Upsides and Downsides of Retinafication

Let’s be honest. I can’t wait to get my hands on the new iPad. The new “Retina Display” looks amazing — as everyone seems to agree. But besides the great visual quality, what does this mean for consumers and developers?

The 2048×1536 resolution is huge. Insanely huge. 4x more pixels. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very glad Apple is pushing the boundaries, but it does come with a price — and no, not talking about the $499.

Consider this. You’ve got an iPad app with 30MB worth of graphics. Nothing unusual in a game app. Making everything Retina Compatible would in theory increase the size by 4*30MB = 120 MB. That more than doubles the download size! Sure, you can do all sorts of tricks to bring the size down a bit. You can reduce the jpeg quality. You can scale dimensions to 1.5x instead of full 2x and hope nobody will notice. Furthermore, not all images take exactly 4x more space: png images with hand-painted scenes seem to increase only about 3x. But making high quality Universal apps which support all four iOS resolutions (480×320/1024×768, non/retina) will make the app bundles massively large compared to last week.

It’ll be interesting to see if Apple addresses the issue in any way. Or if it’s that big an issue in the first place. They could enable downloading parts of the app on request, but I’m not sure the added complexity is worth it. This is what Google is doing on Android Market Google Play: the maximum app size is ridiculously low 50MB, but you can download extra packages later.

While the extra pixels come with extra download cost, they also require extra work for developers carefully crafting them. Surprisingly, simply scaling up the images in Photoshop doesn’t add in more detail.

iPhone vs. iPad Retina

We’ve been prepared for this for some time now, so updating the latest apps for higher res wasn’t that much work in our case. We’ve already updated 5 of our games to support the new resolution. The lucky games are Ironworm, Swingworm, Joining Hands, Belowscape, and the upcoming Azkend 2 HD. And they do look great. Just take a look at the comparison shot between the original iPhone resolution vs. the new iPad to see the difference in Ironworm. Admittedly you wouldn’t normally compare these two together, but nevertheless the leap in content resolution developers need to produce now vs. then is definitely significant.

There are some additional problems developing for the new iPad. We’re doing most of our development on Windows PCs. We support multiple platforms, even minor ones including webOS, bada, and Symbian^3. We’ve built our development tools so that we can make our apps resolution independent almost automatically. We’ve got our own simulator which we use to test the apps. However, the problem with simulating the new iPad is that we haven’t got an external display with large enough resolution to fit the 2048×1536 pixels on screen. Even the best Apple Cinema Display doesn’t have enough resolution to fit it in!

The otherwise excellent iOS Simulator is not really useful with 2048×1536 sized games. Instead of FPS, we’re measuring SPF. The performance is nowhere near usable. I’m glad the sim exists as otherwise we wouldn’t be able to do anything before the launch, but if a new iMac can’t push that many (simulated) pixels, is it safe to assume the new iPad will be able to handle it? We submit into the unknown.

Now of course, all those problems are mostly minor nuisances that will go away with time. The next iPad after this (the new new iPad?) will most likely have even more horse power much like iPhone 4S had over iPhone 4. The display makers will start selling wallet-friendly high resolution displays. We will all have unlimited amount of lightning-fast bandwidth. And flying cars.

Can’t wait to play our games on the new iPad.