New iPad's amazing display: I was blind but now I see

New iPad's amazing display: I was blind but now I see

Summary: For those of us with lousy eyes, reading on the iPad is now an absolute pleasure. But it comes at a heavy cost.

TOPICS: iPad, Mobility

So yeah, I got a new iPad today. Actually, my wife was kind enough to get up at the crack of dawn and head over to our local TARGET store and pick one up and bring it home, because I'm lazy.

Like many folks that stayed up late at night or on long lines this morning, I'm treating this device like it is our first newborn child -- delicately, but overwhelmed with pure joy.

Now, that sounds like a very fanboyesque thing to say, and well, it is. But you really, really have to see the display on this thing to believe it.

I've written a few pieces already that talk about just how advanced the display technology is on the new iPad, and what sort of new, disruptive applications we can expect to see that will exploit it.

But there are some very practical, tangible, real improvements that will be of immense benefit to a very large section of the population immediately after buying one of these things.

I'm talking about people with lousy vision.

I happen to be one of those people. My eyes are, shall we say, not great. In fact I would qualify them as ultra-sucky.

Since my 20s my vision has been slowly degrading. I've always been extremely near-sighted, and I wear glasses which if they didn't use the most sophisticated crystal lens technology, they would be as thick as the proverbial "Coke Bottle."

Without them, I would be as blind as a bat.

My prescription is -6.50 in both eyes, with a very strong astigmatism. And over the past few years, that astigmatism has gotten worse. This means I do a lot of squinting, and since I am an IT professional, a lot of it happens when I am looking at computer displays.

On the desktop in my home office, I get around the deficiencies of my lousy eyes by buying 25" and larger HD monitors. If I'm unlucky enough to be travelling with my 12" Lenovo X200 notebook, which I do a lot, I end up blowing the fonts up much larger than normal just so I can read my documents and remain productive.

I even bought a second 14" portable USB Displaylink screen for it, because being limited to 1440x900 on a small notebook is just utterly painful.

However, like many others writing about the iPad this week, I have begun to transition to tablet devices for a lot my of recreational computing. But with most tablets, you don't have the luxury of having a huge display or HD resolution in order to get that level of sharpness required for extended, eyestrain-free use.

That was, until today.

I know you've been bombarded with articles which talk about how great the new iPad screen is. To fully appreciate it, you really have to use one.

You can't take an screen shot, effectively reduce it to 622 pixels across on a blog page and then attempt to demonstrate how sharp this thing actually is. By all means, go and actually play with one at a Apple store or your local wireless carrier.

You can certainly click on the screen shot on the top of this article -- a page from the Steve Jobs autobiography as seen on the new Retina-optimized Amazon Kindle app -- and click on it to see how crisp the fonts are rendered on a 1080p screen, but it doesn't do real justice to the new iPad.

Suffice it to say, even when reading 10-point or smaller fonts on the iPad, whether they are in a eBook reader app or on a web page or in some other text-heavy application, they are extremely sharp, even to someone with crappy eyes like myself.

I used to need to blow text up and zoom constantly when reading text-intensive content. Not so much anymore.

But all this impressive screen technology and sharper text and much higher-resolution graphics comes at a price: Storage.

I was originally going to buy one of the 16GB or 32GB models, but I changed my mind late last night and decided to buy a 64GB model instead. Why? Because many iPad Retina-optimized apps are being designed extremely inefficiently, and are taking up a lot more space than their non Retina-optimized cousins.

Our sister site, CNet, has a particularly good article about the sudden "app obesity" epidemic that is plaguing the App Store.

For example, Pages, the Apple word processing program for iPad, has gone from 95MB to 269MB. Numbers, their spreadsheet, has similarly almost tripled in size. iMovie has bloated from 70MB to over 400MB. The Martha Stewart Cookies application, which was already pretty hefty at 339MB, now comes in at 705MB.

705 MEGABYTES? For an interactive cookie cookbook? I hope it actually comes with Martha herself.

Why is all of this bloat occurring? Are our apps chugging down the High Fructose Corn Syrup like the rest of us? Do we need to put our tablets on diabetes meds? Why are our iOS apps getting Super-Sized?

The problem is occurring primarily because of one issue: Bitmap graphics and the use of offline, embedded HD video.

Many, if not all of the UI elements in modern, graphical computer applications use bitmaps. Buttons, widgets and the like are actually drawn by graphic artists using paint programs and stored as images. Every single pixel is stored in binary code as a hexadecimal value in order to represent the color.

While tablet systems like the iPad do use compressed graphics formats to store the bitmaps like PNG, Apple uses strict guidelines on lossyness in order to maintain app display quality.

As you increase the resolution of a display, in order for those widgets not to be distorted, or pixelized (in which they become fuzzy) when the app is dynamically re-sized, the widgets need to be re-drawn and stored in a more pixel-dense version.

Naturally, as you increase pixel density, the storage requirements for these bitmaps on the device increase considerably, as do the data transfer requirements on expensive 4G data plans which charge $10 per 1GB overage.

This not only applies to regular apps but also 3D games which make extensive use of bitmaps for a technique known as "texture mapping" in which a bitmap image is wrapped around a complex polygon-filled model in virtual space, much like putting on tight-fitting clothes or enclosing a wireframe sculpture with Papier-mâché.

Now, with fonts, you don't have this issue because fonts use a different type of graphics -- Vector. With Vector, you are using geometric primitives such as points, lines, curves, shapes or even polygons to draw images on the screen.

Rather than storing a pixel by pixel bitmap of the image itself, it is defined in a mathematical formula which instructs the computer to render the shape on the fly, and it maintains its shape no matter how large you draw it.

Vector graphics have been big with fonts as well as in graphics design (ironically, by applications that actually create the images that get saved eventually as bitmaps) but they haven't been very popular as actual UI elements and assets for mainstream applications such as games and mobile apps that you would find on something like an iPad.

The standards for storing vector graphics have been around for more than a decade. One of the most well documented standards, Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) was originally developed by the Word Wide Web consortium to be used on web pages in order to conserve bandwidth and to allow graphic elements to be dynamically resized without losing any fidelity.

Every single modern web browser, including Safari on the iPad supports SVG. SVG didn't really catch on because of the rapid improvements in residential broadband, but that doesn't mean the idea isn't ripe for re-introduction.

Ideally, it makes sense for developers to start thinking about how to incorporate vector graphics formats and to program their apps so that they best can conserve space. Perhaps it is time for Apple to release a vector graphics library and other development tools for iOS to help create vector-based assets.

And maybe developers should think twice before using lossless graphics formats for storing HD bitmap image assets, and should consider not embedding huge HD video files along with the app, as opposed to dynamically streaming them or caching them at a content distribution network.

Will the introduction of the new iPad require an entirely new set of graphics programming discipline in order to fight the app bloat? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: iPad, Mobility


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  • Not to take anything away from your point...

    Not to take anything away from your points because they are valid but many of us have seen this level of clarity and sharpness (actually higher levels) on our phones and honestly, I think the super sharp display on my Rezound is awesome so I get an idea of how the iPad 3 screen measures up in terms of sharpness.
    • Agreed

      Much to do about nothing. Apple could have easily reduced the resolution to just HD/1080P instead since that would have been "Retina" enough and would have helped in terms of app file obesity.

      Or, at least they should have included a Micro SD slot to add additional storage. But no, your solution is get the most expensive version of the new iPad. Apple must love you for PROMOTING that solution. Coincidence?
      • Reference Quality Display

        Beyond the sharpness of small text, this display has a lot of importance in setting a new bar for quality. When you use the iPad as a camera, you are in effect looking through the highest quality 10-inch EVF on the market. Though the smartphone level camera is decent, its tendency for noise is readily apparent. Of course, with successive generations of hardware we will have a convenient objective measure of quality on the fringe of miniature camera components.

