Retina/HiDPI displays will reduce eyestrain and should lead to more reading

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Text on a non-Retina iPad versus a Retina iPad. Sharper text is much easier on the eye and much more pleasurable for reading.

The Retina iPad doesn’t just look aesthetically better — it works better.

The ultimate expression of design is how something works, and by that measure the Retina iPad is much better designed than older ones, despite looking identical when turned off. Usability expert Jakob Nielsen said in an interview that the Retina iPad’s display will cause people to use the device more because it’s a more enjoyable user experience, particularly for reading text.

Nielsen highlighted the crispness of typography on the Retina iPad. He said the higher resolution display really impacts both reading speed and eyestrain, two issues that plague other consumer-grade computer monitors. Two issues that also have caused people to shy away from reading longer-form content on computers.

“All commercially available computer screens have all had bad typography,” he said. “For the entire history of computers we’ve always suffered under reduced reading speed and increased eyestrain compared to print.”

Retina Displays are Apple’s term for hiDPI displays (dots per inch). These are displays with significantly more pixels per inch than displays had just  a few years ago. First smartphones received more pixels and more than 300 DPI is fairly common in flagship smartphones. In 2012 we saw tablets get significantly more pixels, sometimes four times or more pixels than models from just a year earlier. We’re beginning to see hiDPI displays make it up into laptop computers, and we’re not far away from desktop displays getting hiDPI displays.

Gary Heiting, OD, and associate editor of AllAboutVision.com said in an email that eyestrain is a primary component of computer vision syndrome. Heiting said eyestrain and computer vision syndrome symptoms include burning, stinging eyes; red eyes; dry eyes and/or watery eyes; increased sensitivity to light; intermittent or constant blurred vision or double vision (that resolves after resting the eyes); difficulty changing focus (from your computer screen to across the room, or even from the computer to printed material or other objects on your desk); seeing “afterimages” or color fringes around objects when looking away from your computer screen; and (frequently) headache.

Nielsen explained that traditional computer displays don’t have enough pixels per inch to properly display text, resulting in coarser typography where character shapes and forms don’t differentiate and stand out enough. Serifs and curves are not as clean as they are supposed to be (or how print typography looks). Because the shapes and forms of the individual letters are harder to make out than printed text, this causes us to spend more time on each letter and word, slowing us down and causing eye fatigue.

Our eyes have to work harder to read text on a computer monitor than they do a newspaper. Even if we don’t perceive it while we are reading, we feel it in fatigue eyes and a lack of desire to read long text on computer monitors.

Many people print out long articles rather than read them on a computer monitor, Nielsen said. The Retina iPad and some of the other hiDPI tablets that have been released are finally changing that.

“This is the first time in history we’ve had a computer that actually provides the same word-for-word readability as print,” Nielsen said. “That’s unprecedented.”

Heiting said the focusing demands on the eyes are lessened by the Retina iPad, more closely approximating the experience of reading a printed book.

“Because of its high resolution display, the iPad reduces or eliminates the eye’s perception of light/dark borders between pixels, which is the cause of focusing (accommodative) fatigue — a major (arguable the major) cause of computer eye strain,” Heiting said.

The Retina iPad features 264 pixels per inch (list of display PPIs here). The first two iPads were 132 PPI. Apple’s best-selling laptop, the 13-inch Macbook Air, is 128 PPI. The standard 15-inch Macbook Pro is 110 PPI, and the 27-inch iMac is 109 PPI. The new 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro is 220 PPI.

It’s important to note that the farther away you sit from a device, the less PPI that is required. Your HDTV most likely has a PPI well under 100, but it looks great from 10 feet away on your couch (here is a PPI calculator to figure out what the PPI is of your computer monitors and TVs). The mark of whether or not a display is “Retina” quality is whether or not you can make out individual pixels from a normal operating distance.

Apple considers both the Retina iPad and the iPhone 4/4S/5 Retina Displays, despite the fact that the iPhones have a higher PPI at 326. While a 27-inch monitor that you sit two feet or so away from doesn’t need the same PPI as a tablet or a smartphone to look good, it does need significantly better than 109 PPI to come close to the crispness of typography on the Retina iPad or the kind of crispness that is easier on the eyes. A 27-inch monitor would most likely need more than 200 DPI to be Retina class, which would require a considerable amount of computing power to run — beyond what even most higher-end laptops and desktops ship with.

Heiting mentioned the work of Bryan Jones, Ph.D and retinal neuroscientist at the University of Utah. He investigated and evaluated Apple’s claim that the new iPhones and iPad are Retina Displays and found those claims to be accurate. At a viewing distance of approximately 15-18 inches, which is the recommended distance for use of a tablet computer, around 240 PPI would hit the resolution limit for someone with 20/20 vision.

Up to 50 percent of computer workers experience eye strain during or after work, Heiting said. With smartphones, tablets and computers at home and at the office, we’re staring at computer screens more than ever.

“Increased screen resolutions — not just for smart phones and tablets — could have a very significant impact,” he said.

Nielsen expects that one day all consumer computer monitors will have higher pixel densities. Smartphones and now tablets are leading that charge because of their smaller displays, but Apple has begun shipping hiDPI monitors in their MacBook Pro line. In the next few years, we’ll see hiDPI monitors at larger, desktop resolutions.

Nielsen doesn’t expect big monitors to get high pixel densities for a few years, perhaps up to five more. Not only is it more expensive to ship larger displays with lots of pixels, it takes more CPU and GPU computing power to power the displays.

It’s not just reading that is affected by having a better display. Anything that is done on a computer would be affected.

“With a high resolution screen you can get more work done,” Nielsen said. “It’s not just for reading, it’s also for analyzing spreadsheets and any office work. For any kind of knowledge work it really pays off in increased productivity for employers by giving their employees better tools.”

The Retina iPad and future higher resolution displays offer exciting possibilities for news producers. People will be reading more.

“Better hardware leads to simply more words being consumed, which means more engagement with the content,” Nielsen said.

Chris Mueller, art director for Vanity Fair, said that the Retina Display really improves text and images on the Vanity Fair iPad app.

“The type is much more crisp, which helps legibility for smaller elements and improves the reading experience greatly,” he said. “Photos now have an HD quality with incredible detail and radiant color. The overall difference is notable and it really enhances the way the magazine looks on a device.”

The display on the Retina iPad has been compared to glossy magazine print. Journalism can look really good on it, in a way that journalism doesn’t look in other tablets and computers.

“The Retina Display means everything is sharper and easier to read,” said Greg Clayman, publisher of The Daily. “The overall high-quality of the display looks more like crisp paper – it’s a pleasure to look at for long periods of time.”