"iPhone HD" and the Problematic Shift to Resolution Independence?

We've spoken quite a bit before about the potential that Apple might one day "split the platform" with either an iPhone nano (very unlikely) or an iPhone HD (which we've been discussing quite a bit lately).

Right now, all existing iPhones and iPod touches sport 320x480 screens at 163dpi. The iPod nano, by contrast, was already at 202dpi during the previous, "fatty" generation. The BlackBerry Bold is at something around 217dpi. HTC is making 480x800 displays now like they're going out of style.

At some point, the iPhone will jump to HD (by which we mean 480p, or 480x800) and current generation iPhone apps, and their associated bitmap interface elements just won't look so good.

Cocoia, renowned icon and interface designer Sabastiaan de With's blog, has an excellent post up today about that very issue. He says:

Applications will have to ‘deal’ with two different resolutions at the least; icons and other bitmap graphics will have to be redesigned for the higher pixel density screens. There will, no doubt, be applications that are not ready and look very bad on the new device, or perfectly good applications are not approved into the App Store because they are not ready yet.

We may keep pushing the date forward like a hot potato, but at some point Apple and developers will have to face up to the fact that there will be a lot of redesigning, re-thinking and adaptation required. Until that day, enjoy the simplicity of developing and designing for a simple, defined hardware specification. But don’t say I didn’t warn you when technology comes and slaps you in the face.

Apple has enjoyed huge success from the relatively unified hardware model as well, so here's hoping they help developers not only prepare for, but transition to future resolutions as painlessly for them -- and us -- as possible. Any developers out there already pondering this?

Rene Ritchie

Editor-in-Chief of iMore, co-host of Iterate, Debug, Review, The TV Show, Vector, ZEN & TECH, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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There are 20 comments. Add yours.

CJ says:

Man, that's going to e the biggest pain in the ass. Having to develop two different versions?

Chad Garrett says:

I don't think there is a need for this to happen anytime soon.

Rene Ritchie says:

Chad, why are you raining on my post Saint Paddy's day HD parade? ;)

Steve says:

Any designer who doesn't create original artwork in high-res is a hack. I'm not talking about 3D rendering (games, etc) or other elements that are obviously out of one's control, but rather that stuff which can be created in vector or high-res raster for future needs (icons, bitmap graphics, UI elements). I just laugh when developers have to constantly re-do things because they use Fireworks for all of their original artwork. You gotta plan for this stuff the best you can. You never know when it'll save you hours, if not days, of work.
(and please don't flame me about re-developing apps. I know it's very time-consuming... I'm strictly speaking of preparing artwork only... for example: apps like Weighbot).

Rene Ritchie says:

@Steve,
When I do icon or GUI work, it's all done in Illustrator for that very reason. Also, if we ever need to use iconography in print, on banners, etc. it pays not to have to start from scratch :)

Olek says:

I don't see a problem. The screen resolution of new iPhone could be twice so big - instead of 320x480 would go to 640x960 point. The hardware would render the "old" software twice so big on the screen. One "old" pixel would match four "new" pixels.

zeagus says:

Olek - the problem is aliasing. See the pic Renee posted above of exactly what you are talking about. People should be doing their art in vector formats or designing large and scaling down. In other words - What Steve Said(tm)!

frog says:

I'm not convinced a higher res screen will be any use for at least a few years.

Olek says:

zeagus - i agree. My solution is for the "old bitmapped" software. Btw. the bitmapped graphic or icons wouldn't look worse on the new resolution but exactly same as today.

zeagus says:

@frog - then you haven't tried a phone with one :).
@Olek - it wouldn't, actually, because each pixel would, as you say, be four. Thus the squarish aliasing effect. If the dpi were higher, its possible the effect might be partially alleviated, but it would still be noticeable methinks.

sting7k says:

This is really one of the main issues I don't think there will be a major hardware update this year. They just had a year of devs getting to know the system and now they just gave them 1000 more tools and made it even better. Fracturing it now at this juncture would hurt a lot of the small ones who won't be ready.
Any new iPhone will have to have a higher resolution screen to keep up with all the 480x800 screens everyone else is slapping on their phones. It would probably be best to wait another year when Apple can really improve with a mind blowing high resolution OLED screen, at which point lots of iPhone 3G contracts will be expiring, the economy will be on the up swing, and people will have tons of money to throw at Apple once again.

striatic says:

uh.. the "pixelated icon" image here really misrepresents the problem.
every single app in the app store already have a "large" sized icon for use in the app store? this can easily be resized down to what ever size is necessary, and look fine.
most apps mainly use interface elements that are part of cocoa. they'll look fine.
some apps use custom buttons, controls and backgrounds that can be replaced easily. we're talking less than a day's work for the vast majority of these apps, provided the icon designer has higher resolution versions of the icons, and only slightly longer if they don't. very easy to swap icons around.
games would have the biggest problem with this, as they're more complex and are often very dependent on a specific resolution for display.
but pixelated icons, in app and out, are not in any way a serious issue.

Omari James says:

Ok, so for the devs who don't have high res icons, Apple has to either let them know about the new hardware, or just have people do with low-res icons until devs release updated icons.

Steve says:

@striatic:
I don't think the "pixelated icon" image was necessarily intended to indicate icons as a problem (and the article doesn't mention them being a problem). I think it was just meant to compare the current iPhone's resolution with HD resolution.
I brought up icons because (not being a developer) I was not aware that all apps had larger versions than what I see in iTunes.

Steve says:

Okay, the article DOES mention icons having to be redesigned. Apparently he thinks the largest icons won't be large enough for HD if they're bitmap?

icebike says:

Tempest / Teapot.
There are image formats that can contain multiple resolutions.
This is not worth dithering about (pun intended) on TiPB given the nature of the news in the last few days.

striatic says:

"Apparently he thinks the largest icons won’t be large enough for HD if they’re bitmap?"
if that's the case, the post author is wrong. just a cursory glance at an app page in the iTunes app store and you can see that every app already has higher quality [100px] icon that could be used on a higher resolution home page.
or apple could just use more icons per page at the current resolution.

zeagus says:

"This is not worth dithering about (pun intended)"
LOL!!!!

Jesse says:

I have the answer for you (9 months late) in 3 letters: SVG. To elaborate, any new hardware should have support for SVG at which point most graphics in most applications should be fine. Games are another story since they depend a lot on very customized graphics that were (or ought to be) designed specifically for the current resolution since scaling graphics up or down introduces a lot of issues and won't reproduce artwork very well. In addition, Apple has built a lot of features into say Mobile Safari (for which I mostly develop - again, SVG support here is great) that allow any resolution changes to be elegantly (and automatically) adapted to. In other words, this is the same issue that we in web development have always dealt with and the solutions for new Apple products will or ought to be similar to the solutions we've used to address what is an essentially infinite number of configurations. Look to the web!