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New iPad: the Human Eye Meets its Match

by Steve Schrab on March 22, 2012

The New iPadFor those of you not watching Apple’s product announcements like a hawk, just recently they unveiled the new iPad. One of the big, new features is the Retina Display. For iPhone folks, this is nothing new. We’ve had Retina Displays in our phones for a couple of years now. However, we’ve never seen a retina-quality display at this size. It squashes more pixels into a 9.7-inch space than your 1080i HD TV.

Daring Fireball has a pretty thorough review of the The New iPad (3). What jumped out at me was this:

“All of Apple’s software has been updated to retina-caliber graphics. (If they missed anything, I didn’t spot it.) Most third-party apps, of course, have not yet been updated. Just like with the iPhone 4, these up-scaled graphics are passable, but annoying. They stick out like sore thumbs after using true retina-display-optimized apps. Websites, too – most graphics and images on the web are behind the curve, as of today. Text looks great in Safari, but non-retina images look slightly blurry. The iPad display is so good that it shows, like no device before it, just how crummy most images on the web are.”

Web imagery takes a leap with this device. So what’s the best way to take advantage of it? GS has already been moving toward this space of high-res displays in a couple of areas. For example, we’re big proponents of using HTML Text and Web Fonts. New iPad users of sites using web fonts (for example, this one) will be treated to crisp, sharp text! We’ve dabbled with SVG graphics. Again, sites with these elements (for example, this one) will remain sharp and glorious. Another technique to take advantage of is to use more CSS-created elements vs. graphics. For example, using CSS-created rounded corners on elements instead of creating this effect using graphical files. So sites using a lot of CSS-created “chrome” (for example, this one) should scale up nicely on the new iPad. The great thing about these three techniques is that they’re actually more efficient than their graphical variants. They use less bandwidth to deliver and, therefore, download faster and speed up the user’s experience. But where does this leave photographs?

Photographs really have only one way to be properly delivered on the Web. That’s the JPEG format. While this format has done a noble job of compressing large photographs without losing a ton of quality, we’re starting to hit a bit of a bandwidth wall. The obvious solution is just increase the resolution on photos used on the Web. Maybe even do a little client-side sniffing and only deliver those images to users of high-density displays. Problem is, are we really going to ask mobile users who have limited speed or limited bandwidth (or, in most cases, both) to download an image that could be four times the file size? I want my photos to look great, too, but I also don’t want to go over my bandwidth limit each month.

So what’s the solution? I’m afraid there isn’t an easy answer at the moment. While there are solutions, it’s hard to know what the user will want and when. Someone without a high-res display has no use for high-res images. Users of high-res displays may appreciate those slick graphics when they’re on their personal WiFi connection, but they may hate you when they’re on a 3G network waiting forever for images to download and watching their bandwidth get chewed up.

It’s an interesting problem to solve. I, for one, can’t wait to see what it looks like when we strike that balance.

“The Retina Display’s overall effect is like that of high-end glossy magazine print — except that it updates live. It’s living breathing print.” —John Gruber on a Retina Display iPad

Update: July 23, 2012

Want more? Check out this article I wrote for the BizTimes on improving your website to accommodate retina displays.


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