March 7, 2012

Apple announced its latest iPad today, which features a much higher resolution display that’s perfect for reading and for news apps.

The new iPad could finally elevate the text reading experience on a tablet to something much more akin to reading a printed newspaper, magazine or book. Most major news organizations have released iPad apps, but the blurry, pixelated text from the relatively low-resolution iPad 1 and 2 always stood out. iPad news apps may have great looking photos, videos and interactive graphics, but text — often the core of what a news organization produces — doesn’t look that good, especially in comparison to what humans have been able to enjoy for hundreds of years.

Today that changes for the tablet market. This change could be a great opportunity for aggressive news organizations to push more users to purchase and use iPad apps. The new iPad will allow news apps to look much closer to the printed text found in a glossy news magazine, but apps will need to be rewritten to look proper on this new display, and all art assets will have to be redone as well.

Taking advantage of better resolution

The iPad 1 and 2 both had a 1024 x 768 resolution 9.7-inch display with a pixel density of 132 pixels per inch (PPI).The new iPad has a 2048 x 1536 resolution 9.7-inch display with a pixel density of 264 PPI. Everything will appear the same size on the new iPad but will have double the resolution (four times as many pixels). This is big news for the printed word.

Text on computing displays doesn’t look as good as printed text. Computer text is often jaggy, pixelated and blurry and can cause eye strain and fatigue due to its lack of crispness. Many people may not know why they don’t like reading long articles of text on computers, but they know they just don’t enjoy the experience as much as reading printed text.

“A high-resolution display can significantly increase comfort and reduce eye strain,” said Shaun Kane, assistant professor of human-centered computing at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “iPad users with low vision, who often use the iPad in large-text mode, will likely notice that text quality is less blocky and easier to read. It’s also possible that an improved display would feature better contrast, which could help users with a wide range of visual ability.”

Everything on a computer is made up of tiny pixels, usually squares. The rounded edge of a G, for instance, may appear at a distance to be curved on a display, but up close it is actually a series of block pixels that are typically square. To make text easier to read, text is anti-aliased to make contours look smoother and more natural.

Whereas aliased text would abruptly go from black pixels to white pixels, anti-aliased text would go from black to gray and then to white. This stair-step approach creates smoother looking text, albeit blurrier text.

Compare a newspaper or a book to an iPad. The text of the print publication is incredibly sharp without a jaggy edge. You can even bring it right up to your nose, and it will still look great. Forget bringing an iPad 1 or 2 close to your face; the text looks pixelated from a normal viewing distance.

This isn’t an issue, however, if a computing display has a high enough pixel density. The amount of pixels per inch (PPI) greatly impacts how good text looks on computers, smartphones and TVs. The new iPad doubles the pixel density of the iPad 1 and 2, making individual pixels indiscernible from a normal operating distance. All of the sudden text pops like printed text, making reading more enjoyable and easier on the eyes.

The iPhone 4 ushered in the original Retina display that made blurry, jagged, pixelated text a thing of the past. In fact, the iPhone 4 display is so impressive that it makes looking at an iPad 1 or iPad 2 display jarring. Retina display is Apple’s term for a display that you can’t make out individual pixels on when held at normal operating distance. The pixel density required to reach a Retina display therefore varies based on how you use each device.

But apps and websites won’t automatically look better and more print-like on the new iPad. Apps will need higher resolution assets at double the resolution. Images will need to be bigger, and video will need to be higher resolution. In fact, existing apps will look worse on the new iPad because lower resolution assets will be displayed on a higher resolution device. Try watching standard definition content on your high definition TV.

All interface elements of news apps will need to scaled up 2x to make them look crisp and sharp. Images will need to be twice as big (or even bigger if a news app and website uses low resolution photos). Because of the moving nature of video pixels, videos won’t have to run at the new iPad’s native resolution, which is above 1080p, but higher resolution video will look better. Many news organizations still put tiny, highly compressed video on their websites and into their apps. Encoding video at 720p will work fine on the new device, but lower quality video will look bad, especially when shown in full-screen.

Figuring out whether text in your news app needs to be changed

Depending on how an app is designed, text may or may not need to be changed. Any app that renders text natively, and according to best practices for usability and accessibility, will be fine. Many apps, however, don’t render text natively, and instead render text as images. Apps such as Wired, and others built with Adobe InDesign and its iPad export tool, render text as images. Forgetting the accessibility issues with this method, this text will look blurry on the new iPad. In fact, it will look worse on the new iPad than it does on the old iPad.

Unfortunately, the solution isn’t as simple as making these images of text twice as big. Wired and other apps that render text as images have very large issue sizes because images take up much more space than native text. Doubling the size of the images that render text will make this already large issue even bigger, filling up limited space on people’s iPads.

Kane of the University of Maryland said one of the side effects of a higher resolution display that requires higher resolution assets is that download times will increase and more storage will be used. Even websites will need higher resolution assets to look good on the new iPad, and those will take longer to download.

There are subtler issues that may need to be addressed. Typefaces are designed for different screen sizes and pixel densities. A font that looks good on the the iPad 1 and 2’s 132 PPI screen may not look nearly as good on the new iPad’s 264 PPI screen.

Apple changed the default font for the original Retina Display iPhone 4 to Helvetica Neue from the Helvetica that the first three iPhones used. Even though the iPhone 4 came out almost two years ago, iPads still continue to ship with Helvetica. The new iPad will most likely get Helvetica Neue, a font that just looks better on high pixel density displays, but not as good on lower pixel density displays.

Some apps with forward-thinking developers already have higher resolution assets. Marco Arment has shipped higher resolution assets with Instapaper from version 4.0 on because he and others believed it was only a matter of time until Apple launched a double resolution iPad.

Websites will also need adjustments to look good on the new iPad. HTML text will automatically look great on the new iPad. That’s the beauty of using native text over images to render text. But photos that work on websites built for 1024-pixel wide screens will look blurry on the new iPad, especially when users try to pinch and zoom in on images. If publishers want their photos and graphics to look good on the new iPad, they’ll have to start using versions at double the resolution.

Even a standard website logo will look bad on the new iPad, especially when zoomed in. News organization still get much more traffic through websites than through apps, and if they want their websites to look good on the new display, they’ll have to redo all graphical assets at 2x resolution.

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