The pixel is all but dead—no thanks to the PC

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Be sad, fellow geeks, for we are witnessing the slow death of a staunch companion.

Between the proliferation of Retina displays, ultrahigh-resolution smartphone screens, überexpensive 4K televisions, and the ironically named Chromebook Pixel, eye candy has never been so abundantly available, nor so abundantly delicious. Screens are saturated with millions—millions—of tiny little squares, rendering images and text alike in buttery-smooth fidelity.

The jagged edges of yesteryear are bleeding away. On-screen images are looking more and more like continuous-tone photographs. The pixel as we know it is all but dead.

Children of the future will look back at games like E.T. and Doom, and rather than waxing nostalgic, they'll shake their heads at how utterly bad we used to have it. (Dot-matrix printers? Please.) Resolution specs will eventually fade into the annals of history, as all screens will look equally splendid. And you'll never, ever find a dead pixel on a new display—because even if it's there, you won't be able to notice it.

It's enough to make your eyes water, but it won't happen today. For although the pixel's final gasp is indeed on the horizon, it isn't quite here yet. And you can thank the PC for that.

It was the best of times…

Pixel-packed consumer electronics displays may be only a couple of years old, but they're already far from rare. Retina-sporting iPads sell by the gajillions. Every premium smartphone released in the past year and a half has boasted at least a 720p display, while newer entries such as the HTC One rock full-blown 1080p resolutions.

The HTC One's display. Yes, it's okay if you drool.

More important than the total resolution numbers is the fact that those small mobile screens are veritably crammed with pixels. Sky-high pixel densities are giving displays a pixel-less quality.

Stuffed into a 4.7-inch screen, the One's 1080p resolution is good for an eye-popping 468 pixels per inch. Sitting slightly farther away from your peepers, Retina iPads rock 264 ppi. Even the $200 Nexus 7 boasts a display with 216 ppi.

Meanwhile, Sharp—a major component supplier for Apple and other parties—is working on new IGZO display technology designed to pack the pixels in even more tightly. Last year, the company showed off a 6-inch IGZO LCD panel with a whopping 2560 by 1600 resolution, for an impressive pixel density of 498 ppi. Few 30-inch desktop monitors have that many pixels.

On such stacked screens, text is as sharp as it is in a book, if not sharper. Yes, they're that good.

It was the worst of times...

Compare those ever-increasing mobile resolutions with the status quo on the PC side of things. While the stunning screens on the Chromebook Pixel and higher-end MacBook Pros may snatch all the headlines, everyday reality is much more ho-hum for most folks.

StatCounter tracks display resolution usage. (Click to enlarge.)

Nearly 40 percent of all North American machines tracked by StatCounter have either a 1024 by 768 or 1366 by 768 display, with the former accounting for a hefty 22.64 percent of all displays.

The Lenovo ThinkPad Twist, part of the first wave of Windows 8 hybrids, sports one of those laptop-standard 1366 by 768 displays. Across its 12.5-inch screen, that resolution equates to just 125 ppi. And for laptops with a similar resolution on a larger 13.3- or 15.6-inch display—far more common notebook sizes—the pixel-density number plummets even lower.

The ThinkPad Twist is an otherwise excellent laptop brought to earth by its humdrum display.

Even when you take into consideration that laptop screens need fewer pixels than phones to achieve Retina-level quality (since you hold them farther away from you than mobile devices), the ThinkPad Twist's pixel density fails to impress. Its 125 ppi is barely half the pixel density of the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display's 227 ppi—and as I said, the Twist's screen is smaller (read: denser) than most laptop screens. Another model, the IdeaPad Yoga 13, packs a higher 1600 by 900 resolution into its larger 13-inch display, and still offers only 138 ppi.

That doesn't cut it, folks.

Who should shoulder the blame for the PC's eye-straining status quo? Manufacturers who pump out computers at the lowest cost possible, or people who treat PCs as commodity appliances? It matters not. Regardless of the industry's general recalcitrance toward Retina-level displays, the death of the pixel marches ever closer, even on Windows computers.

Peering into the future

Toshiba's Kirabook is the first Windows laptop available with an ultrahigh-resolution.

High-resolution displays aren't the norm even on premium Windows laptops quite yet, but they are becoming more popular as economies of scale drive the cost of displays down—and as the economy in general forces manufacturers to tinker with bold new designs to spark lagging consumer interest.

Behold: the recently announced Toshiba Kirabook, the first Windows laptop to bear an ultrahigh-resolution display with 221 ppi. Starting at $1600, it also sports a matching ultrahigh price tag, unfortunately.

But higher resolutions are starting to work their way into slightly less expensive Windows devices, too. Many early Windows hybrids and touchscreen laptops rock a full 1080p HD resolution, including the $1100 Dell XPS 12 and Microsoft's own $899 Surface Pro slate. On the Dell's 12.5-inch display, that's good for a far-better-than average 176 ppi, while the Surface Pro's 10.6-inch screen boasts a peeper-pleasing 208 ppi.

That's not quite pixel-less, but it's close.

The Surface Pro's pixel-packed display makes everything from movies to games look absolutely gorgeous.

"In comparing Surface Pro to my third-generation iPad, I really had to search for visible pixels and differences in display quality, and any deficits exhibited by Surface Pro melted away when the tablet was farther away from my face, and propped on a desk," PCWorld editor Jon Phillips wrote in his Surface Pro review.

In other words: Wow.

We're likely still a few years away from widespread adoption of 1080p-plus PC displays, but that day is a-coming. One encouraging stat: Over 30 percent of gamers connecting to Steam already own 1920 by 1080 displays, though the pixel density is obviously lower on a 21-inch desktop display than on a smaller mobile screen. The black line representing 1080p displays on that StatCounter chart above is rising slowly—but steadily. Intel expects that ultrahigh-resolutions will be the norm sooner rather than later.

And the same day that Sharp showed off its 498-ppi mobile panel, the company also presented a 13.5-inch IGZO OLED panel designed for laptops. Its resolution: a stunning 3840 by 2160, with a 326-ppi density—a full 99 ppi higher than even the vaunted MacBook Pro's Retina display.

Sharp started mass-producing IGZO displays in March.

Laying the groundwork

In a way, the PC's delayed adoption of dynamite displays is a good thing. Everyday technology simply isn't ready for the en masse embrace of pixel-packed screens.

Most computer programs and the Web as we know it were designed with pedestrian displays in mind, not ultrahigh-res stunners. As such, Retina iPad users have complained of blurred text and imagery, while the Surface Pro ships with the desktop display automatically scaled to 150 percent to keep text from appearing itty-bitty on its pixelicious screen. Images created for Retina-level displays are far larger, file-size-wise, than standard-resolution graphics, placing a burden on bandwidth and storage alike.

Jared Newman
The Chromebook Pixel's stunning screen was built for tomorrow, not today.

But fear not: Big brains are already hard at work to fix these irksome issues. Witness the rise of vector-based images, the enhanced desktop display scaling feature reportedly built into Windows Blue, and the very existence of the impressively astronomical Chromebook Pixel.

The death of the pixel isn't here, but it is very close. One day, in the not-too-distant future, your child will gaze up innocently at you and ask, "What's a pixel?"

And on that day, the displays of today will seem just as ancient as mainframes, Minecraft (in all its glory) be damned.

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