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Imagining a 13-inch iPad Pro

Analyzing the rumors of a 13-inch iPad Pro and exploring how Apple might go about making it a reality

The minute Apple launches a new device, say the iPad Air or Retina iPad mini, rumors switch immediately to the next. In this case, a 13-inch "iPad Pro". After all, if there can be a MacBook Air and a MacBook Pro, why not an iPad Air and iPad Pro? If Apple can make the iPad more portable, why not more powerful? Now, I'm not so much interested in the rumor — there will always be rumors — but in how Apple could realize such an object. Could iOS be scaled to that screen size, and what it would provide beyond the existing, 9.7-inch iPad, or the 11-inch or 13-inch MacBook Air. Previously I imagined a 4-inch iPhone, which became the iPhone 5, and a 7-inch iPad, which we later saw as the mini. Earlier this year I tried imagining a 5-inch iPhone, and... we'll see what happens with the iPhone 6. So now let's imagine a 13-inch iPad Pro...

13-inches at 2x (scaled up)

The easiest way to add a new screen size to the iPad lineup is to scale the existing one(s). That's what Apple did when it turned the iPad 2 into the iPad mini — they took the original 1024x768 9.7-inch display and shrank it down to 7.9-inches. That increased the density from 132 pixels-per-inch (ppi) to 163 ppi, so things looked sharper, but also smaller, thanks to the reduction in physical size. Apps, interfaces, text, buttons, etc., all smaller. Developers didn't have to modify their apps at all, they "just worked" on the iPad mini the same way they'd always worked on the full-sized iPad, but it did mean some found them just a little too small to comfortably interact with. (Dynamic text might go some way towards mitigating that.)

As of October 2013, both the iPad Air and Retina iPad mini have 2048x1536 @2x screens at 264 ppi and 326 ppi respectively. Since the physical sizes didn't change, all those pixels served only to make the displays clearer. Below is what trying to produce a very small circle (left) at standard @1x density (middle) and at Retina @2x density looks like.

Either way, original or @2x Retina, the result is two devices, two scales, one interface. So, could Apple simply scale the 9.7-inch screen up for a 13-inch iPad Pro the way they scaled it down for a 7.9-inch iPad mini?

Possibly, but not optimally.

A 2048x1536 screen at 13-inches would result in 198 ppi, which is below what's considered "Retina" density. Apple did launch the original iPad mini at 163 ppi standard density even though the full-sized iPad had gone Retina some 6-months prior, so the move would not be unprecedented. 198 ppi is better than 163 ppi, certainly, but nowhere nearly as good as the 264 ppi Retina iPad Air, much less the 326 ppi Retina iPad mini. Below is how the 7.9 inch Retina iPad mini (left/green) and 9.7-inch iPad Air (center/blue) screens, compare with what a theoretical iPad Pro (right/red) with the same screen resolution would look like if scaled to 13-inches (with a 44-point touch target grid superimposed).

Retina is a function of distance, so the further away something is held, the less dense it needs be. However, the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro is still 227 ppi and the 15-inch, 220 ppi. The standard density 11-inch MacBook Air, by contrast, is 135 ppi and the 13-inch, 128 ppi. A 13-inch iPad Pro could likely be held further way than an iPad Air - more of a lap or table device than a hand-held - but probably not further than a MacBook, which is intermediated by a keyboard.

You'd be getting a bigger screen, but you wouldn't be getting as good a display density. There'd be the same number of pixels, just stretched across more inches. Since Retina is a marketing term, a 2048x1536 iPad Pro at 198 ppi certainly isn't out of the realm of possibility, but for 2014, it wouldn't be optimal.

13-inches at 3x or 4x

In order to make a Retina iPad Pro, Apple would have to once again increase the amount of pixels on the screen. @3x - 3 times the original 1024x768 - would result in a 3072x2304 screen at 298 ppi. That's better than the iPad Air's 264 ppi. @4x - 4 times the original 1024x768 and 2 times the current Retina 2048x1536 - would result in a 4096x3072 screen at 397 ppi. That's better even than the Retina iPad mini and iPhone's 326 ppi. Here's what both the raw pixel size (top) and density (bottom) looks like for the current @2x (left/green) screen, and theoretical @3x (middle/blue) and @4x (right/red) screens.

Both @3x and @4x would allow for higher density, better looking displays, the transition would still be turbulent. Here's what @1x - iPad 2, original iPad mini - interface elements would looked like scaled up to @2x - iPad Air, Retina iPad mini - and, theoretically, how they would look at @3x and @4x sizes.

But most apps have @2x graphics now, which present unique challenges @3x. Here's what @2x - iPad Air, Retina iPad mini - interface elements would look like scaled up to theoretical @3x and @4x sizes. Notice how @4x would look roughly like @2x Retina elements, but because @3x doesn't fall on the pixel grid, it would likely get anti-aliased and result in some level of blur (albeit at a tiny size).

