While not quite a world first, the prospect of a Samsung Galaxy S8 with a 4K display raises some interesting questions.
2017 might well be the year 4K smartphones go mainstream. While we're still a long way off confirming this rumblings in the Korean press point to the possibility of Samsung making a significant jump in resolution in the next Galaxy S phone.
"Samsung Display showcased a 5.5 ultra-high definition 4K display with a pixel density of 806 ppi for virtual reality devices at the Society for Information Display, a display trade show, in California in March," said an official of UBI Research.
"Considering various factors including the production yield rate for the next-generation display expected to improve in the coming months, the 5.5-inch AMOLED will be deployed in the next Galaxy smartphone, presumably, named the S8."
If that's accurate, Samsung wouldn't be the first manufacturer to ship a 4K phone. That honor went to Sony with its Xperia Z5 Premium, released late last year — although that phone only operated at its full native resolution in certain apps. A hypothetical 4K Galaxy S8 would be the first mass-market Ultra HD phone, and if that happens there are a few things we can discern.
1. It's a huge bet on VR
Going from Quad HD (2560x1440) to 4K (3840x2160) isn't going to make any difference to the vast majority of things you currently do on your smartphone. Even photos and videos aren't going to look drastically different unless you're looking really, really closely.
The biggest reason to go all-in with a mainstream 4K phone is VR. The current crop of phone-based VR experiences are limited by the QHD resolution or the phones powering them. Jumping up to 4K would give a really big, really meaningful upgrade to Gear VR users, more than doubling the number of pixels available. The result should be sharper images in VR without the "screen door" effect experienced when using current QHD handsets.
So if a 4K Galaxy S8 happens, it's a clear indicator of how important Samsung believes virtual reality will be to the coming generation of smartphones. But then that's not entirely surprising given how much emphasis was put on VR at the Galaxy S7's heavily virtual launch event back in February.
2. The next Gear VR is unlikely to include its own built-in display
We've gone back and forth on what the inclusion of USB Type-C in the next Galaxy Note might mean for the next Gear VR. One of the possibilities, given the capabilities of that connector, is a high-end Gear VR with its own integrated display, this eliminating the need to rely on your phone's screen.
But if Samsung is indeed planning to go 4K with the Galaxy S8, this makes it more likely that Gear VR will stay as it is — a relatively simple plastic frame with lenses, with the phone and its display being relied upon to do the heavy lifting. A standalone Samsung VR device is still very much a possibility, but the immediate future is probably phone-powered.
3. It raises big questions on performance and battery life
Let's state the obvious for a second: A 4K display has a lot of pixels, and pushing those pixels requires a lot of computational horsepower. Consider that a 1080p display has around 2 million pixels. Jumping to Quad HD increase that significantly to just shy of 3.7 million pixels, which is why some early QHD phones struggled with performance. With a 4K display, the Galaxy S8 would need push 8.3 million pixels — more than twice as many as current flagship phones.
If you're running that display at its native 4K resolution all the time (and we'll shortly get to why you might not want to do that), there's sure to be a performance hit, be it tangible or not. And that in turn would translate into a battery cost. That's potentially a very big trade-off.
4. It might not be 4K all the time
Running most apps at QHD on a 4K panel would be a smart workaround.
If Samsung wanted to offset some of the performance and battery life headaches associated with 4K, it might take a leaf out of Sony's book. With the Xperia Z5 Premium, the Japanese firm operated its 4K display in 1080p mode most of the time, except for a handful of applications — mainly video playback and photo-viewing apps.
Although this might sound counterproductive, running most apps at Quad HD on a 4K Galaxy S8 would be a smart way to ensure the hardware isn't unnecessarily taxed running apps where you wouldn't notice the difference anyway. Instead, the full resolution of the panel could be unlocked when you're viewing native 4K content, or viewing photos in the Gallery app.
5. 4K phones won't become the new standard anytime soon
However the technology might progress, 4K is, for the most part, overkill for a device you're supposed to hold in one hand. Even as VR pushes us towards 4K screens in high-end phones, there'll be countless rival devices with QHD screens able to offer similar experiences in day-to-day phone tasks — and at a lower price. And if you're just the type of consumer who doesn't care about VR, that's great.
Even if a 4K Galaxy S8 does materialize early next year, we'd expect this class of display to stay confined to the very top tier of high-performing, VR-focused smartphones. Even then, rival Android flagships would likely talk up the battery life or performance advantages of sticking to a lower resolution, just as some did when the first QHD phones arrived.
4K is what's next, and with VR being increasingly important at the high-end, it's inevitable that we'll eventually see a Samsung flagship with an Ultra HD display. But it's going to take time for phone makers to navigate the technical challenges that come with such an enormous bump in resolution.
What do you think about the possibility of a 4K screen in the Samsung Galaxy S8? Hit the comments and let us know!