What Is Retina Display?

Shelley Labrecque
Man texting

"Retina display" is a marketing term created by Apple to describe screens with such a high pixel density that you cannot see the individual pixels when you view the screen at a normal distance. Used to make text and images appear crisp and to allow details to stand out on the screen, such a display provides a richer viewing experience than a standard screen.

The First Retina Display

The term "Retina display" was first introduced in 2010 with the iPhone 4. Apple had developed a smaller pixel and included it on the iPhone screen to allow for four times the normal amount of pixels. Although there is no set pixel density to qualify for the term, it is usually over 300 pixels per inch (ppi). The larger number of pixels packed onto the screen made the resolution appear clearer and more defined than other smartphones at the time. Since then, Apple has implemented the technology on multiple products.

Another aspect to consider is distance. Apple considers the normal viewing distance to be different for different products. For example, if the normal viewing distance of an iPhone is about 10 inches, around 300 ppi is required. An iPad, normally held at about 15 inches from the user, can use a lower pixel density, still deliver the sharp quality, and be said to have a Retina display.

Newer Apple offerings feature a Retina HD (high definition) display, which includes a wider color spectrum so items on the screen seem even more brilliant and vivid than a regular Retina display.

Compared to HD Resolution

Most manufacturers list the image resolution and number of pixels in their display specs. If the ppi allows for the user to not see individual pixels when viewed normally, this may be equivalent to the screens on Apple's devices, but Apple has a copyright on the specific marketing term.

  • HD: 720p (1280 x 720 pixels), referred to as standard HD, is the lowest resolution that is considered HD.
  • FHD: 1080p (1920 x 1080), referred to as full HD, is the standard for Blu-ray, digital TV, and most HD online videos.
  • UHD: Ultra HD can technically refer to a number of image resolutions higher than full HD, including 2560 x 1440 and 3840 x 2160 pixels, the latter of which is sometimes called 4K or 4K UHD.

Apple Products with Retina Displays

As of June 2017, current Apple products that feature or have available Retina displays include the following.

  • iPhone 7 (Retina HD)
  • iPhone 7 Plus (Retina HD)
  • iPhone 6s (Retina HD)
  • iPhone 6s (Retina HD)
  • iPhone se
  • MacBook
  • MacBook Pro 15-inch
  • MacBook Pro 13-inch
  • iMac 21.5-inch (users can choose a version with or without Retina display)
  • iMac 27-inch
  • iMac Pro (available December 2017)
  • 12.9-inch iPad Pro
  • 10.5-inch iPad Pro
  • iPad (9.7-inch)
  • iPad mini 4
  • All Apple Watch models

Marketing Controversy

Controversy arose with the original introduction of the Retina display. At the time, Steve Jobs claimed that "there's a magic number right around 300 pixels per inch, that when you hold something around 10 or 12 inches away from your eyes, is the limit of the human retina to differentiate the pixels."

Using Tablet

Wired.com published an article about the accuracy of Apple's claims in which internationally recognized display expert Dr. Raymond Soneira, president of DisplayMate Technologies, argued that the marketing term was misleading. Many readers took issue with Dr. Soneira's observation that "it was inaccurate to measure the resolution of the eye in terms of pixels." In particular, Phil Plait of Discover.com provided a rebuttal in which he disagreed.

Pros of Retina Displays

In Gary Marshall's article on techradar.com, he points out that if you see how crisp and clear the images and text are on a Retina display, you are going to want one. Especially with online magazines and e-books, the higher resolution displays are making the technology disappear, making it feel like you are reading the real thing. He describes Apple's displays as "the best screen you'll find on any device, and the difference it makes is dramatic."

There are many reasons why you may enjoy a device with Retina display technology.

  • If you work with text, especially different fonts, the copy looks much more precise and polished.
  • Images appear clearer and more defined. This can offer a real advantage in e-commerce where selling a product can be all about how good the pictures look.
  • The glass used to create the displays is generally more durable and can resist scratches better than a normal screen. It is also oleophobic (oil-resistant), minimizing smudges and fingerprints.
  • With a denser iPhone screen, you can fit in more legible text at the same time so you don't have to scroll every few words.

Cons of Retina Displays

Lex Friedman, a writer at Macworld.com, points out that the main issues are power and storage space. In his article, he says that "Apple needs to bump the storage capacities on its iPads (and, frankly, iPhones). And it needs to devise a means by which in-app data that your iOS device can't use won't clog up your available storage space."

Retina displays can indeed have their downsides too.

  • If you don't require the more defined display, you can avoid the heftier price tag that often comes with the higher-resolution screen.
  • To get the most out of the screen technology, applications need to be written with the high pixel density in mind. Apps that use lower quality text and graphics will appear jagged and lacking in detail or sharpness.
  • Powering a higher resolution display can have a detrimental impact on battery life.

For Crisper Detail on Any Device

For whatever you do on your phone, tablet or computer, a Retina display can make everything look crisper and sharper, providing a more enjoyable experience if detail is a priority. Most experts seem to agree that, even with the cost and issues of power and storage, once you see such startling clarity and picture quality, you won't ever want to go back.

What Is Retina Display?