A close up of an iPad screen with a hand drawing using an Apple Pencil

The ultimate guide to iPad displays

By Trent

The recently announced 5th-generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro sports a significant upgrade in screen technology in the form of the Liquid Retina XDR display, which many are already claiming will be the best screen ever to grace an iPad or any other tablet. The display on the iPad has evolved along with the iPad itself, going from relatively basic on the original iPad to some of the industry’s best on recent models. At the same time, Apple has also introduced several screen technologies to improve performance, viewing comfort, and image clarity. Along the way, the screen itself has seen many developments in size, resolution, aspect ratio, and display technology, creating a great deal of confusion among ordinary users. In this post, we aim to chart the course of Apple's iPad screen development and demystify some of the confusion around Apple's display technologies.

An infographic timeline of the evolution of iPad screen technology

The iPad that started it all

The first iPad was launched more than ten years ago, and although it was in itself a revolutionary device, the display technology was relatively primitive by modern standards. The screen in the first iPad measured 9.7 inches and had a 1024 x 768 pixel count, resulting in a meager 132 pixel per inch (ppi) resolution. While this was comparable to competing displays at the time, individual pixels were still visible to the naked eye, resulting in rough lines and jagged edges on some images. The display was based on LCD technology with IPS (In-plane Switching) and LED backlighting. Creating screen protection for the original iPad was a relatively straightforward affair, as there were no cameras on this model, there was only one cut-out required for the home button. The iPad 2 saw no developments in screen technology, with an identical display to that on the original model but the addition of a 0.3 megapixel front-facing camera, requiring a single cut-out for screen protectors.

Enter Retina

The third-generation iPad brought a significant upgrade in display, with Apple's first Retina display for iPad keeping the 9.7 inch format seen in previous models but doubling the pixel density to 264 ppi (2048 x 1536 pixels). Although still using the same underlying LCD IPS technology, this new screen drastically improved image clarity and set the standard for every screen on subsequent iPad models. Retina was a marketing term devised by Apple and not necessarily linked directly to any particular technology or resolution, but was intended to indicate a higher pixel density than the standard displays used by Apple at the time. Apple's own definition of what constitutes a Retina display loosely relates to the inability of the naked eye to differentiate individual pixels at a standard viewing distance, which for iPads is around 15 inches. It is worth noting that every iPad (including iPad Air and iPad Pro) since the iPad 3 has had the same pixel density of 264 ppi, with the theory being that if the naked eye is unable to differentiate individual pixels at this density, any increase will bring marginal improvements in image quality. This same 9.7-inch Retina display would remain a staple of the iPad family for several years, featuring right through until the 6th-gen iPad and also making an appearance on the first two generations of the iPad Air. The two most recent iPad models (7th and 8th generation) received an upgrade to a slightly larger 10.2-inch screen (2160 x 1620 pixels) but retained the same Retina classification and underlying technology. There was little change to the physical appearance of the iPad during the Retina era, with only slight modifications of bezel size, camera location, and home button, making it relatively easy for accessory makers like Moshi to adapt products to suit each new model as it was released.

"Apple's own definition of what constitutes a Retina display loosely relates to the inability of the naked eye to differentiate individual pixels at a standard viewing distance"

But one Retina is not like the others

The iPad Mini could be considered the black sheep of the iPad family when it comes to displays, with the first iPad Mini launching in 2012 packing a 7.9-inch, 163 ppi non-Retina screen. Interestingly, the iPad Mini's pixel count was identical to that of the iPad 1 and 2, but those pixels were crammed into a display 1.8 inches smaller thanks to the higher pixel density. Just to make things even more complicated when it came to defining exactly what a Retina display is, Apple launched the iPad Mini 2 in late 2013 with a 326 ppi Retina screen and the same pixel count as the later-generation iPads and first-generation 9.7-inch iPad Pro. We assume that the increased pixel density on iPad Mini screens is because users will hold their device closer to their face during use, therefore suggesting that an iPad Mini screen needs a 23.5% higher pixel density in order to deliver the same clarity as a 9.7-inch display (Retina or not).

Added liquidity

The next major advancement in iPad screen technology came in the form of Apple's Liquid Retina display on the first-generation iPad Pro. Another of Apple's own marketing terms, Liquid Retina for iPads is largely understood to refer to displays which meet the same naked-eye pixel density requirements of the original Retina, but with a higher screen-to-body ratio. For the 9.7-inch model, this resulted in a screen the same size as the third-generation iPad in a body 20 mm narrower. Liquid Retina technology also allowed Apple to develop its largest iPad model—the first-generation iPad Pro 12.9-inch—increasing screen area by around 78% over the 9.7-inch iPad 3 while only increasing the device's body area by around 49%. This new Liquid Retina display became the standard for iPad Pro screens, featuring in all subsequent models, as well as making its way over to the 4th-generation iPad Air in 2020. Along with Liquid Retina came Apple's True Tone dynamic color adjustment technology, designed to match screen color intensity to surrounding ambient light for more natural colors. This new screen technology also brought new challenges for accessory makers like Moshi. Smaller bezels around the screen left less real estate on which to adhere screen protectors and covers, while the additional ambient light sensor enabling True Tone technology required precision cut-outs on any screen covering.

