The iPad 2’s rumored screen resolution- why you should (not) care

I normally don’t pay much attention to rumors as the facts will be known long before I can get my hands on a product anyways, but the ridiculous amount of iPad 2 screen resolution rumors lately has pushed me to make an exception. Whether or not we see 1536×2048 on the next iPad is anyone’s guess, but the better question is if you should care or not.

Recently, some image files from a new version of iBooks has set the Internet on fire with speculation that the iPad 2 might indeed get the magical 1536×2048 resolution on the iPad 2. The graphics in question point to that being a possibility, and so does the fact that the iPhone 4 got the same treatment last summer. 640×960 on the iPhone 4 is exactly 4x the resolution of previous iPhones and iPod touches, in other words double both the horizontal and vertical resolution. This is a big advantage for developers because everything scales perfectly; each pixel on an older device is now 4 pixels on the newer devices, unless the apps support the new resolution directly. On top of that, Apple got bragging rights for jumping the resolution by that much, skipping right past the myriad of Android phones that had proudly been using 480x8XX screens for a while.

The reasoning behind the iPad’s rumored resolution jump would seemingly be the same: perfect scaling, same aspect ratio. However, there are actually quite a few major differences between the two leaps in technology. Even with the jump in resolution, the iPhone 4 is still a low resolution device compared to the content it displays. Video isn’t considered HD until it reaches 720p or 1080p resolutions, which means that the horizontal resolution is at least 1280 or 1920, respectively (the vertical resolution varies with the aspect ratio). Computer monitors have been at least 1024×768 pixels for a while now, which is why any device with a lower resolution won’t be able to display many web pages without scrolling or zooming, unless mobile friendly pages exist. Also, even with the high resolution the iPhone 4 basically has the same hardware as an iPhone while running everything at a lower resolution. In other words, everything the iPhone 4 resolution does is bring it closer to a non-mobile resolution.

The same is not true for the rumored iPad 2 resolution. The highest common PC monitor resolution these days is 1920×1200, which you’ll normally find on 22″+ monitors that cost a lot of money (compared to 1920×1080 monitors). Now Apple is seemingly about to put a noticeably higher resolution on a 10″ device? Despite all the evidence, I have trouble believing that. There’s no doubt that apps would look great at that resolution, but there’s a point where impressive turns to overkill. Apps and photos will look awesome in true 1536×2048, but everything else won’t. Most webpages will be too small and have to be zoomed IN, and the same goes for even full HD video (though not by much in landscape). On an iPhone 4, the new resolution was still borderline ridiculous, but at least there was content for it. Those of you with 1920x monitors know how much empty space is left beside most webpages, and that is not something we need on 10″. Even if they zoom the web page to fit, you’ll only be enlarging everything, not increasing the resolution (with the exception of fonts, if they do it right). If most things have to be scaled up in order to display on this new 3 mpix screen, then what’s the point? I would love to have a 1536×2048 resolution iPad, but I’d be equally happy with 1152×1536- a 1.5x increase in both directions, for a total resolution jump of 2.25x. It would still be a massive resolution jump, put the iPad ahead of all competition (the Motorola Xoom is currently the Android resolution master, with 1280×800) and be a much more reasonable resolution both in terms of available technology today, power consumption, resource requirements and last but not least it would be closer to PC resolutions and available content.

Then you have games, which the iPad is rather good at given that you have games that are made for it, rather than adapted. You’d think a higher resolution would be nice in that aspect, but that’s really not the case. Even at 1024×768, the iPad is not comparable to PC games at that resolution simply because there’s more to graphics than resolution. iPad and iPhone games nowadays look somewhere along the lines of PS1/PS2 when it comes to details and rendering in high demand games (3D environments), and in the end that has a lot more impact on the final graphics than the resolution. If anything, a 1536×2048 resolution will hinder progress in the game graphics department because system resources will be tied up running the high resolution rather than improving the picture. Essentially you’ll end up with a 3 mpix square-jointed soldier running around Modern Combat 3 instead of a 1.5 mpix square-jointed soldier, but that doesn’t change the fact it’s a square-jointed soldier.

I think that what it all comes down to if we see a 1536×2048 iPad 2 is marketing. Apple has made a hobby out of inventing stupid marketing names such as retina display, even if the viewing angle on their screens is frankly more impressive (and useful) in my opinion. Steve Jobs and the rest of Apple are not idiots, so they know exactly how pointless the difference in resolution is when everything is said and done. However, nothing is pointless if you can make up a fancy name for it and market it. That’s why we have $100 digital cameras with 14 megapixels, when anything above 6 is useless for 99% of consumers and only helps to degrade the resulting image quality.

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Andreas Ødegård

Andreas Ødegård is more interested in aftermarket (and user created) software and hardware than chasing the latest gadgets. His day job as a teacher keeps him interested in education tech and takes up most of his time.