Of course, Apple and developers made new @2x assets to support Retina displays natively, and would almost certainly do the same to support theoretical @3x or @4x assets. That would result in interface elements that, in technical terms, would knock your eyeballs back through your skull. Here's the same small sized circle at increasing densities, from @1x (left) to @4x (right).

@3x would be easier to produce, but existing apps wouldn't look as good on it. @4x would be more difficult to produce, but existing apps would look roughly the same. On both, new, upscaled apps would look fantastic. The benefit is that you're not just getting bigger, you're getting more pixels. Text can get even smaller and still look clear, photos and web pages can be zoomed far out and still look crisp. Screens can be bigger and still Retina...

All those pixels, however, won't push themselves. A standard @1 x screen include 786,432 pixels and a Retina @2x screen, 3,145,728. A theoretical @3x screen would include 7,007,888 pixels and an @4x, 12,582,912. If that sounds like a lot to power and make performant, that's because it absolutely is.

More pixels means more light and more GPU and both those things mean more battery. At 13-inches, lightness and thinness aren't the same issues they are at 7.9- or 9.7-inches, but performance absolutely is. Could an Apple A7 processor push that many pixels? Could an A7X? Could an A8?

Going to @3x, or better, going to @4x, would be costly across multiple vectors (see iPad 3 for an example of the density tax). If done well, however, it would result in a much better experience.

13 inches at 2x (adding pixels)

When Apple took the iPhone from 3.5- to 4-inches they did it not by stretching the screen to fill the additional size, they did it by adding more pixels. Granted, it was a change in aspect ratio from 3:2 to 16:9, but it still allowed for an extra row of icons or data, and widescreen games and videos. It allowed not just for more density, but more stuff.

To keep the same 264 ppi as the iPad Air, but fill a 13-inch (12.9-inch) screen, you'd need 2731x2048 pixels (as high as the current 9.7-inch iPad is wide). Both developers and Apple would have to support it, of course, just like they did for the iPhone 5 in 2012, and they'd have to do it for the foreseeable future (the 3.5-inch iPhone will go away a lot sooner than the iPad mini will - we hope).

This is how the Mac lineup works - bigger screen sizes have more pixels and can show more stuff than smaller screen sizes. But iOS isn't OS X, not in interface and not in design. Using frameworks like Auto Layout, iOS might have to become more resilient to screen size changes in the future, but for now increasing both vertical and horizontal pixels, all at once, seems overly disruptive.

13 inches at 4K

Apple, thus far, has eschewed standard screen resolutions. The iPhone isn't 1280x720 (720p), it's 1136x640. The iPad isn't 1920x1080 (1080p), it's 2048x1536. If future behavior can be predicted based on past behavior, that means the odds are against Apple making an iPad Pro at 3840x2160 (4K/UHD).

All iPads to date have had a 4:3 aspect ratio, not 16:9. Apple did change the iPhone aspect ratio from 3:2 to 16:9, so anything is possible, but they didn't do it at the same time as a change in density. They went to Retina first in 2010 with the iPhone 4, and 16:9 two years later, in 2012 with the iPhone 5.

Going to 4K - or any non-pixel multiplied and/or non-4:3 display - would result in existing apps suffering from all sorts of blurring and boxing, and a lot of work for developers. Just going to 4K wide but keeping 4:3 aspect ratio - 3840x2880 - would still have the blurring, but not the boxing.

Apple could run the numbers and decide it's the best compromise for them and for users, pain be damned. As densities get higher, pixels falling off the grid isn't as noticeable either. (The Mac's "Scaled" for "More Space" resolutions are an example of this.)

A clean break is the most painful of options, but could also be the one that provides the most runway going forward.

Bottom line

Whether or not Apple will or even should make a 13-inch iPad Pro remains to be seen. Certainly a lot of artists, designers, photographers, maybe even gamers would love as big an iPad as Apple can provide. Regardless, increasing screen size is a painful thing. If Apple does indeed go to a 5-inch iPhone or a 13-inch iPad next year or at some point in the future, they'll have to figure out the best way to handle it for them, for their customers, and for their developers. They may even have to re-visit the concept of how apps manifest on the screen. If and when they do, will it still be one step at a time? Will the iPhone's increase in size preface another increase in density? Will the iPad's increase in density preface an increase in size? Or will Apple rip the resolution bandage off all at once?

There's a lot more to it, from interface and whether or not 13-inches demand even more powerful apps, to additional input methods like digitizers or motion-aware iSight cameras, to the weight that comes with size and how the feel affects the experience. How have other manufacturers tackled larger screens, and what can be learned from their methods? If Apple really is considering a bigger iPad, these are no doubt the questions they're considering along with it. And that's the fascinating part to me.

