Successfully implementing a Retina Display on a 9.7-inch iPad has its challenges. Photo: Jon Phillips/Wired.com
When reports of Apple’s third iPad first started emerging, the prospect of the tablet including a 9.7-inch Retina Display seemed slim to none. Industry analysts said suppliers couldn’t manufacturer super-high-resolution displays at such large dimensions en masse — at least not in time for an early spring iPad launch.
Fast forward six months. On the eve of Wednesday’s iPad announcement, reporters, industry analysts, and supply chain snoops all opined with complete confidence that Apple would be unveiling a new tablet featuring a super-high-resolution, 2048 x 1536 display.
And of course, they were right. So what gives?
“I think mainly the big question marks were around the fact that it hadn’t been done before,” NPD DisplaySearch analyst Richard Shim told Wired. “There hasn’t been a demand for it, or an OS that could utilize all those pixels. It’s new territory.”
A number of existing notebooks and tablets already feature high-resolution displays. Take Acer’s HD resolution Iconia Tab A200. But the A200′s resolution is only 1280 x 800 — more than the iPad 2′s 1024 x 768, but a far cry from the new iPad’s Quad XGA resolution.
Most of the early Retina Display skepticism centered around how these super-high-resolution screens were going to be developed. Many analysts were originally under the impression that Apple would be using an entirely new fabrication technique called IGZO, which stands for indium gallium zinc oxide, the material to be used in the display’s transistors. But it turns out, says Paul Semenza, senior vice president of DisplaySearch, of Apple’s three display suppliers — LG, Samsung and Sharp — only Sharp is going the IGZO route. LG and Samsung are sticking with tried-and-true materials (amorphous silicon) for now.
“To Apple it doesnt matter [which is used] as long as the specs are met,” IHS analyst Vinita Jakhanwal told Wired. But IGZO does have some perks. “IGZO has higher electron mobility, which means higher resolution than amorphous silicon without comprising on the brightness,” Jakhanwal said.
In case you’re wondering, there’s no need to worry that one display would look different, or better, than the other. Semenza says it’s very hard to tell the difference between the two types of displays. What’s more, we may never get to the point of ever needing to look. As Jakhanwal told us, “Sharp may actually have to turn back, and use regular amorphous silicon.”
Transistor materials aside, when rumors of a new Retina Display iPad first started surfacing, the biggest question marks concerned production volumes. As Rhoda Alexander, director of tablet and monitor research for the research firm iSuppli, told Wired in November 2011, “We know there are yield issues. This is certainly a huge step up as far as pixel format, and every time you do that, there will be yield issues.”
Today, yield issues would seem to persist — though Apple appears to be undaunted. And how’s this for an ominous report: IHS’ Jakhanwal told Wired that only one of Apple’s three suppliers — Samsung — is currently making display panels for the iPad. “Meeting pre-order demand is still a concern. A single display supplier doing this will be challenging,” she said.
So where are the other suppliers? DisplayMate CEO Raymond Soneira told Wired in an e-mail, “Sharp has stated (in its end-of-2011 financial statements on the Japan website) that it is experiencing ‘significant delays’ with IGZO.” Semenza of DisplaySearch also noted that Sharp’s use of a new factory could be adding complications to its production process.
Prior to the new iPad’s unveiling, industry analysts also questioned whether any 9.7-inch, super-high-resolution display could satisfy Apple’s stringent quality requirements. “The fact that they have to manage the tradeoffs of getting to such a high resolution without compromising brightness and power consumption is the main challenge here,” Jakhanwal said.
To accommodate the Retina Display, Semenza said Apple had to make the backlight bigger — using more LED chips to support the higher resolution — and perhaps went with a slightly larger battery to maintain satisfactory battery life. This would explain why the new iPad is a little bit thicker and heavier than the iPad 2.
Processor power also comes into play with the new display. With a chip like Nvidia’s quad-core Tegra 3 processor, “there’s more capability to handle higher resolution panels,” Shim said. Of course, we now know the new iPad has a dual-core A5X processor, but relies on a quad-core graphics chip to support the vast array of 3.1 million pixels in its display.
The analysts we interviewed expressed concern that Apple will be able to meet all production demands, especially for pre-orders. Jakhanwal said Apple’s other two suppliers — Sharp and LG — are expected to ramp up production in April, and this should satisfy demand in the long-term. Nonetheless, on the whole it looks like Apple has managed to pull off the nearly impossible once again.