What the New iPad’s Retina Display Means for Web Developers

The high-res future is coming

The first of the new iPads will arrive in the hands of the public this Friday, March 16. Like the iPhone before it, and no doubt many more devices to come after it, the new iPad has four times the resolution of typical screens. That means your visitors will soon be looking at your site on a high-resolution screen with a whopping 3.1 million pixels.

The sharp, crystal-clear screens are awesome news for new iPad owners, but they create some new dilemmas for web developers who’d like to offer a better experience for high-resolution screens. Sure, increased pixel density means you can serve up sharper, better looking graphics, but there is a cost as well — bigger images mean more bandwidth and longer page loads.

This isn’t a new problem by any means and Webmonkey has looked at a variety of solutions in the past, including techniques like adaptive images and responsive images.

The problem is simple: you need to send smaller images to small screens and larger images to larger screens. Sending a huge iPad-optimized image to a device with a max resolution of 320×480 just doesn’t make sense. At the same time, when bandwidth isn’t an issue, most sites will want to serve high-resolution content to displays that can handle it.

The ideal solution would be to detect both the resolution of the screen and the available bandwidth. Then, based on the combination of those two factors, the server could offer up the appropriate image. Currently that’s not possible, though there are already proposals to extend HTML to handle that scenario.

The Responsive Image Working Group is a W3C community group hoping to solve some of these problems. The group is proposing a new HTML element, <picture>, which will take into account factors like network speed, device dimensions, screen pixel density and browser cache to figure out which image to serve up. Think of it as a much smarter version of the old lowsrc property. So far though it’s all hypothetical

In the mean time if you’d like to serve up high resolution images to your third-generation iPad visitors look no further than Apple.com for one (not necessarily ideal) way to do it. An Apple Insider reader noticed that Apple is already prepping its site to deliver double-resolution images to new iPads. Cloud Four’s Jason Grigsby, whose responsive image research we’ve covered before, has a great breakdown of what Apple is doing.

Essentially Apple is serving up lower resolution images by default, then using JavaScript to send larger images on to iPads. That works, but it will definitely mean increased download times for new iPads since they have to download two files for every graphic. Apple’s approach will also up the number of HTTP requests, which will also slow down the page.

The slower page loads seem to be an acceptable trade off for Apple since the company no doubt wants to showcase the new iPad’s high resolution display with high resolution images. For other sites the bandwidth trade off may not be worth the gain in image resolution.

Still, screens are only going to continue getting better with ever-increasing pixel density. Now is the time, if you haven’t already, to start embracing CSS 3 (avoid images altogether with gradients, shadows and rounded corners in CSS 3), Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) for resolution independent graphics and of course @media queries to serve high-res background images.

For more on detecting and developing for high resolution displays, check out these posts from around the web: