Reader Editorial: Should New iPads Keep Or Lose 4:3 Aspect Ratios?

Reader Editorial: Should New iPads Keep Or Lose 4:3 Aspect Ratios? 1

If you’ve been following all of the rumors and counter-rumors regarding the screens in Apple’s upcoming second-generation iPad, your head may still be spinning from the claims that Apple will either keep the 9.7” display at a lower resolution than any of its computers, or switch to a crazy high-density display better than any HDTV on the market. We still think the latter is far off (2012 at the absolute earliest), but here’s a related question for you: should Apple keep or lose the current iPad’s 4:3 aspect ratio?

Reader Editorial: Should New iPads Keep Or Lose 4:3 Aspect Ratios? 2

The claim that Apple will eventually shift from a 1024×768 screen to a 2048×1536 screen without any intermediate steps is based upon three primary assumptions. First, that the 4:3 aspect ratio of the iPad is truly ideal for Apple’s vision of tablet computing, and second, that once Apple selects a specific aspect ratio, it preserves it so as to minimize disruption to third-party developers. Third, it assumes that Apple would sooner wait to use a custom, 10”-ish screen that most likely does not yet exist (apart from prototypes) than make even one incremental change between now and whenever such a part becomes available. Supporting this theory is the fact that the iPhone and iPod touch kept nearly the same 3:2 aspect ratio, 480×320 screens for three years before moving to a identical 3:2 aspect ratio, 960×640 screen. So while all of the aforementioned assumptions might prove to be true, there are other possibilities, and it’s worth noting that Apple has generally been pragmatic rather than dogmatic when making screen upgrades.

Reader Editorial: Should New iPads Keep Or Lose 4:3 Aspect Ratios? 3
Reader Editorial: Should New iPads Keep Or Lose 4:3 Aspect Ratios? 4

Historically, Apple has changed screen dimensions whenever a new and better part (a) offers what it feels is a valuable improvement to the product’s overall user experience and (b) becomes available in sufficient quantities to meet its needs without compromising its pricing structure. For instance, Apple didn’t care one bit about making major changes to the iPod nano’s screen and UI, literally once per year after the second-generation model. It did whatever it felt was right for a given year, sometimes in response to consumer demands, other times on its own whims. One year, the screen shot up dramatically in resolution to accommodate video playback. Next year, it flipped on its side and the entire UI did, too. A year later, it grew taller by just enough pixels to make a new video camera easier to use. Then it shrunk and the entire aspect ratio changed for the “multi-touch” display. Of course, the full-sized iPod shifted multiple times to move from black and white to color for photos, then to a better screen for videos, stabilizing only at a point when Apple deemed it “classic” and effectively stopped caring about updating it. And Macs have shifted from 4:3 to 16:10 or 16:9 aspect ratios over time, with inconsistencies even within product families: the 11” MacBook Air now has a 16:9 screen, while the 13” MacBook Air has a 16:10 screen. Apple’s desire to improve Macs’ suitability for video playback and games was one key motivator behind the move towards wider aspect ratios; the increased availability and popularity of wider screen components was another.

Reader Editorial: Should New iPads Keep Or Lose 4:3 Aspect Ratios? 5

While the first-generation iPad shipped with a 1024×768, 4:3 aspect ratio screen, there’s nothing to say that this particular part was Apple’s top choice, or that its old TV-style aspect ratio is ideal for tablets in general. It’s possible that Apple went with the best part it could when it was designing the iPad back in 2009, and knew there would be issues as a consequence—black bars around upscaled, wider-screen iPhone and iPod touch apps, a need for developers to use a different ratio when making their art native to the iPad, and of course, big black bars when playing back movies and current TV shows. It could stick with these issues going forward, asking consumers and developers to just live with them, or it could address them by widening a new iPad’s screen. It’s perhaps notable that the first-generation iPad has just a little more black border on the top and bottom of the screen than on the left and right, hinting that there’s room for the screen to grow without increasing the device’s footprint; some extra pixels there wouldn’t hurt, and depending on whether Apple went with a 3:2 or 16:9 screen, could bring either all of the iOS devices or iPads and Macs into conformity.

Of course, there’s no evidence that Apple is going to do this, and the argument against it—that Apple will keep the iPad’s aspect ratio the same to keep tablet apps looking the same on all of its iPad-branded devices—is compelling. Probable, even, as it hasn’t hinted at a change. But this company has surprised people by making incremental aspect ratio and resolution changes numerous times in the past, and the idea that it needs to jump from the current iPad directly to a better-than-1080p HD display, complete with plenty of extra pixels that a 9.7” screen certainly doesn’t need, doesn’t make a lot of practical sense. A move from 1024×768 to 1280×800 or a similar resolution with iPhone/iPod touch-like 3:2 aspect ratio would be possible with currently available parts, and ready the iPad line for wider-screen videos and games. Then, a subsequent jump to 1920×1080 would achieve Retina Display-like levels of detail without requiring the nearly 500,000 additional pixels a 2048×1536 display would add.

What do you think Apple should do? Will do? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

  1. IMHO if Apple will change the aspect ratio of the iPad it will be to 3:2 or 16:10. And if it’s the latter it will be an iOS-wide change: iPad, iPhone and iPod touch.