        Consider the value of this display for purveyors of high quality digital artwork. With the right software, we now have a portable display worthy enough to displace a 10+ pound large format book. I'd say that is a very important milestone.

        Welcome to the future, because it is here now.
  • Almost a year ago to the day Jason wrote the following in a ZDNet blog

    I had to make sure if my memory was sound so I paged back to a March 18, 2011 blog and yup .. I was correct. Does this sound familiar?

    " I also bought an iPad 2 last week. Or rather, my very sweet spouse waited on line for me at Target and bought me one, since I refused to sit on a line that day "
    Jason, you have a saint for a wife and you are one lucky soul.

    BTW, I have some other iPad comment memories of my own. Succinctly, here are my thoughts on how I view all three iPad models.

    I stated that I viewed the original iPad as an engineering "proof of concept". A very polished example and something worthy of being marketed but still, it was almost akin to an engineering prototype. (However, if someone of the design calibre of a Jonathan Ive is the one doing the prototyping, that product is going to be a several cuts above the rest of the field.)

    I viewed the iPad 2 as what the iPad 1 should have been. (cameras and all) In fact, I tended to recall that a rumor which surfaced just before the original iPad was revealed suggested that the original design for the iPad needed to be scrapped (at the eleventh hour) because the glass display was cracking under stress. This resulted in an engineering decision to "beef-up" the iPad case and make it thicker (for added strength). Of course, that was a rumor but the iPad 2 had a different display design and I suspect that the iPad 2's final case dimensions were more in line with the original design vision for the tablet.

    It has only taken me a few hours with the new iPad to determine that this design has reached a fine level a maturity. By that I mean, for the first time I can envision going back to my computer upgrade cycle. I usually upgrade desktop Systems about every six years. I still use my three year old white MacBook and even though I lust (yeah, I admit it) for the new MBA laptop designs, I can continue to use my current laptop for the foreseeable future. (It is Mountain Lion compatible.)

    So, although I suspect that the fourth generation iPad model will have a faster SoC design (I suspect twice the speed of the current iPad model) and perhaps an increase in onboard memory (perhaps to 128 GB) and other enhancements, I pretty sure I feel good about waiting a few years to upgrade to a new tablet.

    My chief reason for bypassing the next iPad model (unseen) is the display. Oh that gorgeous display. I can't picture that display getting significantly better. And since the content I "consume" on a tablet is primarily visual in nature (I do listen to music and audio podcasts, of course, but to a lesser extent), I am quite content doing so for the foreseeable future with this new iPad.
    • Can't sit on line in the morning, unfortunately

      [b]I had to make sure if my memory was sound so I paged back to a March 18, 2011 blog and yup .. I was correct. Does this sound familiar?[/b]

      My wife is always the one on early morning iPad duty. I'd do it myself, but I have conference calls and other things to do. Next time I may consider ordering one on announcement day.

      As to having a saint for a wife, well, yes I agree.

      As to your other points -- I cannot forsee an immediate improvement in the actual display resolution in iPad 4 or 5. The next logical step would be something approaching or exceeding 4K resolution and there just isn't enough content in that format nor is commodity residential bandwidth at a level to easily accomodate it yet. 720p and 1080p streaming has only recently become possible for some residential broadband customers in the US.

      Ultimately what I see Apple doing with the display in the next two cycles is being able to produce them in volume with lower failure rates in manufacturing and thus lowering their overall BOM, so that a 16GB iPad 3 can sell for $399 next year.

      Similarily I see Apple investing in flash manufacturing so that they can get 32GB into a baseline model at a $499 price point.

      Clock speed or cores may go higher, and the device may become yet again lighter, but in order to accomplish it they will also have to go to a new form of battery chemistry if they haven't already done that. I suspect that this is also what kept the "iPhone 5" with LTE from making an appearance, since in order to keep the product in the same form factor and exact the same battery life, you would need to make the chemical formulation different and go into the more exotic technologies being researched right now.
      • There will be lot of rooms to improve for the display

        I don't see the resolution to be further doubled within a few years, but there are many other aspects of the LCD display to be improved in the next year, especially the power consumption and the black level.
      • Retina IS the limit

        Because 'retina' implies an inability to resolve pixels which subtend angles smaller than that, there is NO point in making higher resolutions for a device to be used no closer than 15in.