Given the limits of technology, if Apple wants to make a 13-inch iPad Pro, how would they do it?

Rene Ritchie
Contributor

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

103 Comments
  • The issue is not how Apple could make it it is how they would make their usual margins on it. What would a Retina Display they large cost and how much more of a premium would someone pay for a larger iPad? On the cost side, they have a chance if they can also leverage the screen in another product like the MacBook Air. That still leaves the question about the revenue side and the demand. I don't get the feeling that there are malcontents looking for a larger iPad like there are for a larger iPhone. So, the odds are this doesn't go beyond prototype.
  • A 13-inch iPad probably caters to a super premium market of creative professionals - maybe even business professionals - who aren't as price sensitive. For them, things like sRGB support are more important than hitting price points. I'm guessing that allows some wiggle room on the matrix.
  • I think it'd be a relative niche who'd want a screen that big though. Considering this is the company that axed the 17" MBP, just seems out of the ordinary for Apple. But will see. An iPad with true pressure sensitivity for drawing would be awesome and hopefully will come if there's an iPad Pro regardless of the size. Sent from the iMore App
  • By experience, Apple usually like to make their price points the same on newer devices, as they did when they released the larger iphone 5 and 5s. their usual tactic here is to do one of two things: 1) mark down the price of the alternative - meaning the newer 7 and 9 inch ipads would be made approx. $100 cheaper respectively. 2) make a second (cheaper) option (let's dub this the iPad 6C). as for the demand of a larger ipad - you'd be pleasantly surprised. Originally, everybody said nobody would want a tablet (microsoft failed when they made one in early 1990s) but then apple made them mainstream. Originally, everybody said nobody would want a 11 inch laptop (netbook) but again this became mainstream due to it's usefulness for travelling. An 11-13 inch iPad would most certainly fill another niche, perhaps even knocking out netbooks in it's path - with a larger device there's potential for more power. Microsoft proved this with their 128GB Intel Core i5 Surface Pro. Here is where Apple for once need to play catch up and take this niche from Microsoft. A Tablet that works functionally like a Macbook Air - super portable and without restrictions. Maybe this is just me dreaming though - I really do hope for an OS X powered larger iPad at some point, and I think the above approach would be the best way to do this!
  • This would definitely replace my laptop for sure. I think it's a great idea! We have to wait and see. Sent from the iMore App
  • Unless iOS changes to support better multitasking and multiple windows, it will be far from a laptop replacement.
  • This. I like a big screen but iOS 7 needs more functionality to make me interested in a 13 inch.
  • I would really have to get my hands on a unit before deciding. My iPad 3 Retina is good enough for now. Could a larger screen be even better? Would really have to see how it fits in my hands and what the weight would end up being. Sent from the iMore App
  • I'm sure it'll definitely weigh more than a 9.7" iPad, especially an iPad 3.
  • iPad air's 7.9 inch real estate is enough, having a larger display is great but to make an iPad pro just for that sake of a larger screen, more ppi and higher resolution makes no sense to me.. If they do make it and it runs mavericks OS or some type of watered down variant of it, and had a desktop feature like USB ports that would make sense. But a larger screen, higher resolution, better processor, better cameras and most likely fingerprint scanner is what is expected from Applel and doesn't deserve a name like iPad "Pro".. Just my opinion Sent from the iMore App
  • I would bet my bank account that Mac OS X or some watered down version of it is not in the cards for this potential product. Windows 8 has been a disaster for MS. I just don't see apple doing this. Now with that said is there a good chance we might see a 13" version of iOS that can say run multi windowed apps? I would say that is a lot more likely than putting Mac OS X on a touch screen tablet. Either way it is interesting.
  • Yep, you've raised a lot of interesting points as to how Apple can make a 13-inch iPad. First, is the processor. The monster that is the A7 might not be enough to make the experience with the iPad Pro as buttery smooth as it is with the current iPads. Hopefully, the A8X should so the trick.For the resolution, I believe 4k is the way to go. Anything lower than that is a mistake since eventually this road will end up at the 4k display resolution. Why make it harder for the developers. Another thing, I think that this will be catered to a different market given the Pro monicker. It will not be designed to be used for casual stuff in mind like the current iPads rather this will be more for businesses or professional use. Like professional photographer, digital painters, designers. Sent from the iMore App
