Resolution Explained: Why the iPad 3’s Retina Display Matters
From the many pre-release leaks and amateur investigations into the matter, it appears highly likely that the iPad 3 will have a very high resolution display similar to the one on the iPhone 4 and 4S.
Apple calls the screens on those phones “retina displays,” but does the iPad 3’s display qualify for this moniker? And what is a retina display, anyway? Does it make the iPad 3 worth buying?
To answer these questions, I’m going to give you a quick and simple primer on resolution, pixel density, and how they affect your interaction with every piece of tech with a screen on it. I’ll also explain why the words “Retina Display” aren’t holy and don’t actually mean anything beyond marketing hype.
(Related: New iPad to Be Called iPad HD?)
The rumor that pretty much every tech magazine and blog is accepting as fact right now is that the iPad 3 will have a resolution of 2048 x 1536 pixels on a 9.7 inch screen. That’s a lot of pixels to pack in such a tiny display. Keep in mind that many netbooks, which have a 10.1 or 11.6-inch display, use screens with 1366 x 768 resolutions. Android Honeycomb tablets usually have 1280 x 800 resolutions in 10.1-inch displays. And the iPad 2 has a 1024 x 768 resolution.
While a higher number does not always translate to a better experience or better quality in tech specs, higher resolutions do have discernible benefits. The more pixels in a display, the higher the pixel density (the number of pixels in an inch). The higher the density, the smoother things look on a screen. Not just video, but also fonts, images, icons, and other elements.
When these elements are crisper and sharper, your eyes can tell… to a point. When the iPhone 4 came out, Steve Jobs mentioned a “magical number” somewhere around 300ppi (pixels per inch) where, if you hold a device a normal distance away, your eye can’t pick out individual pixels and will see the clearest, best version of what’s on the display. Thus the term Retina Display, because it has to do with your eyes, you see.
The iPad 3’s supposed resolution works out to 263ppi, lower than the iPhone 4/4S (326ppi), but very close to the 300ppi threshold Jobs spoke of. If the qualification for a Retina Display is at or above 300ppi, then the iPad 3’s display doesn’t quite make it. But remember that Retina Display isn’t a technical term, it’s a marketing one, so Apple can define it any way they like.
There are disputes about what pixel density is actually perfect for the human eye. In the end, the quibbling doesn’t much matter.
In general, technical terms, the iPad 3 will have a high density high resolution display. It’s higher than any Android tablet we’ve seen thus far and higher than most laptops with far bigger screens.
The result is that Apple may put more icons on each Home screen without sacrificing icon size and text readability. When reading webpages, books, or magazines you’ll be able to fit more text on the screen, though it won’t be too tiny to read. And even if text is small, it’ll be easier to read because fonts won’t be as fuzzy. 1080p video will play in all its high definition glory. And the iPad will make an even better digital picture frame.
Does any of this matter?
Maybe, and maybe not. Higher resolution in laptop screens is good because it gives users the ability to fit more windows on the display and put them side-by-side for better multitasking. iPad apps are full screen (so far), so that’s not a consideration. The benefit is more about the crispness than anything else from what we can tell right now.
Apple may announce something to change that. The iPhone 4’s retina display hasn’t heralded a sea of change in iOS apps or content, though.
The iPad is more about media consumption than productivity, though, so the arguments for upgrading due to the display are more akin those for upgrading from a normal TV to an HDTV. Especially if you’re a sports fan like Adam Mills.
Games will get a nice boost, too. Maybe not those of the Angry Birds variety, but titles with complex graphics and multiplayer action work better at higher resolutions.
Whether the retina display is the killer feature that cements your desire to own the iPad 3 or not, it is a big step forward for mobile tech in general. I hope might encourage laptop manufacturers to abandon 1366 x 768 as a standard for everything up to a 15-inch display.