Designing for the iPad 3 Retina Display

Posted on April 3, 2012 by

Apple has a history of designing products before the hardware comes on stream. With the Macbook Air the solid state drives that were needed just didn’t exist – in fact the manufacturing capability didn’t even exist! – until shortly before the product’s launch. Apple has form when it comes to designing for “almost ready” hardware and that gives it a huge competitive edge.
The 9.7-inch Retina Display on the iPad 3 was dismissed as a pipe dream when it was first rumoured. Analysts insisted that large format, super-high-res displays just couldn’t be manufactured in time for this March. Rhoda Alexander, director of tablet and monitor research for the research firm iSuppli, told Wired in November 2011, “We know there are yield issues. This is certainly a huge step up as far as pixel format, and every time you do that, there will be yield issues.” Yet on the 7th March this year, Apple proved the naysayers wrong. Again.

The super-high-resolution, 2048 x 1536 display – dubbed a “retina display” because the resolution is based on the calculation that 300 ppi is the maximum amount of detail that the human retina can perceive from 12 inches away – was already present in the iPhone, but the new, bigger form factor on the iPad makes for the biggest super-high-res display in a consumer device to date.
“It hadn’t been done before,” Said Richard Shim, analyst at NPD DisplaySearch in an interview with Wired. “There hasn’t been a demand for it, or an OS that could utilise all those pixels. It’s new territory.”

And that’s the important thing – the iPad has an OS that can drive the super-high-res screen, but what is it really useful for, other than looking good? After all, it’s not just cost that has to be scaled up in order to accommodate the new display. Apple has had to make the backlight bigger and has had to install a bigger, heavier battery as a result.
These displays have mostly found their niche in gaming, but the App Store lists a special retina-display ready category in its iPad 3 apps.


Infinity Blade 2 from Chair Entertainmentis a swords and quests game that uses the Unreal Engine (a lite version of the games engines behind Gears of War and Mass Effect). According to Wired, “Infinity Blade already looked incredible. Those detailed models and artistic lighting effects look even better in Retina.”
Firemint’s oh-so-playable Flight Control has had a space makeover as well as being retina-ready. Gesture interface-driven, it’s your job to dock spaceships by drawing their trajectories. High speed, lip-bitingly tense gameplay, now in brilliant detail.

The Real Racing series has always innovated to take advantage of the latest features of apple hardware. Real Racing 2 hasn’t changed much in terms of game play but the super-high-res visuals, and 4x anti-aliasing means that the graphics are unprecedentedly clear! The game is rewarding and long and looks terrific.

Design Tools

This isn’t your nephew’s doodle programme – SketchBook Pro is brought to you by Autodesk, the makers of 3DStudioMax.The layers, tools and brushes supplied allow you to create incredible composited and manipulated images and the app uses the gestural interface to allow you to change tools, switch palettes, and zoom and undo intuitively. The retina display makes for extremely clear and detailed resolution, but it also means that you can work on a massive 2048×1536 canvas for professional-level image processing.

SketchBook Pro iPad Screenshot

The beautiful iStop Motion for iPad links with an external camera and has intuitive on-screen overlays that allow the budding animator to create high quality films. iMovie for the Claymation lover – this tool lets you create masterpieces from the things around you. This will be a hit with adults and kids alike!


The Barefoot World Atlas is a sumptuously illustrated and content-crammed guide to our world. Aimed at schoolchildren it will nevertheless be a family favourite. The designers are rightly proud of this product and have got BBC TV presenter Nick Crane to act as your guide to a beautiful 3D globe created by artist David Dean. Geography, natural history, politics and sociology all come alive, and the content is updated from sources like Wolfram Alpha so it won’t go out of date.

Solar Walk is a stunning orrery for the 21st century. The 3D Solar System model is not only fact-packed, it is also 3D TV ready so you can see the details from many angles. One reviewer described Solar Walk as “a scale model of the Solar System where you get to manipulate space-time, measure the distance between stars, learn details about 92 celestial objects, and watch 7 fact-filled videos… 3D satellites, icy poles, and city lights all look amazing.”


Netflix have gone retina ready. Sort of. According to the LA Times “With this upgraded screen on the iPad, all you’re getting are improved icons and still images for movies and TV shows? What about moving on up to high-definition? Well, Netflix says support for HD streaming is in the works — their mobile team said on Twitter they are ‘actively investigating 1080p support.’ For now, you’re stuck with standard definition at a resolution of 1350 kbps, 640×480.” The ABC network’s player (US only) is streaming episodes in super-high-res, however.
Sesame Street tie-in Another Monster at the End of this Book also takes advantage of the high res graphics. The developers say that: “in this sequel to the best-selling, chart-topping Monster at the End of This Book app, Grover invents giggle-worthy ways to prevent readers from getting closer to another monster hiding at the end of this story. But an ever-curious Elmo asks for your help to slip past Grover every time.”

Another Monster…iPad Screengrab

On the whole, none of these apps really takes full advantage of the retina display (with the possible advantage of SketchBook Pro). Disappointingly, Netflix limits its retina display support to the icons and artwork only so far. While retina ready content looks good, there has to be more to it than this. How will you use it?

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