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Nokia N8 vs LG Optimus Black vs Apple iPhone 4 vs HTC Sensation vs Samsung Galaxy S2 - Which screen is best?

Screen sizes of touchscreen phones are currently expanding at a rate faster than our own universe, the astrophysical implications of which have yet to be calculated. But is size and resolution always everything?

How much of a difference does a Super AMOLED Plus screen make compared to an LCD at a glance? Does the reflectiveness of the glass impair outdoor visibility that badly?

We got hold of five smartphones equipped with famously impressive displays and compared them against each other.

Our test hasn’t been carried out in strict science lab-style conditions; this is more just a look at how they compare against each other in real-life conditions; outside in direct sunlight, indoors and with the lights dimmed.

In each case, we turned the brightness of each of the screens to maximum and took pictures of each phone displaying the Recombu homepage. We also looked at text legibility, comparing the text zoom functions of each device, although arguably the effectiveness in each case can be put down to the software running behind the screen as much as the screen itself.

All of the relevant specification of each device’s screen has also been listed below for quick on-paper comparison.

Nokia N8 screen - raw specs

Size: 3.5-inches

Resolution: 640 x 360 pixels (nHD)

PPI: 209

Technology/type: OLED

Misc: Capacitive, 16.7 million colours, 16:9 aspect ratio, Gorilla Glass


LG Optimus Black screen - raw specs

Size: 4-inches

Resolution: 800 x 480 pixels (WVGA)

PPI: 233

Technology/type: NOVA/LCD

Misc: Capacitive, NOVA display requires less battery than an equivalent sized LCD, 700 nits of brightness, Gorilla Glass

 

Apple iPhone 4 screen - raw specs

Size: 3.5-inches

Resolution: 960 x 640 pixels

PPI: 326

Technology/type: IPS (In Plane Switching) LCD/Retina Display

Misc: Capacitive, fingerprint-resistant oleophobic coating, brightness of 500 candelas per square metre


HTC Sensation screen - raw specs

Size: 4.3-inches

Resolution: 960 x 540 pixels

PPI: 256

Technology/type: SCLD

Misc: Capacitive, curved/pillowed Gorilla Glass cover


Samsung Galaxy S2 screen - raw specs

Size: 4.3-inches

Resolution: 800 x 480 pixels

PPI: 218

Technology/type: Super AMOLED Plus

Misc: Capacitive, 16 million colours, Gorilla Glass

 

Brightness

At a glance, there’s not much in it between the Optimus Black, the iPhone 4 and the Galaxy S2 in terms of brightness. All three are noticeably brighter than the screens of the Nokia N8 and the HTC Sensation indoors.

Side by side though, you can see that the Optimus Black’s 4-inch NOVA screen pips the Retina Display of the iPhone 4 and the S2’s Super AMOLED Plus. Spec for spec, the Optimus Black’s screen kicks out 700 nits, or 700 candelas per square meter, compared to the iPhone 4’s 500 candelas per square meter. So it’s not really surprising that the Optimus Black comes out on top here.

Interestingly, when we turned the black/dark levels slider on the histogram all the way up on the same image in Photoshop, you can really see how bright the Optimus Black’s screen is compared to the rest. You can barely make out the S2 there on the far right and the N8’s screen can’t be seen at all.


Brightness Winner: LG Optimus Black

 

Contrast

Here’s where Samsung’s Super AMOLED Plus and the Nokia’s OLED screens really comes into their own. Boasting rich, deep blacks and dark tones that you can only get with an OLED-type screen (where the ‘black’ areas are actually inactive pixels), both these phones boast high levels of contrast.

But with a bigger resolution and higher ppi it’s the Galaxy S2 that’s the Contrast Master, hands down.

The nature of the iPhone 4’s IPS enhanced LCD screen also gives it a boost in the contrast stakes here; less light scatter means that the darker areas stand out more and this also obviously gives it a better viewing angle too.

