What We Are Waiting For, Part 5: Beyond 1080p

It seems that we are entering a new phase for PC screen resolution, a phase that is several years late. Let us take a look at the latest developments.

Dell has very recently announced that it will be offering a new 24″ screen with a 4K resolution (3840×2160). The shocker? It will be priced at $1400. But that is not all: Dell also announced that in “early 2014”, it will sell a 28″ 4K screen for $1000. If you are not into screens, then you might be thinking that $1400 and $1000 are insanely high prices for a PC screen. Let us put these prices in perspective: Up till last year, if you wanted 4K, you either got a 4K TV ($5000-$6000), or you get a proper PC screen in the form of a $30,000 Eizo.

Yes, thirty thousand, not a typo. This year (2013), 4K PC screens finally became somewhat affordable when Asus’ PQ321 became available for the “reasonable” price of $3500, followed by Dell’s UP3214K, also for $3500. No one expected that 4K screen price would drop by ~$2000 within a year, and we need to look back at resolution history to see why.

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(Graph of screen resolution adoption, courtesy of Nielsen Norman Group)

The 90’s era belonged to small screens. And by small, I do not mean 21″, I mean 14″, or what is considered laptop size now. Typical resolutions at the time were 640×480 (the main resolution from ~1987 to ~1996) or 800×600 (main resolution from ~1996 to ~2003). In ~2004, 1024×768 took over as the most widely adopted resolution, and it remained that way until 2011. In 2012, it was succeeded by 1366×768 as the most common screen resolution. As of December 2013, 1366×768 account for roughly 25% of all screens, and growing. Let us tabulate this data:

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To understand just how tiny these resolutions are, compare them with 1080p/1440p/4K, shown in the picture below.

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If the observed trend for screen resolution adoption continues, we may not see 1366×768 dropped in favour of something bigger till 2019. Thankfully, there is still hope that this scenario is going to be avoided, due to the recent championing of a higher resolution: 1080p. 1080p has been adopted by many high end laptops, high end phones, and high end tablets. Very recently, even mid-tier tablets and phones have begun to sport 1080p screen, though mid-tier laptop screens remain stagnant at 1366×768. If you take a look at adoption rates from 2009 onward in the graph below, you will notice that only 2 resolutions have achieved significant growth: 1366×768, and 1920×1080. It is entirely possible that all resolutions below 1080p will decline, and we will jump from 1366×768 to 1080p without going through the intermediate resolutions.

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(Graph of resolution from 2009, courtesy of Statcounter)

Why did it take so long for 1080p to take hold? Today, even when taking a look at the most hardcore set of PC users (yes, gamers), we find that ~63% of gamers still use resolutions below 1080p. Is it because 1080p is a new standard? No. Sites were benchmarking games at 1080p and higher (2560×1600) back in 2006, 7 years ago. In fact, even 4K is not new: IBM had the T220 and T221 screen available for purchase from 2001 till 2005, and those screens had a resolution of 3840×2400. If screens in 1080p, 1440p and 4K resolutions have been available for so long, why the extremely slow uptake? Because the price was too damn high.

In 2001, the T220/T221 had a launch MSRP of $18,000, reduced a year later to “only” $8400. In 2005/2006, a 1080p screen would have set you back by $1000. It was only in 2012 that you could reliably get a 1080p screen at $200 or below, which is a reasonable price by any standard. That is roughly a $150 reduction in price, per year. Two years ago, 2560×1440 cost $1000+, but can now be had for $600-$700. If you can accept the possible defects of A- panel screens, you can even get 2560×1440 in the $300-$400 bracket. This shows that 1440p experienced roughly the same price drop rate as 1080p, so you can expect to buy $200 1440p screen in 2-3 years.

And this is why Dell’s announcement gives cause for excitement. $3500 is not a mainstream price for a screen, even when it is 4K, and it will simply not sell that many units at the price. Everyone expected a price drop from 4K screens to $1000, but everyone expected it to take 2-3 years to happen. 1440p drops to ~$200 to replace 1080p, and 4K drops to $1000 to replace 1600p. It is very surprising, and very satisfying, to hear that the price will drop $2100 in less than 6 months (Asus PQ321 was launched in July, Dell’s UP2414Q launches on the 16th of December), and will drop another $400 in the next 6 months (Dell’s P2814 launches “early 2014”).

2014 may be the last year where 1080p is the recommended minimum resolution when buying a screen. After 25 years of extremely slow improvement in resolution adoption, PC screens may finally get a nice boost next year. We have seen every other aspect of computer hardware improve tremendously, and it is the time for screens to take the limelight.

We are waiting for 1080p to become the most used screen resolution. We are also waiting for 1440p/1600p screens to be widely available for $200-$400, eventually replacing 1080p. We are hoping that manufacturers start competing for the ~$1000 segment with more 4K screens.

If, like us, you are completely disgusted by 1366×768, you can help by:

  • Refusing to buy any PC screen, laptop or tablet with a resolution below 1080p
  • Refusing to buy any mobile phone with a screen resolution below 1080p, though this can be forgiven if you are on a very tight budget
  • Showing your friends and family how nice 1080p (and above) content is
  • Telling your friends and family who work at Asus/Dell/HP/Samsung/etc how “you are ready to buy a 1440p/1600p screen, if only they dropped in price”.

The sub-1080p world is going to disappear, and the sooner it does, the better. The future looks good… in ultra high definition.

(Note: If you are looking for a new screen, check out the screen sections in our peripherals guide. We will be adding Dell’s new screens as soon as they become available.)

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