How The Retina Display Will Fundamentally Change The Internet

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Maybe You Didn’t Notice

Display technology is changing and it’s changing very fast. Sure, you could say that display technology evolves at the same rapid pace as everything else, and you’d be right, but what you have to consider are the standards for TV and Internet. These standards, while completely necessary, are what keeps amazing things out of our reach It’s really not that long ago that we all had CRT’s all around our houses! For many, this is just 4 or 5 years ago. I for one used to have a 21” Sony Trinitron that I swore by. In fact, I was always bedazzled by it’s immense size, which was amplified by the fact that I had to sit with my nose pressed up against the screen because the back of the display was so deep that there was hardly room on my desk for it. On the other hand, some things have not evolved as rapidly. In fact, this one thing, the thing that defines how we look at the Internet, or watch TV, has only really started to evolve. I’m talking about pixel density.

Think about it. For years and years you were OK with watching a standard television set. For our stateside readers, this means that you were OK watching 480 lines of interlaced, epileptic seizure inducing, 30 frames-per-second video. We’re talking 640×480 (simulated). You have to dip your toes into the shallow end of the smart-phone pool to even try and get a handset with sub 480 resolution in 2012. A DVD is even beyond the abilities of a standard NTSC television, matching the resolution but able to display full-frames. We take all of these things for granted today. Now, what about your computer monitor? What really changed here, other than the move from CRT to LCD/LED? For (barely) decades, the web has been designed around the capabilities of the average monitor. In the 90’s, the average monitor could reliably display 640×480, not completely unlike a standard television (remember WebTV?). This changed a little as we moved into the late 90’s, where more and more websites would demand, or recommend, that you have a display of 800×600. Great, we’re moving forward right? Nope. In the very late 90’s and early 2000’s, laptop adoption rates soared, and while your shiny new 17” CRT was possible of doing 1280×1024 (a super-awkward 5:4 aspect ratio), your laptop was not. And this is where things stayed, all the way through 2012.

This is the year that everything changes, forever.

Ironically, the devices that helped stagnate to web are the same ones that are going to change it, completely. When the iPad was unveiled in 2010, it had one feature that always puzzled me, and it wasn’t until I got a giant 1080p computer monitor that I realized the reason for the decision. It’s shaped like a little standard definition television. I thought to myself, “this thing is perfect for watching movies on, why isn’t it 16:9 like an HDTV?”, followed by “how are they sourcing these displays? Who is making such a stupidly shaped display?”. The answer is in the standard. Not a standard set by Apple, but one respected by them. 1024X768 is the perfect resolution to view a standard web-page with and regardless of how many apps are available in the App Store, browsing in Safari is the most important part of the iPad experience.

This may be getting off track a little bit, but higher resolution 16:9 Android tablets miss the mark here. While I’m pretty well invested into the Android platform, I’m not afraid to admit that browsing the Internet is a million times more pleasant due to lack of page-scaling and the shape.

Apple has forged ahead with a unique 2048×1536 “Retina” display. This display is exactly 4x the resolution of the original iPad, and all pages are viewed, by default, at 400% of their original size. This is great for text, since text is scalable, but images are not so easy. Here is a small snippet from The Powerbase, as it would appear on an iPad with a retina display. This snippet, at only 600 pixels wide, is absolutely gigantic, and the first thing you will notice is the blurry image that has been interpolated to 4x it’s original size.

Here is another image of The Powerbase as it might be viewed in its entirety on an iPad at 2048×1536. To get the full effect, you will probably need to download the image and view it at 100%. You may have to scroll from side-to-side to see it all but this is a great example of how many different images and different sizes will appear.  Turn the page to check it out.


Dean Howell

Dean Howell has over a decade of experience with Linux and nearly 2 decades of experience with computers in general. Currently, Dean is Editor-in-chief of The Powerbase and also works for one of the world's largest providers of Linux-based NVRs.

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  • ldrn

    I had no idea there was anyone who really thought that way about aspect resolutions. :o Personally, I like the idea of a “virtual bezel”, say black bars at the top and bottom; that lets me use the extra vertical space for other things when I am not watching a movie.

  • Vagelis Giannadakis

    Embedding high-res images in Web pages will break the Web for millions of users. Not gonna happen easily. Besides, who cares for insane pixel counts on small screens? What do they have to offer over standard anti-aliased text on modern displays? Seems to me nothing more than another reason for Apple to charge more.

  • turn_self_off

    Funny, as i keep seeing 16:9 site designs these days. In particular out of the Apple sphere of the web, where they started early with 16:9 format displays and Apple products holding a high mark with designers of all stripes.

    Nah, i think the format choice is just as likely related to the closeness to the shape of a A4 or US Letter sized paper. trying to read that on a 4:3 screen and you get nearly full use of the screen. Try it on a 16:9 and your effectively reading it on a screen 2″ smaller than the actual screen size, resulting in smaller text if the source happens to be PDF or similarly layout focused.

    And this is reinforced with the primary controls of the iPad being laid out for portrait use rather than landscape.

  • Charlie Whitman

    Incidentally, 1280×1024 was not presented as a 5:4 aspect ratio. It was presented as a 4:3 ratio with non-square pixels. That’s not really the same thing. It was an oddity, and pretty much no other “standard” resolution was like it.

    I don’t really see the “retina” display as having such big influence over the Internet. For one thing, even on an iPad, the retina display is overkill for resolution (at only 9 inches). The only reason that such a high density display was used for the iPad is because an exact doubling of the horizontal and vertical resolutions solved a lot of problems that would otherwise be had with interpolation (and 1024×768 really wasn’t good enough).

    Really, though, the greater the normal viewing distance for a display, the lower the necessary pixel density for optimum viewing. There is no really good, practical reason for a monitor to have the same pixel density as a smartphone. A tablet lies in between. It’s unlikely that any clear advantage to the picture would be seen on the 2012 iPad over, for example, the new Transformer because of resolution (though that is not the only important quality for a display). Once you get to a certain pixel density anything higher is just padding for the specs.

    Another thing to consider is the introduction of new display technology. Some of the newer displays will probably not be up to the really high pixel densities for a while. We could easily see pixel densities not really go up for a while simply because of the introduction of new, lower power display technology. I’m not certain how far they’ve yet pushed pixel density on AMOLED screens with their improved contrast ratios, but I’m pretty sure that new things like IMOD displays have a ways to go before they hit on densities like a retina display.

    As to the question of aspect ratio, I always liked the 16:10 ratio better than 4:3 or 16:9. I imagine that I would find 3:2 a nice ratio as well (that’s a standard photo ratio, by the way).

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  • Miyim

    Im not sure you understand what the word fundamental means.
    For the average user it is NOT fundamental difference.

    Except for this:
    >and it will be the bandwidth provided by your ISP and the web hosts tasked with >delivering the content to your browser that will have to keep up.

    Considering how much companies gouge you for your mobile usage, using more bandwidth isnt exactly a selling point. Your ‘keeping up’ means more $$ for consumers to pay.
    I talked to someone who manages a phone boutique and the number one complaint he gets from buyers is the shock they get when they find out how much streaming video or audio ends up costing them at the end of the month. So what do many do? Paying for more bandwidth? No, they cut down in their consumption and use the bandwidth intensive stuff at home or when they on wifi.

    Big telecoms would love this though.

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