Retina Display on iPad2 Could Lead to Bigger iPhone

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Apple’s iPad 2, expected to be shown off in the second quarter of this year, is looking more likely to have its own “retina display” much like the current iPhone. The MacRumors blog reports the next iPad’s resolution will be 2048×1536, or double the current iPad resolution, both horizontally and vertically. This would allow for easier backward compatibility with current iPad software and open the door to new, highly detailed apps. It may also pave the way for a larger iPhone in the future for several reasons.

  • It can still be a “retina display.” The iPhone 4 display shows 330 ppi, or pixels per inch, but the definition of the “retina display” marketing term isn’t solely based on the ppi. If it were, then reported 2048×1536 won’t qualify because on a 9.7-inch display, that only works out to 265 ppi. The other part of the equation is how far the screen is from the eye because the further away one holds the device, the harder it becomes for the human eye to resolve individual pixels. Based on my personal observations of how people use mobile devices, one constant generally holds true, with few exceptions: The larger the display, the farther the device is held and used. Meaning: a 4-inch iPhone at 960×640 resolution, or 288 ppi (a greater density than the expected iPad, by the way), could be held out another inch or two from today’s iPhone and still appear to have the same visual quality.
  • The competition is bigger. Nearly every hot new smartphone I saw at the Consumer Electronics Show that will be compared to Apple’s iPhone had a few common denominators, with one being larger displays. Most had 4.3-inch screens, some with the standard Android resolution of 800×480, but a few with what are called qHD screens. These use a 960×540 resolution, or nearly that of the iPhone’s 960×640. The trend for larger displays on high-end smartphones is growing, not shrinking.
  • A larger display won’t impact phone size that much. Barring a non-button approach, increasing the display size of a phone is sure to make the device bigger. But the size boost could be marginal. Samsung’s Galaxy S handset, for example, uses a 4-inch display, as compared to iPhone’s 3.5-inch screen, but the Galaxy S isn’t much bigger, even with its front-facing camera and home button. The Samsung phone measures in at 122.4 mm (4.82 in) x 64.2 mm (2.53 in) x 9.9 mm (0.39 in). Apple’s iPhone 4, with a smaller display, is 115.2 mm (4.54 in) x 58.66 mm (2.309 in) x 9.3 mm (0.37 in). The difference in size is negligible.
  • Mobile video consumption is on the rise. Although I’d argue that watching video is more enjoyable on an iPad, Android tablet or even a notebook computer, video consumption on the go continues to increase. A Bytemobile study in October reported that mobile video traffic was 39 percent of all data traffic, eclipsing even web traffic on mobile devices. Granted, video over the web can use more traffic than all other activity types, but this is just one data point. Early data from after the iPad launch indicated that consumers use the device three times more to watch video than traditional web users. And YouTube Mobile traffic nearly doubled in the second half of 2009 from the first six months of the year. It’s great to watch video on the iPhone’s 3.5-inch retina display, but the experience improves with a 4- or 4.3-inch screen with a similar resolution.

One the of the biggest arguments against a larger iPhone screen is that it won’t be considered a retina display any longer. If iPad 2 at 265 ppi qualifies, then surely an iPhone with 4-inch display at 288 ppi will too. And while much of this argument hinges upon the screen resolution of the next iPad, I can’t believe that Apple’s iPhone will use the same screen size forever. There’s simply no reason the handset can’t gain a boost in screen size, while still keeping the resolution crisp on a device that’s easily pocketable. The entire experience improves with a larger display because users feel less constrained– not just for video — web browsing requires less zooming, gaming controls feel more spread out and it’s easier to use the keyboard.

To me, it’s not a question of “if” the iPhone gains a larger display, but rather one of “when,” and I suspect its coming soon. I’m curious to hear thoughts from readers to see if this would be welcome change or it’s simply not needed because the iPhone 4 screen with its retina display is perfect at 3.5-inches in size.

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