Ask LH: What Does 'Retina Display' Actually Mean?

Dear Lifehacker, A lot of the discussion of the new iPad talks about the "retina display". Everyone says it looks amazing, but what does the term actually mean? Can anyone else make use of it? Thanks, Eyeballing iPad

Picture by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Dear EI,

The short and simple answer: it's marketing speak, not a specific type of technology, and even Apple uses it to mean slightly different things in different contexts.

The longer answer: Apple introduced the notion of a "retina display" when it rolled out the iPhone 4. The definition it uses is that the resolution is so high that you can't see individual pixels in normal use. Here's how Apple explained in in its original announcement:

Apple’s stunning 3.5 inch Retina display has 960 x 640 pixels—four times as many pixels as the iPhone 3GS and 78 percent of the pixels on an iPad. The resulting 326 pixels per inch is so dense that the human eye is unable to distinguish individual pixels when the phone is held at a normal distance, making text, images and video look sharper, smoother and more realistic than ever before on an electronic display.

There has been some argument over whether or not the resolution of the iPhone 4 actually meets this definition, since the issue of what the human eye can see is the subject of debate. More relevant to the current discussion is that while the latest iPad also claims to have a "retina display", it has a lower resolution than the iPhone. Apple's own announcement rather blurs over this distinction:

The new iPad’s Retina display delivers four times the number of pixels of iPad 2, so dense that the human eye is unable to distinguish individual pixels when held at a normal distance, making web pages, text, images and video look incredibly sharp and realistic. The 3.1 million pixels in the Retina display are more than one million more pixels than an HD TV, and with 44 percent increased colour saturation the new iPad displays colours that are unbelievably richer, deeper and more vivid.

While the phrasing is very similar, you'll notice Apple doesn't actually mention the pixels per inch measurement. And that's because the iPad actually has a lower resolution than the iPhone 4, as analysts DisplaySearch point out:

The highlighted and most expected feature is the display, which at 2,048 by 1,536 pixels has a pixel density of 264 ppi, twice that of the iPad 2. While Apple is calling this a “retina display,” the pixel density is significantly less than that of the iPhone 4 “retina display,” which is 326 ppi. But since “retina display” is a marketing term with no specific definition, Apple is able to use it how it wants.

Because of the association with Apple, no-one else is likely to use that specific term. Displays on phones and tablets from every manufacturer continually improve, and ultimately it's your experience of the screen that matters, not the marketing hype surrounding it.

Cheers Lifehacker

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Comments

    This part of the original announcement is the key assumption with Retina displays:
    "when the phone is held at a normal distance"
    The ability for a retina to discern a pixel is dependent upon the distance the device is held.
    So anything can be a Retina display if you hold it far enough away from your face because you can't discern the individual pixels.
    Apple say their products aren't about "the tech specs" but in reality Apple hardware is always cutting edge and has top tech specs, so I think their stuff is *mainly* about the specs - that's why they buy up cutting edge factories all over the world. Too bad the software doesn't do the hardware justice.

    My TV is a retina display from my couch (5m). At 1m I can see pixels on my screen. What apple are saying is that bigger screens are usually viewed from a further distance therefore the iPad requires less ppi to be retina as the normal viewing distance is greater than on the iPhone. Yes it is a marketing term, but the fact is that at the nominal viewing distance a user will be able to pick out pixels on an iPad 2 but not on the iPad 3 so their claim is true.

    "Apple hardware is always cutting edge and has top specs"?

    Are you serious? You must be living on a different planet to the rest of us. Apple are always 1-2 generations *behind* the latest tech.

      Totally agree with this. Frankly, Apple's probably the boldest tech company on earth when it comes to selecting less-than-cutting-edge tech. Few companies so blatantly say "pfft, you don't NEED that" so often.

    Erm, when did we get a new comments system?

    marketing speak or not, the retina display in the iPhone 4 and 4S is absolutely gorgeous.

    Damn, now Apple have patented my eyes. All this time I thought a "retina display" was a bunch of cells lining the inner surface of my eye, only now I'll have to start referring to my own eyes as "a system of light detecting cells on the back of my eyes not at all related to Apple's 'Retina Display'". http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Retina

      Love it Jason, good work, I guess we just need to wait for the next court case Apple will try and sue someone over there "retina display" hahahah Apple really went down hill when they tried to stamp out innovation due to competition taking over there market share of what they copied from others in the first and and did not invent them self... I lost all respect for Apple and have not purchased another produce of there since.... I have not regret the move to Android and although I've been a Windows user I was planning on buying an Apple but have never looked back for sticking with Windows 7 and Android they are both great OS's that offer much more flexibility and features than any Apple device does any way.

    My Galaxy Note is 'retina' at the distance I use it. The Galaxy Nexus could be used even closer than the 4s and still be 'retina'.

    At least this will be one parameter that has a relatively hard limit past which there is no real benefit. So expect almost every device with a display to work 'retina' very soon, and we can all move on to something else to get worked up over.

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