Contrast Winner: Samsung Galaxy S2


Text Legibility

This picture reminds us that it’s been a while since we last went to the opticians.

Good contrast and brightness and resolution obviously go a long way when it comes to text legibility, whatever the lighting conditions. Obviously, this puts the iPhone 4 (with the highest resolution screen here) at an advantage from the off.

Aside from this, we like that the iPhone 4 allows us to zoom in the closest to chunks of text in its browser. Chances are of you zooming in to read an article three words at a time are slim, but we love the degree of closeness you get here.

We also like that the HTC Sensation is the only phone with a browser that automatically reformats text to fit as we pinch zoomed in; as you can see in the pic above you get close to an actual full sentence. Resolution-wise, the Sensation falls a little short of the iPhone 4. But there’s only so high the pixel count can go before the human eye can tell much difference.

Finally, even though the Nokia N8 didn’t allow us to get as up close and personal as the rest, we were happily able to read articles fine at the maximum level of zoomage, so we were happy with this.

Text Legibility Winner: Tie between iPhone 4 and HTC Sensation


Outdoor Performance

A really tough one to call this. Generally, all the phones here have screens that are, to a degree, reflective in some way. At a certain angle they’ll reflect some of the natural light in the area which will hamper their overall legibility.

So what we’ve tried to do here is give you an idea of how each screen fares in the sun by holding each phone at such an angle so that the reflection of the sky catches on a portion of it. Obviously, when you’re out texting or checking Google Maps you’re not going to go out of your way to hold your phone at angle where it becomes hard to read. That would be silly.

But all the same we’ve tried to give you an idea of how the screens generally hold up when out and about.

From our street level shot, you can see that the brightness of the Optimus Black and the Sensation shine through nicely, easily the best of the bunch here. Then it’s the iPhone 4, then the N8 and then the Galaxy S2, which definitely works better indoors.

Between the LG Optimus Black and the HTC Sensation, its a hard choice. But the pillow glass cover of the Sensation, while providing a nicer touch experience and looking pretty, sometimes catches the natural light in ways you don’t want it to.

Outdoor Performance Winner: LG Optimus Black


Viewing Angles

Wide angle visibility on all the phones is generally pretty good. The only clanger we noticed was with the Sensation where, at extreme angles, things get discoloured. This is something that we’re again putting down to the shape of the glass. Then again, when are you going to be reading Twitter on your phone at a forty five degree angle?

This would only really be annoying if you and and your friends are huddled round your phone trying to watch the latest cat video on YouTube. In which case you’d want to hold the phone landscape anyways.

Ultimately, here it’s another close one, with the Galaxy S2, Optimus Black and iPhone 4 tied for first. At certain angles, the Galaxy S2’s screen takes on an odd blueish tinge, compared to the the Optimus Black and iPhone 4 which were comparatively purplish, but not quite as noticeably blue as the S2.

Viewing Angles Winner: iPhone 4


Conclusion

In all the categories covered here, the LG Optimus Black consistently comes out on top or gets an honourable mention of some sort. We think that LG is on to something here with its NOVA technology and would like to see it appearing in future smartphones going forwards.

That’s not to say its the best for every situation; the Super AMOLED Plus of the Samsung Galaxy S2 clearly outstrips everything here in the contrast department.

What’s also clear is that resolution is also a factor; in some areas the Optimus Black’s screen couldn’t compare with the higher 960 x 540 and 960 x 640 pixel counts of the HTC Sensation or Apple iPhone 4. This was the most apparent when it came down to text legibility.

The Retina Display of the iPhone 4 came into its own here and in the viewing angles test; that higher pixel count and huge ppi density simply can’t be argued with.

Finally though the Nokia N8 didn’t come out on top in any of the categories that’s not to say that it’s got an utterly terrible screen (it’s been included in this test, which means that it’s good). But its also clear that a higher resolution and ppi counts are of cheif importance in most instances - and a smartphone from a year ago isn’t going to always cut it against the new kids in the spec stakes.

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