        Therefore 4K (horizontal) is unnecessary for such devices. For use in cimemas that are meant to take up a huge chunk of one's whole field of view, such resolutions make sense.
      • I'll buy new iPad every year because they're really inexpensive

        I paid $600 for the 32gb model. That's $50 a month to own it for a year, a little less than half of what I pay for my cell phone plan, and I can pass the old one down to a family member.

        Back in the day (80s-90s) you had to spend around $1200-$1500 every two years on desktop systems to stay current. A partial list of peripherals I've spent more than $500 on over the last 30 years: 10mb hard drive, CD-ROM, 17'' monitor, Hayes dial-up modem, RAM chips, color printer. Factoring in function, form, and inflation iPads are practically free.
      • Hype

        Patanjali, you are one of the rare few who notice this.

        Retina display is just marketing hype.
      • Room for improvement...

        There is room for improvement, but not really as far as screen-resolution/pixel density goes. The real room for improvement is obvious when you compare an e-ink screen to an LCD. Because e-ink screens are not backlit, they are as easy to read and easy on the eyes as print on paper. The next screen revolution will come from the creation of a screen that resembles a color e-ink with variable baclighting options (for reading in the dark if necessary) and super fast refresh rates.
      • Future iPads

        Like others I don't see the resolution going up much if at all. But there are other things that they could work on. Such as the dock connector, and overall I/O speeds. Trying to sync a large library of music is still a long process. I could also see them going with two antennas and seeing more spacial streams with the wifi. And most likely the next big battle will be mostly with battery life. While 8-10 hours of use is amazing, there are plenty of cases where two days of use would really help. Also at some point the Application bloat needs to be handled. It's at the point now where 32 gig is pretty much really the true minimum with the exception of people with small media library's.
      • Reduce the resolution to HD and...

        make the iPad brighter, iPS+, something like 600 nits as on the Transformer Prime so you can read that HD screen outside. Lastly, just ad a freaking micro SD slot to the device. No need to "invest" in flash manufacturing. Jobs is dead. Just add a micro SD port!

        If Cook's agreed to pay dividents (finally), he should agree to include a micro SD port on the next iPad. Way overdue.
      • Retina is the limit, not the hype

        @kingkong88 : <i>"Patanjali, you are one of the rare few who notice this."</i>

        Unfortunately, you have completely misinterpreted Patanjali's comment, which is that the retina display is the limit, and that there is no point in making still higher resolution devices.
    • Further iPad improvements

      I believe the most significant further iPad improvements will be in the area of less power hungry but more powerful CPUs, lighter battery and much larger flash capacity.

      The thing about flash capacity is that as you increase density, you lower the quality. The current technology already keeps small enough number of electrons per cell... No idea what is the limit here.

      The display could see improvement, but definitely not in resolution. There is no point. I would love reflective LCD, but don't know if it is compatible with the current design, or ultimately -- fast color electronic paper.

      Oh, and of course, Thunderbolt output via the disk connector... am I dreaming? :)
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      • Why are you replying to a spammer?

        Stop feeding the troll. :)
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  • Apple Tech

    Apple is a developer of technology, and the reality is it is more expedient for them to contract all manufacturing. The cost to actually build a fab for LCD is humongous because the equipment is designed around the panel design, and the techs to operate it are highly trained and costly in manufacturing terms.

    Apple may do the design, but the fabs need more production output in a variety of configurations. Apple has nn desire to own
    Fabs, Just control them
    • Samsung Display

      Note with interest from the Teardowns, that the Pseudo-retina Display is from Apple's (legally bitter) rival Samsung, and not from Sharp.

      Expect that is why there is much talk of better displays in the Next Gen Galaxy Tabs - real soon.