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Does the iPad 2 display connect to your brainstem?

Filed in: Apple, tech, Sun, Jan 16 2011 20:16 PT

I’m sure we could ask Apple, but they don’t comment on rumors.

Still, the mill continues to churn, and this week we saw double-sized glyphs embedded in a beta of iOS. From that, the conclusion being drawn is that the iPad 2 will have a pixel-doubled, 2048×1536 display. The question is, is that insanely great, or just insane? Let’s take a look at where we are today:

Device Resolution Size PPI Shipping
iPad 1024×768 9.7″ 132 Yes
Galaxy Tab 1024×600 7″ 171 Yes
Xoom 1280×800 10.1″ 149 No
Atrix 4G 960×540 4″ 275 No
iPhone 4 960×640 3.5″ 326 Yes

What we can see here is that Apple remains far ahead in pixel density among phones, but they’re behind even already-shipping devices in the tablet world. Once they fell behind other phones, they fired back with a display that the crop of devices announced at this year’s CES still haven’t caught up to.

I think it’s a foregone conclusion that the next iPad will follow the same pattern. Let’s be honest: the iPad’s display is good. Not great. It needs a boost.

But does it need to be quadrupled? Eh. I’m not so sure. First and foremost, there’s only one application that really benefits from that kind of pixel density, and that’s text. The iPhone 4 was a tremendous advance for readability, but bear in mind that a tablet is traditionally held farther from the eye than a phone. It doesn’t need to be as tack-sharp as an iPhone 4 to be unbelievable.

Second, video is another big use case, and a 2k 4:3 display doesn’t make sense for any common video size. If we take as a given that the iPad 2 will support 1080p video, that means a 1:1 representation of that video leaves a black box all the way around. In 720p, the format delivered by iTunes content, pixel-doubling is no big improvement. It’s obvious that higher pixel density means better video, but if Apple likes controlling every pixel, then they’ll want a resolution that matches the video content they already distribute.

Third, a 2048×1536 display means over three million LEDs, all of which need to be driven by a GPU. Just to keep up, the GPU would need to be four times as fast as the first generation, which is a tall order for one generation. I know that Hitachi has shown off a 302ppi, 6.6″ display, which suggests a retina display could be made, but just because something can be found, doesn’t mean it’ll be implemented. The screen itself is only part of the balance between performance, cost and battery usage.

Finally, according to iSuppli, the iPad display/touchscreen unit accounts for more than a third of the overall bill of materials for the 16GB version ($80 out of $229.35). How likely is it that they’ll quadruple the number of LEDs in that package without ultimately affecting the price? Don’t get me wrong: I’m sure Apple will squeeze more pixels out of that form factor. But if it’s actually 2048×1536, I will be extremely impressed.

So if a pixel-doubled iPad isn’t in the cards, let’s look at plan B. I’m just spitballing here, but I think the optimal display resolution for a next-generation iPad is 1440×1080. It’s a higher resolution than any announced tablet. At 186ppi, it’s the best tablet display on the market. It also displays 1080p video at full screen when zoomed in, along with 720p at a nice, clean 1.5x multiplier, which has been fundamentally handled by consumer electronics companies for several years. All without breaking the bank either in cost or GPU: At 1.56Mpix, it nearly doubles (1.978x) the current display, while still taking up less than half as many pixels (49.4%) as a 2k display.

Apple has become known for its hardware advances. They scored a huge coup with the display technology on their flagship device. But while I can’t completely rule it out either technically or economically, I just don’t think lightning will strike twice. If it does, I’ll be first in line. Again.

One Response to “Does the iPad 2 display connect to your brainstem?”

  1. punkassjim says:

    I’d say, since their R&D on this stuff is generally begun at least two years ahead of the public sale of a device, that Apple likely has a thoroughly-tested device on their hands. It’s hard to imagine a screen of that type being in testing for anywhere near that long, but still. Recall that antenna-related bug reports were on file for the iPhone 4 a full two years before the device hit the market…these guys really start early and test thoroughly in a user-centric way. Plus they have TONS of pull in the OEM parts manufacture market, so I’d imagine they designed around a screen and GPU that didn’t even exist yet, while also helping to work toward its creation, testing and mass production.

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