on the iPhone. The Nexus actually only has a 16-bit color depth and has a tendency to lean toward oversaturation, especially with reds, but it's displaying the site banner correctly.

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And despite DisplayMate's findings, colors still look richer and more vibrant to my eyes on the Nexus, although in the photo directly above, the iPhone is doing a better job with the image. The black area looks blacker on the iPhone there for some reason, even though what you see below is actually what a pure black image (800 x 480) looks like on all four devices (max screen brightness).

Smartphone_scrcomp_black

Clearly the AMOLED's self-illuminating advantage comes into play here, as the black is so black that the Nexus One's screen looks like it's turned off. And yes, that's a solid black image on the iPhone's screen.

Smartphone_scrcomp_white

Another eye-opening comparison is when the handsets display a pure white image (800 x 480, max screen brightness). In this case, the iPhone shows the truest white, the Nexus One looks slightly bluish, and the HD2 and N900 are rather gray.

Best colors: Nexus One; Best blacks: Nexus One; Best whites: iPhone 3GS

Touchscreen Quality

MOTO’s extensive analysis has already shown pretty unequivocally that the iPhone 3GS sets the bar for capacitive touchscreen accuracy and that the Nexus One isn’t trailing too far behind, so I’ll just echo their findings and repeat that the most responsive/accurate touchscreen belongs to the 3GS. The Nexus’s screen is a very close second for me, even after taking into account the sometimes inconsistent calibration. Although it’s very frustrating when the touchscreen has a mind of its own, the problem is sporadic and temporary . . . and it’s still better than the HD2’s touchscreen.

The HD2 and N900 weren’t included in MOTO’s testing so I don’t know how they would fare in the lab, but in my hands neither is better than the Nexus or iPhone so it doesn’t matter.

The N900 has a resistive touchscreen, but I’d still rank it higher than the HD2’s finicky capacitive screen. I’m sure more of the blame rests on Windows Mobile’s shoulders than the screen itself, but when attempts to scroll are sometimes registered as taps and taps must be repeated several times before anything happens, I get annoyed with the screen. The screen isn’t always like this, of course, but it’s not a once-in-a-blue-moon occurrence either. If I had to venture an estimation, I'd say that the screen gets a good hard knock on the face at least once a day.

Not only does the HD2’s screen perform the worst, but it also looks the worst in terms of how visible the touch-layer grids are. There are three distinguishable layers that I can see at certain angles: a bottom layer that looks like a wallpaper of small dots, a second layer of larger dots spaced out to separate the underlying dots into 6 x 6 squares, and a top layer of that diagonal grid that you expect to see on a capacitive touchscreen.

While the HD2 has the worst capacitive touchscreen I’ve ever used (and I’m including non-phones like the Zune HD and Cowon S9 here too), the Nokia N900 has the best resistive screen. It performs flawlessly with the included stylus, of course, but it’s also responsive enough to fingers that you’d almost think it was capacitive. Even with the much smaller on-screen targets, I still feel more confident that a screen tap will be registered the first time on the N900 than on the HD2.

Best touchscreen quality: iPhone 3GS

Conclusion

It's impossible to declare an absolute winner in the smartphone screen showdown because the HTC HD2, iPhone 3GS, Nexus One, and Nokia N900 each have their strengths and weaknesses. The HD2 has the biggest screen, but the N900's is more accurate/responsive. The Nexus displays the blackest blacks, but whites look whiter on the 3GS.

The best screen is simply the one that's best for you. Only you know what's most important to you and what kinds of trade-offs you're willing to make. If you want the option of using a standard stylus, then the N900 is for you. Want to watch movies on the biggest screen possible? Choose the HD2. The 3GS has your name on it if you're looking for the best touchscreen experience. Unlimited viewing angles strike your fancy? Then pick up the Nexus One.

I'd like the best of all four worlds personally (and who wouldn't?) but if I had to choose just one screen to use for the rest of my life, it would be the one on the iPhone 3GS. It's the smallest display with the lowest resolution and worst viewing angles, I know, but it excels in the areas that matter to me: touchscreen quality and brightness.