When Apple (AAPL 0.68%) introduced the iPhone 7 Plus, the company said it made the display significantly brighter and, for good measure, added support for wide color. However, the resolution -- the number of pixels in the display -- remained unchanged from both the iPhone 6 Plus and the iPhone 6s Plus.
This has led some industry followers and consumers to conclude that the newest plus-size iPhone falls behind the Samsung (NASDAQOTH: SSNLF) Galaxy Note7 by this metric. Indeed, the display on the Galaxy Note7 measures 5.7 inches along the diagonal, at a resolution of 2,560 by 1,440 pixels.
In contrast, the iPhone 7 Plus features a display resolution of "only" 1,920 by 1,080 pixels on a 5.5-inch screen. Basic math will tell you that the Galaxy Note7 will feature higher pixel density and therefore, has a sharper display than the competing iPhone.
In this case, however, basic math is highly misleading.
The dirty secret of the Note7 display
On the iPhone 7 Plus display, each pixel is made up of three sub-pixels: red, blue, and green. That means there are 1,920-by-1,080 each of red, green, and blue sub-pixels. Pretty straightforward, right?
On the Galaxy Note7 display, it doesn't quite work like that. According to OLED-info, recent Samsung displays use a technology known as PenTile. The site explains that the sub-pixel arrangement on Samsung displays is known as a "Diamond Pixel". In a nutshell, this Diamond Pixel arrangement means that instead of having each pixel consist of a red, green, and blue sub-pixel, it is instead made up of two green sub-pixels, one red sub-pixel, and one blue sub-pixel.
As a result, while the Note7 display packs more green sub-pixels in a given area than the display on the iPhone 7 Plus, the Apple offering packs more blue and red sub-pixels per inch than the Note7. DisplayMate calculates that there are 518 green sub-pixels per inch on the Note7 display, while there are 401 sub-pixels per inch on the iPhone 7 Plus. But it places 401 each for blue and red on the iPhone, against 366 each on the Note7.
So in a very real sense, the iPhone 7 Plus display is actually ahead of the Note7 when it comes to red/blue sub-pixel density.
The display comparison between the two phones isn't so clear cut
There are certainly areas where the Note7 display will outperform its peer. For example, the Note7 display is an AMOLED, while the iPhone 7 Plus display is an LCD. That means the contrast ratio of the Note7 display will be much superior. The Note7 also curves on the sides, while it is unlikely that a mobile LCD would be able to replicate that design.
However, Apple claims that the display on the iPhone 7 Plus can achieve 625 nits of brightness. AnandTech measured the maximum brightness of the Note7 at just 359 nits, already well below the 582 nits measured for the iPhone 6s Plus in that same article.
Given that the iPhone 6s Plus is advertised at a maximum brightness of 500 nits, well below what AnandTech measured, I wouldn't be surprised to see the display on the iPhone 7 Plus far exceed what Apple officially advertises.
The point, though, is that it doesn't make sense to criticize the iPhone display simply because it doesn't measure up to another flagship device based on some random specification, especially one as misleading as pixel density.
Apple's uphill challenge
At the end of the day, Apple has a difficult marketing hurdle to overcome with respect to the Galaxy Note7 and other smartphones that use high-resolution AMOLED displays with a diamond sub-pixel structure. Consumers typically don't read up on these details and instead rely on the numbers included in marketing materials or in reviews.
Fortunately, although Apple is currently at a resolution/pixels per inch marketing disadvantage, my expectation is that people who actually look at these smartphones in person (at a retail store, for example) will find them quite comparable.
The Note7 wild card
Samsung is also suffering from a troubling turn of events that could very well offset any perceived display advantages it offered with the Note7 -- exploding batteries.
Indeed, the company recently announced a massive recall of its Note7 phones due to this issue. Apparently, Note7 batteries have actually blown up, and the situation has snowballed to the point that the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission is telling Note7 owners to "power them down and stop charging or using the device".
Even if the Note7 sports a better display (or is simply perceived to offer one), the iPhone 7 Plus is likely to enjoy a robust introduction and launch, boosting Apple's share of the large-screen smartphone market at Samsung's expense. Samsung will be stuck dealing with the fallout of its recall until the company launches its next generation flagship devices next year.