Just like the iPhone and iPod, some people leave their iPads completely bare, risking dents and scratches. Other people use cases and/or protective film to keep their devices looking factory fresh until they’re ready to sell or hand down to a lucky family member. Because our editors have witnessed (and occasionally experienced) the sort of damage that drops and scuffs can cause, we prefer cases, and many of us have used protective screen film, too—at least until recently. Apple’s ultra-sharp Retina Displays have heightened awareness of a long-standing issue with some screen protectors known as the “prismatic effect,” by which plastic shields can scatter each tiny pixel into its rainbow-colored components, transforming a crystal clear screen into a glittery mess. Cheaper films often scatter the pixels in a pronounced way; better-made films from Japan and Korea often have less prismatic distortion, but not zero, and cost more—as much as $30 per sheet for the iPad.
A low level of prismatic distortion was tolerable—not ideal—with iPad and iPad 2 screen film; Apple’s earlier 1024×768 displays didn’t beg to be examined up close, and seriously benefitted from protection, particularly anti-glare coating. Fitted with anti-glare screen film, these iPads became much safer and easier to use in cars and generally outdoors, where they would otherwise be highly reflective, accidentally redirecting sunlight towards users and onlookers’ faces. Top films also dramatically reduce the impact of fingerprints, cutting an iPad’s wipe-down needs from daily or weekly to bi-weekly, monthly, or even bi-monthly. The only noteworthy offset in the best film we tested was a very modest blur, which softened the edges of pixels in a generally inoffensive way.
When Apple added a Retina Display to the third-generation iPad, quadrupling the number of pixels in the screen, it didn’t “break” previously-developed screen film; it just magnified existing film flaws. The previously slight blurring in anti-glare films softens new iPad screens enough to make them look closer to their iPad and iPad 2 predecessors—not identical, but not as sharp. Moreover, the prismatic effect now reflects four times as many dots, creating a rainbow-like shimmering that’s particularly pronounced in white parts of the screen, but apparent elsewhere, as well. For the first time in years, we’ve found ourselves peeling off currently available screen film in favor of a bare display—not because we don’t want the glare and fingerprint reduction, but because they make the new iPad’s screen look bad. Crystal clear film, depending on the vendor and model, typically offers great protection and superior visibility, but no anti-glare and limited anti-fingerprint benefits.
We wish we had better news to report on the accessory front. After the new iPad was released, we reached out to leading iPad 2 screen film vendors to see if they were planning anything new, and disappointingly, there hasn’t been any update from the Japanese film experts at Power Support, which previously made the best anti-glare film we’d tested across earlier Apple devices—in fact, the company is currently selling its “HD Anti-Glare Film” (shown in the photos here) as “compatible with the iPad 3.” Leading Korean rival Spigen SGP is working on new options, and has already sent us a sample of its perfectly clear but prohibitively expensive GLAS.t, but hasn’t said anything on anti-glare film. Other companies are continuing to sell or bundle the same films for the new iPad as they used for the iPad 2, which most often looked noticeably worse than Power Support’s and SGP’s versions, and will be particularly problematic on the new iPad. Simplism’s new anti-glare films went on our iPads only to be removed quickly thereafter due to distortion.
All of this leads to a simple recommendation, at least for now: unless you’re OK with compromising the performance of the Retina Display, don’t buy iPad 2 anti-glare screen film for the new iPad. At $30 per sheet, the cost is too high for a solution that noticeably compromises the clarity of the 2048×1536 screen. Our hope is that developers are working on improved solutions, but the continued silence suggests that users might be waiting for a while. We’ll be sure to share any updates as soon as we have them.