Should you avoid smartphones with PenTile displays?

Taylor Martin
 from  Concord, NC
| Published: August 2, 2011

Over the past two years, I have owned numerous phones and logged many hours with almost every type of mobile display available. There are some I simply cannot get enough of and others … well, not so much. I do not consider myself a display buff or expert by any stretch of the terms; as long as the display I'm using is decently clear and brightness is sustainable, I'm probably not going to care too much one way or the other. But one aspect of smartphone displays that has really me grabbed my attention lately lies within the subpixel layout, particularly of the PenTile Matrix family. This alternative pixel layout can be found on the DROID X2, the Atrix 4G and the DROID 3.

On reviewing the DROID 3, I dubbed the qHD (960 by 540 pixel resolution) display rating a gimmick. I was quickly called out by a reader (who largely misunderstood my statement), Joel Pollack. Pollack, who seemingly knows a lot about PenTile subpixel layout, runs a blog defending the technology. Although he originally misunderstood what I was saying, he gives some very valid points in PenTile's defense. Nonetheless, I stand by my word. The qHD rating of the DROID 3's display is still a gimmick. But why? And should you avoid phones with PenTile displays when purchasing your next smartphone?

For starters, let's begin with the definition of a gimmick. From the online Merriam Webster dictionary, the term (marketing) gimmick in the context it was used is “a trick or device used to attract business or attention.” The term qHD is an abbreviation of the term “quarter HD,” implying that the resolution of the DROID 3's display is higher than those of standard definition (WVGA or 800 by 480 pixels). Even though the qHD display found on the DROID 3 is technically a higher resolution, this particular display shows more pixelation and grain than that of a standard resolution display (i.e.: EVO 4G, DROID X, Nexus S, etc.), thanks to the PenTile subpixel layout. Any average consumer will see "qHD" in a long list of specifications and assume the display on that particular phone is better or more clear than that of its counterparts. This is not the case with the DROID 3, Atrix or DROID X2, plain and simple.

If you pay close attention to these displays, you will begin to see the checkerboarding effect in areas of high contrast or high saturation. Above is a close-up snapshot of the Photon. (This isn't the best representation ever, but it was the best I could muster in the crunch I was in.) Notice some straight lines appear jagged and you can really see pixelation in transparencies. As a better example, Droid Life took a few comparison photos of the DROID X2 against the DROID X and Nexus S. The results are, well ... pretty ugly. These comparison photos shouldn't debunk PenTile technology in one fell swoop, but they certainly reveal some of its pitfalls fairly accurately.

PenTile displays are not all bad; they actually come with several advantages over competing technology. For instance, your standard RGB stripe is just that, a stripe with red, green and blue subpixels to each pixel. PenTile technology uses 33 percent fewer subpixels (two per pixel) and adds a white subpixel that gives the image added brightness and can aid the display in brighter or whiter color reproduction.

As Pollack explains in his rebuttal, Motorola chooses to use the PenTile technology because it “saves nearly half of the power of an equivalent RGB stripe display for typical usage and more for black and white like eBook applications.” Nouvoyance, the creators of PenTile, also explains that with their technology, "'pixels' in the traditional sense have been eliminated in PenTile RGBW™ displays; individual subpixels are not restricted to use in one pixel group, but instead participate in multiple 'logical' pixels in their surrounding vicinity." Essentially, they are saying that PenTile displays are capable of more "sophisticated image processing." But I leave that up to you, the end users, to decide for yourselves.

Is the technology is "useless" and "unbearable" as many say? Hardly. Is it the best display technology out there? No, but it has its advantages. Colors are vibrant, it is extremely bright and viewing angles aren't too bad either. Do I still consider the qHD rating of the DROID 3's display a gimmick? Sure. Likewise, 3D is a gimmick and so are extra high megapixel counts on mobile cameras (for now). They all work as intended, but when it comes down to it, they are all used for specification bumping in a race for the "biggest and baddest" phone.

If you can look at a PenTile display and not see the checkerboarding or pixelation, or you want something with a little extra battery life, a phone with a PenTile display will suit you well. Personally, I take one glance at the display and I can see checkerboarding from an arm's length. The more I use a PenTile display, the more I see pixelation and the more it messes with my eyes. PenTile is not all it's cracked up to be by Nouvoyance and it's not as bad as some people make it seem. It's a good middle-of-the-road display with a few benefits of its own.