When mobile phones had monochrome or text-only screens, aspect ratio was an irrelevance.
Yet today, with smartphones increasingly acting as multimedia hubs rather than mere communication devices, it might be more important than you think.
Today’s handsets come in a variety of screen aspect ratios –16:9, 18:9, 18.5:9 and so forth. But does it really matter?
The simple answer is yes, it does.
Why are ratios so different?
Early smartphones like the original iPhone and HTC Nexus One had screen ratios of 3:2 and 5:3 respectively.
In the iPhone 1’s case, that meant three vertical pixels for every two horizontal ones.
Manufacturers quickly adopted the 16:9 ratio used as standard for HD video, and also by most European digital television stations.
At the start of this decade, Apple was the only company refusing to fit 16:9 screens into its handsets – and that policy was abandoned when the iPhone 5 came out.
Since then, 16:9 resolutions have been standard across the board, whether you’re an Android or iOS aficionado.
The original – and the best?
Since 2010, 16:9 has been the industry standard for high-end smartphones. And it worked well, displaying apps and games effectively.
But as handsets became more sophisticated, it grew harder to persuade customers to replace their existing devices.
The differences between each new generation of phone gradually became smaller, with lots of tinkering around the edges but no significant advances.
One area where public demand drove change involved smartphone screens – not just SD to HD and onto 4K, but the overall dimensions of device screens, too.
Consumers now expect crystal-clear displays suitable for watching streaming media in pixel-perfect clarity, or playing sophisticated Android and iOS games.
As a result, handsets are getting larger, making it increasingly difficult to use them in the traditional one-handed manner.
In an attempt to balance the competing demands of expansion and practicality, manufacturers are making phones taller but not wider, so they can still be used with one hand.
This also reduces the bezels (those exposed bits of plastic around the screen), increasing the screen size without necessarily expanding the device’s overall dimensions.
Stretching the screen size for a more cinematic experience provided an obvious point of difference between, say, 2015’s LG G5 and 2017’s G6.
Bigger looks better in sales brochures, especially if a taller screen still supports one-handed use.
In practice, it means new handsets display many apps and streaming content flanked by black bars at either end of the screen – known as letterboxing.
However, that’s only an issue while app manufacturers and streaming media providers acclimatise to the new screen resolutions of most modern phones.
Once they do, the 18:9 ratio will provide a number of advantages:
- Android devices now offer split-screen modes, rather like modern versions of Windows. Being able to display two apps or windows side-by-side is very useful.
- Because mobile websites are designed to be read in portrait mode, a taller screen fits more content in – requiring less scrolling.
- Movies are recorded at 18:9 (or 2:1), and look great on an equally widescreen device. Even drama series like House of Cards and Stranger Things are now recorded in 2:1.
Unfortunately, mobile phone manufacturers can’t stop tinkering.
Samsung has adopted 18.5:9 for its latest S8 and S9 series of smartphones, while Apple has an aspect ratio of 19.5:9.
That still means 2:1 cinematic output displays with bars at either edge.
And filling the device’s screen means there’s no room for capacitive Home or Back button – cited as a factor behind the disappointing sales of Apple’s flagship iPhone X.
App launches are being delayed because software developers have to tweak their programs for a variety of different screen sizes.
And as long as the cameras in our phones continue to take pictures at 4:3 resolution, scrolling through photos will be accompanied by considerable amounts of black space.
For now, you might be better purchasing a smartphone at 16:9 ratio, so you don’t have to endure letterboxing.
Some software companies stretch their apps to fill taller screens, which often affects visibility and clarity.
There are plenty of good 16:9 handsets still available, including the Samsung Galaxy S7, the iPhone 7 and 8, the Google Pixel 2 and the Sony Xperia XZ range.
While app developers and streaming media platforms like Netflix make the transition to 2:1 ratios, you’ll probably enjoy a more satisfying user experience with a 16:9 display.
However, the current generation of high-end phones (Google Pixel 2 XL, LG G6, iPhone X, etc) are adopting 18:9 or above.
It’s a trend that’s likely to continue in the coming years, and we’d suggest it’ll be advisable to upgrade to an 18:9 device by the end of next year.