Retina is an Apple brand term for which there is no concrete definition: Simply put, a Retina display is any screen developed by Apple. However, there are features that distinguish retina displays from non retina displays.
In the following article we will discuss Apple’s retina displays a little more closely. We’ll give you an idea of whether retina displays are worth the price you pay.
Simple Retina Screens.
The first and most important criterion is pixel density: the statistic that generally gives the best idea of the sharpness of a screen.
When Steve Jobs launched iPhone 4, the first Retina display, he described it as a screen with so many pixels so close together (it was rated 326ppi – pixels per inch) that they were invisible to the human eye at a distance of 12 inches. They don’t see any pixels, only the image that created them.
Since then, Apple has launched many more devices with retina displays. Some have pixel densities greater than 326ppi, others less. How can you call them all retina?
Because there are two crucial elements whether pixels are perceptible or not: density and distance. The further away their eyes are from the screen, the lower the pixel density needed to make the pixels disappear. In general, the larger the screen, the further away your eyes are likely to be from it and the lower the pixel density required to “qualify” as a retina display.
For example, iPhone 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 all have screens with a pixel density of 326ppi, while the Plus versions have a higher density of 401ppi. iPhone X, XS and XS Max have a pixel density of 458ppi.
But look at the 13 MacBook Pro and its screen has a density of only 227ppi. But it qualifies as a retina because you’re sitting further away from a laptop screen.
So you can see that everything is a little vague – but the rough idea is that a screen is classified as retina when it’s sharp enough that the human eye can’t see individual pixels at a typical usage distance.
Simply put, Apple converts a device’s display to retina by doubling the number of pixels vertically and horizontally, which means it has four times as many pixels as its non-retina counterpart.
If they did that and nothing else, however, there would be a problem. User interface elements such as menus and icons would look tiny. To compensate for this, Apple has developed the so-called HiDPI mode, in which each UI element is twice as large vertically and horizontally, and thus the same size as on a non-Retina display.
How does a retina display differ from a non retina display?
The effect of a retina display is that everything looks clearer. The text in particular benefits from retina – it looks smoother, with the curves on the characters looking like curves rather than jagged steps.
Retina HD & Super Retina HD.
Steve Jobs drew Apple into a corner when he described the pixels on iPhone 4 as imperceptible to the human eye. What’s the next step? How do you describe a screen that’s even better? Apple’s answer was to adopt terminology from the video and broadcast industries.
When iPhone 6 came out in 2014, it had a vertical resolution of 750 pixels, slightly more than the 720 pixel vertical resolution that is one of the standards for HD video. iPhone 6 Plus has a vertical resolution of 1080 pixels, exactly the number of pixels needed for the higher of the two HD video standards.
Apple has awarded the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus with the Retina HD label. This label continued into 2017 up to and including iPhone 8 and 8 Plus.
But with the arrival of iPhone X shortly after the 8-generation smartphones, Apple went one step further. With its 5.8-inch, 2436 x 1125, 458ppi screen, the X was considered the latest version of the Retina branding: Super Retina HD.
The same name applies to the iPhone XS and XS Max.
Note that these extended versions of the retina are not necessarily defined by the pixel density/distance equation in the same way as the retina itself: You will find that the Retina HD iPhone 6, 7 and 8 all have 326ppi screens, just like the normal Retina iPhone 5 and 5s. The HD and Super HD labels are earned with a higher resolution.
Liquid Retina HD.
New for 2018 is Liquid Retina HD. This name was applied to the LCD screen of the iPhone XR.
It has a resolution of 1792×828, and since it has a diagonal of 6.1 inches, it gets the same density of 326ppi as many other iPhones. So why the new branding?
There are several reasons. This is the first full-screen LCD in an iPhone and – unlike most “bezelless” Android smartphones – Apple has managed to avoid a thick lower bezel on the iPhone XR.
Apple said it is the most color-accurate LCD screen on any smartphone, and it has a high brightness and contrast ratio that allows it to display a wide color gamut for HDR video and photos.
It also features True Tone, which ensures accurate colors regardless of ambient lighting. Add pixel masking and subpixel anti-aliasing to help with the curved corners, and we’d say it’s fair enough to give it a name that sets it apart from the usual Retina HD screens.
Retina 4K & 5K.
HD has long since arrived in the world of video. Today, the highest quality TV screens have 8K displays with 8,000 pixels horizontally.
So when Apple launched a 27in iMac with 5,120 horizontal pixels in 2014, it used the same naming convention and called it Retina 5K. In October 2015, she launched a 21 in iMac with a horizontal resolution of 4096 pixels (and a pixel density of 218ppi) and called his display Retina 4K.
What does this look like compared to competing products?
No other manufacturer uses retina branding – Apple’s lawyers would certainly have something against it. But some manufacturers of smartphones and tablets in particular have displays with pixel densities that can at least keep up with Apple’s devices and in some cases far exceed them.
Examples of this are Sony’s Xperia Z5 Premium with a resolution of 3,860 x 2,160 pixels – almost 4K – on a 5.5 inch screen, which gives it a pixel density of monstrous 806ppi. And Samsung Galaxy S6 has a resolution of 1440 x 2560 pixels – known as Quad HD or QHD – on a 5.1 inch screen, giving it a pixel density of 557ppi.
Whether it makes sense to have 4K and QHD resolutions on a smartphone is questionable. If Steve Job’s assertion was correct and 300ppi on a smartphone is enough to make pixels invisible, then it seems redundant to press in more pixels.
So a retina display is not the display with the highest resolution available, but it can be the optimal balance between sharpness and the performance needed to deliver those images.
What Apple products have Retina Displays?
Since January 2018, almost every Apple product with an integrated display has been rated Retina or better. The main exception is MacBook Air, but there’s also an older non-Retina version of the 21.5in iMac that’s still available alongside its Retina 4K cousins.
What about the Thunderbolt display?
Although Apple launched a 27in iMac with a Retina display in 2014, Apple unfortunately still has to update its Thunderbolt display to Retina. In fact, the product was announced in 2016, although it is expected to make a comeback with the new Mac Pro, and we expect it to go into Retina.
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