  2. I think Apple will ultimately make the move to a Retina Display level of detail, but whether that happens in the next iPad iteration or in 2012 and beyond remains to be seen.

    Apple will need to preserve the current price points without jeopardizing the healthy margins they’re earning on each unit, so a move to a very high density display might not be in the offing just yet.

    IPad 2 will need to include features that don’t exist in the inaugural iPad while maintaining the price structure Apple’s set. Most likely that means the addition of front and rear cameras to support the Facetime standard, and perhaps some cosmetic changes like a thinner and lighter shell or a rumored SD card slot.

    I don’t think Apple’s really going to significantly muck with the device’s dimensions and I don’t believe what the company’s done historically with the iPods will give us a lot of indication of what they’ll do in the future. Because iPods were of limited purpose, Apple could afford to mess with the screens. With the iPad, there’s a bit of wiggle room but going with a 16:9 screen so quickly could be too radical of a departure. I think it would detract from the iPad’s utilitarian quality, that it could be an e-reader one minute, a music player another, then a word processor, and then a movie player. I don’t deny that there would be benefits, especially in creating and playing games, as well as watching TV shows and movies, but carrying around a 16:9 device doesn’t seem, well, practical. I think it works great for TV screens and computers, but as a tablet it could be problematic.

  3. In my opinion, apple will keep the aspect ratio of the iPad.

    The change in resolution of other Apple products may not have a significant bearing on the iPad.

    Since apple laptops run OS X, a windowed environment, changes to aspect ratio do not have a large impact on developers.

    Making changes in aspect ratio to products like the ipod classic and nano also would have no effect on third party software, since it doesn’t exist.

    I would guess apple wants to avoid large changes to the aspect in order not to impact iOS applications too significantly.

    For, say, game developers, a change in resolution (which is still a headache) has much less of an impact on the app than a change in aspect.

  4. A 16:9 or 16:10 ratio would mean that portrait mode is less useful for many things, in particular web browsing. 4:3 web browsing is pretty comfortable in both portrait and landscape, but losing that extra width in portrait mode would mean you are doing a lot more sideways scrolling or a lot more zooming, depending on what effective pixel size is used to render the web page.

    The impact on apps would be large as well. They could do something like 1366X768 in 16:9 format and run existing apps in the 1024X768 center portion, but some touch input schemes would be more difficult because there would effectively be a wider bezel in two dimensions for those apps (171 blank pixels). Obviously new and updated apps would need to be designed specifically for the 16:9 ratio.

    I expect Apple will maintain the aspect ratio at least through this year and next. After that they can judge the consumer preference since there will be lots of different-shaped tablets out there and they can see what shape is selling best.

  5. A 4:3 ratio just seems to “look right” on a tablet, as weird as that is considering how everyting’s going widescreen now. Rather, BEEN going that way for about 5 years now! Anywho I’d say Apple stays with this current ratio for awhile. The iPad looks anything BUT outdated.

  6. 16:10 works extremely well for documents. In landscape orientation, viewing documents two 8.5×11 pages at a time nicely fills up the screen with little waste. In portrait orientation, a single 8.5×11 page also fits well – there is some “waste” on the sides, which can easily be filled with on-screen reading tools (e.g. highlighter, bookmarks).

    16:10 is also decent for widescreen video content. (Not all such video has the 16:9 aspect ratio, and files that do will leave minimal black bars on the top and bottom.) 4:3 standard-definition video also plays acceptably.

    If the above were not the case, I doubt Apple would have adopted the 16:10 aspect ratio for iMacs, Cinema Displays, and larger MacBook Pros.

  7. I definitely see them going wide screen. The ability to make more functional apps would be greatly served by such a move (think of something like Photoshop with its 4:3 work space, but all your toolsets and everything neatly out of the way). Games would have the real estate to get the controls out of the view.

    I’ve been using a wide screen monitor since 2005 and it’s just so much better for getting things done.

  8. When I first opened my box (day one) I thought “isn’t this old-school?”
    But shortly after I realized it was the right move. While I never use portrait mode – unless an app forces it on me – I would not think the widescreen hardware would feel as right to me.
    I was somewhat backed up by this when I got my hands on a new MBAir 11″ model. it’s more what we’d see in a widescreen iPad, and honestly, I don’t care for it as much.
    I think it’s tough to say without a lot of time in your hands with both setups.

  9. I think it should stay 4:3. The iPad is primarily a reading device (books, magazines, newspapers, pdf’s, etc) and 4:3 is the right ratio for all that. It is NOT primarily a movie viewer. It’s also the right ratio for photo viewing, album covers, content creation and so on. Steve’s got it right.

  10. @9: Your answer shows the problem. For *you* it’s primarily a reading device. Out of the many, many hours the iPad in our house has been used, not one second was for reading anything other than a website. Conversely, it’s been used to watch many, many hours of movies and television, where wide screen would have been much better.

    So, no, as an eReader, widescreen wouldn’t make much sense. But for video, for actual work, for gaming? I’d much prefer the widescreen format. The iPad is pretty much a high tech Rorschach, and what aspect Apple settles on as they move forward is going to decide what more people see it as (or don’t see it as).

