Apple’s Retina Display: What is it really?

First, I’ll tell you what Apple’s Retina Display is not about. IPS (In-Plane Switching) TFT LCD technology is one of the finest, affordable, mass manufactured display technologies that is used on smartphones, monitors and TVs. Apple uses IPS LCDs on the iPhone 4, iPad, iMacs and the Cinema displays. But the Retina Display doesn’t necessarily require IPS; it’s not about IPS.

And that means it doesn’t have to have wide viewing angles of 178/178 degrees. It doesn’t even need to be bright, though the iPhone 4 is brighter than previous generation iPhones by 25%.

Excellent contrast ratio doesn’t make up the Retina Display either. The iPhone 4 has stated contrast ratio of 800:1 but some tests have resulted in more than 1000:1. That’s excellent, but isn’t a Retina Display requirement. For more information about the iPhone 4’s Retina Display read iPhone 4 Retina Display: Not Perfect But Best*.

The only requirement to be christened a Retina Display is the resolution or pixel density. When Steve Jobs announced the iPhone 4 the Retina Display was also announced. It was a big deal. Jobs said:

It turns out that there’s a magic number right around 300 pixels per inch that when you hold some thing around 10 or 12 inches away from your eyes is the limit of the human retina to differentiate the pixels.

A retinal neuroscientist took a look and gave it the thumbs up (read Retinal Neuroscientist Looks At iPhone 4’s Retina Display). I concluded in Retina Display that Jobs was generally right, too.

The Retina Display is a display that has about 300 PPI. And that’s it. There are no other requirements. That’s why the the new iPod touch is claimed to have a Retina Display despite the poor display quality (read iPod touch: Retina Display Sucks).

I wish Apple had a more strict quality requirement for its Retina Display but that would mean higher costs for a relatively low-cost iPod touch. The result is a diluted sub-brand that could have meant so much more.

I am fairly certain we will be surprised by the next iPad, which I’ll call iPad 2.0 henceforth. According to my contacts within the industry the iPad 2.0 will sport a near-300 PPI IPS LCD. The size will remain the same at 9.7 inches but the number of pixels will quadruple. The pixel format will go from 1024×768 to 2048×1536. Resolution will increase from a paltry 131.96 to 263.92 PPI.

That might be a stretch to call it near-300 PPI but my guess is that Steve Jobs will come out and introduce the iPad 2.0 with a Retina Display; it is only 12% shy of 300. The resolution, no doubt, will be class leading for tablets, but calling it a Retina Display will further erode the sub-brand to mean 300 PPI plus or minus 12%.

For me I’d like to think of Apple’s Retina Display as class-leading with a resolution of about 300 PPI, really wide viewing angles, excellent colors, bright and sunlight readable. Let’s hope Apple agrees.