  • I always imagine an iPad that plugs into a keyboard base and when it does so, it converts into OS X. All the GarageBand, iMovie and iWork projects convert to desktop versions and photo libraries merge into iPhoto-organized events and it's a perfect culmination of both. Information gets synced to a hard drive built into the keyboard platform base thing and added ram and processor make OS X run smooth. I realize I sound like one of those kids asking "wouldn't it be cool if Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo banded together to make one console???" But still, wouldn't it be cool? And then I realize that windows tried something like that and it failed miserably. Sent from the iMore App
  • You and I... We share a common dream.
  • what about having a touch version of osx on the ipad pro rather than ios? :)
  • OS X isn't touch-optimized. It's an intermediated OS that's designed for GUI based mouse/pointer computing.
  • So was windows.
    I'm not saying they should, I'm saying they could. Although they probably won't :)
  • Windows, for the most part, still isn't. And Metro, which is, is a new thing. Desktop touch for Apple, likewise, might need to be a new thing. (Which could already be iOS :) )
  • I would seem that the next OS X after Mavericks might be designed for touch or perhaps Apple will create a new OS called OS X Touch? I think Apple must move in the direction of a detachable touch screen for the Macbook Air at the very least.
  • If they are going to make it a bigger screen, shouldn't they let it compete with the Surface? They should add a USB port to shut these window people up!!
  • Bigger... The only way I, as an artist, could be "satisfied" with a large iPad would be if it were the size if my average drawing medium 24"x36". I don't see how a larger iPad fits anyone's needs unless the have fingers the girth if an arm.
    Larger iPads. With keyboards. Desktop performance computing with true multitasking. ...
    Why doesn't Apple just make a 13" MacBook Air with a touch screen? Sent from the iMore App
  • That makes more sense. Sent from the iMore App
  • Excellent point. But in the words of Steve Jobs: "We've done tons of user testing on this, and it turns out it doesn't work. Touch surfaces don't want to be vertical."..."it doesn't work, it's ergonomically terrible" Although it would not be the first time Jobs got his tongue burned.
  • Completely agree with you, a 13" MacBook Air with a touch screen far more attractive than a bigger iPad, it would be a nice addition to the Mac lineup and a true competitor to all those Windows 8 laptops with touchscreens that are out there, and by competitor I mean it would crush them. What benefits would a bigger iPad will bring? More icons on the home screen? More content to show on a webpage? I don't see any true benefit other than screen real state...
  • "What benefits would a bigger iPad will bring?" What benefits would a MBA with a touch screen bring?
  • Sounds interesting, but no! I don't think it should be sold a lot. People love more small and portable gadgets. If they want machine for their job, they should buy macbook, not iPad. But macbook with touch screen is better idea :D It's good just for dreaming...
  • Seeing that OSX is not touch-optimized, a Mac with a touch screen is out of the cards. What you're really asking for is an iOS notebook, which I definitely see in the realm of possibility.
  • Yeah I'd agree with your reasoning there. It would have to be done right - something like the ASUS Transformer would work I reckon. But a fixed notebook would have limited appeal for a touch screen - I think it would anyway. Though it could operate like those old school touch screen laptops - screen rotates to act like a fat tablet. Now that's a fablet! :) Sent from the iMore App
  • A fixed notebook with a touch screen would have limited appeal but an iOS notebook where the screen attaches to and detaches from the keyboard base, depending on what you're using it for could have a lot of potential. Something like this Apple patent here; http://www.patentlyapple.com/patently-apple/2013/04/finally-apple-reveal...
  • Couple of points. 1/ For normal people ‘Retina’ isn’t that big a deal - it plays well amongst the techie/nerd crowd of sharp-eyed twenty-somethings, but the vast majority of regular users just don’t see it; to clarify, that doesn’t mean that they see the difference and don’t appreciate it, they just don’t see it. 2/ As hard as it is for the techie/nerd crowd to understand, an iPad is capable of quite enough ‘computing’ for the majority of normal users. But the screen needs to be bigger - who wants their only computer to have just a 10” screen? Certainly nobody over the age of 40. So, a 13” iPad (wether ‘Pro’ or ‘Maxi’ - yeah, let’s get that joke out of the way, kids) will serve a lot of people very nicely. As for Retina displays at that size - remember, the 13” MacBook Pro’s have only just ‘gone retina’ this year; the recent 13” MacBook Air refresh keeps the same old 128ppi display. Maybe we’ll see a 13” Air with Retina display next year, maybe not until the one after. With that in mind a 13” iPad with 2x display at 198 ppi would be perfectly acceptable in 2014, priced at say, $799 for a 13” iPad 32Gb WiFi (no 16Gb at this size) and going up in the usual increments for increased storage/LTE. I’d buy one in a heartbeat - and another for my parents.
  • I would like a larger screen as my eyes get older, and I wouldn't see the pixels, it would also be great for video and web/magazine reading, I don't think you HAVE to increase resolution past 2x. Nintendo produced a larger-screen DS aimed at adults, which didn't change the screen-res. A large iPad would have been ridiculously heavy until the Air technologies were introduced, but they make it possible now. That said, I didn't think Apple would go retina for the Mini this year, and I was wrong there.