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Retina scan: future screen technology

The iPad is a pathfinder of Retina-esque displays

Ever wondered why the iPad garners so many column inches? The sceptical put it down to marketing, but converts to user-first computing point to its decent design and fine engineering. The result is a handheld PC that can genuinely enhance our lives.

And now the media’s magnifying glass is on the iPad 3. If you’ve ever used or even just held the Apple iPad 2, there’s not a lot to distinguish this third-generation model. Until you switch it on.

The most badly kept pre-launch secret is true: the new iPad has a quad-resolution screen, with twice the pixel count in each direction. It crams in 2048x1536 vibrant pixels. See new iPad review.

Provided that you hold it at the same reading distance as you might a book, you get what Apple calls a ‘Retina’ display.

Some Android phones are heading this way too, such as the Galaxy Nexus with its 316dpi screen. It’s all about having the pixels so tightly packed you simply cannot perceive that you’re looking at a dot-matrix display composed of little pinpoint elements.

Many smartphone users already live with the illusion of dot-free images, but to see photographs and video flawlessly rendered on a large 9.7in screen is a new delight to the eyes. See 10 must-know tips for the new iPad.

Where do we go from here?

Over the years, we’ve seen many changes in the quality of the screens we use for desktop computing. In the beginning, a mere 512x342 pixels was all you could hope for. Screen resolution was then upped to 640x480 pixels, otherwise known as VGA, and later 800x600 pixels. Desktop monitors settled at 1024x768 for many a year, until the HD arms race brought us first 1280x720 screens, then today’s near-ubiquitous 1920x1080.

The next move upscale will be an important one. By going quad, or HiDPI, a 2560x1440 panel will render a PC desktop at 1280x720. The difference, though, is that typography and graphics will be pin-sharp and crisp, as if they were rendered at native super-res. See iPad vs iPad 2.

The next challenge is to squeeze down those 2560x1440-plus panels in physical size, from today’s 27in flat-panel monitors to a laptop’s 15in or 13in screen. We know that even integrated graphics processors in Intel’s impending Ivy Bridge series can drive these kinds of resolutions. It just remains for the panel and laptop makers to step up to the mark. With the new iPad as pathfinder of Retina-esque screens, expect to see this breakthrough soon.

And as we found in our recent reviews of Ultrabook and ultraportable laptops, this can’t come quickly enough. While the bodywork and styling of the current Ultrabooks owe much to Apple’s MacBook Air, the displays fitted by the likes of Asus, Acer, Lenovo and Toshiba are generally of lamentable quality. We can only hope that by following Apple’s lead, these manufacturers will begin to specify the kind of displays at which you actually want to look.

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