The second-generation iPad Pro saw the introduction of Apple ProMotion adaptive refresh rate technology, which dynamically adjusted the refresh rate depending on the type of content being displayed, striking a balance between image quality and battery life.

iPad goes homeless

Although the screen itself remained unchanged through the subsequent three generations of the iPad Pro, the removal of the home button from the 3rd generation models further slimmed down the bezels, with an increase in screen-to-body ratio from 76.4% on the 12.9-inch iPad Pro 2 to 85.4% on the equivalent iPad Pro 3. All subsequent iPad Pro models and the 4th generation iPad Air would follow suit, with the home button only remaining on the iPad and iPad Mini models. Later models such as the iPad Air 4th generation would incorporate Touch ID into the power button on the side of the device (previously located in the home button), which meant that any protective case or cover would need to have a cut-out allowing physical contact with the power button rather than simply being able to cover it with a protective coating.

A specification table of iPad models

Big things from mini LEDs

It was not until April 2021 that Apple made another significant change to the iPad's display. At its April 2021 Spring Loaded event, new 11-inch and 12.9-inch iPad Pro models were announced, with the latter featuring Apple's newest Liquid Retina XDR display. Although Liquid Retina XDR retained the same pixel density as the Liquid Retina display, the improvement came in the use of mini LEDs for backlighting. For a standard Retina or Liquid Retina display, backlighting is provided by an array of up to 72 LEDs, while the Liquid Retina XDR display contains more than 10,000 individual LEDs, all of which can be dimmed independently. The key benefit of mini LED technology is the ability to dim or brighten very small areas of the screen independently of one another, resulting in darker blacks and brighter colors and therefore better contrast, as well as higher levels of full-screen and peak brightness. At the time of writing, the 12.9-inch iPad Pro has not yet been launched, so we are unable to comment on the real-world performance of the Liquid Retina XDR display, but several media reports suggest that this new display could be the best screen ever seen on a tablet.

"The key benefit of mini LED technology is the ability to dim or brighten very small areas of the screen independently of one another"

 

What's the big deal with mini LED?

Apple's continued use of LCD across many generations of the iPad has enabled it to perfect the technology, with each iteration improving on the last. The recently announced Liquid Retina XDR display represents yet another advance in iPad screen technology, promising further improvements in image quality including better contrast, more vivid colors, and darker blacks.

To appreciate how Liquid Retina XDR is able to deliver such improvements in image quality, it's important to understand how LCD screens produce images. In very simple terms, a standard LCD display works by passing a bright white backlight (usually LED) through a series of polarizers and liquid crystals, which can distort to adjust the amount of light reaching a set of color filters at the front of the display; all of the LED backlight is allowed to pass through to produce a white pixel, and all light is blocked to produce a black pixel. When producing a black pixel, the backlight remains on and it is up to that pixel’s diffuser to ensure as much light as possible is blocked to make the area appear dark, but there will inevitably be a small amount of light leakage, making it difficult to produce a truly black pixel. Previous iPad displays mitigated this issue somewhat by using an array of up to 72 small LEDs, which could be dimmed independently to make certain areas of the screen appear darker, but would still result in some pixels needing to totally block out the backlight in order to appear dark.

The secret behind Liquid Retina XDR technology is an array of over 10,000 mini LEDs for screen backlighting, each being independently dimmable. This allows for far greater precision when it comes to dimming small groups of pixels, and thus the ability to achieve higher contrast between light and dark areas of the screen.

An illustration of the difference between LED and mini LED display technology

 

iPad screen terminology glossary

Still confused? We don't blame you. Apple uses a lot of marketing terminology in reference to their iPad displays and associated technologies, which can be overwhelming if you're not a hardcore iPad aficionado. We've pored over the specs and crunched the numbers to put together this quick 'cheat sheet' summary of the key terms you're likely to come across in the world of iPad screens.

Retina - A display with a pixel density such that the naked eye cannot discern individual pixels on an iPad screen from a distance of 15 inches. Most Retina screens found on iPads have a pixel density of 264 ppi, while the iPad Mini's Retina display is higher at 326 ppi. Other devices like iPhones and MacBooks may have a different pixel density while still being classified as Retina, as their screens are usually closer or further from the user's eyes during normal operation.

Liquid Retina - For most iPads, these displays have the same 264 ppi pixel density as a standard Retina display, but usually offer a higher screen-to-body ratio due to smaller bezels around the screen. All Liquid Retina displays also include True Tone technology.

Liquid Retina XDR - The display technology and pixel remains the same as that of the Liquid Retina display, however backlighting is provided by an array of more than 10,000 mini LEDs to create more dimming zones, giving richer colors and better contrast.

True Tone - Apple's adaptive dimming technology which dynamically adjusts the color intensity and temperature of the display based on surrounding light levels. Apple claims that True Tone results in more natural images while also reducing eye strain.

ProMotion - Adaptive refresh rate technology capable of displaying at up to 120 Hz for smoother scrolling and motion. Because a higher refresh rate consumes more power, ProMotion is able to preserve battery life by dynamically reducing the refresh rate when not required, such as when reading or when watching a lower frame-rate video.

What's what? Key specs of Apple's iPad display technologies

A table of iPad screen specifications including Retina, Liquid Retina, and Liquid Retina XDR

The iPad display has always impressed us at Moshi, which is why we've worked so hard to create protection solutions that not only help preserve the screen's pristine condition, but also allow the full beauty of the images shine through as Apple intended them. Our designs have evolved constantly in-line with successive iPad models, with each iteration requiring careful development to ensure that the screen's enhancements and new features work perfectly while still being protected from damage. Moshi's award-winning protection solutions are precision-designed, with models available to suit every version of the iPad, iPad Air, iPad Pro, and iPad Mini. Find the right accessories for your specific iPad model with our Shop by Device tool at moshi.com.

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