It was recently asked of BuB who relayed to TeD:

“Well I know the basics, like the greater the better but there must be some threshold to this whole ppi thing where the human eye at a specific distance wouldn’t be able to differentiate. Could you please shed some light on the subject?”

Thanks for the question, Sahil Tiwari. For a long time, this hasn’t really been an issue in any of our technology because we hadn’t reached a point where it was even a question whether increased resolution was offering a better experience because we could see the difference. We are approaching a point, however, where that might not be the case anymore.

Important Terms

First, let’s understand some of the terms that we use when talking about PPI. PPI, or pixels per inch refers to the pixel density, or the number of pixels that you would find on one inch of space on a computer, or in our case a phone screen.

The first phone to launch with a 1080p screen was the HTC J Butterfly, which was released only in Japan under that name and released as a Verizon exclusive in the US as the HTC Droid DNA. It used a 4.7” screen, with a 540 x 960 resolution which translated to about 256 PPI.

1080p refers to a screen which is 1080 pixels wide, with lines that run the entire vertical length of the screen. This isn’t to be confused with 1080i, which is 1080-interlaced where the “p” in 1080p stands for progressive scanning. 1080p has much smoother transitions than 1080i and is therefore more common in standard home television sets.

Blinded By Science!

Now to answer the main question that’s been asked, “How many pixels are enough?” Well, it’s a rather simple question but it bears a rather complicated answer. According to Dr. Optoglass, which I’m simultaneously hoping is and isn’t a real person, it’s a very large number and depends a lot on how close you are from the screen and how perfect your eyes are.

According to his article, Dr. Optoglass tells us that the perfect resolution of the eye can see 2190 PPI at 4 inches from the screen. However, none of us holds our phones that close to our faces, at least I hope you don’t, because that actually is bad for your eyes. In addition, the average visual acuity of a human is about 1 arc minute, which simply refers to a person with 20/20 vision. A person with 20/20 vision at 4 inches (the closest a healthy adult can focus) can see up to 876 PPI, which is considerably lower than the ideal eye, which can see at .4 arc minutes.

The average distance that I prefer to hold my phone from my face is about 1.5 feet, or 18 inches (457.2mm) and we can pretend that thanks to my contact lenses I have perfect vision (20/20). With these assumptions, we can plug that data into the equation below where d represents distance in mm and α represents the viewing angle in degrees, which is dependent on visual acuity.

PPI formula

Despite my best efforts, I was unable to replicate the original calculations, giving me little to no confidence in any numbers that I would have produced myself. However, this excerpt from the article should clear things up to a pretty decent degree:

“If the average reading distance is 1 foot (12 inches = 305 mm), p @0.4 arc minute is 35.5 microns or about 720 ppi/dpi. p @1 arc minute is 89 microns or about 300 dpi/ppi. This is why magazines are printed at 300 dpi – it’s good enough for most people. Fine art printers aim for 720, and that’s the best it need be. Very few people stick their heads closer than 1 foot away from a painting or photograph.”

What’s The Verdict On Max PPI?

So, to answer your question – the absolute maximum that we will ever need on a smartphone for a person with the best eyesight is about 720PPI. With 1080p devices such as the HTC One M8, we have already seen approximately 441 PPI which is well above what a person with 20/20 vision can see from a foot away. If you are worried, aim above 300 PPI and it’s hard to go wrong, unless you have 20/2 vision, in which case, you’ll need to wait until 4K makes it to your phone. It would seem that after that, there would literally be no point to increase phone resolution because if you assume the width of an average 5 inch screen to be roughly 2.5 inches, that would mean 720*2.5 = 1800, which is still technically 2K.

In short, we’re there.

Special thanks to Sahil Tiwari for submitting the original question to the Ask TeD page.

About the author

Nick Schiwy

Nick is an tech enthusiast, programmer and general geek. He works full time in the IT field but still has plenty of time to keep up with all of the tech gossip that is going around!

  • Sahil Tiwari

    That was an answer well worth the wait. Thanks a lot for all your time and effort, this really helped me and my friends a lot.

    • I’m very happy to have been able to satisfy you so well with my answer! If you have any more questions in the future, let us know!

  • Badvok

    Interesting answer, but, since our eyes aren’t CCDs, perhaps you should really consider the lower diagonal ppi of the screen rather than the higher pure vertical/horizontal ppi.

  • Valas Darkholme

    “In short, we’re there.”
    For Phones, maybe.

    What about for a 24 inch monitor, also at 18 inches away? Or the average 15″ inch laptop (I prefer a 17, myself) at 12 inches away? Or how about a home theatre, say 96″x~170.66″, Or say, full field of vision VR?

    We may be at near optimal pixel density for phones, but for everything else? I can definitely see the individual pixels on my 1080p monitor right now, and I’m not wearing my glasses. We’re not there yet when it comes to screens that fill more of our FOV, and those are the numbers I would really like to see.

    • Valas, you’re right, I definitely wrote this with phones in mind because I knew that was what the person was asking. I really should follow up with this for larger devices.

      • Valas Darkholme

        I would be interested in reading the numbers you come up with.

  • dryice2200

    I have been using my Galaxy S7 with 577 ppi and I can tell you we are definitely not even close to where we need to be when I put the phone into VR. The phone is also about 4 inches away from your face in a VR headset and the lenses also zoom into the screen to fill your field of view, (hope it’s not killing my eyes!). I don’t even think 8k on a smartphone will be enough. What kind of pixel density do you think we would need for indistinguishable virtual reality?

    • Julian1203

      Samsung is working on a 11k screen with a pixel density of 2250ppi (just google it). I think that should be perfect on VR.

    • giu46

      read the article related of the doctor and you will find the answer. At 4 inches the maximum is around 876 ppi, so 4k can saturate your demand for VR. 8k is not useful at 4 inches

  • Vahid

    So what’s up with smart phone companies? Are they aware of this? This new Sony’s smartphone have 800ppi

    • Gh0st

      They’re making phones this way for VR. The phone is much closer to your eyes in vr

  • Alex Smith

    Interesting article. However, it looks like I’ll still be looking for the answer.
    From my experience over the years as a tech geek, 20/20 (or under the presumption of 20/20 through glasses or contact lenses) isn’t as big of a factor as experience with things like this.
    My uncle (for example) has better vision than I. I still find myself noticing resolution differences that he doesn’t (that can be replicated frequently and without placebo or confirmation bias being a possibility). Most examples are like this though. Not just my uncle, but many people are very different when it comes to tolerance and sensitivity to resolution and frame rate changes.

    If (for another example) I saw Linus from LinusTechTips test this, I’d be more knowledgeable on this subject for myself because (although our tolerance and sensitivity are by no means identical) I know some things he’s seen in frame rate and resolutions.

  • Yolo

    This Dr is a little moron first saying 20/20 is average vision to nxt wroting he has 20/20 aka perfect vision….

    • goober

      dont name call on tech. forums yolo. it makes you look like the less intelligent individual. he went through all the work to give us an answer and you insult his intelligence because of a probable error he didnt have the time or care to fix. good day!

  • naima_is_online

    No metric system?

    • Anugrah Yega Pranatha

      I vote u up sir 😀

  • fllysurfer

    I wonder if this holds true to VR viewing distance, if the formula can be used to calculate the ideal resolution, pixel density for viewing a screen that close to your eyes.