What will a "Retina" display mean for the iPad mini 2?

What will a "Retina" display mean for the iPad mini 2?
There has been a lot of talk about the iPad mini 2 and the fact that all signs are now pointing to the second generation mini iOS tablet having a so-called "Retina" display. When we first started hearing rumors about the iPad mini 2, the consensus was that the device would not have a Retina display, and the newer rumors are making it look like the tablet should not have one. So, we wanted to take a look at what it will mean for the iPad mini 2 to have a Retina display. 

First off, we need to figure out exactly what the term Retina display even means. The trouble is that it is a very nebulous term that only really has meaning within the marketing language of Apple. In very general terms, it refers to a display where the user theoretically can't see the individual pixels anymore because the pixel density has hit a certain threshold. What that threshold is exactly is up for debate though. 

Does Retina even mean anything?

The general rule for what makes a Retina display is based on a combination of the size of the device and the average distance the user will be when viewing the screen. The devices that will be closest to your eyes are smartphones, so the thinking that you need a pixel density of at least 326 ppi to qualify as Retina (as do the iPhone 4, 4S, 5, 5c, and 5s). Tablets are held a bit farther away, so they need a 264 ppi (like the iPad 3 & 4); and, laptops are the farthest away on average, so they only need a 220 ppi (MacBook Pro). As you can see, because Apple popularized the term, it seems that its devices get to be the standards for what is a Retina display (not to mention they are the only devices for which the term is ever used. Despite the Samsung Galaxy S4 having a pixels-per-inch measurement of 441, no one would ever call it a Retina display).

Since Apple first made the term Retina display popular with the introduction of the iPhone 4, there have been plenty of competing devices that have blown past Apple's current "Retina" level displays in terms of pixel density, but a few haven't quite passed the nebulous test of being able to "see" the individual pixels. Still, regardless of Apple's definition of "Retina", the mobile ecosystem has new definitions of "high-res". The current leaders (among popular devices) are the Samsung Galaxy S4 with a 441 ppi, the Google Nexus 7 (2013) with a 326 ppi, the Amazon Kindle Fire HDX at 339 ppi, the Google Nexus 10 and Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 both of which have about 300 ppi displays. But, as we said before, Apple doesn't much care about these numbers. 

Apple's fragmentation of screens

That brings us to the second part of the equation: Apple doesn't want to fragment its ecosystem any more than it has to. Because iOS doesn't bother with responsive design, developers have to create assets specifically for each screen size/resolution combination in the ecosystem. The reason why the original iPad mini had the same resolution as the iPad 2 was so developers wouldn't have to do any more work to get apps running on the tablet (like they had to in optimizing apps for the iPhone 5's new screen size). Technically, a regulation 1920 x 1080 display would get the iPad mini up to "Retina" standards because it would give the iPad mini 2 a pixel density of about 279, but it would also add a new display resolution to the iOS ecosystem, which would mean a lot of work for developers (we've mentioned how annoying it is for devs to not have responsive design in iOS). 

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That scenario is possible, but not likely. The more likely scenario (especially given recent rumors) is that Apple is shooting to have the iPad mini 2 match the resolution of the iPad 4 at 2048 x 1536. At the 7.9-inch display size of the iPad mini 2, that would give it a pixel density of about 324. That would make it the highest density display in the 8-inch range (although the competition in that segment is pretty scarce.) Unfortunately, Apple's decision to push for a Retina display in the new iPad mini 2 has already reportedly caused one problem, and may lead to another unintended consequence.

The problems of a Retina iPad mini


The first problem is one that has popped up in the news multiple times: supply constraints. It seems that Apple's component partners have had very troubling yield rates on an iPad mini-sized Retina display. The rumor is that AU Optronics has been building the 7.9-inch 2048 x 1536 displays for Apple, but has been having a lot of problems with production. As a result, many believe that the supply of iPad mini 2 tablets will be very low, and some analysts have even gone so far as to say that Apple would only have about 2 million units available to cover the launch window. 

For comparison, 60% of Apple tablets sold during the 2012 holiday season were iPad minis, which means approximately 13.75 million iPad minis were sold during the holiday season last year. If Apple can only muster up 2 million iPad mini 2 units for this coming holiday season, it could very well be disastrous. Not only would it lead to a huge number of angry customers, but it could end up driving users to competing tablets like the Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire. One interesting question is whether it would be worse for Apple to have so few available minis, or if the company should just avoid the holiday season all together and release the mini 2 after the new year. Some rumors have said that idea is on the table. 


The other problem is one that most don't really consider: a Retina display on an iPad mini, especially a display running at 2048 x 1536, could make the tablet more annoying to use. We've already seen this with the current iPad mini to a certain extent: because it shares the resolution of the iPad 2 but has a smaller screen, some UI assets that were designed for the iPad 2's 9.7-inch display are awkwardly small on the iPad mini's 7.9-inch display. A Retina display on the iPad mini 2 would double the display resolution, but it wouldn't do anything to fix the issue. 

The first iPad mini uses the same resolution, and the same assets as the iPad 2, which means that apps that were designed for use on a full size iPad aren't changed at all and are just displaying on a smaller screen. That makes for some awkward instances where items designed for the iPad 2 just aren't big enough for the iPad mini.

Assuming the same thing holds true for the iPad mini 2, it will be using Retina assets designed for use on the iPad 4, so the same issue could occur. The smaller a touch element gets, the harder it is to accurately hit that touch element. This isn't as much of a problem on Apple's hardware, because the touch responsiveness tends to be top notch (a benefit of a closed and controlled ecosystem), but it could still be a point of frustration for those with big fingers just as it could be frustrating for older users with bad eyesight who would prefer bigger screen elements. 


More than likely, Apple is trying to push hard with the iPad mini 2 display and is going for the full iPad resolution of 2048 x 1536. We have been asking for Apple to be more aggressive with its updates, but early reports are making it sound like the company might have been better served to be more conservative on this one. It could be that the supply issues have been misreported, or exaggerated. But, if the supply issues are as bad as the reports say, Apple may end up with either no new iPad mini on store shelves this holiday season, or it will end up with a lot of angry customers who are unable to purchase the device they want. 

We finally have a date for the announcement. October 22nd is when Apple will be holding the event to announce the new iPads. We'll be keeping a close eye on both the release date given for the iPad mini 2 as well as if Apple even offers a pre-order for the device, both of which could indicate supply issues. 

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