  11. 4:3 all the way. I have briefly tried out a couple of the wide screen tablets and just didn’t like the ratio – I found me only using them in landscape as portrait was uncomfortably too narrow. Wide screen landscape works well until you pull up the on screen keyboard and yet again your point of view seems very constrictive – this time when trying to view what you are typing when replying to a forum post as an example. I genuinely think the iPad has the ratio for a tablet just right even if they do have other design choices wrong.

  12. I hope they keep the existing format, it just seems right for me in both landscape and portrait modes.
    A widescreen device would not seem right when used in portrait view, too narrow!
    For me the current format seems good when viewing magazines and books in portrait view, and films and TV look good in landscape mode.

    If the format was a ‘narrower’ widescreen display then typing would have less space in landscape and books and magazines would seem odd when viewed in portrait mode.

    But my view is based on using my iPad for work and a mixture of media types. I don’t think apple will make a decision based purely on video as that has other implications.

    Be interesting to see how things turn out.

  13. If you want to make predictions, just look at Steve in keynotes. His default for iPad seems to (anecdotally) be holding it portrait. I think he sees the 4:3 as necessary to keep a tablet usable in portrait (and I tend to agree with him). I think this is the reason we won’t see it change too much. Steve, that is. Not me.

  14. My only complaint about reading on the iPad is that even on the lowest brightness level, it’s still too bright in dark or low-light situations. I don’t understand why they don’t allow you to dim it further than you can. Otherwise, no complaints.

  15. Personally, I’ve never minded letteboxing in videos, and 4:3 is much more natural when reading in portrait mode. I don’t just mean books, either; I tend to use Safari in portrait the vast majority of the time as well. I hope they stay 4:3.

  16. Seems the majority here like the 4:3 ratio.
    Based in sales, I’d say it’s basically a good call. I have yet to hear a clamoring for 16:9 out and about.
    It could change, but I doubt it any time soon.
    Looking at the widescreen Droid tabs, I am happy with this choice. It looks odd, and I would personally stick with a 4:3 design as my choice. It seems the best of both worlds.
    Also, 16:9 is less structurally sound. It’s easier to flex that form factor, and that important with mobile devices.

  17. Geberally speaking, I agree with most who say the 4:3 aspect ratio works for a tablet…there’s more to this device than video and once we get our heads around that, we’ll all feel a bit more “settled” on the form factor.

    For what it’s worth…those 16:9 droids just feel plain weird in the hand…and totally unbalanced.

  18. Compromises in tech products rarely work very well. But the iPad’s 4:3 resolution is one of the very rare exceptions.

    In portrait mode, it works very nicely for reading text. Landscape mode does photos, games, and video very nicely.

    Going to a 16:9 aspect ratio would tend to push the product towards a dedicated “portable media player” niche – and would damage a lot of the product’s attractiveness for all the other fantastic uses people are putting it to.

  19. They’ll stay with 4:3. It’s the right format for a tablet. Sure there are black bars watching certain movies but so what? I only watch video a limited percentage of the time anyway and 16:9 wouldn’t work very well for web browsing. Also all the apps would have to adjust, again. Far more likely they’ll retain 4:3 and switch to double the resolution when it makes sense (probably v3).

  20. @21: Really, that’s why it has no file system the user can access easily, the amount of storage an entry level laptop had ten years ago, at a price that buys a mid-range full powered laptop today, because this thing was made to be *practical*?

    A friend of mine is a dean at a university. When the iPad first hit a bunch of the faculty, being your typical academic Apple fans, ran out to buy them and were carting them around, sending their correspondences from them, etc.. In a bit over a month the number of messages and iPad sightings among the faculty dropped to 0.

    I own an iPad, it’s one heck of a toy, and with a rather ridiculous amount of self-delusion and effort and additional expenditures it can even be made useful, but if it was Apple’s intent to do what you said, well, they’d get an F- for their effort. It’s probably the least well designed device I’ve ever seen if its non-incidental intent was to “replace every briefcase, backpack, clipboard and file folder in the world.”

    I’d say you got it exactly backward. It’s intent is to be flexible enough that just about anyone can find some use for it with its Jack of all trades, master of none implementation, and as the market matures and Apple sees where its most successful and popular, that’s where they’ll start refining.

  21. Apple’s intent with the iPad is not to get everyone watching movies or playing games or surfing the net. Those things are incidental.

    Apple want’s the iPad to replace every briefcase, backpack, clipboard and file folder in the world.

  22. I suppose it depends on what you typically carry in your backpack or briefcase. The storage is a non-issue for a vast majority of the people who are only concerned with carrying around documents and books.

    The iPad is an awesome digital clipboard and a great way to carry around stacks of reference documents and books for much easier access than dealing with printed materials. I don’t think any ridiculous amounts of self-delusion are required to make the iPad a useful tool for many purposes, but remember too that we’re talking about using the iPad in its own right and not as a netbook/laptop replacement.

    My iPad will never replace my MacBook Air, however I now go out much more frequently with the iPad and leave the laptop at home.

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